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HDR Tutorial – How to….

Posted October 8th, 2008 in Tutorials and tagged , by Marcel

HDR Tutorial – New and Improved for 2008!

I hope this tutorial describing my evolving HDR techniques proves useful to you! I receive a lot of emails from people who stumble across my photography asking how I do this. Rather than sending a super-long response, I made this little tutorial because I was feeling particularly open-source one day. I keep this blog and try to post one interesting picture per day.

Also, many of you come here JUST to swipe my Photomatix Coupon Code – it is “StuckInCustoms” and here is the discount link. The nice people there were nice enough to give my fans a Photomatix discount code, so I am happy to share it since I believe in their product. I’ve tried all the others… I still keep coming back to sweet Photomatix! You can read more below…

What is HDR?

HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a software technique of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed. Most of the images in “Your Top 100 Favorites” are HDR, so you can take a look there if you want to see more examples than in this tutorial.

I will post a few interesting HDR photographs that I have taken that people seem to like. This first image below is actually hanging in the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. and many of the others are represented by Getty. I think this goes to show how mainstream and accepted HDR can be, if the technique is properly applied.

Fourth on Lake Austin

Farewell India

The Airy Doom of the Duomo

Hong Kong from The Peak on a Summer Night

I’m a huge defender and believer of utilizing HDR as a technique for processing photos because I think it helps to evoke my actual memory of the scene. It’s just another tool that digital photographers can utilize depending on the situation. As opposed to the camera shutter and aperture, the human eye actually scans the scene at a very high rate of speed, constantly adjusting the pupil diameter to adjust the light and color levels. The brain builds a quilt-like image that is comprised of millions of little bits, combined with neuron-connected memories of colors of objects. For example, when you look at a sunset, you can see all the colors of the clouds and sky, but you can also see all the colors of the trees and rocks in the foreground.

This is why, many times, people get home after a vacation and sigh at their pictures and tell their friends, “Well, it was much better when you were there.” So hey, it’s 2008, why not use software and the built-in ability of your camera to make a beautiful rendition of what YOU really saw? Some of us see life in HDR and some don’t. There’s a lot of HDR-hatahs out there. Just ignore them! Don’t hate the playa, hate the game… or tell them to get back in their dark rooms with their smelly hands.

Step 1: Get your Apple on (but it also works if you refuse to wear a black turtleneck and use a PC instead)

So here is a picture of my desktop before I launch all of these apps and melt my CPU. Speaking of which, Macs are great, and my Mac’s CPU does not melt – it handles all this stuff with reckless aplomb. I used to hate Macs and hate Mac people, but I’m a changed man. These things are great! Okay, I digressed way to early in this tutorial.

HDR Tutorial - Getting started...the clean desktop before the storm

What apps do you need? You can see down there that I have the essentials: Photoshop, Photomatix, and Lightroom. All of these are available for the PC – and for the remainder of this tutorial, the PC and Mac processes are the exact same. You can do without Lightroom, but if you are taking a lot of shots, it would behoove you to organize them. Sure, the rest of your life is a disorganized mess, but it doesn’t mean your photos have to be. I will of course talk more about these apps below.

If you buy Photomatix, be sure to use the discount coupon code “StuckInCustoms“, you’ll be set up. Hey, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. This is the same thing the priest said at my wedding.

Step 2: Get some equipment on the sly so your spouse does not ask too many questions

I have a full “My Equipment” page here, which is much more organized than the following Hawthornesque ramble.

What kind of equipment do you need? All you really need is a camera that has autobracketing. Autobracketing is the ability for your camera to take at least 3 pictures right after one another, each at different shutter speeds. If you are hunting around the menus on your camera now, just look for the words Autobracketing and perhaps some numbers like -2, 0, +2. If you have a DSLR camera, then you probably have this ability. I notice that some of the high-end consumer compact cameras have these as well.

Note that all cameras link to B&H Photo, the best camera store in the world. I’ve been there in NY several times – they are the cheapest, most reliable, and the best. I love that store. I would recommend them even if I was not an affiliate partner, which I am… so it all works in this circle of camera love.

