Creating HDR Images

Rick Sammon, author of HDR Photography Secrets, shares his tips for creating stunning HDR photography and reveals how to create HDR photos with little effort. He covers HDR software, camera settings, fool-proof techniques for adjusting your images, when not to use HDR, and much more.

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Do you need more advice about creating HDR images?
Read his book, HDR Photography Secrets.

What is HDR photography and why has it become so popular lately?

Most people think that HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, but it also stands for High Depth Range. Because when you take an HDR image, when you create an HDR image, your pictures can take on an extra sense of depth and dimension, which is really cool. We see the world in three dimensions, our cameras, unless you have stereo camera like I also have, the cameras only see in two dimensions. So one of the reasons why we shoot early in the morning and late in the afternoon is to get the shadows in the scene, right? They add a sense of depth. Or we do a landscape, put a foreground element in, it adds a sense of depth, so in HDR photography, your pictures can take on this extra sense of depth. So HDR does stand for High Dynamic Range, but High Depth Range, I also say it stands for High Do-it-yourself Rocking Images, because your images can really rock when you play with these programs like Photomatix (Show Note: use coupon code “insidersecrets” at checkout for a 15% off discount thanks HDRSoft!), Photoshop HDR Pro, Topaz Adjust (Show Note: use coupon code “insidersecrets” at checkout for a 15% off discount thanks Topaz Labs!), which I love, but it’s not a true HDR program, but it can expand the dynamic range of your image. So all these tools are at our fingertips to really help us create rockin’ images, high depth range images, it’s just so much fun. Actually, one of the first HDR photographers, people don’t realize this, was Ansel Adams back in the 60s. He created high dynamic range images, black and white images, in the “digital darkroom” by burning and dodging. And by using different filters in the enlarger, different chemical times and different washes, different papers, and all this stuff—he created high depth range images that people were just in awe of. So today, sitting at our computer, we can create these images that, like Ansel Adams’ pictures, they capture the brightness range of the scene, how it looks to our eyes, and that’s real magic. You know, when you’re sitting inside, like an office or your house looking out, you can have the best digital camera on the planet, and you take a shot, it’s not going to capture that dynamic range from inside to out. With a program like Photomatix or the HDR Pro in Photoshop CS5, you can capture the scene how it looks to your eyes, very quickly, very easily. I think that’s the appeal, that you can create these images that were never before so easily accessible to us.

Rick, do you need an expensive, specialized HDR camera to shoot these kinds of photos? What kinds of features and specifications do you need to have to get the best results?

Well, if you’re going to make a big print, if you’re going to have an exhibit, you’ll want a high-end digital camera. You’ll want to shoot raw files. However, I was on a trip—actually, the book before the HDR book has kind of a funny title — Confessions of a Compact Camera Shooter. And what I’m doing is I’m confessing that, yeah, I take around the best cameras on the planet, but I also travel with a little compact point-and-shoot camera, and I did that for a year, taking pictures for this book, the Compact book, and I was shooting some HDR pictures with this little compact camera. Now the pictures in the book are maybe 3×4 inches and they look fine. Some of these compact cameras are amazing, but for my serious work, most of the pictures are taken with a Canon 5D, some with a EOS-1Ds Mark III, but I do recommend no matter what camera you have, shoot RAW files. They don’t call me Rick “RAW Rules” Sammon for nothing. I preach the benefits of RAW. In Photomatix, for example, this is kind of cool, a lot of people don’t know this, you can just drag a RAW file on top of the Photomatix icon and create what they call a psuedo-HDR image. You can’t do that from a JPG unless you convert it to a 16-bit image. But it’s still not the same. What goes in, what comes out. If you’re going to crop your print, if you’re just going to use a section of the print, you’re going to want a high-end camera, but once again, check out the compact camera book, there’s some pretty cool HDR images in there.

What are some of the popular HDR software programs, and which do you think are the best?

