HDR Photography – If My Words Were Chocolate, I’d Be Eating Some of Them

I’ve been saying in all my photo commentaries on other sites how much of a fan I am NOT of HDR photography.  But I think I may have changed my mind….and I may have to eat some of my words.

What’s HDR?  It’s the acronym for High Dynamic Range imagery created through multiple shots of the same image using different exposures and then merged and “tonemapped” using a program like Photomatix into a single image that presents a greater range of lights and darks and colors.  It’s not 3D, but – when done well – the image has a richer tone to it, with much more definition and texture.  Like your HD TV, sort of.

Anyway, I’ve seen very few photographers who can actually pull off a really nice HDR image.  I tried it once, during the start of the HDR rage, with this new program called Photomatix.  I sucked at it, and so did most other photographers who tried their hands at it.  There was only one photographer out there of whom I knew could really create (and still does create) outstanding HDR photos:  James Neeley.  Since then, there have been other photographers like Rick Sammon (who also writes great photography how-too books) who create wonderful HDR photos as well.

So, the other day, for yuks and giggles, I decided to download the trial version of Photomatix.  I did this because I wanted to do some experimenting with my photos beyond what I already knew.  The latest iteration of this program sure has come a long way since I dabbled with one of the first versions some years ago.

You know what?  I liked what I saw!  Well, with most of my images, anyway.  Some images, even as HDR images, don’t look much different from the originals.  Then there are other images I created using Photomatix that totally stink, stank, stunk.  I think HDR is an acquired taste, and I’m still of the opinion that most of my photos look better as just plain old photos, and not HDR photos.  On the other hand, some of my photos are eye-popping as HDR images.  It’s all subjective, but you be the judge.

St. Mary Falls, Glacier National Park, non-HDR

As an HDR image

St. Mary Lake and Wild Goose Island, non-HDR

As an HDR image

Swiftcurrent Lake morning non-HDR

As an HDR image

Dunluce Castle, Northern Ireland, as non-HDR

As an HDR image

Lake McDonald non-HDR

as an HDR image

Swiftcurrent sunrise and moonset in Glacier National Park, non-HDR

As an HDR

Swiftcurrent alpenglow during sunrise, as non-HDR

As a HDR image

So, how is this all done, you ask?  Well, I’m still a novice at this myself, but I can get you started in the right direction and then you can have fun playing with settings yourself (like I am doing).  And if you are already pretty familiar with this stuff, then take a look at Stuck In Customs for more in-depth HDR tutorials.

Photomatix is the HDR software.  You can get it as a stand-alone, as a bundle (stand-alone plus plug-in for Photoshop and Lightroom) as a plug-in for Photoshop alone (costs less, but doesn’t have some of the bells & whistles that the stand alone has) and for the Mac.  I paid the $99 and got the stand alone version.  According to their website, it’s good for as many computers as you have, as long as you are going to be the only one using the computers on which you have downloaded the program.

Before you dive into HDR, you need to first have multiple photos (with multiple exposures) of a single image.  Through various YouTube tutorials, I learned you can create a stunning HDR with only a single image, duplicated and saved using different exposure settings (rather than taking multiple shots of the same image).  This actually allows the resulting HDR image to be a little sharper, which was another one of my quibbles about HDR photos – they generally are not as sharp as a single image, and I like making enlargements of my photos.

So, go into your photo editor of choice, and open up an image.

Now, make anywhere from 2  copies to 4 copies of this image.  I use Photoshop CS5, so the commands I give here are for that program.  Your photo editor should have something similar in its menu bar.

Go to the menu bar and select Image-Duplicate

Give your duplicated image a name – I named mine for the exposure settings I planned on using:

I made 4 copies of this image.  I then changed the exposure settings by 1.  So one image was underexposed by 1, another image underexposed by 2, another image overexposed by 1, and another image overexposed by 2.  Plus, the original image with its original exposure settings.

For each image copy, go to the menu, chose Image-Adjustments-Exposure

Once you’ve changed all the exposure settings for your images, save each image.

Now, open up Photomatix and select Load Bracketed Photos 

Click OK

Unfortunately, Photomatix would not allow me to “Snagit” the next screenshot, so I’ll try to walk you through this.

Once you click OK, the images load and the program checks to make sure each image has a different exposure setting.  If it thinks exposure settings for more than one of the bracketed photos are the same, it will say something and ask you if you wish to make changes, either manually or allowing Photomatix to make the changes for you.