Recommended Low End Camera:
Nikon D40 with 18-55mm Lens
Note: I don’t recommend this entry level camera because it does not do autobracketing. It DOES take shots in RAW format, and you can use that for making HDRs (later in the tutorial), but I believe it is better to have a camera that does have autobracketing built in.

Recommended Mid Range Camera:
D80 with 18-55mm VR Lens
This is a great camera. It will treat you well and it will last you a lifetime of great shots.

Recommended High End Camera:
Nikon D3
This camera is the ultimate. I can say no more.

What equipment do I have? People always ask me this, assuming, “Wow you must have a nice camera!” Well, I do have a nice camera (Nikon D2x), but many of my best pictures were taken earlier with a lesser camera (Nikon D70). The next camera I am about to buy is the D3, which is the successor to the D2X. I’m also not what I would consider a hardcore hardware guy – I use equipment to bend nature to my will, and I can do the same sort of work with just about any equipment. I’ve now got much higher-end equipment because I can now see the subtleties in the shots… somehow I can justify spending a lot of money for minor improvements in the shots.

I started with a Nikon D70 (now the equiv of the D80). I now have a Nikon D2x. For lenses, I have 3 main lenses: Nikkor 28-70mm 2.8, Nikkor 70-200mm 2.8, and a Sigma 10-20mm 4.5. I think it’s a 4.5 – it’s right around there. See, if I was a hardware camera nerd, I would know that number, but I don’t. I have a big tripod (Bogen/Manfrotto) with a silky smooth rotating fat Giotto with Quick Release head. I used to have a tiny tripod, but it was too shaky. You gotta have a solid tripod. What? You don’t want to carry around a tripod? Comon… if you are going out to shoot beautiful pictures, you better get serious. Also, if you have it over your shoulder or carry it in an aggressive way, it makes an effective weapon. As you can see, I go all over the world, often into sketchy areas, and a big tripod is often an effective deterrent. I carry it so much, I am very good at flipping it around and whipping it around my body like ninja nunchaku.

Step 3 – Look at the world in HDR
It is key to choose good HDR candidates. What I look for are extreme levels in light in a given scene. Below is a selection of five photos that I shot in New York at Times Square. This is one of the pictures that Getty is currently representing, so I think it is a good example of how to take something mundane and turn it into something beautiful that can be mass market and selected by major agencies.

And here is another photographic-philosophical moment. Everyone shoots Times Square in New York. Everyone. Professionals, tourists, teenagers with grainy cell phone cameras, etc. Think about it and name your worldwide location: Paris, New York, Shanghai – these places are filled with thousands of photographers, many of them very very good, with incredible equipment and great training. YET, it is still quite difficult to get an “original” shot. You end up with just about the same shot that everyone or anyone else can get. So this New York picture is a good example. If you look at this one below, you will see it is a “decent” and “serviceable” shot. However, look at the final version right below that, and you can see how much more interesting and engaging it is.

The BEFORE shot, selected in Lightroom.

HDR Tutorial - The BEFORE shot

The AFTER shot, after running it through Photomatix and Photoshop:
Times Square at Dusk

Step 4 – Take your autobracketed pictures and prepare for the HDR

Set up your camera in Aperture Priority mode. Turn on Autobracketing. If you have 3 pics in the autobracket, set it up at -2, 0, +2. On my Nikon D2x, I usually take 5 pics at -2, -1, 0, 1, +2. I usually do 5 pictures in extreme light or extreme dark. The rest of the time, three pictures seems to be okay.

Below, you can see that I have selected 5 pictures from Times Square. You can also easily see that they are all taken at different shutter speeds. By the way, you can click on any picture to go its Flickr page, where you can then click on ALL SIZES then ORIGINAL at the top if you want to zoom in all the way.

HDR Tutorial - Deciding on good pictures for HDR

Step 5 – Photomatix

Now it is time to fire up Photomatix and get crunk in the HDR house. Okay that was stupid.

Photomatix will take your 3+ shots and convert them into an HDR image. You can then tonemap the image and save it as a JPEG. I’ll take you through this process.

