By Gavin Seim: Updated 05/13) – HDR (High Dynamic Range) is really powerful, but often misunderstood. People will throw images into the latest software only to mimic the easy, but often ugly and over processed “HDR look”. That HDR that has become the stigma of the technique. HDR and especially HDR portraits can be challenging, but they are not rocket science. It just takes some time to get the hang of the subtleties. Here’s a few tips that anyone can use for both pictorial and portrait work to mange dynamic range better.
1. Understanding HDR: It’s not a style in itself. A style is something that comes from you. HDR all about light. Sometimes it’s from a single file. Often it means getting various exposures at different lightness levels and then combining them in a way that looks good either manually, or using tone-mapping or fusing, with software like Photomatix and others.
But contrary to what overdone HDR suggests. It’s not about showing ALL the light in a scene. Without shadow, an image is usually flat, chaotic and without focus. HDR about gaining control over all the light in a scene. It’s almost like a bucket filled with light from an entire scene and you can use it however you want.
2. Tripods & Releases: While most HDR rendering software can attempt to line up images, you really want clear consistent frames because stability is key. If there’s no other option, you may have to hand hold and hope for the best. It can work, but a tripod is king and is always the safest route. Even with single image exposures, using a tripod will generally get you better quality. See The Six Keys To Image Quality.
Cable releases are also a great tool. Allowing you to avoid touching the camera while making frames. Good for sequences and long exposures. Besides that, it looks cool to stand there majestically and press the release button.
3. Auto Bracketing: Most DSLR’s have an auto bracket function that allows you to have -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation in one quick burst. AB allows you to expose things fast without handling the gear as much. In some cases you may want to manually get a wider exposure range, but I find that 3 images are usually all I need.
Auto bracketing is not only convenient, it’s especially valuable with HDR portraits or moving subjects because you need to capture your sequence as fast as possible without having to manually change settings. But remember that just because your bracketing is not an excuse for poor exposure. Keeping that middle frame dead on will give you a better final result.
4. Think Simple: Every HDR image does not need to portray some kind of crazy, hyper real fantasy look. That can work, but it’s heavily used and a bit of a fad, that personally I think is on the way out. HDR is all about the control of light. You still need to find your own style and refine your process.
With a great HDR, viewers may not even know it’s HDR, they’ll just know it looks amazing and that’s all that really matters. Newbies often think that just because it’s “HDR” it will be something special. But rules of composition and beauty don’t change just because you have a new piece of software. Great photography is still a craft.
5. Use Layers? When working with dynamic range don’t be afraid to use masking methods. This involves taking exposures (sometimes including a tone-mapped version) and loading them as aligned layers in Photoshop. You can then mask or erase (masking is better) parts of layers to reveal ones below.
This is a powerful tool for controlling light in an image, because you decide what elements to use from your images. I call this masking to base. It’s very controlled and is often perfect for a very subtle process. It can also be used to blend a tone-mapped image with original exposures to better control tone, reduce artifacts etc.
6. Don’t Over Edit: This is the most common problem people have with HDR. Making bracket and tossing it into your software is easy. But to get the magic, you need to edit well. Don’t always go for that heavy look. Just because it’s HDR, doesn’t mean you have to edit heavy. I use HDR a plethora of different ways for various images. Single images, tone-mapping, mask to base, fill flash HDR . Just consider what you want in a great image and use dynamic range to make it even better.
If you are tone-mapping, also remember that it’s easy to get artifacts. Be careful when processing and use your sliders deftly. Also a Tone-mapped image rarely gives a finished product. Tone-mapping a great pixel mixer, but I always head to LR and PS for final tweaks, actions and and the all critical burn and dodge to control all that tone. Take it slow.
7. Single Images: There’s nothing that says an HDR has to be a bracketed sequence. Remember it’s all about capturing a high range of light and today’s cameras are pretty good at capturing that range, even on a singe RAW file. Yes, a multi-bracket with capture more range, but you don’t always need that much range.
Sometimes I find a bracketed sequence give a worse image than a single file. Now You can tone-map a single file, similar to the way you blend multiple files. But often I find it goes too far. Usually if I’m working with a single image, I’ll just draw out that range straight from the RAW file in Lightroom, using channels, brushes etc – It’s always all about the light.
That’s all for today but there lots to talk about. But lets remember that not so much has changed since the film days. Ansel and others used techniques for exposure, developing and in the darkroom to get high dynamic range. The approach was different, but the idea has not. A bold look is fine if you have a reason, but don’t use a look as an excuse because you don’t know how to edit in a way that best fits the image you visualized before you released the shutter.
If you need Photomatix you can use our reader promo code PPS15 to save 15%. Also check our the HDR MAGIC video workshop for in depth looks at how to manage dynamic range at every level. You can check out that on Seim Effects.