Once you are satisfied, click OK

The bracketed photos will be merged and you’ll be taken to a screen with the finished product, plus a number of presets from which you may choose, in addition to sliders where you may make your own tweeks.  Also, you will see a very helpful histogram on the screen.  The object of the game is to make sure your histogram doesn’t have spikes at either of the far ends.  And you don’t have to have a perfect bell shape to your histogram, either.

Here’s my worked version, which really isn’t too different from the original.  But…..I’m not done with the photo.  It’s going to take some work to get it to look like I want it to, and that is best done in Photoshop CS5.

So, once I’ve made what selections  I wish in this screen, I click Process

And get the final merged, tonemapped or fused version.  FYI:  tonemapping and fusion represent different processes to get an HDR image.  You can read more about this in HDRsoft’s FAQ’s

So, I save the image, then go into CS5 and open it up there.  I then proceed to work with the settings I wish until I get the resulting image I like.

Here’s another image I worked using Photomatix.

The original Dallas Divide sunrise image:

The original tonemapped version:

The tweeked tonemapped version:

Ok, that was the “quick & dirty” rundown of how to create an HDR image using Photomatix.   And I take back some of what I have said about not liking HDR imagry.  Guess I’ll go melt the dipping chocolate.


Filed under HDR, Photography

6 responses to “HDR Photography – If My Words Were Chocolate, I’d Be Eating Some of Them

  1. Great tutorial, Rebecca. I’ll keep this in mind when I have the time to experiment. The photos turn out awesome!

  2. I’ve been fiddling with HDR for about five years now, using the full progression of Photomatix. I’ve spent years honing a workflow that will allow the production of something other than “hyper-realistic” images and–for true HDR (I’ve also developed a “HDR-like” workflow for optimizing certain images that push–but do not exceed–the dynamic range of a single exposure–it basically involves using both the Detail Enchancer and Tone Compressor tonemapping options and blending the two (using layers and blending mode changes) in Photoshop. Basically, this allows for gaining the exposure benefits of DE without losing all of the TC contrast.

    In essence, then, the trick has been not to attempt to optimize the image in Photomatix, but to treat the HDR image as a rough equivalent to RAW conversion; use it as a tool to create a good starting point, then optimize “post-development” in PS.

    • Thanks for that detailed comment, Kerry! I’ll have to try that detail enhancer/tone compressor CS5 blending thing – I recently started fiddling with blending after watching a YouTube video on how to blend photos. Last night, I took a number of Christmas ornament photos (same image, different shutter speed), imported them into Lightroom 3 where I improved only the clarity, lens correction, and Recovery, then called them directly into Photomatix. I then “optimized in post-development in PS”. I think (after all) that HDR is really a wonderful photographic tool.

      • Hi Rebecca. Just to flesh out the workflow a tiny bit (if you choose to give the basic method I outlined above a shot):

        1. Place the TC version on top of the DE version. (DE default settings don’t provide a white point of zero…I make that change manually and, depending on the appearance of the image, adjust the gamma as needed.)

        2. Use the “Overlay” blending mode for the upper (TC) layer. This will, initially, look awful. Don’t worry about it; major adjustments are still to be made. The idea behind this is to enhance/retain contrast. The thing about HDR is that, without some assistance, you’re always facing the contrast-free “comic book” look. This blending change is a big help.

        3. Reduce the opacity of the upper layer. I would guess that at least 90% of the time I end up somewhere in the 20-40% range, but there are exceptions to every rule. Basically, adjust to taste.

        At this point, I treat the image, in PS, as I would any single image immediately following RAW conversion. Yes, it’s a fair amount of work to get to this point (I convert each frame of the original HDR sequence–ensuring no exposure change, for obvious reasons, and being certain that each image has the same white balance setting) to a TIFF, then load all of the bracketed files in Photomatix before Step 1 above), but I find the final results to be well worth it.

        Best of luck if you give this a try and if you have any questions please don’t hesitate to drop me a note.

        (BTW, thanks for visiting my blog!)

  3. Fantastic read! I think the problem with HDR was that people tended to forget that it does not make a picture. When done right (Trey @ Stuck in Customs has some really fantastic ones), the effect can be breathtaking. Those that go overboard look downright garish (over saturated) or oddly flat (bad contrast).

    Love your landscapes by the way, Dunluce Castle looks amazing.. the light looks like it’s transiting from late noon to evening!

    P/s, you might also want to check out Topaz, in cases where HDRs don’t work out (complicated movement etc).

  4. Pingback: Histogram | bme2015 imageprocessgr2