Monthly Archives: September 2011

Blends vs. HDR

Over at our sister blog, our friend Irving (Yechiel) asked; “What is the difference between a blend and an HDR???” So I thought I would take that opportunity to talk about what blends are and how you can use them and how they relate to HDRs.

First off I would like to dedicate this post to our friend and Photographer Hikin Mike. Mike is a guy that has had some adversity in his life but hasn’t let that stand in his way of doing what he loves. And that is taking photographs in his beautiful area of Northern California including and encompassing the area around Yosemite National Park ( insert jelousy smiley here). Now it isn’t a secret that Mike isn’t a fan of HDR, he instead prefers to do Blends and quite well I may add. But in the end they both are a way to extend dynamic range and really that’s what we want to do and sometimes they do have some benefits over traditional HDRs. Mike is the blending champ so this post is for him.

As I just talked about, our real purpose in all of this is to extend the Dynamic Range that is usable in our Images. Traditionally we may have used a Split or Graduated Neutral Density Filter. These filters allow for a 1-3 stop difference in exposure between the top and the bottom of the filter, allowing you to have a say a darker exposure for the sky than the land beneath. Unfortunately the problem with them is that the transition is a straight line. Great when say you are shooting the ocean with its flat and level horizon. But what if you had a more complicated scene such as a mountain range or shooting through a window to the outdoors… Enter the Blend.

What is a Blend?

A blend is taking 2 or more images and placing them on top of each other and then, through the use of layer masks, revealing parts of each image that have an exposure that is correct for that part of the scene. In essence what you have is a Hand Made HDR. Instead of a software program doing the tone mapping and deciding the tone values for different parts of the scene, you are doing this by hand.

 The downside of this is it can be, but most certainly isn’t always, a very time consuming method. But it really depends what you want to do, if it is just blending two values Sky/Earth it can go quite quickly. But if you want to bring out the subtle tonal variation that an HDR has it may take you quite some time.

There are some advantages also, it can be more of a traditional photographic look than HDR can be sometimes…well unless you follow my methods ;), and it can be very good at doing one thing that it seems most HDR p5rograms have a difficult time with and that is handling large areas of white. Scenes that have large areas of white often get turned gray by HDR programs and this is one area that you can get better with a blend than an HDR.

And the fact is, There have been times that I have made and HDR and then used a blend afterwards to bring back detail or the above white areas into an HDR. One of the very cool things about Photomatix 4.1, the latest version, is that in the tone mapping panel you can select areas and replace them with a single exposure. In essence you are both tone mapping and blending at the same time. This is really a great feature. But as I said in the review of that product, there are times I like to have more control over it and do it in post in another application like Photoshop.

So enough talk, let’s actually go through the steps of blending images

Blends in Photoshop

The first thing you need to do is shoot FOR a blend. You may shoot just like you normally do for HDR and use those images. But most people that do blends do so with two images, one exposed for the sky (Highlights), one exposed for the ground (Midtones). The midtone exposure usually has enough latitude to have detail in the shadow area and we are most concerned about not having blowout in the Highlight exposure.

One you have your exposures, open the files you want into Photoshop, You can use, RAW, Tiff, PSD or JPEG images and you can also make adjustments to each of the images if you desire before the blend but you must keep in mind the final product you are going for after the blend that you don’t mess up things for the final product.

In this instance I am going to take two images (exposures) that I shot this past Sunday and use those for this example. Plus I also shot an HDR right afterwards so we can compare. I like using RAW files so I opened the two images in Adobe Camera RAW without making any adjustments to them because they were shot pretty well in Camera. Clicking select all and Open, I opened both images in Photoshop.

