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|Dream Lake, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. This was a once-in-a-lifetime shot, and I knew I had only one chance to get it right. I was set up to record the reflection and play of light when this bull elk wandered into the scene. I quickly recomposed and set my exposure for the shadowed area along the shore of the lake. I used a three-stop (hard) grad ND filter to hold back the exposure on the sky and brightly illuminated mountain. I was able to pull off three shots before the elk wandered off. Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24mm, RAW capture at ISO 200|
If you want to spark up a heated debate amongst a group of nature photographers these days, all you need to do is mention HDR. I guarantee you’ll hear every opinion under the sun, from those who feel it’s the only way to truly capture all the detail in a scene to those who place it right up there with getting a root canal. The truth of the matter is that HDR photography has been around a lot longer than most of us even realize.
Think about it! The use of grad ND filters has been a popular means of reducing the contrast in a scene for a very long time, and they’ve been widely used by almost all professional and amateur nature and landscape photographers. Even before that, the use of masking in the darkroom was an essential technique of the great masters like Adams, Weston and Cole for achieving a greater dynamic range in their exhibition and gallery prints. Things have changed quite a bit in the past 10 years with the advent of digital capture, but all we’re really dealing with here is a new set of tools and techniques that allows us as photographers and artists to achieve our final vision in the form of a well-crafted photograph.
As a professional nature and landscape photographer, I look at all of the techniques and methods as tools in my arsenal that allow me to fully realize and express my photographic vision. Whether it’s using a grad ND filter, fill-flash or bracketing exposures to combine later in the digital darkroom, I try to match each tool or technique to the scene in front of me to achieve the very best result.
HDR has come to be associated with a particular look in the past few years, a strange hyperrealistic look that’s the result of a process called tone mapping. Many nature photographers find that hyperrealistic look to be objectionable and “comic-bookish,” and because of that, you might have been turned off from the whole notion of creating an HDR image in the computer. In this article, however, we’ll explore much more subtle HDR processing, and the resulting images show detail that’s more along the lines of the range of tones our eyes can take in without looking freakish. Here are a few of my go-to techniques for taming the light.
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Shoot In The RAW And Expose To The Right
This probably will seem obvious to many photographers, but over the course of five years running location workshops, I’ve encountered many photographers who don’t shoot or understand the benefit of capturing images in the RAW format. The tremendous amount of information contained in a RAW file still blows my mind to this day! I’ve photographed many scenes in the past four years since switching to digital capture for which it would have been impossible to retain highlight and shadow detail in a single exposure on transparency film.
The key to shooting in RAW is to check your histogram often and expose to the right (toward highlights). It’s not reliable to look at the image on the LCD for confirmation as to whether you nailed the exposure, and often shooting to the right will produce an image that seems to be too bright and washed out. That’s okay! We can use the Adobe Camera Raw converter in Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or any other program that allows for RAW conversions to bring back the contrast, saturation and drama of the image. By exposing to the right, without clipping highlights, you can retain a tremendous amount of midtone and shadow detail in the image without the risk of introducing unwanted noise or grain when processing your shots.
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Mountain ridges and fog illuminated by the rising sun, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado. A single RAW exposure was all I needed to hold detail in the highlights while exposing for the shadows in this image. TheRAW file was processed with Adobe Camera Raw to hold detail in the highlights and shadows.
Combine Exposures For High Dynamic Range
This is the part that gets a little tricky, and you need to make some key decisions at capture and in postprocessing to develop the files. I see many photographers today bracketing exposures to combine images for tone mapping in popular software programs like Photomatix and FDRTools as a way of handling their HDR images. While tone-mapping images can be fun and at times produce great results, it has been my experience that most images tone-mapped in HDR software take on an illustrative and unnatural look. While this is fine, and I’ll be the first to say that creative choices are up to the individual photographer with no right or wrong way of doing any particular technique, I tend to prefer a more natural result for my nature photography.
The way that I approach this problem is to bracket a set of images in the field. Make sure you have your camera locked down on a tripod, as there can be no shift from image to image for this to work. If your camera offers you the ability to auto-bracket, use it. Once I’ve set my base exposure for the midtones in the scene, I’ll usually bracket five frames at one-stop intervals. This will cover the dynamic range of most images, but on occasion, you may need to bracket a little further in one direction or the other. The important thing here is to check the histogram of each image to make sure that you’ve recorded at least two images with sufficient detail in the shadows and the highlights.
Using The RAW Converter
Once I get my images into the computer, I usually choose two shots, one for shadow detail and another for highlight detail. I open up both images in the Adobe Camera Raw converter and apply specific adjustments for each one, including white balance, recovery, fill, curves, tonal adjustments and saturation.
