The tourists have landed

Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique  

Portuguese Island, Mozambique

I've landed back home after my shipboard adventure!

It was certainly interesting. We travelled on the MSC Sinfonia for 4 days out of Durban and into Mozambican waters. I learned quite a few things. Like how to say ship instead of boat (still hard to remember, that one). That bingo is actually quite fun. That most cruise passengers prefer to lie around the pool all day, drinking from breakfast time and turning bright pink in the sun. And that I prefer to find a quiet, people-free spot on the stern and read geeky books.

The ship was a fun environment for HDR photography, and my tripod provided some humour for my nonplussed fellow passengers. We disembarked twice during the cruise for some exploration and great photo ops. The first stop was at Portuguese Island near Maputo. The second was to be at Inhambane, further up the Mozambican coast, but a cyclone the size of Madagascar put paid to that, so we docked in Maputo for the day.

Today's HDR is taken at Portuguese Island in Mozambique. It's a tiny island very close to Inhaca Island, in fact you can cross over via sand banks when the tide is low. It's also pretty close to Maputo, probably 90 minutes or so by ferry. I gather that cruise ships stop here about twice a week, and transform this quiet and usually uninhabited island into Party Island. See the tourist hordes fanning out over the sands, with alcohol tents and beach barbecues in the background. It gets so busy that a permanent structure is being built, also visible in the background.

This shot was taken while fleeing from the crowds and setting out on a 7km circumnavigation of the island. I think we were the only passengers who did this, and we were rewarded with solitude, a close-up fish eagle sighting, and the spotting of many other curious sea creatures.

The people in the picture are investigating strange sand castings in the intertidal zone, that seem to have been made by some kind of lugworm. They looked like this close up, and you could see the sand being extruded out of the middle. Very weird.

Lugworm casting on Portuguese Island, Mozambique

 

We also spotted intact sand dollars that were the size of dinner plates.

Sand dollar shells at Portuguese Island, Mozambique

 

 

Before and After

Today's beach shot was a handheld snapshot, bracketed at -2, 0 and +2. I liked the way the people were fanning out over the beach, so I grabbed it as quickly as I could. I'm finding that Photoshop's layer aligning feature does a very good job of putting together these handheld HDRs. The clouds were beautiful that day, so I wanted to bring them out as much as possible in the post-processing. They were building up higher and higher all day, threatening a thunderstorm that never came.

[beforeafter]Tourists invade the beach at Portuguese Island, Mozambique (0 image)Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique[/beforeafter]

HDR Tutorial: How to use a tripod

Sutherland Backyard  

This street scene is from Sutherland in the Northern Cape of South Africa. It's a small town in the arid Karoo area and is well known for being the coldest town in the country, and home to the South African Astronomical Observatory. It was very cold when I was walking around, with a bitter wind, and the place felt absolutely deserted.

Most of the town is built from local stone, like you see here, with typically unpainted corrugated iron roofs. It doesn't rain much, so the roofs don't need painting.

 

On to this week's installment of the HDR tutorial, which is ...

