Basics of HDR
The term HDR is short for High Dynamic Range which is a technique of capturing a set of images ranging from 3 to 9 exposures from underexposed to overexposed, so in the end you can reproduce the High dynamic Range that our eyes see because, cameras today can only expose for the sky, or the ground with this technique you can have the best from both worlds. But, be warned this technique or style of photography isn’t for everyone and can’t be appealing to people that love classic photography.
- The Grundge look
A good example for bad HDR – Extremy unrealistic
every photographer has it’s own style of HDR, but some people just overdo the HDR effect, so the photos they make are unrealistic and dirty, those are the bad photos. The key in HDR photography is to make the photographs that are realistic and natural as possible close to what our eyes see.
- What you need to know to start HDR? You need to have a DSLR with manual control, the lens doesn’t really matter, it’s up to you and the ability to take bracketed exposures or you can do them manually which I will explain in the second part of this tutorial, a good tripod and some software to combine the bracketed exposures later on your computer.
Easy so far? I think so, keep up with me.
- Why do you need to do HDR photos first of all they look really awesome. Now that I have been doing HDR for quite some time now I can’t really live without it, it’s addicting because once you can get a perfect image similar to what your eye sees you won’t be able to take a normal photograph later it just won’t be the same.
Preparing to take the photos
- To be honest if you take a bad photo it will look even worse in HDR, that’s why first of all you need to know what composition you will make before you bracket your exposures, because, if your composition isn’t good it is all downhill from there. So when you are shooting and you’re are on a let’s say a location that you don’t visit often slow down think of the composition and leading lines and maybe the rule of thirds (Google It if you are not familiar) and also how the image will look after it’s done so you capture the things you need for later post-processing.
- Things you will need :
First off a camera with manual mode or manual exposure settings or automatic exposure bracketing.
A good sturdy tripod, for the best results, you can do it handheld but the results won’t be as good.
And some kind of a wire or wireless remote shutter trigger so you don’t shake the camera when you press the shutter, although a self-timer function that all new DSLRS have but I prefer to have a cable release.
And last but not least HDR processing software like Photomatix or similar and Adobe Photoshop is a must or at least Adobe lightroom.
Now taking the actual shots
- After you found a nice spot and your composition is good you can now take the shots.
- First turn on the AEB (automatic exposure bracketing) function on your camera on Nikon cameras there is a dedicated button which simultaneously with the front wheel it turns it on and you can select how many bracketed shots you want and how far apart they are Nikon is 1 EV (canon can do in 2ev increments). You need 3 shots the -2ev the 0 (or middle exposure ) and the +2 EV ,
- Nikon -2 -1 0 +1 +2.
- You want your aperture to be from F8 to F11, but In some rare cases F16 so everything can be in focus front to back
- ISO it should be kept as low as possible like 100 ISO. I usually use ISO 50-400 rarely something above because doing HDR later in processing will add some noise but nothing to worry about.
- If you do need more than 3 exposures on Nikon you can just add more holding the BKT button and scrolling the front wheel and on canon you can do it by shifting the middle exposure with the exposure compensation button.
- Start taking your shots with the camera meter set in the middle or by taking the middle exposure first then the rest.
- What if you don’t have AEB or automatic bracketing? it’s easier than you think just set your camera to A (aperture priority mode ) set your exposure for the 0 EV or middle exposure take your shot then using the exposure compensation button do a -2 EV shot and a +2 EV shot and that’s it simple J
- Also another tip for best results is doing the bracketing fast enough, so that the light conditions don’t change and you end up with a weird photo or a blurred clouds in the sky, with a sturdy tripod so nothing moves and a cable release (you can buy them anywhere they are dirt cheap) and watch out not to move the camera so everything is aligned.
- Always shoot in raw as you all know by now the guy from Froknowsphoto.com always bragging and always telling us SHOOT RAW, it’s because you can later change the white balance and pretty much a lot of things like 1 shot HDR or you can brighten some parts of the photo which you are missing or over exposed areas you can darken them down and add them to the final image.
- Now you will ask how many shots do I need?
Good question. Most of the time the 3 shots from -2 EV to +2 EV are enough, but when you are shooting directly at the sun you will need more. I usually do 9 shots on my Nikon it depends on the situation. That’s why is useful to learn to read your histogram, that scary sciency thing on the info screen of your photos, not that scary in fact it’s easy there are 3 parts:
- Left sides are the blacks (dark parts of the photo);
-middle (all your middle tones) and
-right are your whites (the bright areas of the photo).
So when I take my HDR shots I always check that I have the full range of photos from the left middle and right areas of the histogram so I know for sure I covered the full light range of the scene.
- After you have done all of the above steps or let’s say tips as Trey Ratcliff says there are no steps in HDR and there is no right way to do HDR because beauty is in the eye of the beholder, which is absolutely true I like my photos perfect, I will change them 10 times till I get the photo to match what is in my head and maybe improve it.
Now you have your photos they are bracketed and everything you need to get them on your PC or MAC (it doesn’t matter as long as you have the right software, although macs have those heavenly retina displays but are kind of pricey) you can import your photos using your DSLRS brand import software (like view NX2 for Nikon) or Adobe Lightroom or basically copy and paste them in a photography folder directly from your DSLRS, but remember to sort your photos and organize them perhaps with Adobe Lightroom doing the rating and collection system which is amazing because later you will have tons of photos and finding a particular image will be a nightmare .
Processing part (the hard part of HDR but it will get easy as you practice)
- Now follows the what I call the pre Photomatix stage or preparing your photos to be tonemapped (I know it sounds technical and hard, but no worries the software does it for you) in Photomatix (http://www.hdrsoft.com/for download) or Oloneo photo engine (http://www.oloneo.com/ for download ) is fine .