Here are the two file we will be working with






























I shot two images; both at f/22, ISO 100 with a 3 stop ND filter on to silken the water. The images were shot 45 minutes after sunset so that the dynamic range was wide but not wide enough not to be able to capture in two shots. The exposure times were 1 and 4 seconds respectively

I think it is worth mentioning that an advantage of a blend here over an HDR will be in detail in the clouds. In the subsequent HDR, we have three long exposures of 1, 4 and 15 Seconds. Over that entire time periods the clouds move quite a bit and lead to blurring in the final image. We don’t have that problem with a blend since we only are going to use the 1 second exposure for the sky.

Once we have our two images open we select our Move tool from the toolbar. Holding down the shift key (which allows for perfect alignment of the two images) we drag one image on top of the other. The order really doesn’t matter but we may want the one image that we will use the largest area of on top.

Now that we have the two layers together, we click on the top layer in the layers panel and then go to the bottom of the panel and click add layer mask.

With the layer mask in place on the top layer, I will select a large soft Brush and the color black to reveal the layer below for the sky (Black to reveal, white to conceal, X to switch between them) And begin painting over the sky area to reveal the darker and better exposure of the image below. I use a soft edge brush so that there isn’t a hard transition between the two images but there are times when you may need to use a harder edge brush in smaller detailed areas.


 I  turned on the quick mask to show you the area I painted over. The result is this:

This is a good first start, but I want to further refine the transition between the two exposures so I will switch my brush color to dark neutral gray. You can do the same thing by keeping the brush black but change the opacity and fill of the brush, but I prefer using different shades of gray between white and black and not change the brush itself.
Using a medium gray brush I work on the transition area of the water in the distance and the trees on the left. I went back and forth until I got the overall image with the balance I wanted.















At this point I added a levels adjustment layer and adjusted the image as a whole, and even on that adjustment layer, used the mask to take away a little brightness in the body of water behind the rocks.

And then as my final steps I will go in to the different layers and dodge and burn certain areas to just get the balance I want as I showed in this Local Adjustment tutorial, and then finally I added a high pass sharpening layer over the whole image.

This is the final finished image.















In comparison here is an HDR shot just minutes later. They are different, both are nice.











The HDR has a little better detail and range of tones in some of the smaller areas, The Blend actually gets the sky better and the water swirl better because they are just one image and not subject to some of the blurring that takes place when three images are combined in the merge tone mapping of HDR.

And like I said, there are times I will do an HDR and then blend in a part of the image I want to get even better

Hope that helps,

Local Adjustments – Dodging, Burning, Layer Masks

Local Adjustments

When we make adjustments to an image we can apply them globally or over the entire image at once, or we can apply them locally or to a small or separate section of the image only. (Please note this is not the tell or end all of how to edit an image nor about using adjustment layers and masks. It’s to get you acquainted with some of the tools you may not have used yet and then can explore further through some of the excellent tutorials online. Let Google be your friend)

As I noted in the review of Nik HDR Efex Pro, it has the ability to add control points within an image and work on that area “Locally” from the rest of the image, which is a very cool thing. Photomatix 4.1 ( 15% Coupon code: theHDRimage ) also has the ability to select parts of the image and choose a different exposure out of the blended images for certain parts of the scene. This again is another but different way to apply local change. I applaud both companies for having these methods but sometimes they still aren’t enough or more to the point, they don’t work as precisely in as small an area as we may need.

This is when it is time to take the image out of the HDR software and into another photo editing program, be that Adobe Photoshop ,  Adobe Photoshop Elements  , Paint Shop Pro or whatever may be your weapon of choice. Let me just make one thing clear; just as we want to get as much right “in Camera” so we have an easier time later in processing, we also want to get as much right “in Tone- Mapping” so that we again have to spend less time fixing things down the road. So this is not a fix for sloppy work in your tone-mapping of the image to begin with.

Let’s just recount what Tone- Mapping is. We are trying to take a very high dynamic range image (Our 32 bit merge file) and fit or compress that information into a medium such as a print or display on our monitors that has a much lower dynamic range. So we need to tone-map or place the different tones within our final image that gives us the perception, of that wide dynamic range. Now we can do that in a realistic, as the eye sees method as I usually choose or we can do it in other methods that have no basis in reality but may be what the artist desires.

