HDR Tutorial

Welcome to my ever evolving HDR Tutorial!

Software I use:
Photomatix Pro
Photoshop CC
Topaz Labs Plug-ins

Step 1 – Set up.
The set up for HDR pictures requires some prep work. You want a camera that auto-brackets (takes a series of pictures at different exposures). The camera I use in the Canon T1i – it will set you back about 600.00. There are other cameras that will auto-bracket for less moo-la, but I wanted one that i could change the lenses on – and the Canon T1i was calling my name.

I always shoot my pictures in .RAW – as opposed to .JPG. The RAW files contain about as much light as 3 jpgs. So theoretically a 0 Exposure raw contains enough light to make an HDR out of a -1, 0, +1 Jpg set! So imagine how much light my raw sets have! A -2,0,+2 raw set contains the light information of the same -3,-2,-1,0,+1,+2,+3 Jpg set!

Once you set up your auto-bracketing, and set the picture quality to raw, place your camera in continuous shoot mode (this will snap pictures off back to back to back to back until the memory card is full, or until it takes all the bracketed shots if you have auto-bracketing on). With Auto-bracketing on my camera will take 3 shots and the exposures i predetermine. Most times its -2 (dark), 0 (regular), and +2 (bright).

Step 2 – Take the picture.
When you look for HDR material you want a vast array of light, shadows and highlights. A foreground subject against a sunrise/set for example. The picture out of your camera will most likely have the subject under exposed (dark) and the sky will look OK, but the sun is too bright – PERFECT! The whole idea of HDR processing is to make the picture look like what you saw. There is the extreme of HDR which I don’t like at all – imagine clown vomit? Its “painterly” and “artistic” I suppose, but not at all what I am trying to accomplish! The camera is extremely smart, but the human eye can see about 7 stops of light (-3,-2,-1,0,1,2,3) all in one blink! The camera will catch maybe 2 stops in a given snap shot. HDR will combine the different exposures to make the picture more like what your eye saw. In the case of a a scene with a large disparity in the light levels, HDR shines.

So now you have taken a picture – with at least 3 exposures – here are the 3 exposures from a handheld set i did in Chicago.

Insert pictures here

Step 3 – Import.
Now you want to use a program such as Lightroom – there are dozens of others, but I’m a Lightroom guy. Use your program of choice to import your raw images from the camera.

My workflow works like this- Import into Lightroom, add my key-wording during import – because if I don’t I will forge to later. My keywords at import are Year, Location, Unprocessed – the year and location make searching much easier and the “unprocessed” puts the images into a smart collection in Lightroom I have set up. See my Lightroom import tutorial to get deeper into my Lightroom workflow.

Next I will flip through all the images real quick, adding a 5 star rating to my favorite shots. From my experience if i take 20-30 sets of exposures (60-90 images), about 3-5 are real standouts, so I make sure to tag them as 5 star because… that throws them into a smart collection I labeled “Process Immediately” – It just helps me keep track of my favorite shots from any of the many places i shoot without having to look in those individual folders in Lightroom to find them again.

So now we have the pictures on the computer and in some semblance of order. I jump into my process immediately collection and pick the ones i want to work on – then export them with a preset i created to a separate folder on my desktop.

Exporting the images as .TIFF files from Lightroom is the final step. I choose to do this rather than process the .RAW images directly because I found that i get a sharper image in the end. Ill make a video about that and link it here.

Step 4 – Process.
Now that we have exported our files from Lightroom (or got them from the camera to the computer somehow) its time to work.

I use Photomatix Pro to combine the 3 exposures into one image. You need to import them into Photomatix, then choosing “tone mapping”.  Being by adjusting the sliders to your liking, which creates quite a stunning difference from the normal exposure. Each image is different, so the same settings wont always work between one image and the next. Photomatix is set up to always open an image in the tonemapping dialogue box with the same settings as you used last time – I unchecked this box in the preferences because I always treat each image as its own and adjust the sliders differently for each one.

After finishing the tonemapping, you would click “apply” or “ok” and then the finishing touches dialogue comes up – I always select strong sharpening on this, because photomatix tends to dull out the sharpening on images.

Now I save the file as a 16-bit .TIFF file in the same folder as my original exposures on my desktop. This 16-bit image is 50% complete in my opinion – but for many people this may be as far as they want to take it. However to really appreciate what HDR photography has to offer, you must venture in PHOTOSHOP!!

Here is the tonemapped image of the statues in Chicago –

Insert picture here

Step 5- “Making” a Photo
This isn’t “taking” a photo, we are “making” a photo. In Photoshop the tools and buttons could seam about as imposing as a fighter jet cockpit. Just be patient and willing to learn and watch a bunch of youtube videos!

Notice how the sky is so blown out in my tonemapped image still – looks all murky and gross? Thats because the image was metered on the statues – the camera read the exposure of the statue’s face as “0” when I took these pictures and then based the stepping of the exposures (-2 and +2) off that “0” baseline. Thats a common occurance, but very easy to correct.

In Lightroom i took the darkest exposure, which was the best of the worse exposure of the sky, and intenionally ignored the rest of the image and focused solely on editing the exposure, highlights, shadows, and colors for the sky and buildings in the background, then exported that as I did earlier – here is that image:

Insert photo here

(Conversely, you could have done those edits in Photoshop, but for quick easy edits, Lightroom has an easier to navigate interface in my opinion.)

I now have the tonemapped image and the sky edit image in Photoshop as layers, then I masked in the sky, did a few edits to the colors, did a topaz filter for the ground and some “zone-editing” of the highlights and shadows. I fixed some parallax issues, cleaned up some sensor dust, some imperfections on the statue, did a dodge and burn to bring in some definition, and applied a high-pass sharpen to the whole thing.. which resulted in this:

Insert photo here

(if none of that last paragraph made any sense – dont worry! There will be tutorials popping up on the site to cover each topic ive discussed and a quick youtube search can solve your headache in the meantime!)





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