How to use a tripod
Someone I once worked with always used to talk about 'back in the day'. Well, back in the day cameras were huge wooden boxes and really, really heavy. Exposures were seriously long, and you had to have a tripod to keep it all steady, no question about it.
Of course now we have the camera equivalent of Moore's Law, where things just keep getting smaller and smaller, and lighter and lighter, and tripods aren't needed for most things.
But here's the thing. To take HDR effectively you need a tripod. It's heavy, it's cumbersome, it's a pain, but you need to do it. You can take a hand held bracket set, sure, and I'll cover that in another tutorial, but the results are not going to be consistent. If you want to take high quality HDR images you need to suck it up and carry a tripod.
You are using a tripod for two reasons when you HDR:
  • Firstly, you will often be using very slow shutter speeds, especially on your +2 image. It will be too slow to hand hold except on very sunny days. A blurry image will not work on HDR, so using a tripod will solve that problem.
  • Secondly, you need to align all your images later in your HDR software, and a tripod will ensure that all your images start life perfectly aligned.
Even using a tripod doesn't instantly solve all your HDR woes. You will still need to be very careful to keep things as steady as possible, because even a tripod can move or transmit vibrations. I found that getting used to a tripod was quite a frustrating experience, and one that took quite a bit of fiddling and practice before I got it right.
So without further ado, here are my tripod tips, all learned from bitter experience:
  • Get a good, stable tripod. Stable unfortunately means heavy, because a tripod derives a lot of its stability from its weight. I use a basic version of the Manfrotto 055 which is a classic design and is tried and tested. It has served me very well so far. As far as the head goes, I find a ball head the most practical head to use. It lets me move my camera around quickly and easily, and it locks as quickly and easily. Mine is a Manfrotto 498RC2. I have seen other photographers recommend the Really Right Stuff and Gitzo brands, but they aren't available at the bottom of Africa, where I live. A good tripod is expensive, but it should last you many years, if not decades, so don't scrimp on it. While you're at it, get a good bag with a shoulder strap for it as well. Your shoulder will thank you.
  • Frame your shot first. Before you set up your tripod, find the shot you want by hand holding your camera. Once you have a tripod attached it becomes tempting just to set up the first, most obvious shot you see. Use the freedom of no tripod to find the image you want, then set up the tripod afterwards. If you ever see me shooting with a tripod then you will often see me breaking this rule by hand holding the tripod with the tripod still attached. Now that is unwieldy!
  • Batten down the hatches. When using your tripod check that every possible connector and screw and knob is tightened as much as possible. Check the tripod mounting plate that stays connected under your camera body as well. Just one loose bit can lead to a wobbly camera and a blurry photo.
  • Keep the tripod as low as possible. Set up lower for more stability, especially if it's windy. The longer the legs are extended the more unstable the setup will be. Try not to extend the central pillar either, as it's quite wobbly when extended. Obviously, if the picture you want demands that the tripod be fully extended, then do so, but be super careful about movement.
  • Hang heavy stuff from the tripod. Because a tripod derives a lot of its stability from its weight, you can increase that stability by increasing its weight. Most tripods have a hook near or under the central column that you can use for doing this. Pack a collapsable shopping bag in your camera kit for this purpose,  and use the bag and the hook to temporarily hang whatever heavy stuff you can find from your tripod. Or just keep a carabiner attached to your camera bag and hang it from the tripod.
  • Check the ground conditions. Set up your tripod on a hard surface, and push down firmly on the tripod to ensure the legs are fully splayed out and seated well on the ground. If the ground is soft, make sure you push the tripod in until it's seated securely, or find some rocks to seat the legs on.
  • Shoot in mirror up mode. You need to make sure that just like your tripod is as vibration free as possible, so is your camera. The first thing to do is put your camera in mirror up mode. That way the mirror flips up before you take the shot. The idea is to flip up the mirror, wait a few seconds for any vibrations to stop, then take the picture.
  • Turn off VR mode. That's Nikon talk for Vibration Reduction. The Canon equivalent is IS or Image Stabilisation. These modes reduce shake in your lens while you are hand holding your camera. They work by the lens generating its own vibration with little electromagnets inside itself. This vibration is used to cancel out the vibration caused when you hand hold your lens. The bad news is that if you are not hand holding (for example, you are using a tripod), the vibration made by your VR system can actually cause your picture to blur. I often leave it on by mistake, and it usually seems OK, but the manufacturers recommend you tun it off when using a tripod, so it's best to try and remember.
  • Use a remote. My Nikon comes with a nifty little infrared remote so you can trigger your camera without touching it. If you are taking exposures with a remote, your eye will be away from the eyepiece. In that case you should cover up the eyepiece with the little cover that was provided with your camera. Otherwise light will get into your camera that way, and could confuse your camera's exposure readings. If your head isn't blocking the eyepiece while you are taking exposure readings, then the cover should be on. I don't usually bother, but bear it in mind if your exposures are looking wrong.
  • Use auto bracketing. Try and use auto bracketing on your camera, so you don't have to touch your setup at all while making your entire bracket set. If you do need to manually change your exposure settings, then do so with an incredibly light touch. This will usually be the case when making a bracket set of more than three exposures.
  • Sometimes things move anyway. Even when I use a tripod, I sometimes get a small amount of movement. Maybe my tripod was set up on sand, and it moved a fraction, or the wind was blowing and the tripod shook. But not to fear, because Photoshop has a very nifty aligning feature. Aligning your images will be far better and more successful if you had slight movement on a tripod, rather than the far bigger movement you will get from hand holding. Its also better movement, because it can only be in a very limited range and you won't get the potential parallax shifts that hand holding gives (which may not be correctable in Photoshop at all).
  • Don't trip people. Tripods are clumsy so be careful and aware of people around you. Broken hips aren't cool.
  • Be careful of mugging. If you get totally wrapped up in your tripod setting up and HDR settings, you are a potential mugging victim, so again be aware of what's going on around you. A tripod makes a great weapon though, if you get into trouble. Try and cultivate a psychotic stare to go with it.

Unfortunately, as useful as tripods are, there are many times you just can't use them. Many museums or historical sites have banned tripods, so you may have to hand yours in at the door. Whether they are worried about you tripping people up, or damaging historic floors, or you just look like a professional photographer who will be competing with them in the postcard business, as soon as your tripod goes through the metal detector at the front door, it will be singled out and sent to jail until you leave the premises. Even in places other than museums, watch out for security guards. They really don't seem to like tripods, and get especially tetchy about them around airports and the like, as if photography was some terribly subversive pursuit.

That's when you'll need to hand hold. And that's the subject for next week's tutorial.

Going for gold in Istanbul

Interior View of the Mustafa Pasha Pavillion at Topkapi Palace, Istanbul  

This is the Mustafa Pasha or Terrace Pavillion at the amazing Topkapi Palace in Istanbul, Turkey. It also seems to be known as the Sofa Pavillion, and the word Kiosk is often used in place of Pavillion. Little know fact: the work kiosk comes from the Turkish köşk, meaning pavillion. Neat.

Topkapi Palace was the main residence of the Sultans of the Ottoman Empire from the mid-1400s to mid-1800s or so. It became a museum in the 1920s when Turkey became a new state. It's a huge complex with a large amount of impressive and well-preserved Ottoman architecture.

This particular room was built in the Rococo style in the 1750s to give the Sultan of the day and his friends a comfy viewing spot for the events in the gardens below. Probably on their sofas, hence the one name of the room. Or on their ottomans, perhaps? Ottomans on sofas? This view gives a good idea of the opulence of the palace. I don't think they believed you could overdo gold.

 

HDR Stuff

I was glad that this shot worked out well. The  room was closed to the public, and I could only get to view it through the windows from outside. Tripods were banned in the palace complex. I held the camera steady against the glass and set the shooting speed to high for a fairly well aligned handheld HDR bracket set of three (-2, 0, +2).

