Or, Look Mom at what I made!
A brief overview of the 4 major HDR tools…
I just got back from a major workshop that Jamie Davidison and I led to the New River Gorge in West Virginia where to took our students on a hectic 4 day workshop/excursion. We explored waterfalls, grist mills, trains and vistas while studying Infrared and Color post processing back in the classroom each night till about midnight. This was EXHAUSTING to say the least but never the less, a great workshop full of great photographers who gave as much as they took! My days started every morning at 5am and ended about 1am. I am still recovering!
While the main focus was shooting in Infrared and its associated post processing, I needed to provide loaner IR camera systems to those who did not yet own one, so even though I own three IR systems I was forced to shoot color! The sky each day was free of clouds and very bright, so if I wished to photograph in color I was forced most of the time to shoot HDR images in order to overcome the dynamic range of the day! A lot of the time I was able to successfully capture an image with The X Pro 1 in a single shot like the one shown here on the right of the Glade Creek Mill. But the norm was indeed HDR. The X Pro 1 camera has an unfair advantage over most other camera systems, it has a wider dynamic range and can capture more image data!
Notice that the mill did have some running water which forced me to use very long exposures in the range of 10 to 5 seconds in order to slow the water down. While there was not a lot of water flow there was enough to make the images very nice. I used the 60mm lens on the camera along with a 10 stop ND filter in order to slow it down!
OK so let’s get to it! From this point on, we are going to be working with the same three source files. I will take you through the post processing for the following HDR tools:
- Nik HDR EFX Pro
- Nik HDR EFX Pro 2 (new)
- Merge To HDR Pro (Photoshop CS6)
- Fotomatix Pro 4.2.3
I also will be using Nik’s Color EFX Pro 4 and Viveza 2 for post processing (fine tuning) after the HDR conversions are finished!
OK, what is HDR? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Think of it this way… You are out taking pictures during the brightest part of the day. You can get a good image of the foreground subject, but the sky is totally blown out, you know pure white. The total range of the light from black to white in your image exceeds what your camera is capable of recording, but our eyes can still see and understand the complete range. So, in the world of photography, we have developed the ability to take several photographs, say three to six, each one with a different exposure from way too dark to really blown out. With these pictures in hand you can now run one of several software programs available that will combine the best of each of these differently exposed image into one that can display the entire range of of the image from black to white!
Now this requires a image with more data than you can store in a 8 bit JPG image, and even more than your 16 bit RAW, TIFF or PSD image! Now we move into the world of 32 bit images that can hold and display a far greater range of black to white data. Now, 32 bit images are all but useless to us in the real world so the HDR software will compress it down to 16 bits by removing select bits of brightness data without really negatively affecting the view of the image and making it possible to view and print the image! Pretty neat technology don’t you think?
What I normally do when shooting HDR is to take a test image and evaluate the histogram. I will look to see what areas are out range, or totally black or totally white. Usually, the blacks will be fine but the whites will be blown out. I will then retake the same image with a negative EV dialed in and re evaluate the image again looking to see if the blown out white areas of the image are now in the proper range. This gives me an idea of just how wide the range of the image needs to be. If the blown out areas take two or three stops of adjustment to bring them back into range then I will then decide upon how many HDR images are needed to be taken to get the total range covered in 1/2 stop increments. You will need to set your camera on a tripod and have it locked down to assure that you get the same exact composition in each shot. You can either use the auto bracket mode on your camera to generate your shots or do it manually. Weather or not you change the ISO or shutter speed is dependent upon the scene or your artistic intent. Some cameras will bracket at most three shots, some 5 and some even 7 or more! You can usually choose to bracket with Aperture, Shutter Speed or ISO. It is important to keep the Aperture constant as to not change the depth of field.
For these shots, as long as I kept the shutter speed longer than 3 seconds I would not have any issues with keeping sharply defined slow moving water to generate the HDR. So I chose a 3 stop bracket using the Shutter Speed, leaving the Aperture and ISO steady.
Here are the 3 component images that make up the final HDR image:
- In the first, 3495, the trees and mill look good, the water is overexposed about a stop and has lost detail and the rocks are a little under exposed.
- The second, 3496, the rocks are perfect but the water is very over exposed. There is some detail in the black area under the top of the falls.
- The last, 3497, the water is perfect but everything else is just to dark.
- The water was always the key to this shot, getting it so that it was not blown out is the reason to use HDR. These three images generated by the camera without any processing other than raw conversion and bracketed .7 ev apart with -1.3 ev being one of them, -.6 ev and lastly -2 ev. If you decide to try this, keep in mind that the closer together the exposures are, say 1/2ev the more data you will have to generate your final image. You can also add more data with more images. Every HDR you setup and shoot will be different and you must evaluate how many shots to take at what exposure.
