High Dynamic Range Done Naturally

Explore the basics of HDR to get details in shadows, highlights and everywhere in between
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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

 


Shays Run, Blackwater Falls State Park, West Virginia. In order to record a very long exposure for the swirling leaves without losing all the detail in the flowing water, I needed to shoot two images. The first was made with a Singh-Ray Vari-N-Duo to drag out a 15-second exposure for the swirls, and a second exposure, without the filter at one second to retain detail and texture in the waterfall. The two images were combined in Photoshop CS4 using layers and masks. Nikon D300, Nikkor 12-24mm, RAW capture at ISO 100

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.

HDR In Yosemite
By Rob Sheppard


Final

One of the challenges we face as photographers is finding unique images in popular locations such as Yosemite National Park. There’s no question that Yosemite is a remarkable place, but it’s photographed a lot! The whole valley is photographed a lot—photographers practically line up for the best views, with tripods everywhere. Frankly, the best views of many of the falls are available only from certain, limited locations. So how do you take a picture that’s not duplicating everyone else?

There I was, photographing Yosemite Falls from across the valley floor, looking at reflections, looking for frames—all the standard stuff—but nothing really was working for me. They all looked like subjects I had seen before in photographs. To top it off, a man passed by, and seeing my camera and tripod, said, “I bet those falls have been photographed 20,000 times.” I was thinking that was probably on the low side, but it didn’t help.

I looked around for something else to photograph. The falls just seemed so derivative. Then I looked over and saw these wonderful trees. The Yosemite Valley once was pretty open, but today, it has a lot of trees, so this was certainly an integral element. I thought about including them with the falls, but they were in total shade. There was no way to photograph them, include the sunlit falls in the distance and keep the trees in any condition other than silhouette. Yet, these trees with the falls and the rock cliffs really said Yosemite.

HDR, of course! I never would have thought of taking such a photo in the past, so I still don’t always think of it immediately, even though I do like HDR and shoot it when appropriate. I locked the camera down on my tripod and shot a bracketed series of images (five total, each one stop apart), then checked them to be sure the darkest one had good detail in the falls, while the brightest one had good detail in the trees. I processed the images slightly in Lightroom to ensure the detail looked good in each bracketed shot and put them together using LR/Enfuse. While technically not a true HDR program, I like the way LR/Enfuse works with such images and with the Lightroom workflow. The result needed a little tweaking in Photoshop, but I was pleased with the results.

No, I was amazed! I was thrilled to be able to get this shot. This is exciting for photographers, as we’re now able to take the kinds of photos that were impossible before.


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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,
you’ll use the Details Enhancer tab. Keep the Smoothing setting to low and use the Strength slider to change the intensity of the effect. I suggest you keep the Saturation slider set to no more than 50%. Bringing the Saturation slider up to high will produce overly garish results.

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.


Schneider Grad ND Filter

Graduated ND Filters
By Joseph Rossbach

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.


Hoya 4x Grad ND Filter

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.

42 Comments

    Nice job on the article! Lots of great info all in one post. I get questions on the filters to use all the time – now I know where to point them to. Would love to see some additional examples and how you put the images together. Keep Shooting! John

    Like many others here, I too have to confirm that tone mapping can be hopelessly overdone. I have tried your bracketing method many times with great results. Out of curiosity I have tried to produce the same result using just a single RAW file. Performing the bracketing in the development stage with ACR, using the same bracketing setting as I would with the in camera method. In my experience there is virtually no difference at all between the two methods. The benefit is I only need to shot one RAW file instead of 3, saving memory space and avoiding possible image missalingment.

    Manfred

    Manfred,

    While it is true that you can process the same raw file for shadow and highlight definition for a blend in Photoshop, it is still preferred to bracket the images at the time of capture for one reason. When you open up the shadows in post (especially if you are compensating by 2 or more stops of light), it will also have the adverse effect of introducing digital noise or grain. If you bracket that image in camera you avoid that problem all together.

    Thanks for your comments!

    Joe

    I have always exposed for the shadows and compensate later. I’ve been doing this for a long time so I am wondering if that is a holdover from the days of B&W film.

    In this article it speaks of exposing to the right (toward highlights)which sounds like the opposite of the rule I learned a very long time ago.

    Any thoughts?

    HDR is a choice and how strongly it shows is another choice. That said, I also believe photography falls into two distinct catagories. One being original capture… the most unmodified photo taken or modified only to correct it to be as it appeared. Anything other then this should be considdered creative art photography. When you make a photo that is not as it appeared, that is creative art. Photographers have a profesional resposibility to the viewers to disclose what the photo realy is. If I were to shoot a photo of a red squirl in an area that only red squirls exist and change its color to black, this could leed the viewer to believe that black squirls had not left the area or have returned. Same could be said if I took a landscape photo where the sky was filled with smog and replaced it with a clear blue sky. That photo would lead some to believe that the area photographed had no adverse effect due to polution. Disclouser

    I agree that normal photos look more like what the image actually appears to the human eye as to the comment that you can make them not look HDR than what is the point.They are starting to build this into cameras hope you can turn it off or at least adjust it.

