HDR Done Naturally
March 21st, 2013
(article first published in Outdoor Photographer Magazine, December 2009)
If you want to spark up a heated debate amongst a group of nature photographers these days, all you need to do is mention HDR. I guarantee you’ll hear every opinion under the sun, from those who feel it’s the only way to truly capture all the detail in a scene to those who place it right up there with getting a root canal. The truth of the matter is that HDR photography has been around a lot longer than most of us even realize.
Think about it! The use of grad ND filters has been a popular means of reducing the contrast in a scene for a very long time, and they’ve been widely used by almost all professional and amateur nature and landscape photographers. Even before that, the use of masking in the darkroom was an essential technique of the great masters like Adams, Weston and Cole for achieving a greater dynamic range in their exhibition and gallery prints. Things have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years with the advent of digital capture, but all we’re really dealing with here is a new set of tools and techniques that allows us as photographers and artists to achieve our final vision in the form of a well-crafted photograph.
As a professional nature and landscape photographer, I look at all of the techniques and methods as tools in my arsenal that allow me to fully realize and express my photographic vision. Whether it’s using a grad ND filter, fill-flash or bracketing exposures to combine later in the digital darkroom, I try to match each tool or technique to the scene in front of me to achieve the very best result.
HDR has come to be associated with a particular look in the past few years, a strange hyperrealistic look that’s the result of a process called tone mapping. Many nature photographers find that hyperrealistic look to be objectionable and “comic-bookish,” and because of that, you might have been turned off from the whole notion of creating an HDR image in the computer. In this article, however, we’ll explore much more subtle HDR processing, and the resulting images show detail that’s more along the lines of the range of tones our eyes can take in without looking freakish. Here are a few of my go-to techniques for taming the light.
This probably will seem obvious to many photographers, but over the course of five years running location workshops, I’ve encountered many photographers who don’t shoot or understand the benefit of capturing images in the RAW format. The tremendous amount of information contained in a RAW file still blows my mind to this day! I’ve photographed many scenes in the past four years since switching to digital capture for which it would have been impossible to retain highlight and shadow detail in a single exposure on transparency film.
The key to shooting in RAW is to check your histogram often and expose to the right (toward highlights). It’s not reliable to look at the image on the LCD for confirmation as to whether you nailed the exposure, and often shooting to the right will produce an image that seems to be too bright and washed out. That’s okay! We can use the Adobe Camera Raw converter in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or any other program that allows for RAW conversions to bring back the contrast, saturation and drama of the image. By exposing to the right, without clipping highlights, you can retain a tremendous amount of midtone and shadow detail in the image without the risk of introducing unwanted noise or grain when processing your shots.
Using The RAW Converter
Once I get my images into the computer, I usually choose two shots, one for shadow detail and another for highlight detail. I open up both images in the Adobe Camera Raw converter and apply specific adjustments for each one, including white balance, recovery, fill, curves, tonal adjustments and saturation.
Once I’ve finished tweaking each image in the RAW converter, I open them up together in Photoshop. The first step in my workflow is to grab the darker shot and Select All, then Copy and Paste that image onto the lighter version. This creates a duplicate layer, and you have the option of blending the two images together. I usually use a Channels selection (blue works great for sunrises and sunsets) and apply a mask to the layer. This requires you to grab the paintbrush and tweak the opacity of certain regions of the mask until the blend is seamless. Another way to do this is to add a mask to the layer and simply use the paintbrush at different opacities to reveal the background (lighter) image below. If you’re working with Adobe Photoshop CS4, you should use the Mask Tool Box to properly feather the blend. For photographers without CS4, you can select the mask and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to feather the mask for a more seamless blend.
I know this sounds complicated, and at first it can be a challenge to learn, but once you’ve mastered the art of blending images, you won’t look back. It will allow you to create more realistic HDR images of the natural world.
More information on exposure blending here on the blog - http://www.josephrossbach.com/taming-light-art-technique-exposure-blending/