HDR for the Rest of Us
Rick Sammon | Photo Techniques | Published Aug 27, 2012
|Old Havana, Cuba. This is what most of us associate with HDR imagery; surreal colors and exaggerated saturation. A taste embraced by some and reviled by others.|
Whenever I teach an HDR (high dynamic range) photography workshop, the first thing I do is ask my students to type a Google search for 'I hate HDR'. More than a million results pop up, most of them bemoaning the damage that HDR images have wrought on photography.
I actually think there's a place for surreal HDR imagery and that when it is done well, it's as valid as any other creative approach to photography. I'll be the first to agree, however, that there are plenty of HDR images out there that are an over-sharpened, hyper-saturated mess.
|Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 15mm fisheye (3x exposures combined)With skillful processing, HDR composite images can take on a much more natural look.|
But even photographers who wish to create more traditionally-photographic types of images can benefit greatly from capturing wide dynamic range scenes. After all, we see the world around us in a very wide dynamic range, so why shouldn't we take advantage to photograph it that way as well? And at its core, that's really what HDR photography is about.
In this article, I'll share some of my HDR images that were created using the in-camera processing of the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. On the following page I'll talk about the need to take more control over exposure bracketing and use HDR-specific software. All in the service of creating images that seek to emulate the world we see with our own eyes.
My guess is that if I did not tell you, you would not know that the image above is an HDR image, created by merging three exposures (0, +2 and -2) together in the Canon EOS 5D Mark III with the HDR mode set to Art Vivid. The separate exposures used to create the composite are shown below.
|Here you see the three raw files used to create the in-camera JPEG using the Canon 5D Mark III.|
You may be wondering why the three shots above are all tilted. Here's why.
|To achieve the shooting angle I desired, I had to kneel down in the sand and cold water and shoot very low to the water at an awkward angle. Very cold water was leaking into my boots as I was shooting. Brrrrrrr! But I had to get the shot.|
Due to the awkward position I was in, it was obvious the resulting shots would be tilted, so I shot extra wide knowing two things: 1) I'd crop and rotate my picture in Photoshop. 2) When the 5D Mark III merges images together, some image area is lost at the top, bottom, left and right of the frame.
Although the in-camera processing did a reasonably good job, I still brought the image into Photoshop. After checking the histogram I used a Levels adjustment layer to make sure the blacks were black and whites were white. I then boosted the saturation a bit. Next I added a blue gradual filter in Nik Software's Color Efex Pro and then as a final step, sharpened the image using Photoshop's Covert to Smart Filter > Unsharp Mask in order to make selective sharpening edits.
Here is another example of in-camera HDR processing, followed by some additional edits and a crop in Photoshop.
|Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 17-40mm lens. HDR was needed to capture the entire dynamic range of this scene.|
Below is the middle exposure from the three-image sequence used to generate the HDR composite.
Original image with no exposure compensation adjustment. Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 17-40mm lens.
Okay. I know what some of you guys are saying. The contrast range in this middle exposure does not look to be too extreme in the first place. And a skilled digital darkroom expert could have simply used a single raw file to pull out the shadow detail and tone down the highlights.
Well, I made another attempt doing just that using Photoshop's Adobe Camera Raw 6.7.
|ACR 6.7 Basic panel adjustments to recover shadow information and maintain highlight detail.|
In ACR, I was able to greatly enhance the image, but to achieve the precise result I envisioned, I knew some Photoshop work was needed. So yes, the image might have looked similar to my HDR composite, but it certainly would have taken more time to create. And when given a reasonable choice, I prefer to spend my time shooting and not processing. So in-camera HDR can be a time-saver.
Something else to consider, particularly when making more aggressive adjustments, is that noise can become more prominent in shadow areas as you brighten them. With a multi-shot HDR option, you can often end up with a cleaner image with regard to noise.
|Oregon coast: Canon EOS 5D Mark III, EF 14mm lens. A four shot HDR panorama created initially from raw files captured at different exposures.|
Speaking of saving time, in-camera HDR can sometimes be very helpful when shooting a panorama. Above is an HDR panorama I made from four JPEG files (below). Each JPEG was created from a composite of three raw files captured at different exposures. Below is a screen grab from Adobe Bridge that shows the four files.
|Four HDR JPEGs created from 12 raw files. Processed in-camera with the Canon 5D Mark III.|
Manual HDR bracketing
Of course there are situations that demand a more customized approach to capturing the full dynamic range of the scene. In those instances, manually setting and choosing exposures to merge together is a must. After capturing the images I prefer to use HDR-specific software like Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro and HDR Soft's Photomatix. Let's take a look at two examples.
|Los Osos, California: Canon 5D Mark II, EF 15mm fisheye lens.|
The key with the image you see above was to capture make sure I captured the entire range of shadows and highlights. To do this, I had to take the following exposures: 0Ev, -2 EV, +2EV, +3EV, +4EV and +5EV. There were a lot of dark shadows in the car's interior that needed to be recorded.
Here is another HDR composite. This time it was in the highlights that I had to devote more attention in my exposures.
|Florida Hotel, Old Havana Cuba: Canon 5D Mark II, EF 15mm fisheye lens.|
You'll notice in the screen shots below that I had to take more underexposed images than overexposed images to capture the entire dynamic range of the scene.
|These are the five original files from which I created my HDR image.|
Both of these images I've just shown convey a very important point. You must take the time to recognize just where along the tonal range the scene exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Simply taking an equal number of images over and under the middle exposure will not always capture all of the information in the scene.
No matter what type of HDR images you are looking to create, here are some basic guidelines that can ensure the best possible results.
• Keep your aperture constant and instead bracket by adjusting shutter speed.
• Use a tripod whenever possible for best all-around results.
• If you must shoot handheld, position yourself so you can hold the camera as steady as possible.
• Use the onscreen histogram to make sure you have captured the entire tonal range of the scene.
• Resist the urge to open up the shadows too much. Without rich shadows, image simply look flat.
|Iceland landscape: Canon 5D Mark III, Canon 24-105mm IS lens.|
This is one of my favorite HDR images. It was shot on a recent trip to Iceland. I could not have retained detail both in the clouds and along the shadowed ridges of the mountains in a single exposure. A perfect opportunity for in-camera HDR. I like the way this veers closer towards a painterly effect, yet is still much more subtle than what we typically associate with HDR photography.
What I hope you've seen from these examples is that there are degrees of application when it comes to HDR imagery. We all have our own tastes and preferences, of course. But today there are enough options available that HDR can be very useful even to those photographers who prefer more natural results.
Awarding-winning photographer Rick Sammon is a Canon Explorer of Light and the author of numerous books. He leads international workshops and seminars covering shooting technique and image processing. To learn more about his work, visit his blog, Rick Sammon's Digital Imaging Diaries. You can find his iHDR app for iOS in Apple's App store.