HDR or “High Dynamic Range” photography has become one of the most popular ways to display images in recent years. I thought it would be a good idea to share with you what the common HDR requirements are and what my preferred set of tools to produce the majority of the images in my fine-art galleries is.
This is by no means a requirement to produce good HDR photography; this is only the set of tools that I like to use. You can get very nice HDR results using a wide variety of tools at different prices and a growing number of tools for free so the sky is the limit. There are no excuses not to get started with HDR, not to capture some stunning images and not to spend some amazing time post processing them before finding that you also want them printed and hung on your wall. I think this will be the next step in your progression, especially when you see the results you can achieve with a little effort and a ton of post processing pleasure.
- INTRODUCTION TO HDR
- RESEARCH MATERIAL
- PHOTOGRAPHY GEAR
- POST PROCESSING SOFTWARE
- HDR SOFTWARE
- FINAL THOUGHTS
INTRODUCTION TO HDR
In case you have no idea what I am referring to and what the HDR photography is all about, here are some sample images to demonstrate the process. I usually capture between three and 7 images depending on the available light as seen in the samples below. I make sure that the first image is underexposed in order to capture the highlights, like the very bright sun and the sky with all its details such as clouds. Normally shooting into the bright sky or directly into the sun will overexpose the highlights and you will see a lot of light in the sky, without details like the clouds. When you underexpose the image purposely, you do not worry about the ground being too dark, but instead you make sure that the sky looks good and is not too bright and hiding the details. In the second image I make sure I capture the shaded and the very dark areas of the scene, this technique will, for instance, make the ground look great, but it will make the sky overexposed. This is perfectly fine because as you remember from the first image, I already have the sky perfectly exposed and I will use the sky from the first image in the final composite. The third image is captured using a normal exposure and it will be used to capture all the dynamic range in-between the over and underexposed images. After my images are captured, I simply blend them together using the magical tools discussed in this article to arrive at an image that has all the best aspects from all the exposures. This way we end up with something that resembles the true scene as I saw it. So all in all, this is a very simple concept and only takes some practice to get satisfying results. Anyone can do it even with a limited set of tools. Some smart phones have an HDR option, but the images produced are not that great since the camera’s editing options are very limited and the image quality normally lacks in detail due to the the small sensor size. Some PRO grade cameras can take HDR images and blend them together, but again the editing and blending options are just not there, so you will be better off taking the images manually and then post processing them outside of the camera in the digital dark room.
I cannot recommend Trey Ratcliff’s website (http://www.stuckincustoms.com/trey-ratcliff/) enough! Trey has accomplished more than anyone else in this field and he also produced awesome learning materials and really popularized the whole HDR movement throughout the whole world. He is not only outstanding at taking pictures of stunning places, but he is also a wonderful speaker, educator and a great representative of photography and especially the HDR style. One trip to his site will change your life forever:)
You should also look into the Google Plus and Flickr groups that feature HDR photography. You will be able to learn everything there is to know about HDR photography by posting your finished images, learning from and engaging with others. Social media has become a great art distribution tool for everyone and it not only delivers beautiful images, but also a wealth of knowledge and learning experience along with it.
I really like the Nikon gear, not to say that Canon or other brands are not suited for HDR. I started with Nikon many years ago and just stayed with it. Recently though, I have been more and more interested in the Sony mirrorless system. I have been looking at the Sony a7R as a possible replacement, especially since it’s possible to use all my beloved Nikon lenses on the Sony cameras with a small adapter. The 36MP scares me a bit though. I am not sure how I could handle such huge files and the processing that comes with it. Just to remind you, the HDR processing requires 3 or more exposures. Sure you can get away with a single exposure HDR, but you will end up taking 3 or more images for the most part. Now, multiple images and each one at the 36 mega pixels, that will be something to overcome, I may even need to change my workflow to accommodate the extra space, memory and computer processing power requirement. So for now, I am still using the Nikon, but seriously considering switching to Sony mirrorless system in the near future.