You can run Photomatix in a few ways:

1) To generate an single HDR from some autobraketed shots – GENERATE
2) To generate a bunch of different HDRs from a bunch of different autobracketed shots – BATCH
3) To generate an HDR from a single RAW file – SINGLE FILE CONVERSION

Let’s go over the first one in detail. I’ll mention the others later, but they are not too hard to figure out after you understand how the first one works.

When Photomatix is loaded up,you just see a menu. The newer version has a little control panel that has some of the most commonly used menu options. Either way, click Generate and refer to the screenshot below.

HDR Tutorial - Using Photomatix

Choose the images you like then click OK. You will then see a second dialog. I have selected the most common choices that I make. That “Ghosting” area never seems to work so well for me, so I don’t check it. I have a better method for ghosting that I will show you later.

HDR Tutorial - Beginning the photomatix processing

Click OK again and now your computer will churn like a farm of computers generating a single frame from a Pixar movie.

You will soon see a strange looking image on the screen. You are not done yet – not even close. That is an HDR image and you can’t really do anything with it until it is tonemapped. So, go up to HDR in the menu and select Tone Mapping. Now you will get a nice little dialog with all these fun gizmos and Willy Wonka-like controls.

Every picture is different. There is no “right way” to set these sliders. There is certainly a “wrong” way to do it, though. I am sure you have seen lots of crappy HDR images. Below, I paste an example of how you can really make your image look too funkadelic. Funkadelic is cool if that is what you want or you have a lot of druggie friends that like laser light shows and your mind-bending HDRs, but most people don’t like them. Actually, please don’t look at my old work. It’s a little over-the-top too… I cringe when I think about it. Just look at the newer stuff. Thank you kindly.

HDR Tutorial - BAD HDR example

Above, you can see the options I selected. It’s way overdone. Below, you can see better selections. Here are a few things I do… although none of these are cast in stone. I like to crank up the White Point and Black Point bars to give it some punch and contrast. I also like to slide the Luminosity bar over to the right as far as I can before it looks too flat. The further right the Lum bar is, the less halo effect you get as well. If you don’t know what the “Halo” effect is, you will soon enough – especially with daytime shots. Another way to combat that is with the next few steps I go through below.

HDR Tutorial - A decent tonemapping

Once you have set everything up with the sliders, click PROCESS. Save the resulting image as a .jpg and then prepare to bring it into Photoshop.

Step 6 – Photoshop fun

What? You are not good at Photoshop? First you tell me you don’t like carrying tripods, and then you tell me you don’t like using Photoshop. How about this… Let’s get you a little bit out of your comfort zone, eh? That’s what good friends do right… push you to make yourself better. If you keep doing things you are comfortable with, then you are never going to improve and experience new things, right? So comon… get with it.. Photoshop is great fun.

First, if you are horrible at Photoshop, then I recommend you spend a little time watching Photoshop User TV. They have a weekly podcast and a bunch of old episodes you can catch up on. They go through about 3 examples per week – mini-tutorials. Over time you will get to know all the tools and how to use them. 95% of the tutorials you see on Photoshop TV will have nothing to do with HDR, but they will get you familiar with the tools. I use many many many tools in Photoshop to clean up and perfect my final images… you will get there too… just be patient and try to learn a few new things per week in Photoshop. If you learn 3 things a week, that’s over 150 things a year. It’s worth it!

As you might have seen, Photomatix is great, but it probably messed up parts of the image that you now need to repair.

This, briefly, is what we are gonna do.
a) import 3 images to make 3 layers – the .jpg HDR you just made, the original RAW, and the darkest RAW.
b) repair the blown-out areas with the correct areas from the dark layer and
c) repair the ghosty cars and people with the real cars and real people from the first RAW file.

Below, you can see I am importing one of the original 5 pictures. The dialog you see there is the RAW importer for Photoshop CS3. It is very nice because it has these wonderful sliders. You can see my settings – how I increased the Fill Light, increased the Blacks, increased the Clarity and the Vibrance. You can adjust yours as need be. In many ways, this new RAW importer can make a regular image look a lot like an HDR. It’s not as good as Photomatix, but it is a great improvement over previous RAW importers.

