High Dynamic Range Images

August 19, 2021  •  Leave a Comment


There was a time when High Dynamic Range aka HDR photography/images were all the rage. Everyone was chomping at the bit to create these images that truly mimics what the eye sees. And they were done to quite a comical effect, where some images were clearly manipulated and others you were so captivated with you wanted all images to be HDR. Quite a bit of controversy arose in photographic circles with some eschewing HDR altogether and considering those images to be low quality and not truly art, and others on the opposite side of the spectrum.

When I first saw an HDR image I didn't know what it was and was so captivated by it. I wanted to immediately figure out how I could adjust the settings in my camera to get that perfect image. When I realized that you needed special processing software and must take a series of bracketed images I became intrigued. So my next photo trip I made sure I took some shots that were on the tripod with the recommended settings for HDR images. When I returned from my trip, I raced into my digital darkroom to test the premier HDR software at that time: Photomatix. I downloaded a trial of the software it to see if I could get that perfect HDR image. I used three bracketed images I shot in Sedona, Arizona.

Arizona Mountain PhotomatixArizona Mountain Photomatix

I was quickly disappointed by the results and resoundingly abandoned further attempts. However, deep within me I still wanted to create perfect HDR images.

Trip Down Memory Lane

So what took me on this trip down memory lane? I was working on my flower catalog this week and came across some daisies I photographed in 2012 in Rhode Island, when I first obtained my 100mm 2.8 Canon L macro lens. It was a winter day in December, a couple weeks after I returned from China, where I had the opportunity to photograph flowers at the Shanghai Botanical Gardens and in Singapore. I decided I wanted to work with a dedicated macro lens to see if I could get better quality. So, I took some test shots and my camera was set up to shoot JPGs small, yes small JPGs - 72dpi. These files are great for online, but not for printing. So as I went through my catalog I rejected those images. Then yesterday I was testing out some digital painting plugins and actions and wondered if I could redeem some of those low quality photos of flowers I rejected and do some digital painting with them.

As I looked through the images I realized that some of the shots looked bracketed. I guess I was testing the look of different exposures, ISO, and shutter speeds. So I decided to create an HDR image with one of the flowers, a daisy. 

Pyrethrum Daisy Light DarkPyrethrum Daisy Light Dark

Both images were shot at ISO 125, 1/60 shutter speed (Tv) and 2.8 aperture (Av), with an exposure compensation of 1/3. The image on the left flash exposure compensation is 0 and the image on the right flash exposure compensation is -2/3.

Buried in the heart of Photoshop (PS) and Lightroom (LR) are HDR tools to create HDR images. They are ok, but not as effective as dedicated HDR software. So while in LR I decided to try the HDR tool and quickly created an HDR image.

Please note, I did not spend extensive time with any of the images below to correct for aberrations, clean up the image or correctly align the images to prevent ghosting. Please disregard these elements if you see them in the image(s). I am merely checking for the overall look of the image(s) to see which tool produces the best results.

Pyrethrum Daisy HDR LRPyrethrum Daisy HDR LRHDR merged from 72dpi JPGs

Hmmm, not too bad. I wonder what would the NIK HDR Efex Pro, a dedicated and highly rated software, do?

Pyrethrum Daisy HDR Efex Pro 2Pyrethrum Daisy HDR Efex Pro 2HDR merged from 72dpi JPGs

Wow, that is significantly much better. This made me think back to that first picture I shared above and wonder what would NIK's HDR software do. Would the results be better than Photomatix? Nine years has passed, I think this is the time to realize my HDR dream.

NIK HDR Efex Pro

The flowers above were low resolution JPGs, however the picture of the Sedona, Arizona desert mountain was shot with my Canon 50D,  APS-C sized 15.1-megapixel RAW file. These are high resolution images. HDR Efex Pro can work with RAW images so I did not need to convert the images to TIFFs or JPGs.

