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Photoshop in the larger world of digital imaging amount to a kind of secret brotherhood of secret handshakes wrapped in the shroud of absolute secrecy. Topics like masking, the Pen tool, blend modes, and Smart Objects are about as intuitive as studying quantum mechanics during a visit to your local DMV, while clutching the instructions to a children's toy that begins with the words "Some Assembly Required." So it's saying something that the most mysterious topic of them all is high dynamic range, or HDR.
Here is the skinny. A typical 8-bit per channel image offers as many as 16 million colors. That's normal dynamic range, which is all your monitor can show you. A 16-bit per channel image offers as many as 281 trillion colors. We'll call that medium dynamic range. Then there is 32-bits per channel, or high dynamic range which theoretically provides up to 79 octillion colors or 6 sextillion colors for every pixel in a 12 megapixel photograph, which on first blush seems a little thick.
I mean, seriously, if Photoshop thinks it's so much smarter than the rest of us, why doesn't it just edit the images itself? But see, high dynamic range isn't really about the colors. It's about the luminance levels, shadows, highlights and midtones, some of which we can see and some of which we can't, floating point calculations that permit Photoshop to move a vast plain of potentially clipped highlight and shadow information in and out of the visible range, so that no detail is forever lost or unattainable.
The problem is there is no such thing as a high dynamic range camera. So Photoshop has to invent these luminance levels by some other means. CS5 offers two solutions: HDR Toning, which fakes it, and the enhanced HDR Pro, which blends multiple exposures to extract every last vestige of luminance from the real world. Cameras are good at sensing and evaluating light, but your eyes and brain are several times better. So HDR isn't Photoshop's way of showing off; HDR is Photoshop's way of trying to keep up with how much smarter and more capable you are than anything it and the cameras can presently muster.
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