    We hear all the talk about HDR. Some like it and some hate it. There is nothing wrong with HDR except that most people don’t know how to properly process their images. We are repeating the same mistakes we made when we first got our hands on Photoshop. You know, over saturation and over sharpening.

    Once people learn how to properly use the tool then things will settle down. I teach HDR workshops and always tell my students to make it look natural, not like a “Harry Potter” movie. Once they do, the pictures come out natural, but much better than they were before HDR. The blacks are not blocked up and there is detail in the sky where there was none before. So, listen to articles like this and you will become a fan of HDR. It’s just another tool that we have to learn how to use.

    thx for this great article about HDR
    first i use bracketing 3 file to capture the picture. but because i’m still just use the photo for myself so now i usually just take 1 raw file.

    i just think is it possible we can get the result as hdr with just GND filter ?

    Oh, my! The image “HDR In Yosemite” looks so good yet doesn’t look like a cliche shot.

    Thanks for that. I’m about to do trips to popular spots and your example is one thing to add to my checklist.

    Really good article. I agree that HDR can be over done and personally don’t like it for landscapes. Some images can be pretty creative and dramatic with it. But I try to be subtle about it. And to capture a bull elk there by Dream Lake is great! I’ve never seen one on the shore and I’m there a lot!

    I too could not agree more. This has been a Peeve of mine for quite awhile. I’ve even seen good PhotograPhers get caught u in the hyPer-realistic look.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against that, I just think that it is so over used that it depreciates the look of it.I Place it in the class with fish eye lenses,just think how you would be looking at fish eye PhotograPhs any time the words “wide angle ” mentioned . I feel that HDR can easily be overdone. One big rule or guideline in PhotograPy is “less is more” exude the case on the “P” my lower “P” on my keyboard is not working.

    I too could not agree more. This has been a Peeve of mine for quite awhile. I’ve even seen good Photograhers get caught u in the hyPer-realistic look.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against that, I just think that it is so over used that it depreciates the look of it.I Place it in the class with fish eye lenses,just think how you would be looking at fish eye Photograhs any time the words “wide angle ” mentioned . I feel that HDR can easily be overdone. One big rule or guideline in PhotograPy is “less is more” exude the case on the “P” my lower “P” on my keyboard is not working.

    I too could not agree more. This has been a Peeve of mine for quite awhile. I’ve even seen good Photograhers get caught u in the hyPer-realistic look.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against that, I just think that it is so over used that it depreciates the look of it.I Place it in the class with fish eye lenses,just think how you would be looking at fish eye Photograhs any time the words “wide angle ” mentioned . I feel that HDR can easily be overdone. One big rule or guideline in PhotograPy is “less is more” exude the case on the “P” my lower “P” on my keyboard is not working.

    I too could not agree more. This has been a Peeve of mine for quite awhile. I’ve even seen good Photograhers get caught u in the hyPer-realistic look.Don’t get me wrong, I’m not totally against that, I just think that it is so over used that it depreciates the look of it.I Place it in the class with fish eye lenses,just think how you would be looking at fish eye Photograhs any time the words “wide angle ” mentioned . I feel that HDR can easily be overdone. One big rule or guideline in PhotograPy is “less is more” exude the case on the “P” my lower “P” on my keyboard is not working.

    Hi, I read a lot of blogs on a daily basis and for the most part, people lack substance but,I just wanted to make a quick comment to say GREAT blog!I’ll be checking

    in on a regularly now.Keep up the good work!

    Well , the view of the passage is totally correct ,your details is really reasonable and you guy give us valuable informative post, I totally agree the standpoint of upstairs. I often surfing on this forum when I m free and I find there are so much good information we can learn in this forum! the-various.com

    Hi Joe. You stated that “it has been my experience that most images tone-mapped in HDR software take on an illustrative and unnatural look.” My own experience with Photomatix is that one normally obtains natural looking HDR images using Tone Compressor and that Details Enhancer can be used for the same purpose. Here is an example with Details Enhancer: http://www.pbase.com/drjaysel/image/129638792 . Tone-mapping is a straightforward procedure, although final processing in Tone Compressor or Details Enhancer for me requires considerable care and patience.