Arizona Mountain BracketArizona Mountain Bracket

So, with my three bracketed images I launched HDR Efex Pro Standalone application. To be honest the first time I used it I was a bit confounded & searched for help files. After immersing myself in the basics & a bit of trial and error I created what I thought was a beautiful HDR image. I saved the image and looked and looked and have no idea where it was saved. Stymied I endeavored to start again. I didn't want to use LR to create the HDR, because I did not want to use the intermediary step of creating TIFFs to send over to HDR Efex Pro. So, I peaked into Adobe Bridge, a software that I tend to ignore, and discovered that I could select the images and send them over to HDR EFex Pro. This turned out to be a better solution and much easier. As after you create the HDR in the plugin and save it, it opens up directly in Photoshop as a layer with a smart filter. It is a 32bit file, which is rather large, but that means the quality is higher. You can always save it down to 16 or 8 bits. The great thing about it being a smart filter is that you can go back into HDR Efex Pro and make adjustments as needed.

Arizona Mountain HDR Efex Pro 2Arizona Mountain HDR Efex Pro 2 Now this image is significantly better than the image I created with Photomatix. Looking back on it, if I knew then what I know now, I probably could've obtained a great image nine years ago in Photomatix when I started on this journey that I quickly abandoned. I really like this image. I would more than likely work on the clouds a bit more as they are a bit bluer and moodier than I prefer or that the scene dictated. Also, the clouds have too much grain in it after processing. When zoomed in the birds look like sensor spots that weren't cleaned up. But, overall I really like the clarity in the bushes and the rich tones in this image. It makes me want to step into the image and explore. 

HDR Efex Pro has so many features and presets in it to play with that I can certainly achieve the look I want without the photo looking cheesy and over processed. But I didn't stop there, I wanted to look at Canon's Digital Photo Professional (DPP) HDR Tool. I use it to process my raw images and thought that I would give it a gander. Like PS & LR the settings are a bit on the slim side and since it isn't as feature rich or customizable like Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro, the results I achieve may or may not be what I want.

Arizona Mountain Canon DPP HDRArizona Mountain Canon DPP HDR

The image above is pretty flat. In Canon DPP's defense there is a feature in HDR Efex Pro where I can select a flat looking image too. But that's not why I want to create an HDR image. Yes, some photographers just want to recover the details that are lost depending upon your exposure setting, and that was my goal too. But I wanted it to feel like it was 3D, like you could just step into the scene.

Photomatix vs NIK HDR Efex Pro

While in Sedona, AZ I took a self portrait and bracketed the shot. Since I am a dark brown I knew if I exposed for the scene it would make me over exposed, that is too dark. So, I took two shots:

Arizona Mountain Me Light DarkArizona Mountain Me Light Dark

This is a photo I took for my scrapbook, so I didn't take more than two bracketed images. Here is the result from Photomatix, that just broke my tiny lil heart.

Arizona Mountain Me PhotomatixArizona Mountain Me Photomatix

And here is the result from NIK HDR Efex Pro I worked on today. Well, I actually did a bit more work in NIK. I wanted to lighten me (not lighten my hue, but lighten the exposure so you can see me). The first image the colors were very vibrant but made me look too orange like in the image above. So I pulled down the vibrancy and desaturated a bit.
Arizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 VibrantArizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 Vibrant Arizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 DeSatArizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 DeSat
Then in PS I masked & combined the layers and created a better version.

Arizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 MergedArizona Mountain Me HDR Efex Pro 2 Merged  

Please note, I did this quick and dirty, so the masking isn't perfect and the alignment isn't right. However, I discovered that I can achieve the results I want in HDR Efex Pro and now I am going back to those bracketed shots I took in the past and considering new images I can shoot in the future.

Tip: If you plan to shoot your own HDR images, make sure you have your camera mounted on a tripod. If you are shooting with a traditional DSLR lock the mirror up to minimize movement as the camera brackets the shots. Depending on the model of your camera you may be able to bracket more than 3 shots allowing the software to have more details to work with to create a more realistic or surreal photo.

I hope you enjoyed my time in the digital darkroom as much as I did, and the stories behind the shots. 

Until next time, this has been Behind the Lens.


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