Category Archives: HDR Quick Tip

HDR does not = Light

We get caught up sometimes thinking HDR is the cure all to everything. No matter the situation, shooting HDR will make it all better. But it simply does not. HDR allows you to capture the light our eyes can see and possibly our cameras can’t but it does not turn bad light to good. 

This was hammered back in my head once again two weeks ago as I was out in Joshua Tree NP on a shoot. A friends I was traveling with called me over to see an area he was looking over down into the valley. It was a beautiful scene in front of me, but quite honestly the light sucked. It was an hour too late to shoot that area and no good light was getting down into the rock outcroppings, just a small area of great golden hour light was hitting the peak of one of those rock formations. 

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5 Quick Steps to better HDRs – Step 5

5 Quick Steps to Better HDRs – Step 5

  1. Straighten, Crop, Clean-up
  2. Decrease Noise
  3. Set a Black & White point
  4. Balance your Tone
  5. Sharpen Your Image

Sharpening your image

Making an HDR can bring out a lot of detail in an image, but that is “Tonal” detail. It doesn’t necessarily mean our image is Sharp. In fact the HDR process itself can soften an image. It may be from just the process, but we can also get softness from: the alignment of images, or the deghosting of images. We can even get some softness with any chromatic aberration fixes we do. And then there is the simple fact that straight out of the camera, raw images are not that sharp and require some post processing sharpening. I like to do it at the end of processing however instead of before I merge images. I also sharpen an image depending on the size of the image and how it will be used, Printed or web display as I talk about in this article devoted strictly to sharpening.

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5 Quick Steps to better HDRs – Step 4

5 Quick Steps to Better HDRs – Step 4


  1. Straighten, Crop, Clean-up
  2. Decrease Noise
  3. Set a Black & White point
  4. Balance your Tone
  5. Sharpen Your Image

 Balance your Tone

Our HDR programs do a pretty good job in tone mapping our images and placing tone as we desire…or really as THEY desire. We can get a pretty good balance but quite honestly the program really doesn’t know everything that we want or it may not be able to accurately access the image for what tones should be where. We end up with images that look “dirty” with blackening or darker tones across something that is the same tone throughout.

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5 Quick Steps to better HDRs – Step 3

5 Quick Steps to Better HDRs – Step 3

  1. Straighten, Crop, Clean-up
  2. Decrease Noise
  3. Set a Black & White point
  4. Balance your Tone
  5. Sharpen Your Image

 Setting a Black and White Point

Here is something I found in an overwhelming number of images. In a quick look at about 50 images posted over half of them could have benefited from this simple adjustment; Setting a Black and White Point.

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5 Quick Steps to better HDRs – Step 2

5 Quick Steps to Better HDRs – Step 2


  1. Straighten, Crop, Clean-up
  2. Decrease Noise
  3. Set a Black & White point
  4. Balance your Tone
  5. Sharpen Your Image

Decrease Noise

As photographers we battle noise in our images on a regular basis. Whether that noise comes from under-exposure or from using a high ISO, we find noise in many of our images. HDR compounds that problem in a couple ways, one by multiplying the noise in each single image as it combines to one and also in the tone-mapping process. As we map tones to a different value we may bring up noise along with making something dark a lighter value.

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5 Quick Steps to better HDRs – Step 1

  1. Straighten, Crop, Clean-up
  2. Decrease Noise
  3. Set a Black & White point
  4. Balance your Tone
  5. Sharpen Your Image

Over the next few days I’ll be posting 5 quick steps you can take for better HDRs. These are all simple finishing techniques that can take an image from ehh…to wow.

I was inspired to write this after perusing the Google+ HDR Processing Community and seeing so many images that were almost there but missing these small yet magical elements. None of these  posts are tell alls, but merely overviews, you can do more research either here at the site or by searching the internet if you want more specific information how to do a particular thing you saw in this lesson.