So we do our tone-mapping and we get the balance as good as we can get but we still know there are areas we can get better that is beyond what may be capable in the HDR Program. This is where we turn to our other local methods of dodging and burning and also the use of Layer Masks or adjustment brushes along with the use of what may be global adjustment methods such as Levels, Curves and Saturation

The examples I am going to give will be using Photoshop which I still think is the best for finish editing; the methods shown can also be done in most pixel editing programs including Paint shop Pro and Photoshop Elements. One note Elements 9/10 has added true layer masks to the software so what once took a little bit of workaround to archive can now be done straight away.

For those of you that may not be Old School and have worked in a dark room with film negatives and print making. Dodging and Burning were methods used in a dark room to make local adjustments to a print. Dodging was a way to make an area lighter, Burning was the opposite and made the burned areas darker. These methods and names continue with us today but they just are done digitally and also we have a lot more control of the range that these tools cover. We now can be even more precise than the darkroom counterparts.

Before we get into dodging and burning I want to talk about making larger area adjustments and then we will get into the really fine detail. We can also make local adjustments using global adjust tools such as Levels and Curves. These adjustments usually work globally but through the use of layer masks or selection we can apply them only to a smaller area. You always want to make these adjustments on a separate layer because one they give you more control and also don’t harm an pixels of the original image in the process (Note Photoshop CS 5, now puts all adjustments layers in panel because they are that important)

Levels, Curves & Layers Masks

OK, so here is our starting image. It’s a very tough shot, very high dynamic range because even though it is a setting sun it still is quite bright in this spring sky. Now I could have brightened the entire image in tone mapping but doing so I loose the detail I want in the sun. The other problems are: Haloing around the Lifeguard Tower, the sky is too dark overall and we could use a little more detail in the beach area. So with a curves adjustment layer and mask let’s work on the sky first.

In Photoshop go to Layers> Adjustment Layer> Curves. When the curves dialog came up since I knew that blue sky is an almost perfect mid-tone I boosted the curves line up centered at mid-tone. If you don’t know where the tone you want to affect lays on the line, when the curves box opens open click the curves eye dropper on the area you want to adjust and it will show up as a dot on the linear line.

This adjustment  lightened the whole image quite a bit but blew out the sun which I didn’t want to happen so now let’s use a layer mask to apply that curves layer to only the area we want.

The nice part about Adjustment layers is that they already come with a Layer Mask so there is no need to add one. In the default layer mask the mask is filled with white, which means that it fully conceals the layer below. To reveal the layer below we would paint with Black. White to conceal, black to reveal ( Press X to switch between Black & White
















In this case I want to reveal part of the original image around the sun but I don’t want to reveal all of the original darkness, I only want to bring back some of that around the sun, so I choose for my paint a Medium Gray and I painted over the areas of the sun That I wanted to return to the original values or close to that.
As you can see on the mask I painted around the sun and the horizon but I also painted around the tower to take out some of the haloing around it. We’ll clean that up in the next step. So that is how we apply an adjustment to a large area but not the entire image.

Dodge & Burn

Now lets work on making adjustments to even smaller areas with our dodge and burn tool

Let click on our background layer and say “Duplicate Layer” You can rename it Dodge and Burn if that helps you keep things in order.

Selecting our Burn tool from the toolbar, I’ve selected a soft Brush and then in the tool setting panel, I select Highlights and 10%. The nice part about the dodge and burn tools is that we can select the tones of the image we want to work on; Shadows, Mid-Tones and Highlights. Sometimes figuring out which one we want to use is confusing. In fact it’s kind of backwards thinking. Like in this instance you may think since I want to make the bright areas around the tower darker, I would choose shadows, but I really want highlights since that is the pixel value I want to work on and burn or make darker.

