That’s right you heard it here first. HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing has finally arrived. I have been using HDRsoft’s Photomatix software for years with mixed results. Depending on the scene and the lighting a photo could process really well or really terribly. With such varied results I have never really considered it for mainstream use in my work flow. I have never felt that the results were up to par with what I could do using split gradient filters and Lightroom on a single photograph. I am also lucky enough to have a camera that outputs 14 bit files. The extra dynamic range from the 14 bit files makes extending the dynamic range of a single shot much easier. While not using the software for photos that I post online or print, I have still used it in private all these years, updating with each release and experimenting. The software and idea of HDR processing has always had huge potential but in my opinion it just hadn’t reached that potential yet. Fast forward to the past few weeks. I updated to the latest release of photomatix and am happy to say that I may just be able to use the software in my day to day workflow for certain photographs. When searching ‘HDR photos’ on Google you are more than likely to end up on a Flickr page with over processed, over saturated, unrealistic photos made by a lack of understanding of what the software can do. It is really easy to slide all the sliders to 100% and call it a day.
I try to be as minimalist as possible with the software. My goal in using HDR techniques is to recapture a small amount of detail in shadows and tone back the highlights so that the scene on the computer is more in tune with what I saw in person. I am not trying to make the shadows and highlights equal to each other, which results in a very flat scene in terms of contrast. One element that I often see lacking in HDR photos is the re-introduction of contrast back into the photo. In Lightroom you can create a pseudo HDR photo by dialing the highlight recovery to 100 and then cranking up the fill light to 100. The results look terrible; but if you add a little contrast back into the image, which has been effectively made lower contrast, the result can be much more pleasing. The same goes for an HDR photo made with Photomatix or any other software. The higher dynamic range flattens out the image. When I am standing in front of a scene, in person, I see contrast. There are shadows with no details and sometimes highlights that are too bright to make out detail. I feel it is a disservice to the viewer of my photographs to show something that isn’t as close as possible to the real deal.
The past several weeks I have made it a point to take as many HDR photos as I can under different conditions to see how the newest release of the software can work for me. I wanted to determine if the software could now meet my demands for a high quality photograph. In the past I felt that there were too many artifacts left from the merger of the bracketed photo sets. The noise levels were too high, objects that moved were not blended, image misalignment was a common problem and the final merged photo lost a lot of fine detail that a single image captured. After shooting this week I am convinced that the software is no capable of producing subtle HDR images that are up to my standards for web and print. I am sure there are some folks that would argue that they have been able to create wonderful HDR photos for a long time and I would generally agree. I have made some really great HDR photos in the past that I have printed and put on the web but nothing on a consistent basis.
Here are some examples that I shot this week that I felt showed off the use of the HDR software really well. With both of these images the exposure range was way too great and the colors way too vivid to be captured with a single photo. Using a Split Gradient filter would have resulted in dark trees in the foreground and in a single shot the colors were so saturated that they looked blown out. I was able to pull everything in with Photomatix and output a single image with an increased dynamic range that still looked natural. The story isn’t over after Photomatix. After creating the new single image I re-import that image back into Lightroom and continue to process the image using the tools available in lightroom with the tone curve being one of the most used to push the highlights and shadows to their extremes without clipping any value. The first image is 7 images and the second image is 9 images. I metered for a single shot and then shot equally above and below the 0 exposure in one stop increments
These two photos were shot with a Nikon D3 and 24-70mm lens at f/11. The EV bracket was set in 1 stop increments.
Here is one more example taken up at the Griffith Observatory at sunset. I have included a side by side comparison of the HDR processed version and a single shot processed to look like the HDR. The difference is extremely subtle. I could have gone a little overboard with the HDR version but decided to keep it as natural looking as possible. The biggest difference is in the amount of detail in the dome shadows and in the clouds.
Another great use for the HDR software is for putting together astrophotos. I had tried this a long time ago with limited success. In astrophotography the images commonly contain details that could never be captured in a single photo. The exposures are so long that by the end of an hour the inner core of a nebula has been blown out to the point of not being able to be recovered. This is done so that the fainter extremities of the nebula can be captured. Typically the person imaging would take a series of shorter photographs of the core and manually layer them over the longer exposure and try to blend the two together in Photoshop. That process can be terribly time consuming and the results mixed. My good friend Steve Cooper was kind enough to send me some images that he captured with his new QSI CCD camera to play around with. The results were amazing and the time it took to achieve said results was a fraction of what it took to do the same manually in the past. For the astrophoto, instead of taking 9 different exposures, I processed the same source image 9 different ways. The exposure for each image was increased by one stop increments resulting in a 9 stop exposure range. I then fed those 9 images into Photomatix to be processed. After the HDR work I imported back into Lightroom for final touches.
When done properly and with finesse HDR photos can look beautiful and pass as a normal photo. I have found that a person viewing an overprocessed HDR photo second guesses it as fake or wonders what isn’t quite right. The subtle hand of HDR can leaves the viewing with their jaw on the ground.
Last night Me, Lindsay, Austin and Lindsay’s best friend Kate made a sunset trip to the Griffith Park Observatory. I had been there once before and had seen the incredible views of Los Angeles as the lights in the city turn on at night but didn’t have my camera. This particular night we were blessed with nearly unlimited visibility due to the Santa Ana Winds blowing all the smog out to sea. With the unaided eye it was possible to see the gantry cranes at Long Beach Harbor and all the way out Catalina Island. As the street lights came on you could see the outline of the city grid extend all the way to the horizon. Simply put, it was amazing. My focus on this particular photo trip was on downtown and the city lights during and after twilight. The next time I go up there I plan on focusing more on the architecture of the observatory.