Mather Gorge, Great Falls National Park, Virginia. Just as the sun began to rise, it momentarily broke through the clouds and illuminated the sky in warm, dramatic light. The exposure difference was more than my graduated filters could handle so I made two exposures, one for shadow detail and one for highlight detail. The two images were combined in Photoshop CS3 using layers and a mask for a seamless blend. Nikon D2X, Nikkor 17-35mm, RAW capture at ISO 200
Once I’ve finished tweaking each image in the RAW converter, I open them up together in Photoshop. The first step in my workflow is to grab the darker shot and Select All, then Copy and Paste that image onto the lighter version. This creates a duplicate layer, and you have the option of blending the two images together. I usually use a Channels selection (blue works great for sunrises and sunsets) and apply a mask to the layer. This requires you to grab the paintbrush and tweak the opacity of certain regions of the mask until the blend is seamless. Another way to do this is to add a mask to the layer and simply use the paintbrush at different opacities to reveal the background (lighter) image below. If you’re working with Adobe Photoshop CS4, you should use the Mask Tool Box to properly feather the blend. For photographers without CS4, you can select the mask and go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur to feather the mask for a more seamless blend.
I know this sounds complicated, and at first it can be a challenge to learn, but once you’ve mastered the art of blending images, you won’t look back. It will allow you to create more realistic HDR images of the natural world.
To see more of Joseph Rossbach’s photography, read his photo blog or learn about upcoming workshops, visit www.josephrossbach.com.
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|Extreme HDR Step By Step
By Joseph Rossbach
1 You must have your camera locked down on a tripod so there’s no shift when you bracket your exposures.
2 Bracket a set of exposures to cover the dynamic range of the scene. Depending on the range of light, expose for full detail in the darkest shadows to the brightest highlights. I often set my camera for auto-bracketing and shoot anywhere from five to nine shots at +1 and -1 EV values. If your camera doesn’t have auto-exposure bracketing, then just do it the old-fashioned way by changing the shutter speed between each shot. Remember to keep the aperture constant throughout the sequence of bracketed images.
3 Once you have the images on your computer, you’ll need to create an HDR image and then tone-map the shot. The most popular and widely used software program for creating HDR images is Photomatix Pro, www.hdrsoft.com.
4 Once you’ve generated an HDR image, click on the Tone Mapping button. To go for the comic-book look,
5 Once you’ve played with all the different tabs and settings, click on the Process button.
6 Now you’ll see the results of tone-mapping the image on the original HDR file. Save the image as a TIFF file.
7 These tone-mapped HDR files often are very low in contrast with no real shadows or highlights in the image. For the last step of the process, I recommend bringing the file into any postcapture editing software, like Adobe Photoshop or Lightroom, for finishing touches. You’ll most likely need to reintroduce Contrast and Clarity into the image as well as tweak the Saturation in selective channels for effect.
Graduated ND Filters
The first tool I reach for in my camera bag when I’m trying to balance the light in a scene is the grad ND filter, a rectangular filter that’s darker at the top and gradually fades to clear toward the middle of the filter. This is a great tool for balancing the uneven light of sunrise and sunset. I like to use the Singh-Ray 4x6 grad ND filters, which were developed with renowned nature photographer and OP columnist Galen Rowell.
These filters come in a soft or hard gradation, and the scene and, in particular, the area that transitions from light to dark will dictate which one I use. For anything with a clear unobstructed horizon, I’ll usually go for a hard-edged filter. If I’m shooting a scene that has objects or dappled light at the transition line, I go for the soft-edged filter to avoid producing uneven darkening in parts of the image. For me, the best way to use these filters is handheld. This gives me the flexibility to position the filter exactly where it needs to be in the scene without having to conform to a filter holder.
There are a few other benefits to handholding the grads. When using a hard-edged grad, it’s all too common to create a dark “grad line” where the filter meets the transition from light to dark in the scene. What I do to combat this is to move the filter slightly up and down during exposure, just like dodging and burning in the wet darkroom. This takes a bit of practice to get it right, and you need to make sure not to shake the camera while doing so or else you’ll come away with a blurry image.
If you’re having trouble figuring out where to place the transition line in the shot, consider using the depth-of-field preview button while moving the filter around. By stopping the lens down to your shooting aperture, it makes it much easier to see exactly where the transition line is being placed. Even better, if your camera has Live View, this can be a great tool for seeing the overall darkening of the scene as you place the grad filter in front of the lens.