Mostly I use Photomatix. I’ve been using Photomatix from HDRsoft for about three years. Anyway, my book just came out about two weeks before Photoshop CS5 was introduced with HDR Pro in it. Now, before HDR Pro in CS5, even my friends at Adobe didn’t use the HDR feature in the Photoshop, because it just didn’t match up to Photomatix. So I would say that Photomatix is the most popular program out there. Topaz Adjust, from Topaz Labs, is not again a true HDR program, but it can expand the dynamic range of an image. But you know what? As long as we’re speaking about dynamic range, and we were just talking about RAW files, there’s so much you can pull out of a RAW file. It’s amazing. You can create high dynamic range images from your RAW files in Photoshop and in Elements. Know there’s something called double processing an image. Basically, what you do is you open a file, you process it once for the shadows so the shadows look good, and then you can either add an adjustment layer or create another file, and then process it once for the highlights, so you have these two files—one for the highlights, where the highlights look great, one for the shadows where the shadows look great—and you can merge them together to create a high dynamic range image. There’s that much information in a RAW file. So what I’m saying is that if the dynamic range or the contrast range isn’t really greater than 3 stops, you can probably pull as much information out of that file as you want. One tip, by the way, on using Photomatix, this is my most important tip, start by adjusting the white point slider first, and then the black point slider. I start with these sliders over to the left and I gradually move them to the right. The default settings in Photomatix, again, the most popular program out there right now, might show some of your highlights washed out. If your highlights are washed out and your shadows are blocked up, you defeat the entire purpose of HDR. So this is why I move those sliders over to the left. I gradually move them to the right until I just start to lose detail in the highlights, and then slide it back a little to the left, and same with the shadow slider.

When shooting your photos, what camera settings are important to keep in mind to get the best HDR results? I’m guessing you probably just don’t want to shoot in automatic mode.

You’re right, Matt, you never want to shoot in the program mode, although I do shoot in the aperture priority mode and the shutter priority mode. In HDR photography, it’s very important to keep the aperture the same through your series of pictures, so you can shoot on the aperture priority mode or the manual mode, as long as you don’t change the aperture. What you want to do is I set the camera on auto-focus, I focus up, and then I turn the auto-focus off, because if I’m taking five exposures for my HDR series, you know, over and under, and at the recommended setting, that focus might slow down the process of taking the picture so I turn the autofocus off. So aperture the same, autofocus off, you want to use a tripod to steady the camera—however, some pros have been known to hand hold their HDR shots because these programs have these auto align features that automatically align the images to a degree. The wider the lens, the easier it is to get a handheld series of HDR images, but I recommend using a tripod. Also, you want to use either a cable release or the camera’s self-timer, because you don’t want to touch the camera. You really want to minimize movement. In the camera, and also when you’re talking about the movement in HDR photography, movement can be great or it can be terrible. It’s great if you’re doing long exposures, again, in a series of pictures. Moving water like a waterfall looks great in HDR. Moving clouds, especially at night, look great in HDR. Slight movement in leaves, as Borat would say, not so good. Although the new HDR Pro in Photoshop has a reduce ghosting feature which is amazing, but you really want to shoot on a windless day for the cleanest possible shot.

What kind of photographic scenes produce the best HDR photos, and when should you avoid using this technique? I guess also, what lighting or other characteristics tend to make a scene challenging?

Well, first of all, there’s no substitute for good light. I was out in Page, Arizona photographing Horseshoe Bend which is, if you can just image this rock formation that looks like a horseshoe with this beautiful river flowing through the bottom of the valley, which is hundreds of feet below. I was there a few years ago, beautiful overcast day, soft lighting, I got the most beautiful picture of this because the contrast range wasn’t that great. I was there just last year and I was doing a test on HDR, and there were very strong shadows at different times of day, there was not a cloud in the sky, and I took HDR pictures and, yes, HDR captured the entire dynamic range, but this huge horizontal and vertical and diagonal shadow—depending on the time of the day I was shooting—cutting throug the picture ruined the shot. So yes, it captured the entire dynamic range, but it wasn’t a pretty picture. The overcast, straight shot out of the camera was much better. So there’s no substitute for good light, and HDR can’t save everything. I think that the subject often dictates the kind of HDR picture that you want, because there are basically two types of HDR. Realistic gives us a realistic view of the scene, or the artistic, which is this kind of grunge look that we’ve seen. So if you’re photographing a beautiful landscape or a seascape, you probably want the realistic look. You don’t want to play around with increasing the saturation and the noise and all this other stuff. But if you’re photographing like the cover of my HDR book, I have this model and this dilapidated old house where we were shooting from inside to outside, I added the grunge look to that, so that scene, I thought, suggested more of an artistic look, so you really want to think about the scene, you want to think about what kind of effect you want to apply to it. Out in Monument Valley, I was photographing these beautiful sunrises and sunsets, and I have comparisons—HDR ruined the scene a couple of times. Like in a silhouette, I wanted this beautiful silhouette of one of the two Mittens out there. Got there at sunrise, I got it, then I shot it in HDR. I knew it would ruin the scene. It took the drama out of the scene. You really want to think about, when do you want HDR, and when don’t you want HDR.

