Monthly Archives: October 2010

Do I really need HDR?

Do I really need HDR?

Great question. I always tell people, if you don’t need HDR don’t use it. If you can capture an image correctly without it, do so. But that is the same advice I would give for any photographic tool or accessory. If you don’t need a polarizing filter? take it off, No need for fill flash? don’t use it. Don’t need Photoshop? Print your image SOOC. HDR is just another tool.

There are many ways to do without HDR. The time of day you shoot, and more importantly, your angle to the sun can take away any need to shoot with HDR. When the sun is setting turn your back to the sunset and shoot that way. In a lot of cases not only are you able to capture the dynamic range of a scene, you actually will be capturing something 10 times better than the sunset.

But what about the times when, with conventional photography, you wouldn’t even have attempted the shot because you knew, as good as it looks to your eyes, you are never going to be able to capture that as you saw it on camera. I think this is the perfect time to pull out the best tool for the job and get that image that previously was impossible. In some case that may just be a Graduated Neutral Density Filter. I use them all the time and I do like them and for when I am shooting the ocean they are perfect because of the straight line at the horizon.

But what happens when you have irregular shapes to deal with? A mountain range or, in the case to follow, architectural arches leading to a bright scene. A graduated neutral density filter is useless.

So lets examine this photo made using a 5 Exposure 1 – 1.5 Stop HDR ( Tone mapping: Strength 70, Saturation 70, High Smoothing ,-1.20 Gamma in Photomatix)

This image really portrays the scene as I saw it; Great clouds and blue skies, shadows & light coming through the arches. The back of the arches in the shade but still clearly visible to my eyes as is the tree on the right.

Now suppose we didn’t use HDR, what would the image look like? This is one of the exposure from the 5 I took that gets the most right.

It’s really not too bad, but the problems areas are: the tree to the right is definitely lost to the shadows and the biggest problem is those beautiful blue skies and puffy white clouds have lost all their detail.

So, we could using digital darkroom techniques try to bring some of that back

This was using a heavy dose of Shadows & Highlights in Photoshop

Well, this helped, it did bring back the tree into the image and got a little more detail back into the sky, but it couldn’t do much because there are parts of the clouds that were just completely blown out so there is no detail to recover. The other real problem is that it applied this adjustment globally to the whole image, so some areas that should have stayed in the shadows are now brought up into the mid-tones, making for a “flat” image. Yes we could have tried using a Layer Mask, but that can be a lot of work and time.

In this example I used some  Faux HDR “Lucis Effect”  to bring back some detail which it is quite good at but again,we still are not near where the HDR image is in overall balance and again it acted too globally.

Now what if we started with an image that got the clouds and skies right, could we have adjusted that?


This attempt really gave the worst results because you can see, the parts where there still was some detail are now full with ugly noise and again there are some areas that were just totally lost in the shadows wth no information to retrieve.

Now, maybe if I really worked long and hard in the digital darkroom I could have achieved better results  on a standard photograph. Lots of layer masks and adjustments, dodging, burning, sharpening, noise reduction. But do I really want to waste that much time in my studio working? Or…would I rather be out shooting, taking the less than a minute to shoot 5 frames and come back and process the image in a few minutes and have the best results. The answer is clear what I would choose.

Hope that helps!


Anatomy of a shot, HDR

I recently took this shot. 

 I like it, I like the drama and the light to it.  So let’s take it apart.

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Anatomy of a shot

I recently took this shot. 

 I like it, I like the drama and the light to it.  So let’s take it apart.

First off, the day I shot, I saw that it would be a gray stormy day with intense clouds. Something we don’t get often in my area but something I knew would add a lot to the shot and also be a perfect candidate for HDRI. Why? well the dynamics are so broad. When you have broken clouds where the sun comes through the dynamic range get pretty high. Also the area on the grounds gets some deep shadow. So knowing that this would be a high Dynamic range day, I knew it would be a great day to shoot.

The next thing I thought of was the water. I wanted to see a lot of drama and movement to the water itself. So how do we show movement in water? A high shutter speed? No, not really, a high shutter speed freezes the water so it tends to “stop” the motion not show it. Really what we want is to use a slow shutter speed. Now granted we are going to take at least three exposure so we know the one exposed for the shadows will be longer than the rest but will it really be slow enough?

To show motion we need at least a couple seconds long shot. Problem is there was still a lot of light. So even at f/22 and ISO 100 the 0 meter shot would be 1/10 of a second. Not even close. So, luckily the Canon5D will go to ISO 50, That gained me one stop of shutter speed. Then it was on to the Auxiliary Equipment. I put a .9 B & W Neutral Density filter on the Canon 17-40mm Lens. The .9 filter is good for 3 more stop of light.

So with that in place I now had a 0 exposure of  f/22 ISO 50 @ .6 seconds, a -2 exposure of 1/6th second and a +2 exposure of…2.5  Seconds. Finally enough to get some movement in the water.

With my camera mounted on a steady tripod, mirror lockup set in the custom function and a wired remote control I snapped off my 3 shots in AV mode Bracketing. Checked my histogram for all three and could see I banged the shadows and the highlight hard enough for a good HDR.

When I set up this shot I wanted just a bit of the sun that was below the clouds to show, just to give a hint of what was lighting the rock and the waves. I finished shooting some other scenes all the way to sunset, when the clouds broke quite a bit but still provided some other great shots as seen here.

Once I headed home I downloaded the images from my card to computer, organized and tagged them in Bridge and then selected what looked to be the best compositions to work on in Photomatix.

