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]

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]

Quiet day at Kirstenbosch

Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens  

I'm going to kick off the Trekking Tripod with a couple of places that are close to home and close to my heart.

This is Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden in Cape Town, South Africa. It was supposedly bequeathed to the nation by Cecil John Rhodes a hundred odd years ago, but I like to think of it as my garden. It's got to be one of the finest gardens in the world, and it's located about 10 minutes away from my house, where my wife and I live ... gardenless. Come summer (it's just arrived for us southern hemispherians, woot!) and this is the place to be. For the cost of a day pass, or better yet a year pass, this can be your garden too.

Things to bring to Kirstenbosch:

  • significant other
  • picnic blanket
  • two kindles (so as not to fight)
  • long, cold drinks
  • vienna sausages (don't ask me why, they just work here!)
Things to take home afterwards:
  • litter
  • extreme relaxedness

I'm looking forward to many a summer Sunday propped under this very tree. The hardest part is deciding when to be in the sun and when to be in the shade.


Before and After

This HDR was part of a 9 exposure set, at 1 stop intervals. I usually rely on 3 shots at 2 stop intervals, but I was experimenting here. The before shot shows the centre exposure, and the after is the result of combining them all in Photomatix and cleaning up afterwards in Photoshop. My wife was in the picture at the time, enjoying a nap. That's her right in the middle, impersonating a rock. She fell victim to the 'cleaning up' when I photoshopped her out, and she will have you know that she is not impressed.

I often try and capture the effect of direct sun shining through leaves. I find it terribly beautiful in reality, but really hard to photograph. The camera exposure system usually screams and falls over. This HDR was an attempt to bring light into all the various parts of the picture, and as an added advantage ends up looking like it dropped a bit of acid along the way. I'm sure I saw a rabbit running by and exclaiming, "Oh dear! Oh dear! I shall be too late!" Didn't I?

[beforeafter]Kirstenbosch Botanical GardensKirstenbosch Botanical Gardens[/beforeafter]