The Bear Cave Trail and HDR

10074. Bear Cave, Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

10074. Bear Cave, Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas

Petit Jean State Park, Arkansas’ first state park, is an incredible place to visit.  The park has a number of unique geological features, including Rock House Cave, Turtle Rocks, and the Natural Bridge.  But, the most popular area in the park is the 90-foot waterfall known as Cedar Falls.  When the water is running strong, it is an amazing display of power and beauty.  The park is only about a one-hour drive from my house, but I don’t visit it very often.  I guess because it is so close, I figure I can always go tomorrow, or next week, or next month, or. . .well, you get the point.

My wife was off work on Friday, so we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and go to Petit Jean.  We got up early so we could arrive in time to get some shots of the sunrise (I like those sunrises!) and then hike some of the trails we haven’t been on in a long time.  Well, the morning turned out to be cold, the clouds eliminated any chance for a nice sunrise, and the rain began just as we were about to start hiking.  We decided to just go home.  What a disappointment!

Then Saturday night, I had a brilliant idea.  Since Sunday was supposed to be sunny and much warmer, why not go back?  So, we did.  Again, we left the house in time to get some great pictures of the sunrise.  We arrived at the location and waited.  Gradually, the light began to increase, and the sky turned one of the most brilliant reds I have ever seen.  It looked as if the sky had caught fire.  Unfortunately, I had misjudged where the sun would rise and was in the wrong spot to get good pictures.  By the time I got where I needed to be, the color had faded.

Not to be discouraged, we hiked a couple of trails including the Bear Cave trail.  This trail winds around and through huge rocks that form a number of shelters and narrow passageways.  The largest of these passageways is called “The Eye of the Needle,” and it is an absolutely amazing area to see.

The image above is a picture of that passageway.  When I saw it, I knew I was not leaving until I was able to get a shot of it.  The problem I faced was the extreme contrast between the top of the rock structure that was brightly lit by direct sunlight and the passageway itself that was in deep shadow.  Checking the exposures, there was about a six-stop difference between the two, so there was no way to properly expose the scene in one frame.  After pondering the situation for several minutes, I decided my only course of action was to use a technique I had never tried before – high dynamic range, or HDR.

HDR uses several shots of the same scene at different exposure values and combines those shots into one image that is properly exposed throughout the frame.  I won’t say the technique is controversial, but there seems to be a well-defined line between those who like it and those who don’t.  The general line of thinking against HDR is that it does not represent what the scene was in reality.  The truth of the matter is that no photograph represents the actual scene.  It represents the photographer’s interpretation of that scene.  The same argument could be made for a watercolor landscape painting, but I have never heard anyone protest the legitimacy of watercolor painting.  I personally consider HDR as just another tool that allows me to capture the image I have imagined in my mind’s eye.  No technique should be dismissed or discouraged simply because it relies on computer technology.

For this image, I shot a series of 12 images.  In order to maintain maximum depth of field, I set my aperture at f/22 and adjusted the exposure by changing the shutter speed, which ranged from 1/60 of a second to 2.5 seconds.  I then used the Lightroom 5 plug-in HDR Efex Pro 2 by Nik Software to combine the 12 frames into one image.  After that process was complete, I opened the image in Photoshop to use the Tonal Contrast filter in Color Efex Pro 4, also by Nik Software, to increase the contrast slightly.  Finally, I reduced the exposure to slightly darken the overall image.  The picture above is the final result, and I think it turned out well.  It is exactly the kind of photograph I wanted to capture, and I could not have done it without the use of HDR.

Settings:  Canon 5D Mk II, 24mm, f/22


  1. I haven’t try HDR photography yet, but it is something I always like to see in other people’s blog. The effect of this image is just mesmerizing, I feel like I’m right there. I can’t believe this was your first try at HDR, if I didn’t read it in your post, I’d have thought you’ve been experimenting with it for a long time. Admirable job Bob, this picture is truly amazing.

    • Thank you for your kind words! When doing landscape photography, these types of high contrast scenes are not unusual, and HDR, if used wisely, is a great tool for handling these situations. While HDR has been around for a while, I just never thought about it because I still tend to think of pictures in terms of film and its limitations. While the basic principles of photography (such as composition and exposure) are the same, digital photography allows us to do things with our images, such as HDR, that used to be very difficult or impossible to do with film. I’m slowly breaking away from my old film photography mindset, but old habits can be hard to get away from.

  2. This was a really great and interesting post! I love how you captured this image! You’re a great photographer and I enjoy reading your blog! Keep up the good work, Bob!

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