This is also for me a rare example of processing with Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro. I quite like the software, but don't find it as intuitive to use as Photomatix Pro. HDR Efex Pro has the cool feature of control points, which allow you to set a point on the photo from which you can set the amount of exposure level or saturation or sharpness or whatever in a certain radius from the point, and it auto-detects edges to contain its effect. It seems to do a good job of it, but often feels a bit fiddly to me. It is on my agenda to fiddle with more though, because it feels pretty powerful, and I'm sure there are some very good effects to be had, pun not intended.

HDR Tutorial: Bracketing

Muizenberg beach huts  

Muizenberg Beach in Cape Town has a very pretty collection of beach huts for changing in. I don't think I've ever actually changed in them, but I have photographed them often. Lurking around change rooms with a camera is probably not a terribly bright idea, come to think of it.

This was photographed at dawn, so no-one was near the huts. I was very surprised to see one family swimming already and there were several joggers around. It's hard enough to get up this early to photograph, so I don't know how you do it for exercise. I think the HDR technique does a good job of bringing out the texture in the weathered timber.

 

This week I continue with part four of my HDR Tutorial series by looking at an essential part of capturing an HDR image, bracketing.

What is bracketing?

Once upon a time, in the days of film photography, photographers didn't have the benefit of being able to preview a shot immediately after taking it, like we can on our funky little LCD screens. Which means they didn't do that amusing thing we do where we squint at the back of our cameras every single shot. But it also means they couldn't be sure they were getting the shot right until they had developed their film.

To make sure they had a better chance of getting their camera settings correct for difficult shots, they developed a technique called bracketing. The idea was to shoot a range of images of the same scene while just varying the one setting that was uncertain. For example, if you weren't sure of the exposure settings for a scene, you would take several shots with different exposure settings, adding to the the most likely setting with ones that were likely to be a little under- and overexposed. You would end up with a sequence of shots from too dark to too light, with hopefully an ideal one somewhere in the middle. This is a bracket set. The problem is that in difficult lighting situations there often isn't just one ideal exposure, even if you shoot a bracket set. Fortunately, now we don't need to choose one shot anymore, we can take them all and combine them into one HDR image.

You can use the concept of bracketing for other settings on your camera too, such as white balance or depth of field, but for the purposes of HDR we are just interested in exposure bracketing. The whole point of HDR is to extend the dynamic range of a single image, so we deliberately shoot a range of exposures from too dark through to too light, and let the software sort it out.

How many shots should I have in my bracket set?
Before you can set up a bracket set on your camera you need to decide how that set will be made up.
The convention of a bracket exposure set is that it's usually three, five, seven, or sometimes even more shots, with the middle one being the normal exposure you would have taken. From the normal middle shot, you vary the exposure up and down by a fixed amount, usually by an Exposure Value (EV) of 1 or 2 EV. The middle exposure is called '0' because it has zero deviation from the normal settings. An exposure underexposed by 2 EV is called '-2'. Likewise, an exposure overexposed by 2 EV is called '+2'. A simple bracket set could then be referred to as -2, 0, +2.
Deciding what bracket set to shoot for HDR is a topic of much debate and personal preference. I have found that for 90% of my HDR images, I can get the results I want with a -2, 0, +2 set. It's a matter of choice, but for starting out I would recommend you keep it simple and shoot your images with a bracket set like this. It's important to remember that you want to change your exposure by changing your shutter speed, not your aperture, so make sure you are set to Aperture Priority mode. If you change your aperture with each shot, all your shots will have different depths of field, which will be hard to combine later.
I increase the size of the set for shots with trickier lighting. So for a dimly-lit interior scene with windows looking onto a bright exterior, I would probably shoot a -4,- 2, 0, +2, +4 set. The most hardcore lighting is shooting directly into the sun, say for a sunset, and in that case I would consider an even bigger range. On trickier shots, I also sometimes use a 1 EV spacing in the set, so that the HDR software has an even greater range of exposures to work from. I don't find that making a huge difference, so I wouldn't recommend that while starting out.
Something to think about though. You've come all this way to take this photograph, you've taken the time to set up your tripod, you won't be here again for a long while, so why scrimp on your bracket set? Shoot more than you need, you can always delete the ones you don't want later. Not that I'm very good at deleting anything. But I'd rather suffer having to buy another hard drive than missing a shot because I didn't shoot enough images.
Muizenberg beach huts

 

How do you shoot a bracket set on auto?
Many cameras, especially digital SLRs, can shoot a bracket set automatically. Have a look at your manual to see how to set it up for your particular camera, but don't despair if you don't have an auto setting for it either.
You will typically be able to shoot three or more images in a set, and you should be able to set your EV spacing to at least 1, or maybe 2 EV. My Nikon D7000 lets me only shoot three shots on an auto bracket set, but I can set the spacing up to 2 EV, which is why I usually choose -2, 0, +2 as my standard set. On a camera that won't go higher than a 1 EV spacing, rather shoot a -2, -1, 0, +1, +2 set.
It's very easy to do it this way, but if your camera can't do auto-bracketing, or not as big a set as you would like, move on to the next section for help. If you are hand-holding your HDR then this is by far the best way to set up your bracket set, especially if you set your camera to high-speed shooting. You can get a three shot bracket in about a second, and they will be fairly well aligned if you have a steady hand.

