My Thoughts On HDR Processing

Cuba Portrait WEBI’ve been using High Dynamic Range (HDR) processing for a couple of years now.  HDR photography is a technique for capturing a much broader tonal range than a digital sensor can record in a single exposure. Simply put, the digital camera sensor is not technically advanced enough to capture the range of light available in nature. The technique has become so popular that many cameras (and even cellphones) come with a HDR setting.

What I like most about HDR is its ability to overcome extremely high contrast shooting situations.  As a travel photographer I can’t always control the time of day that I shoot, and shooting at high noon (for instance) makes for lousy lighting.  Also shooting inside of buildings, with just natural available light, can be problematic.  HDR allows for much more detail in the shadows, and reduces the number of blown out highlights.  It seems to mimic the biological eye in that regard—

How often have you seen a beautiful high contrast scene with your eyes, only to be disappointed with the photographic image?  The shadows fade to black obliterating any of the fine detail, and the highlights are blown out to a stark white (once again obliterating any of the fine detail).  Your biological eye could see the detail, but it was lost to the camera’s digital sensor.  

“What we are seeing is not what we are photographing.”

What I don’t like about HDR is its tendency towards unnaturalness (mostly in the area of color)—it usually over saturates and becomes rather garish.  When using HDR presets, either in the camera or in the software, I see a lot of orange creep into the image—and orange is not my favorite color on the rainbow spectrum.  Most people can spot HDR processing a mile away, and to me that defeats the purpose and reduces the image to a type of gimmick (and I am not a big fan of gimmicks) .

I am not going to use this post to try and explain to you how to use HDR.  There are thousands of articles and tutorials on Google that can do a much better job of that.  Rather, I would like to encourage you to experiment with your HDR processing to provide a much more natural look to your images—and to get away from the garish, over-the-top, overly saturated images that seem to be the hallmark of HDR photography today.

Before/After HDR Processing 

(Click on images to enlarge)

In the first image a lot of the cathedral’s beautiful detail was lost in the deep shadows. Although my camera (Canon EOS 5D Mark II) did a pretty good job of exposing for the overall scene, it just couldn’t adequately compensate for the wide range of exposure values (from the blown out white highlight in the dome, to the deep shadows in the walls and balconies).  This is where HDR photography really shines—it covers the High Dynamic Range that our biological eye sees so clearly, but that our camera can’t ever capture.  The challenge was to keep this interior church scene looking as natural as possible.  After processing the original image with HDR software, I worked with color saturation (de-saturating in this case), contrast (reduced the contrast) and exposure in Photoshop.  I think I was pretty successful—a do-over might be to de-saturate even a little more (it’s still a bit too orange for me), but it also gives off a beautiful golden glow which seems, somehow, totally appropriate for a cathedral of this magnitude.

Some hints:  When shooting a beautiful high contrast scene, try to use a tripod and shoot multiple exposures (3 to 7 different exposures at 1/3-stop intervals) if possible.  Remember, change only your shutter speed (not your f-stop), or you will experience major DOF (Depth of Field) problems.  Combine (merge) these multiple images in Photoshop or HDR software like Photomatix Essentials.  A slightly faster solution is to use your camera’s automatic EV (Exposure Value) compensation setting—most of today’s cameras will produce three different exposures in this mode—don’t forget to use your tripod.

I’m usually shooting on the fly, and frankly don’t have the time or inclination to do this (tripods are heavy, clumsy and a real pain in the ass for my kind of photography).  I will usually take my CameraRAW image handheld, and shoot it slightly overexposed (+ 1/3 stop). Shooting slightly overexposed still retains good detail in the image, and allows me to create two more images in Photoshop.  The final result is three images:  -1/3 stop, normal and +1/3 stop.  I then merge these using Photomatix Essentials.

The simplest method is to use the ‘automatic’ feature in Photomatix Essentials:  you upload one image to the software and it automatically creates a second image (with a different EV) and then merges them.  It’s very easy, but produces the least natural result in my opinion (and yet I use it all the time for the convenience).

Photomatix Essentials has a lot of presets in its software—it can be a good place to start, but the results are not natural looking.  People will spot the result as a HDR image, every time—ALWAYS.  Experiment with the sliders on the left, especially the saturation slider.  Reducing color saturation is the first step in creating a more natural looking image.  You can do quite a lot with these sliders, or (as I often do) simply upload the HDR image back into Photoshop and complete all of my post-edits there (again starting with color saturation adjustments). 

Resist the temptation.  It’s easy to get addicted to the HDR look, because it looks so different from anything you’ve seen before.  The image literally pops off the screen (almost a 3D effect), in living vibrant color.  Once you get it out of your system, experiment and try to produce a more natural look.  I also find that I am able to use HDR with my black & white photography with great success.  Again, this is not a step by step tutorial on how to do it, but rather some suggestions about how to improve the final result.

Gallery Shot of Steve


2 responses to “My Thoughts On HDR Processing

    • I rarely use it for wildlife, but it often works well on scenics. If you ever venture forth into HDR, I might recommend Photomatix Essentials software . . . it’s not too pricey.

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