Rick, talk about common HDR problems, like digital noise or chromatic aberrations, halos, and the best way to either avoid or correct them.

Well Matt, I guess you shoot HDR, right, because you know the common problems there. Chromatic aberrations are definitely a problem. The more images you take in a series, your chromatic aberrations are going to be exaggerated. Photomatix, Photoshop, they have features in there to reduce the chromatic aberrations. For those of you who are listening who don’t know what a chromatic aberration is, it’s basically where the light rays don’t focus at the same point on your image sensor and you get these weird color fringes around contrasty areas in your pictures, like between black and white or between blue and yellow or something like that. Or strong brightness ranges, if a white wave is crashing against a blue sea background. These programs, Photomatix and Photoshop, they offer features where you can reduce chromatic aberrations. So notice it says in these programs reduce, it doesn’t say eliminate, so you can reduce these chromatic aberrations in the programs, but if you have them, what I suggest is checking to see if you have these before you import your images into Photomatix or Photoshop HDR Pro, and then reduce the chromatic aberrations individually in Adobe Camera Raw, or Lightroom, or Aperture, or wherever, before you go in there, because it will make your process much easier. So chromatic aberrations can be a problem, and of course, you get what you pay for when it comes to a lens. You buy a less expensive lens, you’re more inclined to get chromatic aberrations than if you buy the top of the line. I don’t really travel with a lot of lenses. I like to travel light. When I go on location, I’ll take my 15mm lens, I’ll take my 17-40mm lens, and I switch from the 16-35mm f/2.8 to the 17-40mm, because I don’t shoot inside too much. The Canon 17-40mm is half the price of the 16-35mm, it’s a great lens. So I take the 15mm, the 17-40mm, take my all-time favorite, the 24-105mm lens, and, if I’m just doing people photography, the 70-200mm f/4, again, because its less expensive and smaller and lighter, by the way, than the f/2.8. Again, I don’t shoot inside too much, so I don’t need the extra speed. And, if I’m doing wildlife, I’ll take the 100-400mm image stabilization lens. But you know, about lenses, I’m talking about, you know, f/4 lenses, the 17-40mm and the 70-200mm — not fast lenses. You have to boost up the ISO. But a couple of minutes ago, you asked about digital noise, what we used to call grain in our pictures. Well, today’s cameras like 5D, 7D, and a lot of the even mid-range digital SLRs out there, man, you can shoot outdoors at 1000, even in relatively low light at 1000 or above, and not get a lot of noise. But noise can be a problem in HDR shooting, so this is why I recommend still, even those you can shoot at higher ISOs, shoot at the lowest ISO, usually 100. Some cameras only go down to 200. But shoot at a lower ISO. And I mentioned the compact cameras before, this is one of the big differences between an SLR and a compact camera. You shoot an SLR, like today’s cameras, even at digital SLR 4000, you’re not going to see a lot of noise. You shoot a compact camera at 400 inside, you’re going to see some noise. This is why if you are going to do HDR with a compact camera, definitely, you have to shoot at a low ISO.

You touched on this a little bit earlier, but when you’re processing the bracketed photos in your HDR software, how do you achieve that ultra-realistic, vivid, high definition image, or alternatively, a softer, more surreal and artistic image?

