Making Best Use Of HDR

Tom Till is a master of Southwest landscapes. Recently, he’s been using HDR software to overcome some of the challenges of these high-contrast scenes without generating the bizarre-looking, hyperreal effect that’s objectionable to many nature shooters
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Shooting the Southwest with film was difficult. I learned early in my career that when I traveled on the Colorado River through the majestic Grand Canyon, the magic sunset light was a vertical mile above me. With that sort of terrain, contrast was a constant problem and challenge. I was an early adopter of graduated neutral-density filters to tame the huge discrepancies between mesa-top sunlight and the dark shadows of the canyon depths.

I still carry a grad ND, but since my switch to DSLRs, I’ve become a fan of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography. Perhaps no place in the world is a greater laboratory for experimenting and perfecting this new photographic tool than the American Southwest. Also, using HDR is offering me opportunities to shoot subjects I’ve brooded over since I first began my photographic odyssey.

For example, I’ve despaired at trying to photograph one of the world’s largest natural bridges, a short drive and walk from where I live. It can be photographed under cloud cover, but even with digital photography, the rich, reflected colors are muted and the skies are always an ugly white. Attempts to solve these problems with Lightroom controls fail.

For the first time, the subject can be shot in a way that captures most of its inherent magic. With HDR, the seven-stop difference between the continually shadowy alcove where the arch resides and the azure-blue western skies above it can be portrayed together. Also, by using the HDR controls conservatively, I can produce an image that looks natural and more closely resembles the way my eye sees the scene.

Some photographers have a built-in bias against HDR that I don’t understand. Without dredging up the old saws about Adams manipulating his images or Porter’s finely controlled dye-transfer prints, I think the argument can be made that HDR is a new frontier that isn’t inherently evil.

What’s my basic HDR philosophy? I want two things from the process: control of contrast and increased detail. I usually don’t want fake-looking images that announce to the world that HDR was used. I have nothing against the “maximum” use of HDR in other people’s work, and I have some clients who like the look of total HDR, but for magazine clients like Arizona Highways or Backpacker, or anyone looking for a straight, natural-looking photograph, I play it conservatively.

A recent book about Moab, Utah, my hometown, was done completely in low-smoothing, in-your-face HDR. The subjects were shot mostly outdoors and they weren’t landscapes and nature, but old cars and tourist kitsch. For this sort of thing, I think over-the-top HDR is perfect, although I think over time this look will wear out its welcome.

The contrast control of HDR is here to stay. I love the freedom that comes with easily controlling the dynamic range with this tool. Previously, even with digital capture, I had to consider and solve contrast problems before anything else. Some images and compositions just weren’t doable before. Now I can lay fears of blown-out skies and black shadows aside and concentrate on what really matters: composition, light, color and my subject.

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For years, I’ve been trying to fight against the rule that says that landscape photography can only be done during magic hour. My hero Philip Hyde was also bothered by this notion and considered it cliché. With HDR, shooting outside the normal zones of best lighting becomes much more feasible and produces much better imagery.

Besides solving the problem of contrast in photographic images, HDR offers another important advantage to landscape photography: detail. Most landscape photographers are obsessed with detail. I carried a 4×5 camera all over the world just to get copious amounts of detail in my images. HDR gives me detail that approaches or surpasses the level of 4×5, both in what I see on the computer screen and what I see on the printed page and in my gallery prints.

In my recent workshops, I find many people seem to have their interest in landscape photography rejuvenated by playing (and some of it’s like playing) with HDR. Once they get past the sliders that look like graphic equalizers from ’70s audio, they find that it’s pretty easy, and that learning about HDR can help them understand other aspects of digital photography better. Also, learning HDR is best done by doing, and this means shooting a lot of images as grist for your HDR mill. You’ll find yourself shooting more often just to have new images to work with—and the images will get better.

This feature alone is enough to consider using the process for images that aren’t HDR candidates due to their dynamic range. Any image with a normal histogram can become more detailed by using the process. This was a revelation to me, and I began to at least shoot brackets for possible HDR use in almost all my work.

HDR images may even more accurately reflect reality than a normal image, at least the reality we see with our eyes. Over decades, everyone has seen thousands, perhaps even millions, of images in still and motion-picture photography. We expect a dynamic range that doesn’t match our eyes to be normal in a photo. Now, when we see a more dynamic light range in an image, it may seem alien or strange. For some of my publishing clients, this “strangeness” is enough to make them take notice of images they might have passed by. They know there’s something different about the picture, but they can’t always put their finger on it.

Part of the fun of film photography, especially 4×5, was getting the box back from the lab and looking at my work. Sometimes, when things worked just right, I gasped when I saw some of those Fujichrome Velvia images that luck had given me. The same emotion is repeated for me now when I see the HDR image revealed in all its glory. When it works right, it can be exciting and somewhat addictive.

I think the Southwest is the best place in the world to shoot. We have the best light, the best subjects, interesting weather and huge areas whose photographic potential is yet to be realized. HDR is a great tool for these magnificent places and scenes, and provides 21st century photographers with new ways to portray America’s great deserts, canyons and mountains.

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Tom Till’s HDR Workflow

Because I use Photomatix, this sidebar is about my workflow with that program. Recently, a number of other HDR products have come out, but I haven’t tried all of them. On the other hand, I’m very comfortable with Photomatix because I’ve been using it for quite some time.

