HDR and Me

Sunset Cliffs, San Diego Ca

I love High Dynamic Range photography. I love setting up the shot, my tripod and lens hood and cable release; I love the click-click-click as my camera takes the three exposures, and I love the Christmas-morning surprise when I combine the three shots in Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro and get something wonderful and beautiful and better than I remember it. Here are some random thoughts on it all.

Why I Shoot HDR

Your eye can see 11 f-stops; your camera, maybe 7. That's why you come home to a roll of boring, lifeless photos. Your camera just can't record what you saw. So. . .years ago, some genius had the idea of combining shots. Underexpose one shot, and grab the highlights that would have been blown out if you'd exposed it properly. Overexpose another, and grab the shadows. Meld them into a normal exposure and sha-zam, you have something special.

Landscape photography always bored me because my shots were so boring. As were most others' shots. My hero, Ansel Adams, managed to create striking photos with an ancient camera but. . .hey, he cheated, too. In the darkroom he'd dodge and burn, which is old-school for bringing out the shadows and darkening the highlights or whatever your photo needed. Then I saw a picture by Trey Ratcliff. Trey was one of the first big HDR guys, and his work was and is incredible. The simplest scene became interesting. But the damn fool admitted everyone could do the same thing. In fact, he put out advice and videos to teach us how to do it. So I did, and hope to put him out of business someday.

Tian Zi Fang alley

The normal exposure.

Tian Zi Fang alley in HDR

The HDR version.

Here's a shot from an art district in Shanghai, the Tian Zi Fang in the old French concession. Cool old brickwork and a narrow alley with lots of color made for an interesting shot. On the left, the normal exposure from the three-exposure series I took for an HDR. It's not a bad shot, is it? And it's only straight out of Lightroom; that is, it's not enhanced for contrast or saturation or whatever. But I find it boring. It looks like something you shot with a cellphone. The shot on the right is the same photo combined with an overexposure and an underexposure. I pulled the three into Photomatix and started tweaking sliders until I got something I liked. And then, back in Photoshop, I further enhanced it with Nik Software's ColorEfexPro and SharpenerPro. If you don't agree that it makes for a MUCH more interesting shot, you're really wasting your time reading the rest of this page.

How I Shoot HDR

Bridge of the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London

Bridge over the Serpentine, Hyde Park, London. Shot with a Canon 5D Mk II on a tripod, with a cable release.

The basics: in the shooting menu of your camera, set up for multiple exposures. On a Canon, it's easy to set it for 3 shots, 2 stops apart. Nikon, I'm told, allows only a single stop between exposures, so you'll have to go to 5 shots. Urrgh. Sometimes those extra exposures come in handy, though. For extreme ranges of bright and dark you may have better success with shots 3 stops apart, or 5 shots two stops apart. Experiment. But most times, 3 shots at 2 stops apart will do the job. Almost all my shots were done that way.

Star of India at sea

The Star of India, shot from a moving sailboat with a Canon 7D in high-speed shooting mode. Need I say it was hand-held?

Set your camera for high-speed shooting, like you were shooting a horse race. On my Canons, anyway, that means that a single press of the shutter button will fire off 3 shots as quickly as the camera can do it. That's helpful in case anything's moving in your shot, or in case you're moving. For this picture of the sailing ship Star of India, that high-speed shooting made the whole thing possible.

Whenever I can, I shoot on a tripod with a cable release and a lens hood. Yeah, the lens hood seems a little silly at night but I want to keep any stray streetlights out of the shot. It's also handy for keeping beer off the lens when I stop into a pub later that evening. The remote shutter control--usually a $30 cord with a trigger on it, but sometimes a wireless--keeps any vibration from reducing the sharpness. You'd be amazed what damage your delicate little finger can do. And the tripod is essential for sunset and night shots, and damn near as essential in broad sunlight. See, with an HDR series, one of your shots is going to be pretty slow. If the normal exposure calls for 1/125th of a second, the "slow" shot is going to be two stops below that, at 1/30. Yeah, you can do it, but not only will you introduce some very slight amount of motion blur, you'll invariably move the camera ever so slightly left or up or whatever. Photomatix can fix it, probably, but you're bound to lose something. So shoot on a tripod when you can.