Right, well, basically, generally speaking, you have all these sliders. The more you move these sliders to the right, the more intense your picture is going to look. When you increase the saturation, and when you increase the noise, these are going to make your pictures look a little more surrealistic. What I do is I create my natural-looking picture in Photomatix, and then for the artistic look, or the surrealistic look, I’ll bring it into Topaz Adjust, one of my favorite filters in there is the Spicify filter—the cover of my book is actually a Photomatix shot, and then I played around with Topaz Adjust just to give it this extra look. And by the way, you don’t need an HDR image to play with Topaz Adjust—you can drag even a JPG into that. Oh, you know what? You mentioned the halos before, that’s what I wanted to go back to. When HDR came out a few years ago, a lot of people were getting the look like maybe a bar on a landscape, you had this halo around it, or a water tower in a cityscape and you had a halo around it—I don’t really personally like that look. I strive to eliminate the halos. You get the halos because these programs are trying as hard as they possibly can to compress the brightness range in the scene. So I try to eliminate the halos. In Photomatix, there’s a feature called Light Smoothing. There’s a series of boxes from low to high. The higher you set the light smoothing mode, the more you’re going to reduce those halos. But again, that’s subjective. Some people listening to this and may say, oh man, I love the halos! That’s okay! This is what photography, art, painting, sculpture, that’s what this is all about. It’s very subjective.

Rick, your website is wonderful, I took a look around and there’s a lot of great resources. Can you recommend any other online HDR photography resources, websites, forums, blogs?

Yes. Absolutely. My friend Trey Ratcliff, he has this really great book called A World in HDR. This guy is amazing, he’s a young guy, came out of nowhere and has this great HDR book. I’ll just throw in a little aside here, because every time I mention him, I think about this. I interviewed him at B&H, and I’ve been around a while, I was the editor of Studio Photography in 1978, so I say, “Trey, it’s so nice to meet you,” and he says, “Rick, it’s nice to meet you, too. You’re one of the Godfathers of the photo industry.” So Trey, if you’re listening, thanks a lot. I actually think it’s kind of funny. So at Photoshop World, Matt Kloskowski teaches HDR and has some HDR training classes on, which are really cool, and Matt’s a cool guy. Trey, Matt, they’re all great instructors.

What are some of the biggest mistakes photographers make when shooting or processing HDR photos?

Well, when shooting, I would say they take too few pictures. You really have to capture the entire dynamic range of an image. Also, they don’t always start at the right point, and they don’t take the right amount of pictures over and under. For example, I was shooting inside this car, a fisheye lens, shooting inside and out, because I wanted to capture the entire dynamic range. I took a picture at the zero exposure compensation setting, two under, then I went two over, then I went three over, four over, five over. So I’m not doing equally over and under. I did more exposures over because I wanted to see, again, I’m inside the car in the backseat, shooting out the front window, I wanted to capture all the detail on the floor boards, in the front, the gas pedal and the brake and all the dust, it was an old junkyard, so you don’t always want to start at zero. Sometimes you want to start at minus one if it’s really bright. Sometimes you want to start at plus one. You don’t always want to shoot equal numbers over and under. What I suggest is really looking at the scene and asking yourself, does it have more highlights, does it have more shadows? And you have to take additional exposures in those areas to capture the range of the scene. So I would say, big mistake is not taking enough. If you take too many, you’re just going to add to the noise. Say you took a set of pictures, zero, two over, two under, a three over, three under, four over, four under, five over, five under. Maybe try getting rid of the three overs. Maybe you don’t need them.

Rick, do you have any other advice for someone just getting started with HDR photography?

I would say follow your heart and have fun, because this is really so much fun. You know, I go on these websites and people say, oh, this HDR, the guy is overdoing it, it looks too surrealistic. Well, this guy was actually talking about me, he’s talking about one of my pictures. And you know, I gotta say, you know, some would say Picasso, oh, your pictures of the three musicians, their faces look too square, or you look at these other artists out there, if they listened to people., they wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. You have to be a little different. So if you want the realistic-type pictures, strive for the realistic-type pictures, if you want the artistic, strive for them. And again, think about the subject, the subject really does suggest realistic or artistic. Try to do both, because it is just so, so, so much fun, and very rewarding.

Rick Sammon is the author of many photography-related books including his latest, HDR Photography Secrets. He offers many photography workshops each year in the United States and abroad. He also co-founded The Digital Photo Experience website and podcast with nature and wildlife photographerJuan Pons. Additionally, he offers an iPod/iPhone/iPad app called Rick Sammon’s 24/7 Photo Buffet.

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