Now switching to the Dodge tool, I switch back and forth between Mid-tone and Highlights and brighten areas of the tower, the tower stanchion, and the clouds in the upper part of the image. The nice part about adding these on a separate layer is again, we can vary the whole amount by using the opacity slider on that level or we can again add a mask if necessary

I’m not trying to make any area overly bright, just trying to make it look as I saw it that night and more to the way the eyes see than my camera.

When you are done, My suggestion is that you save the file as a .PSD or a TIFF file (16 bit)  with the layers intact, so if you need to you can always return to the image and readjust things. Only make flattened JPEG’s when you need post to the web or to send to print labs that require JPEG’s

And there you have a finished image, well, almost. From the original image through all the post work, There is some Noise present I would really not like there. So, in the next segment, well look at reducing the noise. Both through workflow and with some of the Noise Reduction software that is available.

If you are a fan of doing your post work in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture two non-pixel editing programs, You will want to look to using Adjusment brushes to do eccentually what we have here. It’s just not my favorite way to do it and I feel more comfortable using Photoshop having used it for many years. It’s still my number one choice for post work

Hope that helps,


Magazine Cover and HDR Article

Hot off the press!


Ijjust realized I only posted this at my other blog and not here. So for those of you that haven’t seen it OR bought it…

I have my first magazine cover on Photo Technique Magazine Sept/Oct Edition.

It’s my first cover and there is also a 6 1/2 page article by me on HDR shooting and Processing.

Special thanks to Cort Anderson for dropping my name.

My AMAZING and fun editor Wendy Erickson who besides being the best editor evah…is also a fantastic photographer.

And thanks to designer  Lisa Cordova for making me look swank.


You know, you don’t always get to have very many “Moments” in life. Things that really mean a lot to you and make you feel like you truly accomplished something. I’ve dreamed of having my image on the cover of  a magazine for a very long time. this is one of my “IT”s. I took a while to soak it in on the stand at Barnes and Noble. (which yes does carry Photo Technique)

It was a good day.

Click images to enlarge

Ghost Adventures

What was that? Dude, What was THAT?! OMG, WHAT WAS THAT?!!!  Zak!

OK, I admit I have been watching waaaaaayyy too much of the show Ghost Adventures and I think I may have an EVP replaying in my head and I have a hard time sleeping on Friday nights when every creak of my house turns into sure bet that ghosts are in the house.

For the most part when we do HDRs, we want to make sure that Ghosts are NOT in the house (insert rapper emphasis). I’ve showed you in detail in This Post how to very effectively eliminate ghosting, even the most stubborn. Most HDR software also has some auto de-ghosting features that will eliminate some small random ghosting from within your image.

But there are times when we DO want ghosting to appear. It can add a sense of movement to our scene. When we shoot long exposures of the ocean or a waterfall we actually are using ghosting to our advantage. We don’t want to stop the motion of our subject or an object within our scene. Now those are very obvious examples but sometimes they may be less so.

In this recent image I took in downtown San Diego, I’ve demonstrated that ghosting can be a desired effect and is in fact what made the shot. It was at a busy crosswalk on Market Street where the crosswalks in all direction cross at the same time. If I would have de-ghosted the image, not only would you have thought that the streets were empty Or if I did show the people De-Ghosted they would appear static and not show the hustle bustle of a Friday night out on the town. I only wish I didn’t shoot it the week after labor day when the tourists have all left. I would have liked more people in the scene.

Sometimes de-ghost, sometimes leave them be. So that when people look at your image they might exclaim…OMG WHAT WAS THAT?!!!!

Hope that helps,


When to up your ISO in HDRs

As photographers we know we want to use the lowest ISO possible to capture our imagesand keep the noise level to a minimum. This is even more so when we are shooting HDR’s because the noise can get compounded when during tone mapping some tones are boosted and with that the noise

In most instances we want to keep the ISO at our camera’s minimum, 100 or 200 as the case may be. Just one note, don’t use any of the ‘Extended” ISO such as ISO 50 available on some Canon Cameras or ISO 100 on some Nikons. Because of the way these “Interpolated” ISO work, the images while lower in sensitivity, really don’t give lower noise and in fact give lower Dynamic Range per image.

