HDR Portrait & Wedding Photography Techniques (2nd Edition)

Look To The Wind. HDR by Gavin Seim. Canon 30D

~ Check out Gavin’s HDR workshops. More details here.

Updated 07/2009: Revamped & improved article. Added a new segment dealing with movement and blur (towards bottom).

by Gavin Seim: In 2007 I wrote an article about using true HDR techniques with people. Yep, portraits, fashion and wedding images can be utterly amazing using High Dynamic Range. HDR is not just reserved for nature and still life. We’ve been using it at Seim Studios for some time now and it blows clients away. Heres some of my secret sauce to get you started with HDR portraits and a few of my own images.

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What’s HDR All About?
First lets cover basics. If you’re already an HDR master you can skip this part. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It’s better seen than described, so other than the images I’ve included in this article, you can see more on my website.

HDR is the combining of light and dark tones of multiple images taken at varied exposure levels and then blended using software like Photomatix, Photoshop, or another HDR program. Photomatix is the most popular among HDR fans and we have a deal worked out with them. You can save 15% with promo code PPS15. Basically this software blending allows the photographer to selectively choose how much light he wants in various parts of the image. You’ll have a light to dark range that’s much higher than that of a normal exposure, thus giving you much more control over the final image.

You can also check my two PPS episodes from 2007, talking about HDR and HDR portraits. HDR Podcast Part1 & HDR Podcast Part2. There’s also PPS #57, an HDR episode with Trey Ratcliff that’s full of insight.

Pseudo (single image) HDR:
You’ll see images called HDR that are actually made from one image. Programs like Photomatix allow you to do this, but it can also be done by working the shadows highlights and tones in Photoshop. It can give you great results and there’s nothing wrong with it, but if you want a true HDR and the tonal range that goes with it, you’ll need multiple images with varied exposure levels.

HDR Drummer Senior

Drummer Boy. HDR, Canon 30D ISO 800. Gavin Seim

HDR portraits of people:
When you have a still subject its fairly easy to take a sequence of images at various exposure levels and get a great HDR. With a moving subject like a person, things get more challenging. Note that I never shoot entire portrait sessions with HDR. It would be too hard on the subject, and require way to much editing time to be practical. Also HDR images aren’t needed in every scene. Where they shine is in scenes with a high light to dark range.

The Basic HDR portrait technique:
Tell your subject to stand as still as they can. I generally take three images in rapid sequence. Often people use more to make an HDR, but three is usually all you’ll need and often all you can get due to movement. I set my camera to Aperture Priority, so all that changes is shutter speed and not my depth of field (important, since you’ll be combining these images later).

Set your camera to auto bracket mode at the fastest frame rate and try to maintain a fast shutter speed, so that when you hold the button down it will take three quick exposures and keep blur low (I use a cable release to avoid shake). I usually take an EV -2, EV 0 and EV +2 exposure.  Since great HDR’s are often taken in the evening, the resulting slow shutter speeds can cause blurring issues. I’ll often crank up the ISO a bit to compensate. The noise compounds from the blending of  multiple images however. With my 30D I could only get away with about ISO 800 (Usually enough). With a camera like the 5D MK2, I can get away with more ISO.

Passion Fields. HDR, Canon 5D MK2, ISO 800. Gavin Seim

Dealing With Movement:
The hardest part about HDR is subject moment. This becomes more of a problem with people. Many think you can’t effectively do it, but I believe I’ve more than proven that wrong.

Naturally the subject holds as still as possible during the image sequence. I find that HDR portraits work best in wider scenes with wider lenses. There’s no set rule to this, but if your really close or have a long lens, the slight movement of your subject will be exaggerated and cause them to be blurred even more. Some blur can be OK, on a dress for example (see top image). But in the end the primary part of your subject will usually need clarity.

Once you get the hang of rapid HDR sequences, it often comes out just right and after being rendered everything lines up. Not always though. After further experimenting and spending some time talking with Trey Ratcliff (somewhat of a legend in the HDR landscape world) I started using the layer and mask technique.

I could write an entire article on the layer mask technique, but in essence you take your rendered HDR, along with the original images and load them as layers in Photoshop (use the Auto Align Layers feature). Then you can add layer masks to hide parts of your rendered HDR (usually the top layer) and reveal the layers below as needed to show details you need. This can be perfect for replacing the blurred face with the sharp version. It can also be used to mask out areas of a rendered image that have bad artifacts or noise. It can take time to get all the edges blended smoothly, but it gets easier the more you do it.

Stairway To Heaven. HDR, Canon 30D. Gavin Seim

When and where:
I don’t use HDR for every portrait, but on beautiful portrait scenes where it’s beneficial. Like that a image of someone standing in a beautiful field, with a stunning sunset behind them. Don’t feel like you have to change your entire photographic personality to add HDR into your super kit. HDR takes some practice and planning, but if you learn how and where to use it the results will be astounding. It’s well worth it.

Final HDR Thoughts:
HDR portraits work great when you setup and edit correctly. Once you get in the HDR groove you’ll take it in stride and grab them quickly and efficiently. Software and editing is the key to a good HDR just as much as the initial exposures are. It’s not rocket science, but it’s easy to overdo it and end up with a messy image.

You’ve probably seen plenty of bad HDR’s on Flickr and other places. Because if it HDR has somewhat of a stigma, but used right it’s beautiful. There’s no rules for how HDR’ish the result should look, but often less is more. Don’t be afraid to experiment and learn. Check out programs like Photomatix or Hydra (Mac only) for the extensive edits, and basic tools like Lightroom Enfuse for quick HDR blending. Have fun… Gavin

Alone On Harvest Moon. HDR, Canon 30D. Gavin Seim

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