If you can't--in that Shanghai alley there was no way I could set up a tripod--raise your ISO until your slowest shutter speed is acceptable. And brace yourself against a wall, if you can. This might be a good time to point out your hand-held shooting stance: like a rifleman. Left hand goes under the lens, not over. Feet slightly spread, one foot a little forward for the most stable stance you can get. Breathe in and then hold it while you shoot. And then. . .do it again, just in case you flinched. You'll never know until you get home.

An alternative is a monopod. It won't do the job at night, but in that crowded alleyway it would have given me vertical support. And if I could have leaned against a wall for lateral support, I'd have pretty good stability. I use a spiffy little Manfrotto carbon-fiber that collapses to nothing and weighs less than that. Elsewhere on this website I dis monopods and I stand by that--but if you have one and brace yourself, it might get you a stop or two slower.

Simple DoF app for iPhone

Focusing on a point 13 feet away gives you
sharp focus from 6 feet out to infinity.

Here's a mistake I've been making: I've been shooting landscapes at f/22 because I was worried about depth-of-field. Well, it's technically a mistake but I still think my photos come out better that way and I still shoot f/16 or more when I can. But the problem there is shutter speed. You're going to be shooting slow and you may bump up against the 30-second max shutter time of your camera. And it's not necessary. Quick, right now, download the Simple DoF app for your iPhone. If you don't have an iPhone, go buy one. The app lets you dial in a lens and a distance and delivers your depth of field. It points out that when you're using a wide-angle lens like a 16-35 at 16mm, you have almost infinite depth of field at any f-stop. An example for the 5D Mk IV or any full-frame Canon: at f/8, 16mm, focusing on a point 4 feet away gives sharp focus from 2.1 feet out to infinity. Since it's kind of hard to shoot something within 3 feet of the camera anyway, that should do it for most landscapes. If you dropped the aperture down to f/4, you could still get good focus from 5 feet in front of the camera to infinity behind the focus point if you focused on something 8 feet away. Get the app and play with it; you'll see. Shooting in cities, trying to keep everything in sharp focus has been a real problem for me since I tried to keep my f-stop way up. Now. . .well, now I'll be able to shoot at much higher shutter speeds. f/8 or f/11 is probably optimal (most lenses are sharpest in the middle) but you can go lower if need be.

One last piece of advice, one that I got from a Scott Kelby book--not so much for HDR as for general shooting, but it applies. Walking around a city you'll be going from sunlight to shade, and if you're set at a normal ISO like 200, those shade shots will be pretty slow. And you'll get blurred people and shitty shots. So during the walkaround phase, set your ISO to 800 or even 1600 or whatever experience shows you can handle. Yeah, the shot will be a little noisier but at least it'll be sharp and you'll have a better chance of non-blurred people. And then, of course, remember to drop you ISO back down to 200 when you're in good bright light. The guiding philosophy here is: a sharp noisy shot is better than a blurred clean shot.

How I Process the Shots

HDR in Lightroom, Trey Ratcliff calls it. You can take a single photo and use the various sliders to bring out the lost shadows and highlights, increase the microcontrast and vibrance and generally get a pretty good landscape shot without shooting HDR. I still shoot a 3-shot series every time anyway, partly because I'm too lazy to change my camera settings. But that way I also have the option of using any of the three exposures to process in Lightroom (and elswhere) to get what I need. When the wind is blowing and leaves are moving, that's often your best choice.

Photomatix still seems to be the software of choice; I know it is for me. Take your pick. I use Lightroom (as always) and it's easy to select the three shots I want and go up to the File menu and export them to Photomatix. Photomatix thinks about it a minute and then combines the three shots. Like magic, it gives me a finished HDR pic--but set to the same settings I used last time. Oops. That usually doesn't work so well, so I click on some of the presets or just follow Trey's advice.

Trey's advice? you ask. Trey Ratcliff is Mister HDR; he's the best HDR photographer I've seen and he gives out some free instruction on his website:

HDR Tutorial by Trey Ratcliff

Somewhere on his site, Trey offers a discount coupon for Photomatix. Not that it's particularly expensive, anyway.

There are other ways: both Lightroom and Photoshop have HDR options. And they're great; I'm just used to Photomatix.