 

How do you shoot a bracket set on semi-auto?
I find this the easiest way if I want to shoot more than a three shot bracket set on my camera, and it should work on most cameras. Simply use the Exposure Compensation setting on your camera to dial in the settings for your set. So if you want to shoot a -4, -2, 0, +2, +4 set, then set your exposure compensation dial to -4, then -2, 0, +2 and finally +4 for each consecutive shot, and you will have a perfect bracket set. Easy as that!

 

How do you shoot a bracket set on manual?
It's not actually that scary! Here's how you would do it if your camera can't or won't do the previous two methods.
There's the briefest of theory you need to know ...
Each +1 EV is equal to one standard increment in shutter speed. Shutter speeds have had standardised speeds since the early days of photography. These speeds are (in seconds) 1 s, 1/2 s, 1/4 s, 1/8 s, 1/15 s, 1/30 s, 1/60 s, 1/125 s, 1/250 s, 1/500 s, 1/1000 s, 1/2000 s, 1/4000 s etc. You can see that each speed is half or twice the speed of its neighbour, and therefore lets in half or twice as much light into your camera. (Your camera might have inbetween shutter speeds which you can ignore for this.)
Let's say that your camera tells you that the correct exposure for the image will be 1/500 s at an aperture of f8. This is the setting for your middle shot. You know that you must only vary your shutter speed, not your aperture, so the f8 setting can stay as it is. You have decided that you want to shoot a -2, 0, +2 EV set. You know that each EV is one standard increment in shutter speed, so 2 EV is two increments.
Looking at the list above, choose the shutter speeds two increments away in each direction. Those are 1/125 and 1/2000. So to get a bracket set, you take three shots at f/8, and at shutter speeds of 1/2000, 1/500 and 1/125.
Easy! There is even iPhone software which will work this out for you, such as PhotoBuddy, but it's really very easy to do in your head.

 

TLDR and tips
  • Shoot in RAW mode. RAW files contain far more information about the scene you photographed than a JPG file would. You're already extending your dynamic range by taking a bracket set, so you might as well also extend the dynamic range of each shot by using RAW.
  • Use a tripod as much as possible. Your shutter speeds might get quite low in a bracket set, so a tripod will help keep things steady. Also, it will make it hugely easier to align all you photos later. If you're using a tripod, remember to use Mirror Up mode, switch off your lens Vibration Reduction, and use a remote to trigger the shot. Make every effort to keep things as steady and solid as possible. Your results will be much better using a tripod than hand-holding.
  • Shoot high speed if hand-holding. If you have decided not to use a tripod, shoot in high speed mode to ensure the best alignment of your images.
  • Aperture priority mode. Always set your camera in aperture priority when shooting a bracket set. If you're shooting in manual, then vary your shutter speed, not your aperture. Varying your aperture will cause your depth of field to be different in each shot, which will cause problems in the HDR process.
  • Low ISO. HDR amplifies noise in images, so shoot in as low an ISO as you can to minimize noise. Don't use Auto ISO.
  • Turn off autofocus. Your camera may decide to change focus points in the middle of a bracket set, which will ruin the set. Either keep a very careful eye on your focus, or disable autofocus once you have set the focus correctly.
  • Clean your lens. And your filters. HDR amplifies this dirt, so keep your stuff clean. You may barely notice it on your bracket set, but it will look pretty bad once you have combined several bracket images with the same specks and spots.
  • Bracket from dark to light. Set up bracketing on your camera so that it starts from the -EV settings, then 0 EV, and then the +EV settings. It will make things look a lot neater when you view them in Lightroom, and will ensure that you always keep your whole bracket set together and in order. The default of many cameras is 0EV, -EV and then +EV. That just looks messy, and it's easier to lose images that way.
  • Your standard HDR set will be -2, 0, +2. Take more shots if conditions look trickier. As you get more experience you will build up a sense of how many images to take. If you won't be back this way for a long time, take more pictures than you think you need, and delete the excess later.
  • Single Image HDR. You can dispense with bracketing entirely and make a (pseudo) HDR from one image, but you will get much better results with at least 3 images.
  • 0 doesn't have to be 0.  Your middle image doesn't have to remain at 0 EV. If you feel you camera is making a mistake you can add some exposure compensation to that image, as long as the spacing in relation to your other shots remains even. For example, you are shooting a low light scene at dusk, and your camera tries for compensate for the low light by brightening your image. You correct the camera reading by setting an exposure compensation of -⅔ EV. Your bracket set should now be -2⅔, -⅔, +1⅓. The important thing is that the spacing of shots is at 2 EV.
  • Leave out images. But only when processing your HDR later, not while shooting. Just because you have shot a huge bracket set, doesn't mean you have to use every image. If you find that the HDR process is making your dusk scene look too bright for example, you can choose to leave out one or two of the lighter images to fox the HDR software into making your image darker.
  • Watch out for people. Keep a wary eye out for things changing in your scene while you are shooting your bracket set. Look out for people walking into view, for birds or cars etc. You may need to patiently wait until the people exit your scene before you resume shooting. Some of these things can be sorted out with the ghosting tools in Photomatix, and some can be painted out in Photoshop, but you will save yourself a lot of time to just not shoot the movement in the first place. Things like trees blowing in the wind, moving clouds or waves can also make your post-processing trickier.

 

Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (11 exposure set)
An 11 exposure set from -5 to + 5 at 1 EV intervals. This could have been simplified to a 5 exposure set from -4 to +4 at 2 EV intervals, and still have worked just as well.