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Gray Skies forever? Photomatix Pro

I’ll start this rant off with my usual disclaimer: Artistic Intent, I don’t care what you do to your image provided it was Artistic Intent. Backwards, inside out and purple…fine if that’s was your intent. It’s when you did it because you didn’t know any better, that’s when I have a problem and I’m here to help. 

My two biggest pet peeves in HDR images are; Halos and Gray Clouds that should be white. The funny thing is, most likely the same thing is responsible for both. 


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Measuring & Exposing for Dynamic Range

Reader, friend and fellow photographer Todd B asked me to go into more detail on how I measure the dynamic range of a scene and then decide how I will shoot the exposures for that scene. 

What I do is quite simple. I set my camera to Aperture Priority mode and the aperture and ISO I will be shooting with. I then set my metering mode to spot. I use aperture priority for this instead of Manual because I am just looking for numbers (shutter speeds) right now. I may, and probably will, end up shooting in a different mode, most likely manual. 

I then seek out the brightest and darkest areas of my scene. If the sun is in the shot, don’t measure it for many reasons. First off it’s not good for your eyes or your camera and secondly because of its brightness you will end up with exposures that in reality have very little use. If the sun is just at the horizon line you may be OK, but anything above that you are asking for trouble. But in most circumstances if the sun is in my image I will meter slightly to the side or above it. 

Also make note of one phenomenon, just as the sun hit the horizon it is not always the brightest region of the image and the clear sky above or a reflection off a cloud may actually register higher  Continue reading »

HDR isn’t always Necessary OR Better

I’ve said this before when we talk about measuring the dynamic range of our scene. ‘If you don’t need HDR don’t use it”

It can be simply just an waste of time and Hard Drive storage space or it may even be detrimental to your final image.

Sometimes we just need to be reminded of this

Last weekend down at the Harbor I was shooting some buildings, mid-day, bright sunny mostly cloudless day. Measuring the dynamic range it really wasn’t beyond -2,  + 2 of the meter. But for a couple of the buildings I shot an HDR  3 exposure +2, 0, -2 series  just to see if something interesting may come of it. Well it didn’t

Here is one building in particular. One image is the HDR, one is just the 0 exposure. Continue reading »

You Say Halo, I say Goodbye – PhotoMatix Pro 4.2

OK, so I’m on a Beatle Kick today

So you love that Grunge look to your HDRs but then you post them to Flickr, 500px or your favorite Photography forum and get all kinds of He** for Halos around trees, buildings and other areas of high contrast. So what’s an HDRer to do?

Well take a hold of one of the controls in Photomatix Pro and use the He** out of it. The Smooth Highlights control.

What the Smooth Highlights control does is just as the name suggests, It smooths the area between a Highlight and a shadow or midtone so that it is a smooth gradation in tone and not an abrupt one that causes halos

We can see the results here using the normal Grunge Preset in Photomatix Pro 4.2 Continue reading »

Alignment – When it all goes wrong


Something I have brought up in the past about over-shooting a scene –  taking too many exposures –  popped up last week in one of my images. I was shooting the ocean sunset and shot 6 exposures using AEB + EC (Auto Exposure Bracketing – Exposure Compensation) It’s a quick way to get 6 (usually 5 because one can be a duplicate) exposures of a scene without having to do much figuring.
When I got home I threw the 6 images into Photomatix Pro 4.1 and selected my usual alignment “Match Features”. I use this because often I have some complex objects in the foreground and I need them aligned as perfectly as possible.
I merged the image and what I got was this “widescreen” image. and you can see a misaligned  handrail on the right side.
What? I didn’t shoot widescreen! Going back and looking at the images I could see what the problem was as we can see here looking at the six exposures

