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How to do HDR Photography: A Post-processing Technique to Learn!

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If you are a photography enthusiast, there is a chance that you have at least once or so tried using HDR Photography to enhance your pictures. As for beginners, the very term HDR creates a stir when they see some ethereal picture of a landscape, say for example, a sunset picture with the perfect blend of light, while the details of the whole picture is sharp and crisp.

In a nutshell, the picture looks “perfect”.

But as you try out HDR on your camera or while post-processing, you seem to find the picture either too saturated or dull. It is hard to have a balance in HDR images and we all have faced it a multiple times in our photography sessions. 

While photographing a sunset picture, you might often get a picture that has only the sky portion highlighted and the land portion dark and dull or vice versa. In these complicated situations in sunset photography, the HDR comes to aid. But before delving into this otherwise intricate tool in photography, we need to understand what does HDR mean and how it works. 

What is HDR

HDR or High Dynamic Range Imaging is a process in which multiple exposures of the same image is taken and blended thereafter to create the accurate range of shadows and highlights in a picture. The HDR photography definition lies in the fact that here at least three separate shots are taken on camera, each with different shutter speed i.e. exposure.

The three pictures consist of one underexposed, one properly exposed and one overexposed. These three images are then blended or merged together into one photograph using any post-processing software like Photoshop or Photomatix to produce a final HDR photo with much greater “dynamic range”, as the name suggests.       

The main aim of creating HDR images is to create a picture as close as possible to what we behold with our eyes. Even the most high-end camera sensors fail to replicate the same dynamic range that our eyes can see. With HDR, we can get a properly processed picture with full light spectrum, properly exposed shadows, perfect highlights and mid tones. 

So now that you have got the idea what is HDR on camera. Let’s first show you the difference between both the pictures and then let's see how you can improve your photographs with the best HDR techniques. 

Difference between a normal picture and an HDR picture

The picture below shows what a general photo looks like. You cannot find details in the clouds. There is darkness on the field, also, you cannot make out the color and pattern. Moreover, the main thing is that at first glance, the photo does not catch your attention; it looks like a general picture clicked in the most casual way possible. 

Now, look at this picture created with HDR – High Dynamic Range.

No matter how high-end your gear is, it fails to capture such essence and details you can catch with your eyes. The HDR has the ability to turn an underexposed, normal and over-exposed image into a picture where everything is balanced.

Isn’t this wonderful? 

HDR photography
HDR vs Normal Photography (source)

Tips to Create HDR Photos

Tip #1 Team with a Tripod

Of course, you want your sunset pictures not shaky. We are not saying that handheld shots are impossible to get a perfect image, but the ones shot with a tripod always makes things more convenient.

Being at a safe side never hurts, does it?

Using a tripod also ensures that you get the images aligned, that helps to get a proper blend of the final image. While many HDR Photography tools help to rectify the blurriness created by slight camera movement, isn’t it better to get them aligned right at the first time? 

Now you need to use the shutter speed slower than 1/60, especially for the overexposed image and the original image too can get blurred. Fixing simple camera shake in post-processing is nearly impossible. So better use a tripod that helps you to get your coveted sunset pictures identical no matter what shutter speed you might have used. 

If you are worried about the noisy areas of your image and finding it hard to blend with the other pictures, the easiest way is to isolate and clone out the specific areas and replace them with cleaner parts cloned from the original exposure. 

Tip #2 Fine-tuning the Photo

There is always a huge selection of presets and previews of the result from which you can understand which one is better. The most effective and less complicated way is to over-apply a setting and then go for ‘Alt+Ctrl+Z’ until it’s preferable.

In this way, you basically slide up to get an idea of the effect and then slide down until it looks moderate enough to work with. 

In Photomatix, increase the color saturation and let the image of sunset photography update before sliding down. In this way, you will get a preview of the possible outcomes. Select the one you consider as a better option and then fine-tune with Strength, Gamma, and Luminosity. 

HDR photography
HDR photography of sunset (source)

Tip #3 Don’t Overdo it

Now you have a multiple of choices to work with and being overexcited, you start making the images so much processed that they look like fried and have a plastic effect. Your main aim is to enhance the details of the sunset pictures without making them lose their natural effect.