HDR Tutorial: What looks good in HDR?

Cogmankloof, Montagu This is a view of the road between Aston and Montagu in the Western Cape, South Africa. The road passes through the mountains here at Cogmanskloof. There's a really short tunnel just below where the picture was taken, and a small stone fort above the tunnel, next to where I am standing. The fort was built by the British in 1899 to protect the tunnel during the Anglo-Boer War. You get a magnificent view from next to the fort, but once you go inside it's quite scary. Suddenly, all you have for viewing the surrounds are tiny gun slots, and you can just imagine people creeping up to your position, completely unseen. Or maybe I've been playing too much Skyrim.

For this week's tutorial I want to talk about what looks good in HDR. Now, first off, please bear in mind throughout this entire post that this is my opinion and is terribly subjective. You can choose to break these guidelines and be happy with the results, but they are my own rules of thumb built up through a fair bit of experimentation.

What looks good in HDR?

  • Landscapes. I find that big scenes with lots of details work very well, especially when you get to see them printed to a large scale or can view them on a high resolution monitor. The HDR process brings out all the myriad details, and brings light into all the shaded areas where you would normally not be able to see the detail. Once you combine with some sharpening, you can really get lost in these images as you explore every little detail.
  • Dramatic skies. HDR can do cool stuff to clouds, and to sunset and sunrise sky tones. Watch out for generating too much noise in your skies when you do it though. Sometimes the skies can go a bit too over the top, and start looking too unbelievable, so watch out for that as well.
  • Textured stuff. HDR brings out details, so any image with lots of texture can look good. Try it on things like rocks, mountains, bark, grass, sand, concrete, brick. Old stuff tends to have a lot of texture as well. Things like old weathered wood, rusted machinery, ruined buildings, and architectural detail often make good subjects for HDR.
  • Water. Water seems to do interesting stuff when you HDR it. Reflections can be beautifully enhanced, and things like sunset tones reflecting in water seem to get amplified by the HDR process.
  • Difficult lighting. Any scene that can't be exposed correctly in one image makes a good candidate for HDR. That includes landscapes with skies much brighter than the ground, sunsets and sunrises, scenes with bright light and dark shade in them, backlit scenes, and interior scenes with outside views. Blue hour and night time also make for good HDR shots.
  • Interiors. I mentioned interiors above but they deserve a category of their own because they can work especially well. They usually have a lot of texture and architectural detail which can be enhanced. They usually have interesting lighting that's a combination of natural and artificial. They often have windows that have very differently exposed exterior views. All these can make for a great HDR shot.
The shot of Cogmanskloof at the top of the post shows the effect of good sunset light, a landscape with lots of detail and texture in both the near and far rocks, and how HDR deals with some of the scene being partly in shade and partly in light.
This shot of Istanbul below from a previous post also shows some of the things I think make for a good HDR, like dawn light, the water catching and amplifying the light, the glass of the buildings doing the same thing, and the texture of the buildings and water.
Sunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey

 

Now for the flip side. What doesn't work in HDR?

What looks bad in HDR?

  • Portraits. People, and especially their skin tones, just don't seem to come out right. Give it a go if you want, but mostly the HDR process exaggerates every freckle and pore, adds in some more for good measure, discolours the skin, and ends up making the person look like the living dead. Unless your friends actually are zombies, you may well lose a few if you insist on HDRing their portraits. Don't make Dale Carnegie cry. If you think their clothes and background would HDR well, then do that, but blend in non-HDR skin with your image.
  • Movement. This doesn't have to be a bad thing, but you need to look out for it. Wind, for example, can ruin your shot. If you have a lot of trees in a scene and the wind is blowing, each of your bracketed images will have the leaves and branches in a different position. You just won't be able to HDR successfully because the movement will turn into a smudged mess. The closer the movement is to the lens, the worse the effect will be on your image. Either leave it until a calmer day, or else blend in the moving trees from one image to keep them sharper. You might be able to use the ghosting settings from your HDR software to help. The same applies to things like waves and people (or cows) moving through your scene.
  • Don't HDR everything. HDR is a cool look. But it is a look, and that can get boring if you do it all the time. Before you automatically HDR every photo you take, think about processing it in some other ways. You could process as a single image and not HDR at all. You could take two shots for say a sunset and manually combine one with a correctly exposed sky with another of the  correctly exposed ground. You could choose to use HDR on only part of your image, and blend in non-HDR parts to the rest of the image.
  • Don't overdo it. Just because the sliders can go to 11 doesn't mean you need to slide them that far. If you overcook your HDR image you get what my friend Stuart not-so-fondly calls psychedelic clown vomit. You don't want clown vomit. Eeeew.

Here's a before and after of what you get when you go too far. Well, it's not really a before and after, just a side by side comparison. On the left is an HDR pushed to crazy surreal levels, and I get nauseous just looking at it. On the right is the severely toned down version of it, still HDR, that I personally think works much better. Keep it restrained is what I'm going to recommend.

Don't do this! Seriously!

[beforeafter]How not to do HDRStadsaal Cave, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

The Blue Mosque

The Blue Mosque, Istanbul  

This is the world above Istanbul.

In the old city of Sultanahmet the streets are thrumming with tourists and markets and restaurants and vendors at most times of the day or night. This lively ground level is replicated up in the sky, where every hotel jostles to have the highest roof terrace with some view of the minarets and the sea. This roofscape is the world that tourists inhabit for breakfast and dinner and sundowner drinks, and perhaps reach a vague nodding acquaintance with their counterparts on the adjacent roof terraces.

