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: 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.