I selected the three images from above and merged them in Photomatix, aligning sources by matching features and reducing chromatic aberrations. I then went on to tone mapping them using the Detail Method. My settings were: Strength 75%. Saturation 70%, High Smoothing in light mode and then just a little negative 1.20 Gamma and that was it.

I processed and saved as a 16bit Tiff and brought the image into Photoshop for just some final touch-up. In photoshop I just; cloned out a couple sensor spots and then just set my density endpoints using curves and eyedroppers set to 5 shadows and 245 Highlights.  After that  just a little burning and dodging in a few areas just to touch up and I was done.

 A good successful days shoot even if I did get drenched at the end by a downpour. Luckily I had a big plastic bag that fit over my entire camera and lens and the top of the camera so no harm done even if I had wet feet.

How many images should I shoot for my HDR?


One of the most confusing parts of shooting HDR images is, “How many images should I take ?” and then,” How many stops apart should they be?”


For most images, 3 shots, 2 stops apart is sufficient. Many people shoot too many frames and they really don’t add anything to the image, in fact they can cause problems with loss of detail and processing time because the software has to align more images and there is a better chance for error with more images. These errors smear the detail in an image.

But if the dynamic range is high enough in your scene you may need to shoot more frames just to cover that dynamic range. I will say this, If the sun itself is in the frame, you probably should shoot more frames.

Now I told you in another post how to determine if you should even use HDR photography. We can use a similar method to determine how much range is in a a scene and  what our two end points for exposure should be. Again set your camera’s meter in either spot or partial metering. Then meter the brightest part of the scene and set it as 0 meter. Now look at your settings (shutter speed only remembering that we keep out aperture and ISO constant) That will be your highlights end point setting.

Okay once again I DO NOT want anyone pointing their camera directly at the sun or looking into the sun so I am going to give you some numbers to use if the sun is in the scene. If the sun is before sunset, (assuming f/16 and ISO 100) your shutter speed should be 1/6000 or there abouts. ( EV20 or 21!!) If the sun is near sunset, your shutter speed for the sun itself  will be about 1/1500 ( EV17 -18)

So with the brightest portion of our scene metered (even if it isn’t the sun) we can now move on to the shadow or darkest area of our scene and zero meter that.

So let’s say that  our shadow meter is 1/10th  and our highlight meter is 1/6000. If we sit down and figure we can see that we have a  little more than 10 stops from brightest to darkest (remember, what we measure for our darkest area will now be our brightest exposure) So if we were to use 1 stop intervals we would take 10 shots, if we wanted 2 stop intervals we would take 5 or 6

Now here is a easy way to shoot it on your camera so you don’t even have to think about how many stops it is or even know how to figure out how many stops that is. Most Digital SLRs separate stop into three part stops, some do it in two or you can change a custom function to two part stops. You can check it by setting your shutter speed to 1/100 and then  counting how many clicks it is to get to 1/200.

So if it is three we can do our shoot like a dance, specifically, the Cha Cha. That’s right the Cha Cha. Set your camera on a tripod and set up your composition. Now set your shutter speed to the slowest number you calculated, in this case 1/10th. Take your first shot, Now adjust your shutter speed in clicks, 1,2,3 (Cha Cha cha), Fire, 1,2, 3 Fire. Repeat that dance until your shutter speed is up to the top number (1/6000) and stop after that fire. Done. No calculations needed. If you want two stop intervals between shots, you will need to do a Waltz…1,2,3  1,2,3 Fire

Now let’s take a look at three images of the same scene and shot differently to see how much of a difference it really makes.

Even I was surprised by this, But that is the cool ting about actual vs. theory. It’s not always what it should be.

The first image is a 11 shot 1 stop series, f16 ISO 100 from 1/10th to 1/8000th. The second is an Auto Bracketed  3 shot, 2 stop series from 1/20th to 1/350th. The same settings for Image combining and tone mapping were used in Photomatix

11 Shot 1 stop

3 shot 2 stop

Surprisingly, not a lot of difference, There is a little better defined sun in the 11 shot and the color seems to have more bit depth (more shades of blue as you go up the sky), There is a bit better shadow detail too.

Both images on close inspection seem to have the same detail and sharpness, but on pixel peeping at 250% the 3 shot seems to have a little  more noise in the shadow area but just barely. Again at 250%!

3 shot Crop

3 shot crop

10 shot crop

10 shot crop
Then the last ting I tried was a 6 Shot 2 Stop HDR
Again, Not much difference
6 shot
So as you can see, unless you have a really broad rage to cover, 3 shots will really do the trick. Even in this image with a really wide dynamic scene, the 3 shot fared quite well. What would I shoot here? Well actually I would do about a 7 shot, 1 stop HDR. I really don’t think the last 3 images at the fastest shutter speed that only captured the sun really added a lot to the image I think 7/1 would have been just fine
Equipment for this post
Canon DSLR
Canon 24-105L 4.0 Lens
Manfrotto Tripod
Photomatix Pro 4.0

HDRsoft Introduces Photomatix Pro 4.0

HDRsoft Updated their popular HDR software Photomatix Pro to version 4.0 on September 28th.

I haven’t had time yet to play with it and compare to previous versions but a quick glance shows to be what appears to be a better preview window along with some preset thumbnails, which I’m just not crazy about presets. And what is supposed to be better noise reduction in the image combining screen. I’ve got to give it a full run through and see all the goodies.

Of course they made some changes to the screens so now that made my HDR tutorial a little dated so I will have to update the tutorial a bit. But let me give it a workout first.

To update or to download Photomatix Pro Version 4.0 go to HDRsoft