The first two exposures are so under-exposed they have very little detail left in them for the software to find edges to align. (You can also have this probelm on an too over-exposed image that is totally blown out)
So the simple answer could have been to just eliminate those two exposures from the merge, they may not have had enough information – as is the case when people over-shoot a scene- to even be worthwhile putting in the mix.
So I did that and still using “Match Features” for the alignment mode, Photomatix perfectly aligned the image and did not crop off any part of the image
OK, great. But the truth is, the image did not have the color range I wanted especially in the dusk sky. So I went back and merged all 6 images again, this time choosing “Match Horizontal and Vertical shifts”. Because there was, even in the lowest two exposures a clear line for the horizon, this would be a good choice.
Using this method, I got a perfect alignment AND the full range of color and luminosity (and DR) that I wanted for the image.
Just another example that shows us that using the same setting all the time, even if we really like that setting, isn’t always the right choice. And that experimentation may be the best thing to do to achieve your final goal.
One final thing to note was that the image WITHOUT the two darkest exposures was actually darker than the one with all 6 images. (Both used the same tone mapping) this is because the software needed to bring some information down into the shadow area and it brought some of the midtones with it.
Hope that helps

Save your Post Processing Work, History and Presets etc

So you worked endless hours on a Image. Now you want to do the same thing to another image or you want to go back and fine tunes what you did but you can’t remember what it is you did in the first place. Today we’ll talk about how you can store some of that information in 4 different popular programs: Photomatix Pro, Photoshop, Lightroom and Nik HDR EFEX Pro.

Photomatix Pro

Now of course most of you know you can save a preset of your favorite Tone Mapping setting. Well if you don’t know, You can. Simply while in Tone Mapping Module, go down to presets and drop down to Save Preset and then Name it what you would like “My Killer Tone Mapping”  etc.

But did you know you can save the settings you used on EVERY image you tone map? Yes, Yes you can. After you tone map an image and go to save it. In the save dialog box there is a check box for “Save Tone-Mapping Settings” .

This will save the one mapping settings you used for that particular image as a .XMP sidecar file in the same folder that you save the HDR image in. When you want to use those same settings again. Simply open your 32 bit HDR Radiance image, or recombine the images you want for the image and then in the preset area of the tone mapping module, Drop down the list to Load Settings and open the XMP file that you want to use.


This is a little known feature of Photoshop that I learned from Eddie Tapp. Did you know you can save to a text file or right into the Metadata of your image (or both) every single click you did on any image you worked on in Photoshop? Well you can. Simply go to your Preferences ( Edit > Preferences or Ctrl/Cmd +K) and on the general Tab at the bottom, Check the box for “History Log”

Then  in Adobe Bridge, You can view every thing you did to an image or if you use the text version, check the text log for the file name you want to see. Now you can’t go back and change the history but at least you will know that you used a Levels adjustment with these settings and you can duplicate that.





































This of course is fairly well know but we will review it anyway. In the develop module of Lightroom, with the left panel flyout open, You can see the History of any image and the nice part is you can return to any state of  that history. If you want to save any particular state of editing to quickly switch between. Simply go up to “Snapshot” and add a snapshot of that state or any other state of the image.
















In Nik HDR Efex Pro. If you want to save a preset of what you may have done for an image. In the left Preset panel; Click Custom and the + symbol and add a preset with the name you want. It will then show it amongst your custom presets. If you want to load a preset that someone else has made, simply go to the bottom of that panel and click the arrow for Load Preset and navigate to where you have that preset stored and apply.







































