This was the view from our particular terrace one beautiful dusk in autumn last year. That's the Blue Mosque in the background, just a few minutes walk away. A benefit of staying this close to the Blue Mosque (apart from it being one of the great buildings of the world, of course) was waking every morning to the beautifully evocative call to prayer. There are apparently some 3,000 mosques in Istanbul and it's quite impressive when they all start the call just before dawn. It makes you remember that you are somewhere very exotic and far from home from the moment you wake up each morning.

HDR Tutorial: What gear do I need?

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg  

Right, everybody, it's on to part 2 of the HDR tutorial, and another example image. This is a view of the Stadsaal Cave in the Cederberg, South Africa. It's more of a real-world example than part 1 of the tutorial last week, where I shot a random window to show the trickiness of capturing a scene that contains extremes of light and dark. This cave scene is quite tricksy too. What to expose for, light or dark? Easy, expose for everything and let your software sort it out!

The cave's name translates from Afrikaans to Town Hall Cave. I don't know if it was ever really used as a meeting hall, but it has historic graffiti all over one of the walls, supposedly by long-gone politicians which tantalizingly hints that maybe it was. Or maybe it's just graffiti from an age when people cared less about defacing such a beautiful spot. It's certainly extremely far from the nearest town (or village for matter), so it would take quite dedicated and civic-minded people to meet out here.

 

What gear do I need?

This is a nice and short list, so no need to stress, unless you like to. I'll be getting into much more detail on all of these items over the next couple of weeks.

Out on your photographic adventures you will need just three things, and most of them are pretty 'doh!':

  • Camera - Doh! To make your life easy, you really want to have a digital SLR, capable of shooting bracketed exposures, able to be triggered with a remote control, and with a tripod connector. Set it to RAW mode and the lowest possible ISO. If your camera can't do any of those things they can all be worked around. I use a Nikon D7000 which does everything I need. Note to self: avoid stirring up a Nikon versus Canon fight.
  • Lens - Almost anything will do, but make sure it's super clean. The process of combining multiple exposures into one tends to exaggerate any dirt and specks on the lens or lens filters. I suggest a good wide-angle or zoom used on the wider end, but the standard lens that came with your camera ought to be fine. I usually use a Nikkor 18-200mm lens.
  • Tripod - The sturdier the better. Which sadly for your carrying shoulder means heavier. Don't scrimp of this one. Get something decent like a Manfrotto and you will be able to use it for your entire photographic career. Handholding is possible and I will dedicate a tutorial to that later, but setting up on a tripod will give significantly better results. I know it's a pain to carry around, but you need to do it.

Having been out photographing and hopefully having captured some awesome images, you are ready to process your first HDR image. What you will need are:

  • Computer - Ideally a fast one with a BIG monitor, but pretty much anything should so. Further note to self: avoid stirring up an even bigger Mac versus PC fight.
  • HDR Software - This software will combine your multiple images into a single image through a process called tonemapping. There are several options here. I use Photomatix Pro, and find it very comfortable to use. You could also use Photoshop's built in 'Merge to HDR' command, or Nik Software HDR Pro which is a plugin to Photoshop. As a free option, there are a couple of options such as Picturenaut or Luminance HDR. I've tried several of these, and am sticking with Photomatix for the time being. It just works. If you want to experiment with it, you can download a free trial from HDRSoft that will do everything the paid version does, but will watermark the image.
  • Photoshop - You're going to need this to clean up your tonemapped image. You will never be able to get the tonemapping exactly as you would like it, so you will need Photoshop to adjust parts of the image, for example by bringing in part of one your original bracketed images to replace a portion of the tonemapped image that doesn't look good. You could also get by with similar software such as Photoshop Elements or GIMP.
  • Software to help you with noise reduction and sharpening. I use the Nik Photoshop plugins for this, Dfine and Sharpener Pro, and they do a mighty fine job. Photoshop can also manage this without plugins. Photomatix can also help with the noise reduction part.

Next week I'll be discussing what subjects look good in HDR and what don't.

 

Before and After

Unlike my epic 11 exposure bracket set from the tutorial last week, where I was really just showing off, here is the bracket set I shot for this scene. This is a far more typical number of shots for me. 5 shots, at -4, -2, 0, +2, and +4. With practice you can probably set up the tripod and shoot the set in less than a minute. I'll time it sometime and let you know.

 

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (5 exp set)

 

Here is the Before and After showing the middle shot and the finished product. The wind was blowing quite hard, which blurred the trees and made the post-processing quite a bit harder. Wind is the enemy of HDR, so avoid it if you can.

 

[beforeafter]Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (before)Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

HDR Tutorial: What is HDR?

Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg  

Today I am kicking off the first of a series on tutorials on how I do HDR photography, in the hopes that I might inspire you to do the same. Earlier this year I saw an image which made me go 'wow' many, many times, and it turned out that it was made using the HDR photographic technique. I immediately downloaded some demo Photomatix software and started experimenting. I eventually spent a large part of this year learning about the technique and trying to read and practice as much as possible, and now it's time for me to pass on that knowledge. It's also just in time for a new year, and maybe for your new year's resolution to teach yourself a new aspect of photography? It's not hard, but it does need quite a bit of patience. Let's get to it!

