Luminance Mask version
I have been experimenting quite a bit recently with different methods of expanding the dynamic range of my photos, which is really an easier way of saying 'making a better distribution of dark to light tones in an image without there being too-light lights and too-dark darks'.
Two of my favourite methods of doing this are using luminance masks and HDR tonemapping.
Luminance masking is a technique developed by Tony Kuyper which allows you to very carefully select certain ranges of tones on your image and selectively lighten or darken them. Tony goes into a lot of detail on how to do this on his website, which is well worth reading. It's certainly way too complicated for me to summarise quickly, and you will be kept up way into the night as you follow Tony's tutorials. What I like about his technique is that it keeps the final image looking very natural, while still allowing your photo to show a far greater tonal range than your camera can capture in a single shot.
Tonemapped HDR version
By way of contrast I've also shown a tonemapped HDR file. I used Photomatix HDR software, which I find the most useful of the many I have tried. I shot a bracket set of three shots, at -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation. Then I ran them through Photomatix, trying to keep the settings as minimal and natural as possible. This software tonemaps the image, which means that it tries to compress the tones from the three images into a single image.
As you can see, it gives the photo a certain look. Everything looks softer, warmer, and more textured. In particular the tonemapping technique brings more light into all the shadow areas, usually far more than would naturally occur in such areas. Objects almost seem to glow from within. It's enough to confuse the viewer into thinking that the image looks a little strange, without being able to quite say what it is. The advantage is that it can make the image a little more compelling due to its strangeness, while the disadvantage is that your image just looks, well, strange.
After seeing enough Photomatix images they can tend to start looking all the same. With this image, I think the HDR look is quite interesting and adds a bit of a steampunk feel. If I had to choose though, I would go for the more natural look of the Luminance Mask version.
This scene is of the lifeboat deck on the cruise ship Sinfonia of the MSC line, while we were en-route from Durban to Mozambique. The rest of the passengers were playing bingo and slot machines after dinner, so I decided to get out on deck and nab some photos. The lifeboat area was particularly interesting with all its heavy equipment. We had practised life boat drill here during the day. It was pretty chaotic, and I'm glad we didn't need to use the lifeboats for real. The short people at the back had to stare at the life jacket of the preson in front of them for half an hour. At least the life jackets had whistles, which livened up the proceedings somewhat.