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HDR Tips

I've been shooting photos using High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques for a few years and over that time my approach has changed and, I hope, improved. HDR is probably over used and much maligned because of poor use. However, it can be very effective and there are times when a picture can only be captured with HDR. Here are some thoughts on how I work with HDR.


Blackstone Sunset


Blackstone nature reserve poppy field. 5 shots, 1 stop apart and processed in Lighroom and Photomatix.


Shooting for HDR


I am assuming that you use a DSLR, although some high end point and shoot cameras and most EVIL cameras support these features. Some modern cameras include a HDR function, although I would avoid anything that does in-camera processing of the resultant image.



  1. Use (spot) metering to determine dynamic range of your subject. If range is within 5 – 7 stops, you don’t need HDR. If you have Live View, check the histogram. If you don’t have Live View, take a picture and look at the histogram. If you can adjust exposure so nothing is clipped with a good exposure you don’t need HDR

  2. Put on tripod.

  3. Set up the camera:

    1. Make sure the camera is set to record RAW exposures. JPEG capture does not provide enough data for good HDR.

    2. Switch off image stabilisation (this can introduce vibration when using a tripod).

    3. Set camera to either aperture priority or manual so that the aperture does not vary between shots.

    4. Set ISO (keep as low as possible)

    5. Set your required aperture

    6. Focus the camera and then switch off auto focus or just use manual focus. You don’t want focus to change between shots.

  4. There are two ways of taking the shots: auto bracketing, manual.

    • Auto: set your camera to automatic exposure bracketing. You can normally set the number of stops between each bracket. Most cameras support 3 shots and in this case is is normally best. To use 2 stops between each exposure. Some cameras support more than 3 shots, so you could use a 1 stop bracket. Ideally use a remote shutter release, but the built in delay timer will work too.

    • Manual: set camera to first exposure and then move through using one or two stops. You can start at the darkest or lightest exposure. I always start at the darkest (fastest shutter speed) to be consistent. You will want to use a remote shutter release so that you don’t have to press the shutter. Change the shutter speed by one or two stops between each exposure. Don’t do more than two stops between exposures and make sure the spacing is the same for all exposures. This allows you to take as many shots as necessary to capture the full dynamic range, but need to take care not to disturb camera. There are things you can buy or shoot tethered to make this easier, but these are generally expensive solutions.

    • The manual method is usually best, but requires more work and care.

  5. A simpler, not quite as controlled, way when using a tripod and you have live view:

    • Set camera as above. Then adjust shutter speed until live view shows no highlight clipping. Then increase shutter speed evenly for each shot until live view shows no shadows clipping. You might want to do a stop over and under to be safe. Most cameras allow you to set the interval between each press of the exposure button (1/3rd or ½ a stop). I always use 1/3rd which means three presses of the exposure button between each shot. I do this by just counting the clicks rather than calculating exposure time for each new exposure.

  6. Review shots and make sure you have the complete range captured and nothing clipped at either extreme.

  7. This is a lot of effort - are there any easier ways? Yes – hand held (rather than a tripod) or using a single shot. Although results may not be as good and can be very variable. Having said that I have shot a lot of hand held HDR and got some good results.

  


Taste the Summer


Handheld HDR from 3 RAW files of out of season ice cream kiosk at Weston-super-Mare


Hand held HDR



  1. Follow the bracketing method above, set the drive mode to continuous shooting. In this case you can use auto focus and should use image stabilisation.

  2. Instead of using a tripod, fire the bracketed shots hand held, staying as steady as possible. This method limits the shutter speed you can use to that sensible for hand holding with the lens you are using.

  3. To keep the exposure time reasonable you may have to increase the ISO, leading to more noise. Noise is a big enemy with HDR – noise is additative and under exposed shots have more noise because of the way camera sensors work.

 


Single exposure HDR



  1. Just shoot as you normally would for non-HDR pictures. It is better to clip shadows than high-lights.

  2. You must shoot in RAW, JPEGs simply do not have enough data for this to work.

  3. Many HDR tools (e.g. Photomatix, etc.) support HDR processing with a single RAW file. Some other tools (e.g. Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz Adjust, etc.) can produce HDR-like results from a single image.

  4. This can extend the dynamic range by a stop or two. It can also be a way to increase local contrast and thereby bring out texture.

 


Cwmyoy Church, Black Mountains, Wales


 Cwmyoy Church, Black Mountains, Wales. This is a 5 shot HDR image, with the exposures taken one stop apart.