This first tutorial is an intro to look at just what is HDR or High Dynamic Range photography? Don't worry about the acronym or the confusing sounding name. Very simply, it's a technique that allows you to photograph a scene that has complicated lighting. Where there are extremes of lighting in a scene, a camera, whether film or digital, is not able to cope with the lighting range successfully. Photography is all about capturing the light, and that light is often complicated because that's the kind that impresses us the most.

A very typical example, which is the subject of this post, is shooting an interior scene with a window onto an exterior view. It's dark inside and bright outside, and your poor camera does not have a clue how to expose this, which makes it quite sad. You can expose for the scene outside the window, but the interior will be as black as the toast I forgot in the toaster this morning. Or you can expose for the interior, but the outside will be bleached out white like you've been staring at the sun too long (instead of watching the toast).

Have a look at the before and after slider below to get an idea of the range of lighting in this scene. The darker image is shot at an exposure compensation of -3 and the lighter one is shot at +3. For those that are new to exposure compensation, 0 represents the setting where the camera thinks the scene is correctly exposed, and any + or - setting allows more or less light into the camera than the 'correct' setting.

[beforeafter]Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (underexposed)Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (overexposed)[/beforeafter]

 

Neither of these images works, but there are a couple of ways you could try and tackle this scene. You could maybe turn on the lights inside the house to illuminate the wall if they were bright enough, but this was cottage in the country with no electricity and candles were not going to cut it. You could illuminate the inside wall with a very big flash or studio lighting, but I don't own either of those, or have much of a clue how to use them. You could take two exposures, one correct for inside, and one correct for outside, and then combine then manually later in Photoshop, which would probably work quite well. But the most fun way to do it is to take a much larger range of photos to ensure that you have the correct exposure for every part of the scene, and then process them all using specialized HDR software. The software combines the images into one composite image that reflects the correct exposure for each portion of the scene. That's mostly correct, but also a little bit of a lie, because you can also have a lot of fun with the software and create the composite in a number of ways, from fairly realistic to completely lurid and over the top.

Here is the range of images I took for this scene. Using a tripod to ensure all the images lined up perfectly, I shot an 11 exposure bracket set from -5 all the way through to +5, using 1 f-stop increments. That's probably overkill, and I would usually have shot a 5 exposure set at -4, -2, 0, +2 and +4 for an interior scene like this, but I felt like going a bit overboard on this one. No real reason. I usually shoot with 2 f-stop increments, and for most images with less extreme lighting I shoot a 3 exposure set at -2, 0 and +2. Shooting a bigger set than you need isn't much of a problem other than taking more time to shoot and more space on your hard drive afterwards.

Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (11 exposure set)

 

These images then all get loaded into your HDR software, you get to tweak a number of sliders and settings, and out pops an HDR image. They usually look a little fuzzy and vaseline-smeared when they are freshly made, and need to be cleaned up quite a bit with post-processing in Photoshop before they are ready to show your friends.

Here's a comparison using the before and after slider of a fresh Photomatix HDR next to the fully cleaned up and post-processed HDR version of the scene. Over the next several weeks, I'll be adding several tutorials to go step by step through the whole process, from using a tripod through to Photoshop post-processing.

[beforeafter]Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg (photomatix)Keurbosfontein Window, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

 

By the way, this picture was taken inside the cottage on the charming homestead of Keurbosfontein, close to where I photographed my previous blog image from. There was no electricity here, no cellphone reception, no people, and it was just terribly relaxing! There were beautiful gardens all around the cottage, even though we were in a very harsh and dry climatic area, and it felt like a little oasis.

Farmhouse in the Cederberg

Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg  

Wow! Just back a few days now from a terribly relaxing long weekend in the Cederberg, with nothing more important to do than take about 600 photos. And eat very well.

We stayed for a couple of nights at Keurbosfontein, a historic white-washed and thatch-roofed Cape homestead about a 3½ hour drive from Cape Town. The first impression was the amazing thatch smell on entering the house, and the lasting impression was how peaceful it was there. The farm is situated in a fairly remote part of the Cederberg Conservancy, near Matjiesrivier at the start of the rough dirt road to Wuppertal, so you need to do quite a bit of dirt road driving to get there. We took the quiet route from Ceres, and by the time we arrived, we had re-acquainted ourselves with the distinctive Cederberg rock formations and were in relaxed Cederberg mood.

On the first morning I somehow and very atypically managed to wake up to a dawn glow in the bedroom window, so I grabbed my kit and trekked up the nearest hill to see what the view would be like. And this is it. As the sun rose I could watch as it slowly illuminated each little house in the valley in turn, and all the while was surrounded by curious and cheerful little birds chirping and doing their morning thing. I took a shot or two of them, but without a wildlife lens they are about the size of my little finger nail seen from the neighbouring farm in the shots.

Up here is the first time I have been tempted to learn paragliding. Most times I've seen paragliders, they look like they are flinging themselves off sheer cliffs to certain death. Here there was a nice gentle slope and a hot espresso pot in the farmhouse below. How pleasant would it be to just glide gently down to breakfast and a mug of steaming coffee? Instead, I scrambled down the scratchy-bushed and slippery scree slope, nearly managing to fall over several times. At least I learned that tripods make vaguely serviceable trekking poles.

Before and After

To capture the subtle dawn light, and to justify lugging the darn tripod up the slope, I bracketed this shot more than I usually do and used a five shot (-4, -2, 0, 2, and 4) exposure bracket. I have given up using the built in auto-bracket setting when doing more that a set of three shots, which is the limit of my Nikon D7000's bracket set. I find it much easier to just run the exposure compensation dial through the five settings from -4 to 4, being super careful not to bump the tripod.

