The day of May 25, 2015 resulted in 304 exposures on my 60D. I ingested these all and promptly let them sit until August, as a good little procrastinator. I personally use Adobe Lightroom, and if you don’t use something similar for organizing your RAW images, I don’t understand how you live, man.
To the left is a view of the main exposures (minus the extra cloud fix I mentioned in the previous post) used in this image. As you can see, a lot of the sky photos end up being basically blown out in the over exposed shot, while the hills are basically lost in the lower end of the exposures. This is where the beauty of HDR comes in. When we put these together properly, we can preserve all the detail in the sky as well as the hills and trees.
Below is a view of how I go about keeping track of what’s what. I find which images belong to this particular shot by noting their focal length in the upper right (indeed, I didn’t get my lens adjusted to 50mm exactly; oh well!). The bracketed exposures start with the middle exposure, then shoot 2-stops under (faster shutter speed), then the 2-stops over (slower shutter = more light = sky blown out).
So I’ll go ahead and just flag the main exposures first. At this point, I usually select these flagged images and send them to Photoshop for merging as a panorama just to get a sense of what the shot will look like and see whether it’s worth the trouble. I don’t think I did that on this image, but I recommend doing so. It’s no fun wasting tons of time tone mapping images that don’t produce an interesting panorama.
As you can see, I also labeled the shots with colors. I simply cycled through the color labels, grouping each set of bracketed exposures for quick selection and exporting. This had the added benefit of the final 16-bit HDR image being re-imported into Lightroom with the same color label, allowing me to quickly know if I missed any shots. An alternate method would be to stack the exposures, as Lightroom allows. You can then right-click a stack and send all images in said stack to Photoshop or Photomatix or whatever. I’ll probably do the stacking method from now on to make my library cleaner.
What’s tone mapping? In this context, it’s the process of mapping various colors from multiple exposures into one image for the purpose of preserving color and detail in a larger range of brightness levels.
I spent some time the other night deciding what I’d like to use for HDR tone mapping from now on. I used the trial of HDR Efex Pro last year for this shot and rather enjoyed the results. However, asking around on Twitter, I was advised that Photomatix was the general standard these days. I had used it before, and didn’t like it too much, but I tried it out again. This is all a very non-detailed way of saying “I tried both applications twice and concluded both times that I liked HDR Efex Pro.” And you know what? That’s totally fine. Choose what you like, what fits your workflow, and what helps you achieve the results you’re after.
The first round of processing this image will be tone mapping each of the 12 images that makes up the panorama, using the exact same settings. So I select a set of exposures (in this case, the first three reds to start off with) and send them to HDR Efex Pro—this is application-specific but it’s a right-click >Export > HDR Efex Pro 2, for those keeping score at home. This fires up the program and I’m met with my first real step. I left the settings at their default for this image. Alignment will make sure the separate exposures remain lined up, which is important in my case since I shot handheld, so there will likely be some minute movement between exposures. Ghosting is related, but more to do with objects in the scene that move independent of the camera, like swaying trees or stupid moving cows. A decent HDR program (the one I’m using comes in a suite for $150) should be pretty competent at this. Freebie stuff or built-in tools, I’ve found, aren’t so much. But your mileage may vary.
Presets, Adjustments, Oh My!
Here’s my dirty little secret on Sunset with Cows. The tone-mapping on it was—gasp—a built-in preset with, wait for it… absolutely no adjustment in HDR Efex Pro. I honestly liked the effect of Deep 1 on the first shot, and I knew I’d have to do this 11 more times. I could of course make it completely custom and save a preset to apply on the rest, but Deep 1 seemed to do the trick.
I say seemed to do the trick, because as soon as the second and third images, I started rethinking this particular preset. Seriously, the clouds were looking very contrasty, and I was wondering if I should just go with Default on all of them, and craft the shot in the final pass in Lightroom. But I figured since these final exposures were 16-bit, I’d have the latitude to pull those clouds back in Photoshop and Lightroom. Either way, I’m leaving the real creative stuff for later.
I spent around 45 minutes sending all of my 12 bracketed exposures to HDR Efex Pro, clicking okay on the ghosting window, clicking Deep 1, and then Save. Then I waited patiently for the final composite to come back into Lightroom. Rinse and repeat. I recommend a good movie or series on Netflix, and for good measure, crack open a beer. I helped myself to a Samuel Adams Octoberfest at this point. If you don’t partake, substitute your beverage of choice for photo editing 🙂
At this point you can see the tone mapping part is mostly a waiting game. You can do some really awesome things in the software if you want, and there are plenty of guides and tutorials about these programs. But I chose to use this step as a starting point. This is how I tend to work. My procrastinating nature permeates into the actual process of executing a project; push all the hard work off until the end. Future-Nathaniel always hates Past-Nathaniel. We’ll get to that craziness in the next post. But I do have something to say about my own personal philosophy of HDR photography…
Make it Look Good
I can’t tell you how many HDR images I see every day that make me cringe. I swear it’s like someone pulled the highlights all the way down and boosted the shadows all the way up until they’re left with a single-tone scene with no clear subject. Or portraits with families glowing like angels. You know what I’m talking about. There’s another category that I know some people like and do on purpose, that I just don’t dig. It’s the “painting” photos. Usually it’s some urban shot with lots of texture to work with, and they HDR it to hell and back, and call it “painterly.” These software packages even have presets for these. To me, I just see a bracketed exposure tone mapped to within an inch of its life. If one were to mistake it as a painting, it’d be an ugly one. But that’s just like, you know, my opinion, man.
At the end of the day, I personally think the goal should be to create an image that your camera couldn’t capture in a single feeble exposure. It should be to capture the range of light you remember seeing with your own eyes. It should replicate reality in a way that seems worthy of spending hours of post processing to show to the world; in a way that makes people do a double-take and wonder how you got such a clear image onto a print.
And while I think there’s something to be said about these great HDR programs and their capabilities, I personally use them as a first-pass, and rely on other tools to get to where I’m going. Sometimes I have to start with a set of individual HDR images that, on their own, aren’t necessarily there yet.