HDR is a contentious subject in the photo world. Many of the purists will swat it aside like a great pretender saying that if you can’t capture what you want in an image in one shot then trying to do it 6-9 exposures means you’re doing something wrong. I disagree. HDR has many uses and can really bring something out in a shot if used in the right way.
This is the fundamental problem with HDR. Many people use it in the wrong way and the internet is awash with examples of overblown highlights and images that have been over manipulated within an inch of their life. So how do you use HDR to make a great image and how do you make sure you don’t over cook it? Well firstly you have to see that HDR has two uses (at least for me anyway) both with different results.
The first thing I use HDR for is to bring out details in a shot of an interior that might otherwise be lost because of low light or too much light. For example, one of my passions is photographing old churches and many of these have dark corners or areas where the light floods certain parts of the building. I start my composition by finding a part of the building that captures my eye and has a lot of detail. In an old church this is usually one where I look straight down the nave towards a stained glass window. Of course this will provide challenges for a ‘regular’ photograph. I am either going to blow out the windows in the shot and lose the detail of the stained glass or lose the lowlights in the roof amongst the beams.
To get the exposures needed I use anywhere from 3 to 9 exposures ranging in +/- 1 EV. If there is a real range of light tones, the more exposures I capture so that i can hopefully capture the full range of tones. I effect shooting is the easy part. When I get back home and process the fun (and procrastinating) starts. Oh, and I always shoot in RAW and not JPEG to protect as much of the detail and range as possible. There is simply far more control to be had in HDR work in a RAW file than a compressed JPG.
I fire up Lightroom and go through my images. I do some slight adjustments here first to make sure there are no blown areas that night ruin the final image. Checking the histogram is invaluable here as well as ‘on camera’ which is something else I always do.
I then process all the exposures in Photomatix Pro to get my merged image. I don’t use ANY of the presets in Photomatix as I personally find them to be over the top. Once processed and saved as a 16 bit TIFF I open my photo in Photoshop and head off to Color Efex Pro 4 where I use two main presets. These are the ‘Detail extractor’ and the ‘glamour glow”. Detail extractor does what it says on the tin and brings out all the minute detail in the shot. I can also adjust colour balance and contrast here to keep the photo looking realistic again. Glamour glow is a personal choice and is great for accentuating halos around lights etc. I use it to bring out definition on windows and glows around metal objects like chalices and chandeliers etc. Used sparingly its a nice finishing touch.
Once all that is done its back into Photoshop for a save and then I open the photo back in Lightroom for some final colour checks etc and then I export it as a JPG with my watermark and border on. I can spend a LOT of time doing this which is one of the things I like. I am an artist and HDR allows me to bring out my artistic side in photography in a way that perhaps I can’t with my regular sports photography although I have shot some sports HDR in the past.
In terms of level of detail my HDR for interiors is more processed for a reason. I want to make the detail of the wonderful old buildings sing in the shot. When I use it for landscapes its a lot more subtle. Often I only use to bring out shadowed areas or tone down overblown skies and nothing more.
So thats how I create HDR photographs. Nothing overly complicated and a lot of fun if done in the right way. Just don’t over cook it and keep it as realistic as it was when you looked through the viewfinderin the first place.