- The very dark black under hang below the top of the waterfall was another consideration when deciding the exposure values of the component images. I needed a brighter image to bring out some detail here as well.
These three images are the only ones that I will use to explore the various HDR processing software.
Final considerations on component images that make up the HDR image:
- You MUST shoot on a tripod to control camera movement (prevent ghosting) and to lock the composition.
- Use a remote shutter release.
- Wind will cause plant and tree movement which will cause a ghosting effect (bad).
- Keep the aperture constant to force the depth of field the same between shots.
- ISO bracketing is ok as long as you keep the jumps in ISO below the level where noise is introduced by your camera.
- Exposures closer together will allow you to generate better HDR’s as long as the subject matter doesn’t move.
- More component images mean more data to build a better HDR image.
- Take notes in the field as you shoot so that you can remember what your intentions were at that point in time! This will help you when you build the HDR.
Some notes on the software:
- HDR conversions require image editing software that can process in 32 bits. This means that unless you purchase HDR stand alone software like Photomatrix Pro you MUST use Photoshop CS5 or CS6. Elements and Lightroom simply will not work.
- I do not like over cooked HDR images. I process them to a natural look and feel, close to what I can see with my eyes!
- CS5 & CS6 both include an internal HDR conversion filter called Merge to HDR Pro for free.
- The NIK HDR software, HDR EFX Pro and HDR EFX Pro 2 require a 64 bit operating system and the appropriate 64 bit CS5 or 6
- Photomatix Pro is a stand alone filter that does NOT run inside of Photoshop and will allow you to save a 16 bit HDR converted image that can be opened in Elements.
- All of the conversion software will cost between $100 and $200.
- I am not going to take you step by step through each of the HDR conversion packages. This is HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE and no two photographers will get to the end results via the same path! There a quite a few good books out there on this!
Photoshop CS6 Merge To HDR Pro
This HDR program comes built into Photoshop CS6. It is quite powerful and gives you a lot of options. I found it very easy to use and it gives very nice results. You will find it under the FILE > Automate menu and it will ask you to locate and open your component images or add images already open!
Once your images have been chosen, it will open them and drop you into a full screen dialog where you can make any image adjustments. Once done the software will drop the finished image into Photoshop where you can then do your final tuning with Nik’s Color EFX Pro 4. I like to use the Tonal Contrast filter due to the ability to adjust color contrast in the Highlights, Midtones and Shadows separately from each other. This one tool will really bring out the full potential of your images.
Here is my version of the three component images processed in Photoshop’s Merge To HDR Pro:
Here is my version of the three component images processed in Nik’s HDR EFX Pro:
OK, onto Nik Softwares HDR EFX Pro. This is the first version that Nik offered earlier this spring (2012) It has a great interface and does a pretty good job, but requires a little more fine tuning after the HDR conversion is finished. The tuning process was again done using Color EFX Pro 4 and Viveza 2. This is a plugin filter for the Photoshop family and requires that you run a 64 bit operating system in Windows or OSX. It will NOT run on Elements and Lightroom.
I found that the images to be a little flat and lifeless until I applied the Color EFX Pro 4 in the after process tuning steps, then the images started looking pretty good.
Here is my version of the three component images processed in Nik’s HDR EFX Pro 2:
OK, now, this is a MAJOR upgrade to Nik’s HDR software. This one revision corrected all of my complaints about flat and lifeless images! There is VERY LITTLE fine tuning needed at all. I think that Nik’s HDR EFX Pro 2 is my favorite conversion tool out there. But I will let the images speak for themselves!
Here is my version of the three component images processed in Photomatix Pro ver : 4.2.3
Photomatix is likely the most popular HDR conversion package on the market. It cost around $150 and does NOT require CS5 or CS6 to run. It is a standalone system and when it finishes it will directly save a 16 bit version of your HDR image on your computer that you can then open for further editing. It has many recipes and adjustments and you can do great work with it. I highly recommend it even if you are already running a 64 bit operating system and CS6. You will not be sorry!
As you can see, the 4 converted HDR images are not at all the same. That would be difficult if not impossible to achieve. Each software package has its own adjustments and none of them are exact. I like Nik’s HDR EFX Pro 2 and Photomatix 4.2.3 the best. They are all easy to use and as long as you properly evaluate the scene that you are trying to photograph and properly choose the exposure values of the component images you will get really nice HDR shots!