How to produce professional HDR's - Images with more shadow and highlight detail

WHY HDR ANYWAY?

I’ve been a commercial and landscape photographer most of my working life and photographed wide ranging subjects over many years. But like many of my peers I get stuck in a rut occasionally; I need fresh visual stimulation to get me cranked up again. And I found it in HDR (High Dynamic Range).

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HDR led me to subject matter I would normally ignore. It liberated me, produced a unique and individual interpretation of unusual subjects that I’ve found very stimulating. HDR has become a new way of looking at things and for me that’s been a powerful creative incentive.

WHICH SOFTWARE?

I’ve used various HDR programs and can say confidently that Photomatix Pro (PM) is better than anything else, including any version of Photoshop. But it wasn’t all beer and biscuits. My first attempts with Photomatix 3 were duds. I couldn’t get the results I was looking for. In short, PM 3 was awful. Frustrating too. The sliders were sluggish, previews were unrealistic and the results disappointing. Back then it was all very hit and miss.

But that’s changed. Since then I’ve updated to Photomatix Pro 4.2 and I’m now getting what I want. I’ve worked hard at it though, trying various combinations with the sliders until I had a method I could rely on.

WHICH RAW CONVERTER?

In my experience, believe it or not Canon Digital Photo Professional (DPP) produces the most realistic image when working with a Canon camera in normal daylight conditions. For a more artsy fartsy or grungy look, Adobe Camera Raw works better.

RAW OR TIFF?

There’s a knack to using Photomatix, particularly if you want pictures to look like real photographs, not over-saturated cartoons, so lets have a look at what I’ve learned and how that can help you.

First up, making the basic files. Most experts tell you to export raw files into PM but I disagree. You’ll get a cleaner result if you sharpen the raw files in DPP, save them as tiffs and use those in PM.

Camera1

SHOOTING FOR HDR

You can make things easier for yourself by using your camera’s in-built capacity for ‘presets, a means of storing often-used settings that you can summon whenever they’re needed In Canon cameras these presets are called Camera User Settings (C1, C2 and C3 on a 5D MkII). I load my HDR settings into, say, C3, then turn the input dial to C3 when I’m shooting HDR.

The images should align accurately so use a tripod if you can. The only time you wouldn’t use a tripod is if you couldn’t.

Okay, here are three HDR presets I’ve loaded into Camera User settings:

Camera1
  • The Picture Style is set to Neutral to produce a flat image. This is important! PM gives poor results with contrasty images.
  • I dial up Auto-Exposure Bracketing (AEB) to expose three frames, one over-exposed by two stops, one under-exposed by two stops and one in the centre (exactly what the meter recommends).
  • I use the Continuous Shooting setting so that when I hold down the shutter button (or cable release button), the camera exposes three frames one after the other in a motordrive fashion.
  • I use Live View – the best invention since salt and vinegar chips! - not to aid composition but to lock the mirror up and reduce the risk of camera shake.

ONCE YOU’RE IN THERE

Having shot three photographs, I process the raw files in DPP using As Shot settings. This is important too. Some sharpening can be added but don’t adjust anything else.

The next step is to drag and drop the three tiff files into the PM window. Many artistic options are possible at this point but choose one of the PM presets you like. HDR first-timers should begin with Tone Mapping Default and use only the Strength and Light Adjustment sliders.

I say that because using only these sliders achieves two things: (1) it makes the whole process easier for beginners (2) the effects produced by PM’s other sliders are more easily reproduced in Photoshop with a Curves adjustment.

You can also make your own presets in PM. Here are two that I made and use often:

  • ‘REALISTIC 1’: Strength 43, Colour Saturation 46, Light Adjustment Medium).
  • ‘REALISTIC 2’: Strength 100, Colour Saturation 46, Light Adjustment - 4.4, Macro Smoothing 20.1.

Okay, once you’ve imported the images into PM, chosen a preset, hit the button and let PM do its thing, you then save the processed files as ‘tone mapped tiffs’.

Typically, these files will still look a little flat, and will lack saturation in certain colours, so now we’ll fix that in Photoshop.

Pic1
Pic2

The easiest way is to add contrast without going overboard is to darken the shadows slightly with a Curves tweak. Open a Curves Adjustment layer and move the bottom of the curve a little to the right. After that, apply a gentle ‘S-curve’ to improve contrast over the entire image.

If some of the colour in your new HDR image is over the top you can reduce saturation easily with a Hue Saturation adjustment layer.
Here’s what to do:

  • Open the adjustment layer.
  • Select a colour from the Hue Saturation drop-down menu,
  • Click on the hand in the top left corner of the adjustment box,
  • Drag the hand to the colour to be adjusted,
  • Move the hand to the left to reduce saturation, to the right to increase it.
Pic3

 

 

Check out the HDR Gallery for examples on how I've used these principals.

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