Hope that helps


Anatomy of a Shoot – The Grab

Anatomy of a Shoot – The Grab

Sometimes…your best shot of the day is just a grab.
Ocotillo California
I hadn’t even pressed the shutter once on my trip and I was already pissed off. I was 100 miles from home and I left my wallet home. No money, No Credit Cards, No Drivers License. Luckily they didn’t ask for ID at the Border Patrol Check Point ( No I wasn’t crossing any border, we have Border Patrol Checkpoint within the state) It wouldn’t have been fun sitting around while they checked my status.
Piss off point two. I was told there was some great germination of desert wildflowers out at Fossil Canyon ( Shell Canyon) in an area of the desert I don’t normally go to. So I thought I should check it out for the coming weeks when the deserts (hopefully) come alive with beautiful wildflowers to bring a different andcolorful look to the often mono-toned desert landscape. So I drive 100 miles…and there is nothing, nada, zip, zero. I have no clue what they were talking about in a web piece I had read. It was as barren as I have seen.
So, I parked and ate lunch anyway and then decided to check out Shell Canyon since I have never hiked there before. It didn’t look promising but I was there and nothing much else to do. Maybe there was some hidden gem up the trail. So after lunch I just grabbed my 5D and a 17-40 L Lens and nothing else for a quick walk into the canyon. Hopefully there would be something interesting. There wasn’t. It was pretty run of the mill as far as desert canyons go. Pretty drab. NO plant life really to speak of. Not even any really interesting formations to shoot. So after about 1/4 mile I turn around and head out.
Pretty dejected on the way out, as I near the mouth of the canyon I see this light on a single rock. It looks pretty cool but I don’t think much of it. But I stop and handheld, I fire off a 3 exposure +-2 set and I continue on my merry way.
I spent the rest of the day in Agua Caliente, a part of the Anza-Borrego desert that isn’t visited by many but there are some nice areas of fish hook cactus, teddy bear chollas and agaves. It’s early in the season so nothing spectacular for color but there was some beautiful light just before mountain sunset (Remember when shooting in a canyon or area surrounded by mountains that the sun will set behind those mountains about  an hour  or more before actual sunset) and I also was able to get a couple shots of coyote and jack rabbit which was nice. I’m usually not able to get as close as I did to them.
The day ended on a good note because for me, any day in the desert is a great day. This one was no different. The end of the day is always beautiful there. Even if there is nothing to shoot.
I got home and after dinner began to do my sort of the days shoot. I didn’t shoot much HDR because there wasn’t a need to. The light the rest of the day was quite beautiful but not super high in DR. So I processed a bunch of Black and White shots of cactus and the like. I got a few nice shots but nothing earth shattering. At the end I went back and processed that 3 shot I did at the mouth of the canyon.
I processed in Photomatix and the color image was nice but thenI took into Photoshop and I processed it using my convert to grayscale action I made…and there it was… that was the IT in it. There was the light you look for and it was at a point in the day where light is usually it’s worst – Midday. It was just a quick grab when there was nothing else to shoot. But that was the shot of the day. The one that makes everything worth the effort. Light – Found
Be Ready, you never know what you will find

Reader HDR Image Critique

Reader HDR Image Critique 

This week we had an image submitted for critique by our friend Miguel Palaviccini Miguel is a great guy and a great photographer too, you should check out his wildlife shots!

Miguel shot a sunrise over a lake and had some difficulties processing the shot. 

Here are the final images Miguel got. 

The first one was processed using Nik HDR Efex Pro.


Miguel while liking the process noticed some problems at the trees edges  

Miguel next took the image into Photomatix Pro 4.1 (don’t forget there is 15% off with coupon code: theHDRimage)


He got better results with the merge but didn’t like the process, lots of haloing, graying around the reflected sun, general funkiness 

It took me a while to really analyze the two images and then also to analyze the 9 Images Miguel shot to make this image. 

When I finally figured it out it came down to a few things 

  • Alignment errors
  • More is Less sometimes
  • Trying to make an image something it is not. 

So let’s deconstruct the image and then try to see where things went wrong 

Here are the 9 images Miguel used for his merge



An image like this with thousands of small branches or lines is extremely tough on any Merge program. In the first place even on a very good tripod we may have some movement. Sometimes using mirror lockup will help. Sometimes it won’t because the shutter movement itself is enough to cause movement to the next frame. 

But even if there wasn’t any movement, sometimes the software itself thinks it has to do something and does. Sometimes an option is to turn off the alignment completely. I know you can do this in Photomatix, I don’t think you can in Nik. 

But something else was thrown in the mix to make the alignment even more difficult. Look at the bottom 3 frames, because of overexposure those frames have lost all detail so if the software was looking for an edge to align, and there is no detail there to get a correct alignment from. 