I tried a new technique this time in post-processing, which was to only use multiple exposures on part of the image. Because there was the slightest breeze, which was just visible on the close up bushes, I used only one exposure for the whole foreground area by selecting it all as a ghosted area in Photomatix. I also felt that one of the original exposures looked stronger for the sky, and blended it in with the HDR version. So ultimately only the middle ground has the full HDR treatment. Overall I tried to apply the HDR with a light touch, to keep the scene looking as natural as possible. I started from the default Photomatix setting, and then toned-down the HDR effect quite a bit. I think it works.

 

[beforeafter]Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg (before)Dawn at Keurbosfontein, Cederberg[/beforeafter]

It's just a jump to the left ...

Clifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape Town ... and another jump to the left. Or a skip if you prefer. If you got that right, you should now be facing 180 degrees from the view of the Twelve Apostles that I posted recently. I promised the about-face view and here it is. Pretty awesome, huh?

This view takes in the magnificent beaches of Clifton, numbered First through Fourth Beach, with Clifton Fourth being closest to the camera, and Lion's Head in the background. At full moon you will see dozens of torches marking the route up Lion's Head as hikers head up for a night time view. The Clifton water is very, very cold, and can drop below 10 degrees Celsius ... come mid-winter the crazies gather here for the annual Polar Bear Swim. You would probably want to be our local human polar bear, Lewis Gordon Pugh, to really enjoy swimming here for more than a rapid squeal-inducing and instantly-numbing dip.

This photo, and the Twelve Apostles view, were both taken quite a few months ago, in the middle of winter on an unseasonably pleasant day. Now that summer has arrived and one would expect, nay, demand, that the weather be perfect, it is no longer cooperating at all, and I feel I must have wronged it somehow.

Every recent opportunity to spend the evening after work in this exact location has been thwarted by gale force winds. We've had barely minutes to contemplate the five sand-blasted nutters on the beach, and lone sad yacht with mast at 45 degrees, before conceding defeat and doing a runner back home for Star Wars and pizza. Perhaps a weather dance is required? Or the sacrifice of some G&T?

But I live in hope of better weather, and more chance to photograph here without having to lash down the tripod with all the tow-rope and industrial epoxy I can muster from my boot.

 

Before and After

This gives a great indication of how HDR can really get stuck into those under-exposed shadow areas and reveal all the detail and texture hiding in there. This was a three exposure bracket at -2, 0 and +2 exposure settings, combined later in Photomatix. The shots were taken just after sunset, during that blue hour when colours deepen and richen with the diminishing twilight. A tripod was essential with the low light conditions, and I used the lowest ISO possible to minimize sensor noise. Noise likes to accumulate most in the under-exposed parts of the image, and is amplified by HDR, so I keep the ISO set to 100, and applied noise reduction later to my preliminary HDR image as the first step of my post-processing workflow, using my personal favourite noise reduction Photoshop plugin, Nik Dfine 2.

[beforeafter]Clifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape TownClifton Beach and Lions Head, Cape Town[/beforeafter]

Bosphorus Dawn

Sunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey  

OK, confession time.

I'm not very good at getting up early. You can't persuade me to actually go to bed in the early hours, but by the same token, you can't get me up very easily either. Which is a pity, because look at this dawn light. All this spectacular light is just out there waiting for those crazy enough to get up that early. Which is usually other people. I took this shot at dawn on my third day in the strange and wonderful city of Istanbul, which meant getting up quite a bit earlier, wandering up to the newly found tram station, buying a tram token (called a jeton in Turkey) from the awesomely named Jeton-matik machine, remembering which direction the tram travels in and which station to get off, all while lugging my camera bag and tripod, and all before dawn. It was only the thought of breakfast and strong Turkish coffee that kept me going. But totally worth it!

This shot was taken from the Galata Bridge, where the Golden Horn meets the Bosphorus. This area is crazy with commuter ferries in the day, but was quite calm at this time. That's the Bosphorus Bridge in the background, which connects Europe with Asia. And that's Istanbul, one foot in Europe and one in Asia, one in the Roman Empire and one on some other planet entirely. It's an amazing place, and in some other life I'd be moving there. Or maybe this one, some day?

 

Before and After

I think this Before and After is really cool. All those crazy colours you see in the final version? They're all there in the before version, I haven't added any colours, but you can see that they do look a little pasty. The camera is seeing all the stuff that's there, but it's not doing a very good job of capturing it well. By taking a range of several bracketed exposures I have a sequence of images where each part of the scene is captured with optimal exposure in one of the images, capturing the light and colour as it should be, but just for that small portion of the image. Then all that remains, and this is the fun part, is to get the best parts from each image, combine them into one master image, and then amp the hell out of the colours and detail!

Don't even think of shooting in JPEG if you want to do this, you need to shoot in RAW. RAW files store just ridiculously more data and colour information than the equivalent JPEG would. Then multiply that amount of data by the number of bracketed shots you are combining in your HDR, and you get the vast amounts of recorded data for the scene that allows you to pull the best exposure and colour from every part of the image.

What I also like about this is that you can see the stunning things HDR can do with water, skies and reflections. The natural reflections in the water are turned really punchy, and the blown out detail in the sky is brought back. Those are the kind of things that can make an HDR image jump up, slap you in the face, and make you go 'woah!'

[beforeafter]Before version of Bosphorus DawnSunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey[/beforeafter]