In a frenzy of creating an “ethereal” image, don’t ruin the natural aspect. Below you can see a perfectly imperfect work of over-processing. It looks like a picture that has gone through lots of modification and even after all these, the photo looks oversaturated, and well, awful. 

Subtlety is the main feature of HDR, the main idea is to highlight the image so subtly that it does not look like a “processed HDR photo”. It is better to keep the sliders close to middle sections than at the edges and focus on accentuating one or two key features.

It is better to improve your picture than creating a color blob out of it, isn’t it?

Now check the following image and compare it with the above one.

Isn’t this one better? Is there any trace of overexposure or over saturation?

This is the answer when you ask what does HDR mean. The main idea is to blend naturally and conservatively.    

Tip #4 Different ways to create HDR

Although an ideal way to get a perfect HDR photo is to use multiple images from the same scene, you can also create one from a single image if only you shoot in RAW format.

Let’s see both the ways of creating HDR below-

  • Using a single image

It is possible when your image has the brightest and the darkest parts recoverable i.e. the brightest part should not be completely white and the darkest part, pitch black. RAW images contain a lot of data that you can recover from Photoshop or Lightroom. 

  1. Increase and decrease the exposure accordingly.
  2. You will find around 4-5 images of different exposure (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2), save them as 16-bit .tiff file.
  3. You can work with these pictures and blend them to create a single HDR image over Photomatix.
  4. In Photomatix, you will be asked what exposure steps are there between the shots.
  5. Make sure your normally exposed shot stays at 0 while the others have the values properly defined.
  6. No need to “Align Source images” or “Attempt to reduce Ghosting Artifacts” as you are using a single file. 
  7. Once all the HDR Photos are analyzed, you would find them dull as they lack “Tone Mapping”.
  8. Modify them a little bit according to your choice and click on “Process” to generate the final HDR image.
  9. Save it and then open it in Photoshop to remove extra noise.
  10. Tune up with sharpener, curve, brightness, gradient etc and you are all set.   
  • Using multiple images

Just consider, if you have been able to recover so much from a single shot of HDR Photography, how many facets would you have with multiple images.

  1. Three images with 2 EV (-2, 0, +2) works great in most cases, however if your camera supports five brackets, set EV to single stop (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). 
  2. It is better to use the RAW files (CR2 for Canon and NEF for Nikon) and select “Generate HDR image” in Photomatix.
  3. Choose accurate White Balance (WB) and ProPhoto RGB for colour profiles.
  4. Go for “Align Source Images” as you are using multiple images and “Attempt to reduce Ghosting Artifacts” to remove moving objects. 
  5. Multiple RAW files will take significant time to get processed.
  6. Go for “Tone Mapping” to start working on HDR photo, experiment with settings and choose what is best in your eyes.
  7. Click on “Process” to generate the final HDR image.
  8. Save it and then use it in Photoshop the same way as you did for the single image (discussed above); although you won’t need much processing as the image is in RAW. 

Hints to ensure a better HDR processing

To ensure a better scope of HDR editing and post-processing, you need to memorize how to do HDR photography. The first step is to shoot well-focused photographs with higher quality like RAW. The better the quality, the perfect the HDR turns out. 

  • Set the aperture to f/8 and higher. The sunset landscape will be in perfect focus with such aperture. Blurred images or those containing Depth of Field does not offer a good HDR photo. It is better to use Aperture Priority mode to keep the same aperture between the shots.  
  • To pick the best exposure for the whole landscape, set the metering mode to Matrix (for Nikon) and Evaluative (for Canon).
  • Shoot at low ISO, best is to use in ISO 100. Start with lower ISO to avoid noise in HDR Processing. 
  • Use Bracketing function in camera and shoot in two EV steps (for three brackets) or one EV step (for five brackets). -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 works best in all situations. 
  • Shoot in Burst Mode if there are clouds and the weather is windy. Watch out for moving objects, motion blur is difficult to rectify in HDR photo software. 
  • Use a remote trigger to fire the camera so that you don’t need to touch the tripod or camera and thus, avoid camera shake and blurry images.
  • Finally, change only the shutter speed, not the aperture. Changing of an aperture in bracketed images tends to change focus from one to the next and the outcome is a blended HDR photo with focus issues and halos.  
post processing hdr
HDR Post-processing (source)

HDR Photography Softwares

Now, say you have three unedited photographs. You now need to download 

  • HDR photography photoshop like Adobe Photoshop CS2 and 
  • HDR photo editor tools like Photomatix
  • Noise reduction software like Google Nik Collection (Dfine)

While most of you are well aware of Photoshop as it is the most conventional tool for post-processing, Photomatix is unknown to those new in the genre of HDR Photography.

