Hello, I am an amateur HDR photographer. Below I describe my process from start to finish:
I am using an entry level DSLR, Canon Digital Rebel XTi. Which shows that you do not need a $2000 camera body to get some excellent shots. I will be using this camera with the included 18-55 lens. Since this camera is entry level, lighting is essential for crisp photos. Anything above 400 iso gets very grainy. So it is important to have ample light for the low ISOs. This is why the majority of my shots are outdoors.
I carry no external flash or any other lighting equipment for that matter, therefore my setup is very basic:
- 18-55 Zoom Lens
Those of you who do not know, an HDR or High Dynamic Range photo contains a wide range of data that captures all color aspects of the shot. I am sure all of you can remember taking a photo during a sunny day and capturing the subject you are shooting at the correct exposure, but most likely the sky is blown out. In order to capture the sky you would need a super fast shutter speed, but of course this would make the subject under exposed.
So what is the answer, take multiple shots at different exposures? Yes, this is exactly what makes up HDR photography. By taking multiple shots at different exposures you will capture all the possible data that is within the view finder. Usually 3-5 photos does the trick. The bigger contrast in exposure difference will require more photos to cover the whole dynamic range. Once you have these photos they need to be meshed together. This can take countless hours in Photoshop, right? Not really. There are several options of software that will do a lot of the work for you, depending on your technique that is.
There are two main camera techniques that are used to successfully create an HDR Image:
- Bracketing – Setup your DSLR to bracket shots. This is a technique of letting the camera handle shooting different exposures for you. For instance if you are shooting 3 shots(usually limited to 3 shots on entry level DSLRs), your camera will shoot one at the correct exposure, one -2 and one +2. You can shoot these in RAW/JPEG or RAW and JPEG. No matter if I am bracketing or shooting one RAW file, I always shoot in RAW. You never know if you will need to adjust the settings. Consistent frame alignment is key across all shots, so a tripod and a shutter timer are essential. I will get to the importance of this in the next section, but the important thing to note is that each shot will capture different data than the others. Another reason to do bracketing is if you are shooting toward the sun on a sunny day. The multiple shots seem to work better in capturing all the data, as apposed to one RAW file.
- RAW File – A raw file captures all of the data of multiple exposured jpegs in one file. The trick is manipulating the RAW file to extract this data into multiple files. So in order to pull off an HDR photo you need multiple shots. A RAW file simplifies the process by only shooting one photo. This reduces some variables that could possibly go wrong, mainly with aligning multiple shots. For example, shooting three shots of a tree on a windy day would be impossible to get every shot the exact same. This is the main benefit of shooting RAW. Another benefit is getting 5 exposures out of one file from an entry level DSLR. The max bracketing is 3 shots on entry level DSLRs.
Here is the list of software that I use:
Photomatix Pro – for processing multiple exposure images into one HDR image.
Lightroom – for camera raw editing to create multiple exposure jpegs from the one RAW file. I also use the sharpening tool and noise reduction tool in lightroom. I find it as efficient as the Noiseware Professional photoshop plugin that is widely used.
Photoshop – Mainly just to crop and export for the website. If I had a later version I could use the camera raw support here instead of lightroom.
I have learned a lot from a fellow HDR photographers site, Trey Ratcliff from StuckInCustoms.com.
I follow a similar technique, but shoot all my shots in RAW. Below is my process from start to finish:
- Equipment Check – Camera, 18-55 lens, cf card, battery, tripod, tripod camera mount.
- Mental Shot List – While getting ready for a shoot I obviously do an equipment check, but more importantly have a good idea of where I am going to shoot and have in mind some shots already. Most of the time these shots are altered from what I had in mind, but still good to have an idea of some shots when you arrive. Especially when I am on a Lunch Break Photo Shoot since time is essential.
- Camera Settings Check – I check several things: ISO set to 100, File Format set to RAW, Dial set to Av Mode, focal point set to top right(for total control over the focal point), Auto Focus set to one shot(so I dont have to worry about the camera trying to focus again while moving the camera after my focal point is set).
For HDR photography I like to get as much as possible in focus so I shoot with a higher aperture setting. Usually between f8 and f18 depending on how much I want in focus. I could go up higher but I have found is not always the best because the shutter speed increases and the lens tends to capture some sensor/lens dust that a lower f-stop would not have.
Other than just clicking the shutter I make sure that the camera is on the tripod. And I always use one focal selection point, usually the top right one.
Once the pictures are loaded I choose the one I want to start with and make virtual copies of the one RAW file( cmd + ‘ ). This is usually 3 or 5, however many you think you need for the particular image.
NOTE: Keep in mind that lightroom is not required for this technique. You can also use Photoshop or whatever program has a camera raw plugin. You just need a way to alter the exposure setting of the image.
Once you have the virtual copies you need to adjust the exposure for each one, well 4 of them, one you will leave along. See below on the exposure adjustments on the virtual copies:
Once you are done you need to export these 5 or 3 images out of Lightroom. Next I import these into Photomatix Pro to create the HDR image. This is where it gets sweet!
When you first open up Photomatix Pro all you see is one small window with a couple different options. Genereate HDR image is what you want. Once you click this button it will prompt you to select the images. From OSX just drag the files from a finder window as shown below. It makes it pretty easy.
The next window you see is a preview of each exposure and the exposure value of each image. Most of the time Photomatix can determine what value each one is. For this particular image it thought my +2 was a +3. If this happens you can double click the value and make the change. If these are not correct your HDR image will not be processed correctly so make sure you get this right.
It will prompt you with some options next. I check these options off because I absolutely have 5 of the same images so I do not need the images aligned or ghosting reduced. I will handle the noise and sharpening back in Lightroom, so the chromatic aberrations and reduce noise are not checked. I always leave it on the recommended tone curve.
On this next step it will show you the image before you make any real HDR adjustments. Once you click Tone Mapping you will be able to pull out the color in any part of this image including highlights and shadows.
The screen shot below shows the image during Tone Mapping. I could have a whole section on the attributes and values associated with each setting. However I will say this,every image is different. There is no set adjustment for each setting. Some images will look good grimy and dark and others will look bright and saturated.
After you save this file you will notice quite a bit of noise is create during the process. To fix this I bring the HDR image back into Lightroom. I will adjust the sharpening and noise int he next steps. Some go into Photoshop at this point, but I have found the tools in Lightroom to be extremely effective and efficient.
Drag the HDR image onto the Lightroom icon in the dock and click import. Under the development tab I use the sharpening tool and noise reduction.
- Sharpening – I usually adjust the sharpening amount between 1/2 and 3/4 of the slider, depending on the image. I always have the radius set to 1 or below. Anything above and it will loose detail.
- Noise Reduction – Noise reduction has been improved in the latest version of Lightroom 3. You can adjust Luminance and Color noise. Here is an easy explanation between Luminance and Color Noise:
- Luminance Noise – The camera knows the color, but doesnt know the specific level of color for every pixel in a specific area. This results in sporadic pixels of the same hue.
- Color Noise – The camera dosen’t know what color to choose so it guesses, which results in sporadic colors.
- Vignetting – If you need emphasis put on the subject add a little amount of negative vignetting, which is a dark vignette. A white vignette just looks so… I dont know 80s, dream sequence, up to you though. Below is an example of proper vignetting, before and after:
This is basically all you need to create your first HDR photo. Get out there and get to shooting and HDR processing!