So since we use tripods for good HDR’s or at least we should. Normally we don’t have a problem using low ISO and longer shutter speeds because we, as a practice, don’t have moving objects in our HDRs, although, I did show you how to do that in this blog post. But sometimes we may not have obvious moving objects because to our eyes they aren’t.

Some of those moving objects  may be Clouds (especially low clouds on windy days or close to sunset). The Moon ( It moves about 15 degrees per hour). Boats at harbor ( even with soft swells they move) And I’m sure we could come up with a few more.

So in cases like this we may want to boost our ISO for two reasons, WE want our longest exposure of our series to have a fast enough shutter speed to stop the motion of anything so you don’t get blurring of a single frame. And we also want to be able to shoot the entire series of shots without any object moving in the total time it takes to shoot ( where you most likely would see movement of clouds or the moon. )

Continue reading »

15% off coupon code for Photomatix Pro “theHDRimage”

I’ve teamed up with the great folks at HDRsoft and can now offer you a coupon code for 15% off the regular price of Photomatix Pro software.

Just visit the HDRsoft Website choose your software and enter the coupon code: theHDRimage at checkout and you will get 15% off your purchase.

You know what I think about it, now own it for yourself

Shooting the LOW dynamic range scene, and what exposures to leave out of any HDR

I awoke on Labor day Monday to rain. A rare summer occurrence in Southern California.  After I stopped off for a Smoothie at Jamba Juice  (Mmmmm). I headed down the road to the Vineyards of Wine country thinking there may be some cool shots because of the clouds. The rain let up enough for me to set-up amongst the grape vines.

The first things I noticed was that the light was VERY flat because of the cloud cover but the scene still had some interest to me. I measured the light range with my cameras meter from brightest to dark and the range only covered less than 3 stops. Now right there that should have told me not to shoot an HDR and I should have taken the advice I normally give and just shot it traditionally in one exposure. But two things came to mind, the fact that I am testing some new software and thought this might be a good test and also…well I just plain thought I could get just a little extra out of the sky with a 3 Exposure HDR shot at -2, 0 +2 EV.

Well, I was wrong. Here are the three exposures (Click to enlarge)

If you look at the -2 and the +2 exposures, you can see VERY little detail and definition to these two images and when we combine all three into an HDR the final effect is less than pleasing. And in the end, reflects the lack of any definition in those exposures and leaves us with an unusable image.
There is absolutely no detail in the vines. It is smeared and a total loss of tone.
So what should I have done. Well besides just working with one exposure. I should have known from measuring the dynamic range that if I did want to shoot 3 exposures, in this case I would have been much better off with 3 exposures but 1 stop apart -1,0,+1
Was this shoot still salvageable, Yes it was. Since I was exporting the three images out of Lightroom into Photomatix, I merely changed the exposures of the RAW files in Lightroom to +1 exposure on the shadow image and -1 exposure on the highlight image. If you are using Photomatix or any HDR program as a stand alone program. You can accomplish the same thing by first processing the images from  the RAW file withy the exposure adjustments and then save as 16 bit Tiff files and open them in The stand alone program

In the end, I’m still not happy with this image. The light was way too flat for any drama whether it was a single image shot traditionally or an HDR. I should have known better. But sometimes these things work out
 So what else can we take away from this example. Even if you are shooting a wide range of exposures in a very high dynamic range scene, examine those images in a browser first to see if there is any detail in the extreme exposures that will be of any use.
Again while I was doing some tests on new software I made some exposure over a wide range, 9 exposures in all. But I ended up only using 7 of these in the final HDR because the two end exposures lacked any usable detail and would have just smeared the final product
 More isn’t always more and sometimes less is more
Hope that helps