This is my 24.3MP FX-Format camera and is the workhorse full frame camera for the HDR imaging I do. It could be better, it could have more flexible bracketing options, for example. It can only do 3 images in an automatic setup using the timer control, but I can always switch to the manual control and take any number of exposures I need. You will actually find yourself taking the exposures manually because of the changing light conditions anyway. This is a more than enough camera for my HDR needs. I have taken many images, that you can see on this website, using this camera. I should add it’s an excellent choice for a second or even first body for event photography. Its very good low light performance combined with its great dynamic range capabilities can make it a good choice for most of your photography.
I must say this is an awesome 24.1MP DX-format camera. I just love this body; it’s very flexible, with a 51 point focusing system that is super fast. The battery life is also unbelievable; I can take hundreds of images on a single charge. I really can’t say enough good things about this camera. Of course the 51 points do not really do much for the HDR style of photography, but it’s there when you need it and it does feel a world better than the D610 focusing system.
Even though I only list Nikon lenses here, you can find very close equivalent lenses from other brands. Many of my images were taken at 16mm and turned out just fine.
Nikkor 14-24mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Wide Angle Zoom Lens
This is my favorite lens and the one I use the most for all my landscape and architectural HDR photography. I can almost say that I am addicted to this lens. The wide angle of view gives you such an interesting and unique perspective that once you try it, you will want to use nothing but this lens. It is a bit pricey, so be sure this is really what you want before you invest in this lens. Better yet, rent this lens for a few days from a rental place such as www.borrowlenses.com/ and take it for a test drive. I can almost guarantee you will enjoy it.
Here are some sample images to demonstrate the Nikkor 14-24mm lens.
Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8G ED AF-S Wide Angle Zoom Lens
This is another one of my favorite lenses that I use for HDR, but this one is really an all around great lens and NOT typically needed for the HDR shooting. You can probably use any other lens that has a little bit of reach and save some money by getting something slower since you will be using a tripod during the golden hour or the twilight. There is a good alternative that is a great lens with an amazing reach that will save you some money if you’re on a budget. It will perform just as good for the HDR style of photography as its more expensive counterpart. That lens would be the Nikkor 28-300mm f/3.5-5.6G ED VR AF-S.
Here are some sample images I took using the 24-70mm.
Nikkor AF-S Nikkor 50mm f/1.4G Autofocus Lens
Although the 50mm lens is overlapped by the 24-70mm, the image quality it produces and the low light ability are really remarkable. Sometimes when you are caught in a situation where you must capture something in low light and where the tripod will not be allowed or where you simply do not have it with you, this is an awesome lens that will do the work every time. Not only can you do one handed HDR shots at dusk without a tripod, but you can also capture very nice portraiture with this lens as well. I mainly save this lens for people and street photography situations. The out-of-focus bokeh is very nice and the lens is easy to carry and it is razor sharp. I also enjoy my Sigma 18-35mm f1.8 Art lens for the D7100 body. That one is also a nice lens to have if you are shooting on a crop sensor camera. Since it’s a Sigma, you can get that in a variety of mounts to fit your camera body. The Nikon 50mm is a bit too long on the DX format for my taste. Of course it makes a great portrait lens on the D7100, but I just don’t do as much HDR portraiture.
Here is a sample taken with the 50mm 1.4
This is an area of HDR photography that needs a lot of attention. I sadly do not have a recommendation for a tripod here. This is because I use an old clunky Manfrotto tripod and head that are due for an upgrade. The upgrade may be coming as soon as I decide if I will switch to the Sony mirrorless system. If I do, then the tripod requirement specs will change. Hopefully for a lot lighter and a lot more portable option than my old heavy clunky Godzilla tripod.
I do have several suggestions for you though. Of course take them with a grain of salt and for best results I would suggest a trip to a local photography shop. You can test few models and see what clicks with you. There are many, many, many different varieties for a wide range of prices. You do not have to spend a lot to get a nice sturdy and somewhat portable tripod. I think I paid $300 for mine about 8 years ago. (This shows you that it’s ready for an upgrade.)
