HDR photography is probably one of the most valuable tools landscape photographers has in this wonderful digital age. However, it may also be one on the most «abused» tools. This image of Slangkop Lighthouse Western Cape was taken at sunset. With careful post processing, I obtained a dreamlike look without taking it too far. Settings: ISO-100, F/22, Aperture Priority 3 Exposures at -2,0, +2 EV. Post Processing: Combined the bracketed images in Photomatix, using Tone Map Details Enhancer with a little tweaking in Photoshop and Lightroom.
What is HDR
A major drawback in photography is the camera’s lack of dynamic range. Dynamic range refers to a camera’s capacity to capture details throughout the tonal range; highlights, midtones and shadow. Even modern, sophisticated cameras fall short when it comes to dynamic range. Digital sensors struggle to comprehend very bright and very dark details in a single exposure. Normally, when photographing high contrast scenes, you decide what is important to you and then capture only that. If you’re after showing highlight details, you expose for the highlights and inevitably lose the shadow details. If you’re after the shadow details you expose for the darker areas and then suffer clipped highlights. Obviously, a predominant ‘midtone scene» wouldn’t pose the same problem. It is the high contrast scenes that present the problem!
This is where HDR comes in handy. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It is a technique that allows you to capture details throughout the dynamic range. It implies capturing different exposures and keeping the best of everything. Typically, HDR re-quires you take at least three different exposures; a correctly exposed, underexposed, and overexposed image. The images are then overlaid, or combined into a single HDR image, which retains all the details in the midtones, shadows and highlights. This is an ideal tool for shooting gloriously detailed landscapes!
HOW TO SHOOT HDR IMAGES
Most DSLR cameras come with a function, termed Auto Exposure Bracketing, which is abbreviated AEB. If your camera does not have AEB. you can use your Auto Exposure Compensation function and manually capture the different exposures. Here’s a short explanation on how to capture HDR Images:
1. Most ‘Ordinary» Scenes need about a A-stop difference.
sometimes referred to as medium dynamic range.
2. High Contrast Scenes will need a difference of up to eight stops, which is a really high dynamic range.
‘Ordinary» or medium scenes refer to scenes where the contrast is not too high.
Most landscapes and outdoor scenes fall into this range. Medium scenes imply that you have to take at least three exposures, two stops apart; a normally exposed image, an underexposed image at -2 EV, and an overexposed image at +2 EV. If your camera can only do one stop apart, then you will have to take a total of five images in one-EV steps, i.e. -2, -1,0,+1,+2 EV.
A high contrast scene for example, is when you have to shoot out of the window of a dark apartment and include a bright sunny outside view. Shooting high contrast scenes, you have to take at least five exposures at two stops apart; i.e. -A, -2, 0, +2,4A EV. If your camera only allows one stop in-between, then you will have to take nine exposures i .e. -A, -3, -2, -1,0, +1, +2, +3, +A EV.
GENERAL SHOOTING TIPS:
Use Aperture Priority to ensure that your focus areas remain consistent throughout.
Use a sturdy tripod to keep the camera still between capturing the different exposures.
If the camera is on a tripod, remember to switch off the vibration reduction, or image stabilizer.
Stick to using a low ISO setting i.e. ISO-100. Noise is one of HDR’s biggest enemies and for this reason you might want to use the ETTR method by slightly overexposing the scene in camera.
Shoot in RAW for best quality.
If you have to bracket manually, then use autofocus to obtain focus. As soon as you locked focus, switch to manual focus to ensure the depth of focus is consistent between the different exposures.
STICK TO «GOOD OLD» METHODS
Even though HDR allows you to capture scenes beyond anything we’ve had in the past, nothing has really changed. Getting out when the light is soft and directional should still be at the top of your list. Using reflectors and filters will certainly add to, and improve your HDR shots.
NO NEED TO HDR EVERYTHING
HDR might work wonders for most scenes, but not all scenes need it. Sometimes you intentionally want to underexpose, or overexpose in order to invoke the viewer’s imagination i.e.
• Low-key images and silhouettes for drama and mood
• High-key images with clipped highlights for ‘romantic» scenes
I found from experience that stock agencies would often disapprove a HDR image, but accept the ‘normal» exposure. The reason for this is that noise, especially in even-toned sky areas, is often amplified by the HDR process and does not always meet the strict requirements of stock agencies.
This high contrast image was shot in Mpumalanga and contains no details of the sky and darkest shadows. Even though, I took three bracketed shots, I decided afterwards to use only a single exposure for aesthetic reasons. Settings: ISO-100, 1/50th sec @ F/16. Post Processing: Tweaks in Lightroom and Split Toning.
HDR SOFTWARE AND WORKFLOW
Do NOT overcook
The problem with HDR, is that many photographers «overcook» their images, going too far with the editing. Some HDR images look like animated computer graphics. Personally. I have no problem with artistic interpretation, but some photographers’ HDR conversions are just dreadful with excessive noise, halos and all sorts of artefacts. Some of these overcooked images might even look great on screen, but terrible in print. We don’t need it! After all, as a fine art photographer, I measure the success of my images by whether I am able to print them really large. You certainly don’t want to spend thousands of Rands on a large format Hahnemuhle Museum Print, only to realise you have halos around the edges!
CONSERVE TIME AND MAINTAIN A CONSISTENT STYLE
There are various HDR software packages on the market. Adobe Photoshop, Topaz, Google’s Nik Software and many more. My preferred suite is Photomatix Pro with powerful batch processing capabilities. Batch processing implies that I can go to bed. while the software builds my bracketed exposures into HDR images.
In the digital age, no successful photographer can do without an established software workflow. You have to know your way around the software and save time where you can. Otherwise, you will spend your life behind a computer and have no time for taking photos! I once heard a photographer boasting that it takes him at least three hours to create a single HDR image. That’s insane dedication, but not wise at all! Following proven processes and making use of batch processing means my HDR images are consistent in terms of quality and style. I let the HDR software do the overlaying of my images and thereafter I tweak each image individually. Sometimes, a quick Lightroom edit of only 1 -2 minutes will suffice. Other times, I might want to spend more time to pixel-peep in Photoshop.
Coming back to the HDR software you are using; I recommend that you ‘play around» with your HDR software while keeping output and prints in mind. Remember to save your favourite Presets in order to ensure future consistency.
For your convenience, I include a very concise summary of my workflow after returning from a photography trip.fln order to stay brief. I do not include all the minute processes like back-up, tagging, and settings etc.} Whether you’re experienced with HDR, or just starting out, this might help you with your own processes.
1. Importing the RAW images into Lightroom
2. Stacking the bracketed images together
3. Pre-processing the RAW files in Lightroom:
■ Sharpening Zeroed
■ Lens Correction applied: Lens Profile Corrections and removing Chromatic Aberration
• Noise Reduction (only where necessary)
4. Exporting the processed bracketed images into a folder on my desktop.
■ It is important that you check whether the images tally and that your output folder contains the correct total of images in the right sequence. Otherwise the software might overlay non-matching images!
5. Opening Photomatix and go to ‘Batch Bracketed Photos».
6. Set the parameters for batch processing. I prefer Tone Mapping:
7. Details Enhancer and will typically select a proven Preset as you don’t want to recreate the wheel.
8. Select the output folder and then Run the batch.
9. Go to bed and let the computer do the work!
10. Next morning, import the newly created 16-bit Tiff images into Lightroom and then tweak, or edit according to my preferred style.