- Load all your bracketed shots in lightroom
-the process is like climbing a ladder down first comes white balance I usually will use one of the presets, so I come close to what I want to see and then tweak it a little bit so I am spot on but all depends on your vision just play with the sliders and have fun and the vision will come.- now come all the other sliders I usually leave them alone if I need I will come back and process one of the photos in a way for example the sky was messed up in Photomatix and I will make it nice and perfect in lightroom and use that sky in the final photo.
– Now for the advanced photographers this one will be easy, the HSL and color sliders which are useful for tweaking every color one by one.
I do it for better results but for those who are starting you don’t need it.
– Detail tab, this one is for sharpening basically and I would recommend sharpening, because raw files have no sharpening to begin with to about 50 on the first slider you can go more, but don’t overdo it and no need to touch the other sliders because you can do a better sharpening in Photoshop later.
The last thing Lens corrections and chromatic aberations I usually set this to the preset and it’s fine 90% of the time but there are times that I want to add vignetting so I tweak it myself.
- Now select all the photos using ctrl and click and select all of them and click the sync button which will open a new small window the put a tick in the box check all.
- After the sync is done export them in JPEG, SRGB color space and 100 quality for best results.
- Photomatix tonemapping time
– First buy Photomatix from http://www.hdrsoft.com/order.php here, and after you install it open it up and load your bracketed shots using the load photos button.
– After selecting your bracketed shots Photomatix will ask you to:
1. Align source images automatically tick this box if you did your shots handheld if not no need to tick it,
2. Show options to remove ghosts –tick this if you have people in your shot or moving water, or any kind of a moving subject that moves from frame to frame.
3. Reduce noise on – and will give you couple of options like just the underexposed images or all images and normal and underexposed images, tick this box if you didn’t remove noise in lightroom or didn’t use your DSLRS in camera noise removal.
4. Reduce chromatic aberrations – same here you can do them in lightroom while preparing the photos or here, in Photomatix. But in my opinion lightroom does a better job or in some cases I do them in Photoshop (I will post a small tutorial for chromatic aberration removal later) if I feel that they are noticeable or lightroom did a bad job (it can happen automatic modes aren’t perfect but most of the time they do a good job), but I usually leave these unchecked because most of the time I do them in the lightroom stage and I cut down on waiting time in Photomatix. It’s my preference you can do them as you like or as it fits in your post processing flow and now press the merge to HDR button and let the HDR magic happen 🙂
- Now your tonemapped photo will appear though that’s a preview on your left your sliders on the right presets and usually the histogram box pops on the right with the presets.
- Let’s start with the left side the sliders side:
1. Tick the tone mapping option (you can use exposure fusion as well it will give you a more natural tone mapped image “out of the box“, but I like to do the natural touch in Photoshop because I get more control over everything.
2. Method – details enhancer you will use this method most of the time, you can use some of the other methods when you need more contrast in your photo or some different look.
3. Sliders I use most: the first 4 sliders I use the most along with white and black point, temperature and micro smoothing (adds or takes away grudge effect ) I won’t confuse you with what every sliders does because it will scary you if your new to HDR and there is tons of text on that that personally I think you don’t need to read (though you can read it at the left bottom corner while your mouse pointer is on the name of the slider) like specs on a car yes they are useful but at the end driving the car is the point, so what I suggest is playing with the sliders from extreme left to extreme right to see what the effect is and then find a balance between too much and too little according to your taste of course.
Moving on, now that you have played with the sliders and put them in a spot where you like the look of the photo press the apply button at the bottom of the left side and wait for Photomatix to process your photo.
– After Photomatix finishes it will open a finishing touch window I usually leave that alone and as I said before it’s better to do that in Photoshop later, now click save final image on the left side menu save your photo in the same folder as the bracketed shots so you can easily find them for our next step.
- Open Adobe Bridge, find the location of the photos
– Select the photos and under tools /photoshop/load files into Photoshop layers and they will automatically get onto Photoshop in layers so you can begin the next part.
-after all layers are loaded put the Photomatix processed image on top so you can add parts of the other images vie masking, so you can get your vision of the photo right like you want it, if you don’t know how to mask it’s really easy just Google it or go on YouTube there are tons of videos and maybe later I will do a video or a tutorial to make it easy for you.
I usually want to get 80% of the photo looking like I want in Photomatix and finish 20% in Photoshop, what that means is that you can get the foreground looking nice but the sky is a bit blown out or grainy looking, so what I will do is get a clean nice looking sky from one of the other exposures maybe tweak it a little bit in lightroom and mask in the areas that are grainy with the areas of the clean exposure that I tweaked in lightroom so I get the perfect photo.
- After you have done all the masking and exposure blending and your photo is looking nice clean and almost like you wanted to be it’s time to introduce it to some Photoshop plugins, I like to use the plugins from Nik software bundle (owned by Google now), Topaz labs filters pack and onOne perfect suite to get some effects in the photo and to tweak it to my personal photography style (some photographers develop it early some later but everyone has a style of post processing) same here I won’t bother you what every single thing does, because they are very simple to use and everything is marked, so just play with them till you learn what you like. Then after some practice you will know what filter or effect you will put on your photo as you are taking the bracketed shots.
- After running the post processing marathon now save your file as PSD or Photoshop file with all the layers, so you can re-edit it if you like later or maybe you would like to prepare it to be printed or something like that, you can save it as JPEG, but if you like to change something later or blow it up for printing it will be hard and sometimes you will have to redo the photo from scratch.
If you have any questions or something is bothering you please write that in comment section below or on my e-mail : firstname.lastname@example.org and I will do my best to explain it, or make a tutorial if there are more people interested in that topic.
Cheers for staying with me on this HDR marathon 🙂