Here are some points to consider:
Be sure it will support the camera body weight with your large lenses attached. This seems like an obvious thing, but you can easily get caught up in the latest, the lightest and the most portable trend and forget about the huge and probably expensive lenses you may have or will get down the road. Even the mirrorless cameras have large and heavy lenses, not to mention that you can match them with the older lenses you may already have from your DSLR cameras. You do not want to see the tripod tipping over with your favorite and not the least expensive lens you own. Make sure it can stand up to a little wind and tricky surfaces. In HDR photography we take a lot of landscape photos and the terrain is not always the most forgiving. You have to account for rainy, slippery, muddy, sandy, gravelly and uneven ground with some wind to top it off.
I suggest you look at something that will fold into many parts so you can put it in a backpack or a carry on bag. If you are planning to do a bit of travel, this is super important. You want something light and fairly portable. I hate walking around town with a huge tripod on my back. Imagine traveling through Europe with a large tripod attached, it’s like a big target on your back and not really train or tube friendly. This can raise the price quite a bit, so make sure to select what fits your style of photography and the type of traveling you are planning.
This is as important as the tripod itself and can be a bit costly as well. You need to do a bit of research to pick what suits you and your style the best. I am posting a link to a good article on ballheads (here). Please take a look and research it a bit before you make a decision and don’t worry about some of the prices or complications, there are many tripod + ballhead sets in a quite affordable price range. Check out the links below.
POST PROCESSING SOFTWARE
This is strictly what I use and enjoy using. There is a ton of software out there to accomplish similar results. Some software you can obtain for free and other bits you must pay for. I am only listing the software I used for producing the results that you can see in my galleries and in my portfolio here on my website. You do not need much in terms of software or a big budget, but having the right software for your photography style and the software interoperability definitely will go a long way and save you some time in the digital dark room.
PHOTO EDITING SOFTWARE
The king of all photo editing must be the Photoshop application. I know there are many alternatives and there is nothing wrong with using any of them. In terms of getting the maximum assistance and help in the way of video or written tutorials online, this must be the most explored and thoroughly tested and used of all. I’ve been using Photoshop for many years, and now with the latest subscription model, Adobe has made the power of Photoshop accessible to most photographers. I admit that initially, I was totally against this new approach Adobe has taken, but after some thinking, I also realized that it is much easier to spend the $120 a year than to spend a whooping $700 hoping that it will pay off in the long run. I also learn to like the frequent updates and new goodies that come along with the subscription plan. Photoshop for me, is the most valuable piece of software for editing photos. If you feel that it is intimidating and complicated, you are right. We all probably felt this way in the beginning, but after you choose a project and have a goal or an end result in mind, you will quickly realize that these tools are only there to help you in achieving your goal. The whole learning and the technical mumbo jumbo business will melt away and it will actually become a fun and fulfilling process. After hiking up mountains or fighting the elements all day with a big tripod and a backpack strapped to you, there is nothing better than post processing your images and seeing the fruits of your labor come to life in front of your eyes.
The photo management tools are as important as the editing tools. You cannot edit your photos if you cannot find them or you inadvertently delete them because of the poor photo management tool you employ. Backing up your photos is one thing, but chasing after them is a different ball game. Another big factor to consider is the memory management. I am not only referring to the size of your hard drive and how many images you can fit on it, but also the RAM (Random Access Memory). I have thousands of images stored on multiple hard drives and Lightroom has no trouble sorting, copying, moving or previewing a large number of images. I can view image after image and perform edits and adjustments without Lightroom slowing down or filling up the memory and crashing. Make sure you have enough hard drive space to hold your growing library of pictures and plenty of RAM to work with. This will accelerate your processing and help you avoid strange corruption situations that could render your images inaccessible. That is never a good feeling. I would also highly recommend that you look into an SSD (Solid State Drive) for the main hard drive in your computer. Many new computers these days already come with one, but you will still find larger desktop type computers using the traditional spindle hard drives which are much slower and more error prone. Dropping or bumping a spindle hard drive can ruin all your files in a blink of an eye. A Solid State Drive will be much more resistant to bumps or shakes and you will get the performance boost benefit as well. I can’t even begin to tell you the improvement I saw in my workflow when I switched to a computer with a Solid State Drive.