 


A Short Guide to HDR Processing


I use Lightroom 4.1 for pre-processing, Photomatix Pro 4.2 for HDR processing, and Photoshop Elements 10 for post-processing. Other tools are available. You can get away without Ligthroom (or similar, such as Aperture or Adobe Bridge, or Photoshop) but that will make your workflow more complex. Also, it is probably better to use a tool like Lightroom, etc. because you will get better RAW conversion with such a tool and you can also do some pre-processing if necessary. You can get away without Photoshop for post-processing (or similar editing tools, but sooner rather than later you will need it). If there was one tool that I’d really like to add it is full Photoshop instead of Elements.


My workflow:



  1. Load images in Lighroom

  2. Pre-process, if necessary in Lightroom. E.g. white balance.

  3. Select images in Lightroom

  4. Use the Photomatix plug-in to load selected images into Photomatix

  5. Process in Photmatix and save

  6. Post process in Lightroom if necessary

  7. Post process in Photoshop Elements 10 if necessary

With Lighroom 4.1 there is a new technique available, where most of the processing can be done in Lightroom, giving better control in a more familiar tool. I’ve only had the chance to try this a few times, but initial results seem to be better than processing in Photomatix and more photo-realistic results (if that’s what you’re after). Here are the steps for this technique:



  1. Follow above workflow up to and including step 4. (Note that you can use the full version of Photoshop in a similar way to Photomatix for the next couple of steps using the HDR blend functionality.)

  2. At the Settings for processing exported files dialogue make sure that the Show intermediary 32-bit HDR image check box is ticked and click Export.

  3. This creates and displays a file. The results look bad because your screen can’t handle the dynamic range in the file. Click File->Save As

  4. In the Save As dialogue select the Save As Type to be .tif Floating Point TIFF (*.tif) and click Save. You have now created a floating point TIFF file that will be a large file because it contains data for the entire dynamic range of all of the pcitures you have merged.

  5. Once the file is saved, you can now exit Photomatix. There is no need to save anything unless you want to create a Photomatix version of the HDR photo.

  6. Back in Lightroom you will need to Import the new TIFF or Synchronise the folder if you saved it to the same location, otherwise Lightroom doesn’t see the new file. The picture will probably look bad until you have done some basic adjustments.

  7. Edit the picture as you would any other picture in Lightroom. What you will notice is that the sliders in the adjustments have a much larger range than normal (+/- 10 rather than the normal 5). This gives you the ability to pull in the shadows and pull down the highlights to create a great / natural looking HDR image. If you want to make it more “grungy” use a high Clarity setting.

Other HDR Tools


Photomatix is the most widely known HDR tool available, but there are planty of others, including some free ones. Other tools include:



  • The full version of Photoshop

  • Nik HDR Efex 2 • FDR Tools

  • Picturenaut (free)

  • Essential HDR Community Edition (free)

  • The list goes on – Google is your friend Some of the commercial tools allow free trials or have free or cheaper version.

Frequently the commercial tools will offer at 10% - 15% discount using a code that can be found on websites such as those listed below.


Statue of Liberty


 


Statue of Liberty, HDR from a single Raw file


Some HDR Resources


There are some great resources available on the Internet. Just Google “HDR” and explore. There are great tutorials and videos to get you started.



  • One of the best resources is a tutorial produced by Trey Ratcliff – go to stuckincustoms.com. He has also produced some e-books.

  • Another good starting point is the resources page on the Photomatix website – hdrsoft.com

  • A great photographic website that has some has some good articles is luminous-landscape.com

There are a lot of books available and a quick search on Amazon will find most of them. Some that I like are:



  • Trey Ratcliff’s “A World in HDR”, which is a combination of his photos with a tutorial – the tutorial is a more detailed version of that on his website, but may be a little out of date in comparison. Although the tutorial is useful, with a good workflow, it is portfolio of images that really make this book. Trey also produces videos and a range of e-books (see flatbooks.com).

  • David Nightingale’s “Practical HDR” has some great pictures and explains the controls in Photomatix and other tools well. As the software evolves my copy is a little out of date now.

  • Pete Carr & Robert Correll’s “HDR Photography” is the first book I read and covers approaches to varying topics. Again, my copy is a bit out of date.

There are plenty of other good websites, books and e-books out there.


 


Graeme Tozer

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