How to Edit Photos with Photomatix

Open Photomatix – Click on HDR Generate.

Still, the photo looks awful?

Follow the next steps-

  • Click on HDR – Tone Mapping 
  • Luminosity - 0, Strength - 46, Color Saturation - 68, WhiteClip - 0.25, BlackClip - 0.00000, Smoothing - High, Microcontrast - High, 360Image – No
  • Make adjustment as per your want and then click on File > Save As > save it in .tiff or .jpeg/.jpg format. 

This is only the first step in the creation of a perfect High Dynamic Range photo. You might still feel you picture is dull and lacks detail. Don’t be disheartened. There is more to it in the next step.   

Use software to enhance your photos (source)

Edit the Picture in Photoshop

After editing with Photomatix, you now have to take the aid of the conventional software. There are lots of HDR photography software for free of cost, however, we prefer Photoshop.

  • There are a number of features like Curve, Tone, Brightness/ Contrast, Auto Tone, Auto Contrast, Shadow, Highlight, Sharpening and so on.
  • All you need to do is Right Click on the photo from your file, then select “Open With” > Adobe Photoshop.
  • Now after the window opens, click on Image. There you will see the above-mentioned options listed.
  • Select whichever you need, and work on the picture. Finally, click on File > Save As > save it in .jpeg/.jpg format.

So far we have just discussed the basics of the photo editing software.

Now, it is time to experiment with settings.

After all, you need to check the samples of all the possible outcomes before you come to the conclusion that you have got the perfect HDR photo. 

Important Factors While Processing Bracketed Images

While going for HDR photography, you need to make the image look natural and ethereal at the same time.

For bracketed images, you need to remember a few things to use in Photomatix, we are discussing them below-

  • Use deghosting feature for moving clouds, swaying trees and grasses and other moving objects.
  • Keep the saturation settings low while adjusting tones. Photomatix always keeps the saturation under 50 so that it is convenient to work with Photoshop or Lightroom.
  • Don’t push processing so far as to create halos in the sky or on the edge of the dark things against the clear sky. Poor HDR processing creates halos, extreme noise, and grains. 
  • Often you might find that one part looks better if pushed a little further while the other part looks dull or grainy. In such cases, you can mask back in one image and blend the two parts together using Photoshop and pick the better-looking areas from each version.    

Additional Tips 

  • While shooting the sunset with a person, you don’t need image blending. Just a little tone-mapping is enough to get your coveted HDR images.
  • When you have lots of cottony clouds in your HDR photography, the best way to rectify those dark and foreboding clouds is to use Masking technique. You can take the best of both sections and combine them to highlight both the clouds and the land. You can also clone from other sunset pictures where the clouds have the perfect exposure and combine with the original image. 
  • You can create overexposed, underexposed and neutral images in Photoshop from the same RAW file and merge them into one HDR photo, but you should know that tone-mapping a single exposure does not make it an HDR; capturing individual images is totally different. No matter how much post-processing you use in those images, the data in your camera is not changed; rather you are piling up data after data on that image. 

Summing Up

While we are discussing HDR images and the post-processing method, you should know when you need HDR and when not. Using this in every picture, no matter how much detailed or highlighted they are, makes the photographs look disgusting.

Sunsets look best with HDR as there is a wide range of brightness and contrast. From the bright source of light to the dark silhouetted landscape, as it is when the sun is going down taking away its lusters, there is ample opportunity for you to play with the lights and accentuate them in post-processing.

Having great mapping software like Photomatix or Nik’s HDR Efex will help you in this task. 

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