Good HDR Bad HDR
Love it. Hate it. Photographers seem to be divided on HDRs.
I remember reading three or four years ago a few “professional” outdoor photographer’s blogs. They were on the hate bandwagon. One even had a comparison of the same scene done with a filter and then a bracketed set of exposures tonemapped in an HDR program. The HDR was softer. The HDR’s tones were garish and exaggerated.
One of the photographers is now offering workshops in using HDR. Why the change of opinion? It’s not like the programs have changed that much in a short span? I think it’s probably because a good HDR is indistinguishable from a properly lit, well exposed and processed image.
To look at a properly done HDR you aren’t supposed to know that it’s an HDR.
Why process images as HDRs then? If you shoot landscapes where the range of highlight and detail isn’t extreme, that is, one exposure can capture most of the important detail, HDR processing and bracketing isn’t necessary. Below are three bracketed exposures from a few days ago.
The middle of the three is the “correct” exposure. At least that is what the camera would have you believe but the truth is, there is no one correct exposure. For some the obvious solution is to use a neutral density graduated filter. There are a few reasons why this is a bad idea. One is that by underexposing the darker areas of the sky noise or grain becomes visible. The other is banding. I get a lot of hits on this blog from people looking to prevent banding in their skies. Most often banding occurs by trying to adjust tones, lightening them and by doing so, introduce banding because there is not enough information for the program to calculate the tones in between tones so instead of having a smooth transition from light to dark, you get steps. That is banding. An HDR won’t have that problem because one of the bracketed exposures will have the detail that I need.
The camera that I now use has a greater dynamic range, 14.4 EV, than any other camera available. Compared to my last camera, this gives me a few extra stops of exposure detail but I still need to bracket. For example, let me photograph one of my daughters with even lighting and the dynamic range of the camera is greater than what is in the scene. Only one exposure is needed.
Most of my landscapes are photographed in very difficult light. I find myself looking into the sun. I can exposure for the highlights and let the shadows go black. I can expose for the shadows and let the highlights wash out or try for a compromise and lose a bit of highlight and shadow.
If I turn the camera away from the sun, suddenly I only need one exposure to get the detail I want.
I currently use Photomatix. I get no kickbacks for mentioning them. There are other good HDR programs out there. I’ve used Photomatix for a few years and because of my familiarity of what it can do and how to do it, it remains my HDR program of choice.
Looking at the presets that come with the program is misleading. I’m not sure why they included some of them because they are downright awful and I think this is where many photographers go wrong.
Two of them, and these are the most tame of the presets, are in the neighborhood. They are starting points only for me. Often times, if I get the sky to look right, the foreground looks bad so I will process once for the sky and save it and then process again for the foreground, save it and paste one image on top of the other. In Photoshop in layers and using image masking, I then paint away detail from the top layer to reveal the “right” look from the layer below.
For starters, the default strength setting is much too high. Waaay too high.
Where I think many photographers go wrong is in looking at tones and sliding the strength slider to the right because they definitely do become more dramatic in appearance and they do to a point. Beyond that point they look surreal.
My goal is to have a believable and realistic landscape. When the viewer sees the image, I want them to be thinking about the story the photo is telling and not how the photographer shot it or what equipment they used or how they processed it. It’s like eating a burger or listening to music, I want to enjoy the experience and not be hung up on the technical details.
Whatever works for you.