Golden Gate Bridge – HDR vs. Long Exposure

Golden Gate Bridge in HDR

Golden Gate Bridge in HDR – San Francisco, CA

Golden Gate Bridge Long Exposure

Golden Gate Bridge Long Exposure – San Francisco, CA

Several months ago, I went on a business trip to Northern California. After work, I drove up to San Francisco for a few hours of photography. While I’ve photographed the Golden Gate Bridge before, I wanted to do so this time with a super wide-angle lens and a tripod. The tripod allowed me to do two different techniques in photography which would be hard to do handheld.

The first image is using a technique called HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. I combines 3 different images, with different exposures and taken on a tripod, into one image. The 3 photographs are usually taken with at least 2 stops of exposure difference. The camera’s auto-bracketing feature is used and typically set to -2, 0 and +2 on the exposure meter. A tripod helps to keep all 3 images aligned with each other. Later, these 3 images are combined together on computer using special software to give the impression of greater dynamic range.

The second photograph was also taken on a tripod but only one image was used. Since its a fairly dark scene, the shutter stays open for a long time to collect more light (30 seconds in this case). The tripod is need to create a steady and sharp image during the extremely long shutter speed.

The two photographs were taken only 17 minutes apart but the feel of the images are quite different due to the light levels and the different photography technique. HDR has a dreamier look with a wider range of light levels. By combining the multiple photos together, you see more details in the shadows and the bright areas. The long exposure image has more visible shadows and a wonderful reflection off the water. I believe both images have their merits and I like both of them for different reasons. When I asked people on Flickr, which they like better, people seemed to be split on their favorite. Either way, I’m pretty happy with my results of capturing a world-famous landmark. Which one do you prefer?

My Thought Process

Both images have almost identical framing. I moved the tripod slightly since I took some other photographs between the time I took these two images. I both cases, I used the large boulder on the right side of the frame to balance out the bridge. I believe, without the large rock, the image would not look as balanced. In fact, it took me some time to find this location that I liked.

Image 1: As mentioned above, I took 3 images on tripod at -2, 0 and +2 exposure settings. In post processing I combined the 3 images. I brought out the dreaminess of the image by brushing in the water from the longest exposure. A software called Photomatix was used to create the initial HDR image. I used another software package called Pixelmator to blend the different layers together with the HDR image created by Photomatix.

Image 2: To capture more light, I set the exposure to +2. This made the image brighter and smoothed out the water with the longer exposure.

Image Details

The images were taken with a Canon 7D with both the Sigma 10-20mm lens. All Images were taken as 18MP JPEGs.

Additional post processing in Apple’s Aperture 3 program included some sharpening. The saturation on the HDR image was increased after the Pixelmator blending.

Image 1: f13, 3 exposures, -2, 0, +2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 16mm
Image 2: f13, 30 sec, +2 exposure compensation, ISO 100 at 15mm

11 thoughts on “Golden Gate Bridge – HDR vs. Long Exposure

  1. I’m going to have to say I’m a fan of the second – only because while I regularly use HDR to capture landscapes, I have yet to get a nice long-exposure shot.

    The good news is that a recent trip to Hong Kong got some promising results… thank god for VR (IS on Canon lenses, I think?) because I had no tripod…

  2. Both are very nice photos, Andy, but I think I have to give the nod to photo #2. Yeah, I know, it’s not HDR, but I like the mood created by the lighting better. I’m guessing you shot them in order (#1 then #2). I would have liked to have seen an HDR taken at the same time as #2. Also, I’m not familiar with Pixelmator; I’m going to have to look that one up.

    Good work, keep ’em coming!

  3. These are both amazing! I think I am pulled more to the long exposure, although a bit darker I think the reflection is a bit more prevelant..
    Fantastic work!!

  4. Nice work Andy! I like the sky in the HDR better, but the water in the long exposure better. A real toss up as both are classy. If pushed, I would give the nod to the long exposure (and this coming from an HDR guy, well mostly HDR I guess). Nice work. Jim

  5. I like both, for different reasons.

    The increased color in #2’s water is striking, the still-visible detail in the shore areas on the left in #1 is also nice.

    I’m wondering if an HDR series shot later, when the lighting from the bridge is a higher fraction of total light on the water, would give you a result combining the best of both?

    I suspect it would be easier for me to drive up and experiment with it than for you…

    1. Hi steveH. Thanks for your visit and comment. It’s always worth playing around. I’ve noticed in general that as it gets darker, HDR processing becomes less necessary (usually) since the dynamic range of the image tends to drop. With less dynamic range, a single RAW image maybe able to capture the entire scene without using multiple exposures and HDR. There are always exceptions to this and HDR can be used to bring up details in lights that can be blown out in a long exposure.

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