The Trouble With Trees (HDR)

The Trouble with Trees  

Trees, those dastardly arch nemesis of HDR, especially in winter, devoid of leaves, waiting to strike havoc and fear amongst small children…and HDR artists.
What do I mean? Trees against a bright sky pose a big challenge to anyone doing HDR, and for a number of reason. The first and worst, is Haloing. A quite common occurrence in HDR when you have a dark edge next to a bright edge. The HDR program will try to lighten the dark object in tone mapping and when it does, it feathers or “Smoothes” the gradation to the adjacent area. If that happens to be a light area, it creates a halo.
 Now it’s bad enough when you have a dark building edge next to a bright sky, But now image 100’s  or 1000’s of branches or limbs against  dark sky. That spells  T-R-O-U-B-L-E
Next problem is alignment, Even with a good tripod a light wind can cause movement of the branches. Even without movement sometimes the HDR program itself just gets confused because it doesn’t know how to align the edges. sometime if you have no movement it may be better to turn off alignment.
So maybe the best thing is just to avoid trees in winter or power lines or any of the other lines of contrast that cause us headaches. Well of course we know that’s not a good reason. Some times those trees just look friggen cool. So let’s see what we can do to make them work in our image.
I set out yesterday morning to find our victim, which happened to be in my side yard ( Note, this is not a great photograph but merely contains the elements necessary for this exercise). I have, a tree, a dark foreboding sky and I added in another element that may be the worst enemy of HDR; a large area of white, the white fence
A note to HDR software makers. PLEASE work on making white be able to be white. This is probably the biggest downfall of every HDR program. Graying. I know we want to map things differently, make shadows midtones make Midtones midtones brings highlight down to midtones…SOMETIME. Bu we still need White to be white and black to be black…*steps down off soapbox*
OK sorry for that outburst, back to our image. To make things even more difficult, I hand held the three image exposure.
I had three images (ISO 200 f/11) 1/500, 1/125 & 1/30. Taking them into Photomatix Pro 4.1. They aligned perfectly because of the great alignment capabilities of Photomatix pro. In Tonemapping, I used a “Painterly” preset which is very popular amongst HDRers. This is my result
Strength 100
Color Saturation 50
Luminosity 6.0
Detail Contrast 6.0
Lighting adjustments Medium
White point .490%
Black Point .010%
Yikes, next bus leaving for Halo-Town
So of course the first move could be, well do what you always do, go for your “As the eye sees” look and more natural appearance.
OK, that helps. But I hear the screams ” Peter, that’s  fine for you but I WANT the painterly look!!” I agree, so what can we try to fix our problem
Well, we could try just changing our Light adjustment from Medium to Natural +, that should help
Mm…no not really, fixes some problems, causes others.
OK well why not just pull back the strength? To say 35?
No, Flatsville. Not the look we want at all
How about if we try Luminosity? Let’s pull it back to -4.0
Ugh no, that made it worse.
Micro-Smoothing? surely that will do it.
No, not even close
Well, we COULD use the best solution to haloing problems that Photomatix has to offer. Highlight Smoothing…yes yes, that will do it 
Yes! see that fixed most of it…”Peter…PETER!, you took away my Big foreboding skies. I WANT MY PAINTERLY LOOK!!!”
OK, I know you do. So maybe the true solution to our problem lies outside of our HDR program. As I discussed in this article. HDR programs do a great job with global adjustments but for Local adjustments we need to turn to Photoshop. ( One Note Nik HDR EFEX Pro does do some great things with control point local adjustments, I just don’t think it is the right tool for this although it could be with enough work) 
Opening our original Painterly image in Photoshop, after duplicating our layer, I immediately went for the burn tool. I set it for Highlights and a strength of 7-10% and with a large soft brush began painting over the halo’d branches and the trunk of tree. This will remove some of the highlights on the branches but really won’t affect their look because most of the branches are actually shadow or shadows brought up into the midrange, Our Burn tool will only affect the highlights around those branches.
Working around the tree within a few minutes I got this result. We still have all the look of our painterly effect just now void of the halos around the branches.
But of course this still wasn’t good enough for me because I want that fence white! I could have just moved to the Dodge tool and highlights again. But that would be a lot of work and can have some uneven effects. So instead I just added a curves adjustment layer and then easily , because we have some straight lines, masked to curves adjustment to only the fence.
So the final result, I was able to keep those dark foreboding skies of the painterly effect, got my fence white but eliminated a good portion of all the haloing in our image
See now trees aren’so bad are they? So go out today and hug a tree, Then fire off 3 exposures
(Geez, I have to clean my concrete…ahh just painterly effect grunge)
Hope that helps