I must mention that both of these tools are available for MAC and the PC. You can probably also use them on a computer running the Linux operating system, you may need a good emulator software for this though. I know there are different options for those as well.
Another very important aspect to Lightroom I should mention is the fact that you can obtain thousands of presets for creating interesting images, including HDR presets. I must have at least a couple of thousand presets in my LR library. Even though I do not use the HDR presets these days, I recognize that they are a very good learning tool, especially when you are just starting out and need all the help and ideas you can gather. Below in the HDR section, I will include few links to some of my favorites. Keep in mind that there are thousands of presets that you can download for free from various sites. Just search around a bit and you will find them.
GOOGLE NIK COLLECTION
This is a great collection of different tools for achieving a variety of photographic styles. The one application in this set that I use the most is the “Color Efex Pro“. Another great thing about this is that it comes with Lightroom and Photoshop plugins. Using the plugins in Photoshop will allow you to mask the effects and control the opacity of the layers this effects are on. This type of masking and layering is not available in Lightroom, so for added flexibility I would recommend using the applications within Photoshop. There are a number of presets ready to be used on your images in Color Efex and you can create and save custom ones as well.
Here is a list of my favorite presets. Try all of them and I am sure you will find something you like. The ability to apply and stock effects within Color Efex is a plus, and you may even find yourself not needing to go into Photoshop at all. If you are debating whether you should purchase Photoshop or not, try this software first. This is an excellent package that is easy to use and learn, and it’s packed with editing features similar to Photoshop.
- Detail Extractor
- Brilliance / Warmth
- Glamour Glow
- Tonal Contrast
PERFECT PHOTO SUITE – onOne SOFTWARE
Perfect Effects, a part of the Perfect Photo Suite is another photo editing software package that is a joy to use. It is powerful and full of features with a lot of built-in presets that share the editing layout and style similarities to the Google NIK Collection. I like this application not so much for the HDR presets, but for the portrait editing tools. It comes with some very nice adjustments and plugins for Photoshop and Lightroom as well. This is probably another one that you may want to consider to add to your photo editing toolbox.
Topaz ReMask is the only program I use from the suite of many tools by TOPAZ. This is a great tool for removing or replacing objects in images. Operations, such as cutting things out or adding extra dimensions by separating objects in images and adding drop shadows, are much easier to accomplish in ReMask than in Photoshop. Another interesting app in the collection that seems to be popular among photographers is the DeNoise module. Many photographers use it and are happy with the results. Nevertheless, I use the Lightroom or Photoshop for this. Lightroom’s noise removal tool seems to be just great for most of the work I do. You can judge for yourself as 99% of the time I only use Lightroom noise removal on my images.
PHOTOMATIX – HDRsoft
I think this is the most popular and widely used piece of software in the HDR process. I’ve been using this application for tone mapping, for combining multiple exposures, for aligning and for deghosting HDR images for years. It has always produced nice results, but sometimes it can also make a mess out of a seemingly perfect image set. This is part of the fun though. Sometimes, it’s good to let it do some crazy thing to your photograph because it can open up another way of looking at an image and you may actually discover a new artistic way to edit a photo that you would otherwise not consider. It is definitely a nice discovery tool as well. If you are not careful, there is always the risk of taking your images to a level that is well beyond natural and bordering a washed out cartoonish look. A lot of people hate that look and, frankly, it has given the HDR a bad press. HDR should be about recovering the dynamic range in images that the camera sensor is just not capable of capturing. Many times this is taken to an extreme level by an improper usage of good tools and by a lack of understanding of the HDR concept or by simply using a poor in-camera HDR functionality. Nowadays it is possible to create an in-camera HDR image, but not all camera manufacturers take this seriously enough yet and still produce strange and very bad HDR. If you would like to learn more about the dynamic range and why the HDR process can help you achieve that, please check this link: cambridgeincolour.com.
