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]

Back in a bit

Zodiac tripping in Antarctica  

Dear reader, I will be travelling for the next week, so I apologise in advance for a lack of posts and HDR tutorials during that time. Sadly, it won't be as pictured above, in a zodiac at the Antarctic peninsula. But it will be on a boat. Or ship, as my nautical relatives keep correcting me. And it will be a lot of fun!

I promise some nautical pictures, and will endeavour not to trip any fellow passengers with my tripod. Maybe I'll even win at bingo?

Back in a bit!

Michael

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]

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]

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]