More is Less

I think you are going to see a common thread here and where this is all going. The goal in an HDR’s sets of exposure is to have a frame shot so that every tonal area of the image has the “Correct “exposure. We want our highlights exposed correctly with no blow out, we want our Midtones to be correct so they don’t fall into highlight or shadow and we don’t want our shadows blocked up and lack detail NOR so they are either pushed up into the Midtones and create noise and nothing more. 

Looking again at the set of images, we see that the first two criteria were met but where it fails was the last part, the shadows. Too many bracketed images were shot and instead of providing MORE information, they actually just muddled the information in the final image.

 Looking close at the last 4 frames, the shadows instead of correctly exposed are now overexposed and have brought up only noise and we see a total loss of detail in any of the shadow area. We may want to take these shots to have, but that doesn’t always mean we need to use them in our final image. Miguel could have captured the full range of the image in 5 frames.

Making an image what it is not 

Sometimes we have to step back and look at our scene that is there and what is it we are actually shooting and try to make it…just that and not something it is not. 

So what is this image? This is an image of sunrise coming up over a lake and shot through the trees that are Backlit.  And that is the essence that was lost. We are trying, through HDR, to put light were there actually is none. A Back lit subject IS supposed to be dark on the side facing the camera. And not every time that we have the sun in front of us or in the frame do we have a backlit situation. It’s not the orientation to the sun but rather the placement of the sun which determines what is backlit. In this case since the sun was directly behind the trees, it is backlit. So we tried to make the side facing us something it wasn’t nor should be. 

Putting it all together 

So knowing what we know what “I” would have done. (And this is my artistic interpretation and may not at all be what Miguel wants) I would have done the following: 

First off, I would only use the first 5 exposures for my merge. Not only are they all we need exposure wise they will also help with the alignment itself of the image. 

Even with the easier alignment I did notice some smearing in the right hand side of the tree and also in the Reflected sun too. So in Photomatix selective de-ghosting, I selected those areas as Ghosted and used the Middle (0) exposure to de-ghost with. 

This gave me a better merged image to begin tone mapping with. And for this image I used a process just about totally opposite of what I used for my shooting into the sun image, which is kind of the reason I hate posting recipes. Every image is different, every condition different, every problem area different so no one recipe ever fits all or even comes close 

For this image I used 

Strength 50
Saturation 70
Luminosity 0
Detail Enhancer 0
Lighting Effect Natural + (which is just about opposite of what I did for my Sun image)
White Point .867%
Black Point 0
Gamma 1.20
Shadow clipping 43 

This gave me pretty much what I though the image should be. 

I then brought the image into Photoshop and added a Levels adjustment layer to brighten the overall scene a bit but kept it off the sun in both areas. I burned in the shadow areas of the trees just to define the detail just a bit more. And that got me most of the image I wanted. 

But I wanted to push it just a little bit more because I wasn’t happy with the two areas of the sun, the one coming through the tree and the reflected one in the water. So I opened the 3rd image (0) and dragged that on top of the image and masked out everything but the sun from that image and used that exposure only for the final image areas of the sun. 

And this was my final image. The real beauty of the image is not the trees or the water, but just the little pockets of light low in between the trees that we see from the morning sun and the edges of the trees that are highlighted by the glow of the morning sun. There wasn’t and we didn’t need to see any detail on the back of those trees because that would not be “As the eye saw”




Please note, I’m not saying my version is right only that it would be how I would do it using my “vision” 

Hope that helps, 



All Images Copyright Miguel Palaviccini, do not copy or use without permission, All rights reserved

Follow up on shooting the sun

OK after a crummy week in So Cal, The sun came out. So I thought I would show you what the SUN actually looks like. And yes you can capture the sun without ND filters. But that exposure may not be what you want. The sun becomes very small and the frame with just the cirlce of the sun and complete black will be tough getting aligned and confuses the siftware. So while you CAN capture a “perfect” exposure of the sun…do you want to? Up to you.