HDR Tutorial - Beginning the Photoshop cleanup

Okay, in this next screenshot, if you look over on the layers, you will see there are 3 of them. TOP LAYER – the cool HDR we just made in Photomatix. MIDDLE LAYER – the DARKEST of the 5 original images. BOTTOM LAYER – the MIDDLE exposure of the original 5. The current layer showing is the 2nd layer. You can see why I chose this one – all of the lighted ads are very sharp and readable, whereas in all the other shots, including the HDR version, they are all jumbled and unreadable.

As you can also see, I have the AUTO ALIGN layers dialog up. I am using that to make sure all 3 layers line up correctly. This is a CS3 option. If you have CS2, you will have to do it yourself.

Also, I am going to throw something at you here called MASKING. This is a really valuable thing to know when cleaning up HDRs. Essentially, what you are doing is taking the TOP LAYER – the HDR layer, and then “punching through” to see the layers beneath. If you look closely at the layers on the right in the screenshot below, you can see that I have created a LAYER MASK for the TOP LAYER. If you see those little black and grey marks there, that is where I have painted black to see the MIDDLE LAYER beneath. I used a paint brush, adjusted the opacity to about 30%, and kept painting until enough of the middle layer shined through.

HDR Tutorial - The 2nd layer, for dark details

Now, I combine those two layers into a single layer. We now have two layers. TOP LAYER – the HDR with the fixed ads and blown out areas. BOTTOM LAYER – the original RAW photo with the nice streaking yellow taxis and busses. We need to fix the HDR image on top because, if you look closely, there is lots of ripping and ghosting that looks unnatural. We create another LAYER MASK, then use the 30% brush to paint through to the bottom layer. As you can see from the extreme black in many areas, I painted over many many times until I was effectively at 100% brush, but you don’t want to start with that because sometimes the transition between the HDR and the original RAW can be too extreme.

HDR Tutorial - Almost finished...just need to clean up the bottom

Now, there is just some general cleanup left. I used the blur tool on the sky since there was some noise there, cropped the entire image better, and then pulled up the “LEVELS” dialog to adjust the overall brightness and contrast. I think HDRs look best when there are dark blacks somewhere in the image. Sometimes HDRs don’t have a single black dot anywhere in them, and they can look a little fake. I like to take the viewer’s eye on a little visual tour-de-force!

Below, we can see the final image once again! All the hard work has paid off! Behold!

Times Square at Dusk

Bonus Step – LucisArt

Many of my images get a visit from the sweet lady LucisArt.

LucisArt is awesome. I am sure after you see this you will want to get it. I suggest you download the trial and give it a run… the trial is nice because you get a preview window that shows what all the cool sliders do. You should still buy it, even though their webpage is rather JeffK. I don’t know how such a cool art-related product has such a 1998 webpage, but I digress again.

If you buy it, be sure to use this LucisArt Coupon Code of BAW1234, which they were nice enough to send me.

When you use LucisArt, I suggest the SCULPTURE setting with the top slider around 10 and the bottom slider between 5 and 20, depending on how extreme you want to be. It’s hard to explain what it does. It’s a bit like UNSHARP MASK, but a little better. Sadly, it only works in Photoshop CS2 as of the writing of this paragraph.

Bonus Step – Processing a single RAW file

In Photomatix, go to AUTOMATE – SINGLE FILE CONVERSION. You will need a RAW file for this. My Nikon uses .NEF files for RAW files. In that dialog, choose the “Convert RAW file to…… .hdr”. Choose your file and then wait around for a bit. You will end up with a .hdr file. Once you have that, open it again with Photomatix and then go to HDR > Tone Mapping, just like before. You will follow a similar process with all the .hdr files that are generated during Batch processing. Just drag them back into Photomatix to open it then tonemap them.

To show you how good images can look from just a single RAW file, here are a few examples:

The Place Where Rebekka's Horses Run Free

Morning Seagull over Vesuvius

Farewell Holland


That is an hour of your life you will never get back, but let’s hope you formed some good memories and skills to create more.

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