I have tried HDR in Photoshop and the NIK software collection, but for some reason I like the Photomatix results slightly better. I think this is strictly a personal preference. I’ve seen amazing HDR images created in Photoshop and other tools so you should probably try different tools to see what you like and what HDR style suits you the best. Don’t forget to look into the many presets for Photomatix. You can achieve good results by simply selecting a preset. You can find many for free and many for a price across the web, just keep in mind that not all presets work the same on all images. The result will vary on from image to image even using the same preset, so you may have to experiment a bit to get the look you want.
Photoshop is a great piece of software, almost indispensable and it has its place in my toolbox. As I mentioned previously, I do not use Photoshop for creating HDR images. I think that the Photomatix application does a much better job in regards to HDR.
Lightroom is becoming a more and more powerful nondestructive photo editing software and a much more than just a photo management tool these days. I always do the basic adjustments in LR and only if the images need a little extra work, I take them into Photoshop. I am becoming less and less dependent on Photoshop and I am trying to use LR as much as possible. This is just an incredible package that can probably get you a 90 or more percent there without diving head first into Photoshop. Another interesting point is that with the state of digital cameras today, there is so much information in the RAW files, that you can recover tons of dynamic range from photos only in LR itself. This approach may be really appealing to some photographers for the ability to create very rich, but natural looking HDR images. There are also plugins for LR that can combine multiple exposures into a single 32bit file that can then be adjusted to your liking right in LR without the need for any other piece of software.
Links to my favorite presets:
For the HDR, I would just get Trey’s set when starting out. I’ve tried many and these prove to always give me the best results. When you learn how to effectively use and modify his presets, you will not even need or want to use presets anyway. Save money by getting the essentials and learn as much as possible. You will outgrow Lightroom presets fast. I would also like to mention that LR allows you to modify any preset and to save these changes as a new preset. This way you can save some time without the need of starting from scratch to get the great looking HDR image and to develop your unique style. This is another advantage of using LR.
Regarding using the HDR style in portraiture. There are many professional studios that specialize in portrait HDR photography. This is an interesting style and it can deliver a beautiful chiseled look with rich and deep skin tones. These days you can find many professional athletes going for this look.
Here is one of my favorite packages for portrait editing. This next set of presets is not really for HDR, but for getting nice skin tones and overall for getting a very pleasing portrait look, that is otherwise difficult to create. You can combine the results of applying this preset with an HDR style for an original portrait look. I have the 01 package from this set and despite being a bit pricy, I am very happy with the results I can achieve using this package.
HDR EFEX PRO – Google NIK Collection
The HDR Efex Pro is an application that I do not use often, but there are times when a picture just won’t work in Photomatix and I will need to take it into the HDR Efex Pro to see what can be done. Sometimes it will produce very pleasing results, but other times it seems to produce a bit over the edge results for my taste so I don’t solely rely on this single application for my HDR work. It is good to have it especially since it comes as part of the “Google NIK Collection” package.
I took my first HDR photograph on October 6th, 2006 with a Nikon D70s which I still have and use from time to time. This was a real eye opening experience for me. I appreciated the style right away and I also realized that my photography would never be the same. Once you ttry HDR, you realize it’s beautiful and very rewarding. The problem is that after creating few images, you lose interest in the “normal” or more appropriately said, natural looking imagery. I think this may come from the notion that the human eye can see many more stops of light than the best cameras and our human brain does not see in two dimensions, but rather is able to see the true three-dimensional world or whatever we perceive it to be. The other interesting part is that the brain also associates our other sensory inputs to events or a photographic scene. This is impossible to represent in a single image. Consequently, for me HDR is the closest thing to the reality I was experiencing at the moment or sequences of moments, minutes or hours when the images were taken. Trying to describe a beautiful golden hour, a beautiful sunset and a beautiful blue hour or a twilight in a single exposure that took a split second to capture using a camera with a saver dynamic range impediment, is just not feasible and the HDR style would be the only path that can come close to conveying the true experience of the cumulative moment.