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Tone mapping is a very powerful tool. It can cherry-pick the very best tones from a multitude of images to create a new final image. Now obviously the more image data that it has to work with, the better the chance is that the tone mapping software will be able to find a good source tone for every little pixel in your image. As you've seen an image with higher bit depth can have a broader selection of tones than an image with a lower bit depth. JPEG images always have 8-bits per pixel, while RAW files typically have 10 to 14 bits per pixel. So it's usually better to shoot RAW images for your HDR work, for the greater Bit Depth.
If you worked with RAW, then you know that the same RAW file can be processed in different ways. You can change white balance, alter contrast, increase or decrease the exposure. Perhaps you see where I'm going with this. To make an HDR, we need at least three images with bracketed exposures, but can you create just that from a RAW file? Sort of. You can take a RAW file, process it normally, save that, then lower the exposure, process it, save that, and do the same for an increased exposure.
Now you've got three different files. This is called faux HDR or single-shot HDR. It does give you a tone-mapped look. But remember that when you alter the exposure in your RAW converter, you're not creating data that wasn't there before. Yes, you might be doing a little highlight recovery when you lower the exposure, but you're not creating the type of highlight detail that you would capture if you had actually shot an underexposed image or the type of shadow detail that you'd capture if you'd shot an overexposed image.
So while this will get you something of an HDR look, it's not a substitute for the full HDR process. But it is often a good option for times when you're shooting a scene that has moving objects in it. Something that doesn't work very well with a full HDR process, because the moving object precludes having identical frames to merge. I want to clear up one more thing before we go on. I said that your camera probably captures 12 to 14 bits of data per pixel when you're shooting RAW. We don't actually save a 12 or 14 bit file out of Photoshop. We save a 16-bit file.
Now this doesn't mean that we certainly have 16 bits of data per pixel. It just means we have a 16-bit container with 12- to 14-bit data inside it. It's like each pixel value has a bunch of leading zeros in front of it. So single-shot HDR creates an HDR look, but one that's different from full HDR and both of those are of course very different from a single normal dynamic range images that we shoot. In the next movie we'll look at how they're different and what that means for your photographic vocabulary.
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