    I see the last comment was 6 years ago but that doesn?۪t mean that your article is any less relevant today. A great read.
    There have, however, been some great strides forward in utilising the 4k high res video capability of DSLR?۪s to overcome some of the shortcomings in capturing HDR imagery. I have been playing with a software application called HDRinstant which stacks frames one on top of each other like they do in astrophotography, to reduce noise and dig out the detail lost in shadows. You don?۪t have to mount the camera on tripod as it can overcome movement within the frame and create a sharp image. Easy to use and I think as good the bracketing method, it comes with its own re-touching package to customise the final image to personal taste. Definitely worth downloading the trial at http://www.HDRinstant.com

    Excellent article. I appreciate the fact that this was not a purely HDR discussion, but more of a lesson on how to tame contrast and how to capture as much detail as possible. It seems HDR photography is too frequently not about capturing detail in the highlights and shadows, but more about producing images that simply do not represent what the original scene looked like.

    I agree, Sam. All too often I see pictures that are so HDRed that they don’t even look real. I don’t have a problem with HDR, per se… what I don’t like are the pictures that don’t look natural.

    Like they say, “less is more” and you can have too much of a good thing.

    What gets me is that people like me don’t seem to stand a chance in any of these photo contests here on Outdoor Photographer, because most of the finalists are HDR experts… what about those of us that are out there “keepin’ it real?”

    It shouldn’t be about who is best at Photoshop… it should be about skill. Raw, skill… choosing the right ISO, shutter speed, f-stop, and utilizing filters in just the right way. Anyone can auto-bracket and go home and edit. It takes talent and skill to get it right the first time. Yes, sometimes HDR is necessary… but it should never *look* like HDR was used.

    Just my 2 cents.

    Bonnie, I totally agree. The computer is no place to make a true photograph. Talent, vision and camera skills are what make a great photographer.

    Yes, Ansel Adams did a lot of darkromm wizardry, but his basic image was an excellent one- his “dodging and burning” just enhanced an already wonderful capture.

    A computer does not a good photographer make….

    A process illustrated and articulated not from a like/dislike point of view but from a how-to from the photographer’s point of view. There are few articles that offer such information from this perspective. A great article!

    I (with respect) disagree with Bonnie and Carl as to where a good photograph should come from or how it should be arrived at. I understand the point of view. It makes me think of the disdain that “medium” artists (watercolor, oils, charcoal, silk screen….) have for photography. They seem to say that without the manual skill and time required to create a piece the result is Art 101.

    I suggest that it is the result and only the result that should be considered. If it’s a beautiful or meaningful or exciting or insightful or …. image, I really don’t care how it was arrived at. Fingerpainting, you say? Wonderful. Whatever.

    I, personally, certainly object to altering journalistic photographs but if the purpose is otherwise and the result is incsome way pleasing, more power to the artist.

    Well done!
    Very good shot and well used photographic opportunity with that bull elk!
    Also a very good description of how to use a ND filter combined with HDR technique.
    Without HDR technique I think you should give up the right side of the sun and the sky, keeping the mountains reflexes on water and beautiful specimen of bull elk.
    At the time of “64 Aperture” of Ansel Adams this photograph was not possible.
    Interestingly, you start from the same call conceptual landscape.
    Congratulations!

    Aurel

    Congratulations, Joe, nice article! I agree with some of the other comments and what you write, that HDR is a tool that can be right in some instances. However, in the end it’s still just one tool among many that can be used on the way from image capture to final print. Your HDR workshop that I attended earlier this year was an eye opener for me & I highly recommend it to others.

    You nailed it! Great article! Also my fav. technique for creating “hdr”. Those techniques retain a natural look while bringing in more detail. Tonemapping to often looks the same and I think more and more people begin to realize it.

    cheers

    Correction! Josseph Rossbach fine photo above (swirling clouds at sunset)was shot in Smokey Mountain National park and not Rocky Mountain National Park.

    Nice shot!

    Tony

    Thank you, Joe, for bringing your view and alternatives on the use of a tool. As photographers we are artists. We are presenting our view of something (portrait, still life, landscape, ad, etc.). The use of HDR, does not matter how intricated the final look, is a tool for the artists to express himself. Look at burning, dodging, etc. Yes, there are some of us who want the natural look of a landscape and that is great. However, as an artist, look back at Monet, VanGoh and even Dali. So, I express the aspect of presenting a view as to what is or not the norm in an artistic world as “colors were made for the liking”. Let’s all be artists.

    Thanks for the great article Joseph! I’ve been doing HDR for over a year now, and after experimenting with the artsy aspects of it, decided to use it in a more natural way. I love the detail that it gives me as well the obvious dynamic range. Most people can’t tell that my images are done HDR. A look at my pbase site proves it! Thanks again Jeff

    Like others who commented, I really liked the article, especially the emphasis on all of the tools which capture dynamic range. I have been doing HDR for about 6 months and find that my best results come from “fusing images” rather than using the actual HDR feature. I prefer the natural look, but really like to see artistic license asa well. Great article. Thank you.

    I liked this article because it was balanced and believable. Sometimes writers seem too biased toward a particluar product line or seem to be writing to get published. This one had some very good thought put into it.

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