After loading all my images into Lightroom 3, I start by picking image sets (2, 3, 5 or 7); with higher-contrast scenes, I use more images. I’ve found that high-contrast scenes are more likely to produce images with “artifacts,” areas of strange color or patterns. Sometimes, though, it’s not intuitive. I’ve had better luck just using two images to get a more natural-looking image without all the funny stuff.

The next steps are to export the selected images into a folder and to use the Browse function to select the images for processing. What about image preprocessing? If you’ve entered your lenses into Lightroom 3’s chromatic aberration abatement program, that part is done for you. Since almost all my images going into Photomatix are shot at ISO 100, there’s no need to worry about noise now.

I select my images and press OK. I choose Reduce Chromatic Aberrations, Attempt to Reduce Ghosting Artifacts (usually moving objects), use the recommended color profile and strike Generate HDR. Some HDR experts suggest using noise abatement here, while others suggest to wait until the end and use the new Lightroom/Photoshop system or a Photoshop plug-in. I can’t really see the difference.

Soon a very contrasty image will appear on your screen, mainly because tone mapping is needed to make the dynamic range of your candidate photo suitable for your monitor. By clicking on tone mapping, in a few seconds a (usually) much more suitable photograph appears if your tone-mapping settings are in the default positions I suggest below.

What should these be to produce the most natural-looking image? The more images you shoot, the better you’ll get at managing the tone-mapping controls. To begin with, remember that always leaving the Smoothing control on maximum produces the most realistic image without the Twilight Zone look HDR has been criticized for. I leave the setting there and rarely ever change it.

Next, be careful to watch the HDR histogram, and use the white, black and gamma controls to keep it in bounds. This is the place where your HDR monster gets tamed down to a more normal-range scene.

For my other major controls, I leave Strength at 100, and Microcontrast, which is just a contrast control, at maximum.

Color saturation and luminosity should be accessed for each image. This control works pretty much like the Photoshop/Lightroom versions, except that 50 in Photomatix is akin to 0 here. In an attempt to mimic the colors of Velvia, I usually have my color-saturation setting in the 60-70 range. Luminosity is an overall brightness control, so again, watch the histogram when changing this.

My standard settings on the other controls are Color Temperature, 0; Highlights and Shadows Saturation, 0; all the other smoothness controls are at midrange, and shadow clipping is at 0.

If I notice little gremlins in my image at this point (it usually only happens in deep shadows), I’ll play with a combination of shadow smoothness and clipping to try to eliminate them, and if this doesn’t work, Photoshop cloning or other tools might be needed.

I press Process, and if things look good, I await my image. Nine times out of 10, the image pops out perfectly, and I import it back into Lightroom for cleaning, further noise reduction or other postprocessing needs.

HDR Tips For Southwest Landscape Photography

1 If there’s any movement in your image (usually foliage or clouds), the bracketed photos must be shot very quickly.

2 Images with a large dynamic range may require seven brackets to work well in Photomatix.

3 Even if you’re not doing HDR now, it doesn’t hurt to shoot brackets for use later on should you decide to pursue the craft. Remember, to learn, you’ll need lots of images to practice with.

4 Shadows sometimes are good things. They help turn a two-dimensional scene into an approximation of a three-dimensional one. Some images won’t benefit from HDR, and in some cases, may lose some of their punch.

5 Always shoot at the lowest ISO possible to avoid noise, an artifact of the HDR process.

6 Southwestern scenes that have been shot countless times can take on a new life in HDR. I can think of dozens of great scenes in the region where shadows were a major problem for film, but now they can be shot without worries about excess dynamic range.

7 Water, a favorite subject in the desert because of its rarity, and especially moving water, can look great in HDR. It’s hard to predict exactly how it will look, but most times I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the results.

8 After a while, you’ll have a set of control settings that get you what you’re after. Like photography itself, though, there are always surprises, and some images will require a lot of experimenting and postprocessing work in Lightroom or Photoshop.

9 Photoshop CS5 has a lot of great new features, but in a quick trial run with the HDR program, I found it wanting. The promised magic bullet for moving objects wasn’t effective, and I miss all the controls of tone mapping and the details enhancement of Photomatix.

10 Here’s a technique I’ve seen no one else suggest: Use grad filters with HDR to get a full 10 or more stops of dynamic range. It works well. Also, try scanning old film brackets to create an HDR image from them. I’ve had mixed results so far, but I intend to keep experimenting with the idea.

HDR Software Programs
For a long time, there were only a few options available for photographers who wanted to experiment with HDR. In the past year, several new players have entered the market. In addition to Photomatix, which Tom Till has been using, here are several others that you’ll find useful.

Ever Imaging
’s HDR Darkroom ( functions as RAW converter software, as well as an HDR program with support of 16-bit TIFF files and multiple compressed or RAW files. Three different tone-mapping engines are provided for achieving realistic images. The Local Tone Balancer keeps tones in an image equalized while enhancing detail in shadows and highlights. The Local Tone Enhancer can handle files up to 50 megabytes. List Price: $99.Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro ( is the newest addition to the HDR arena. It’s available as a 32- or 64-bit plug-in for Photoshop CS3-CS5, Lightroom 2.3 or later and Aperture 2.1 or later. HDR Efex Pro continues Nik Software’s legacy of making software that’s simple and intuitive to use. The program uses the company’s U Point technology for fine control, and six preset categories contain a wide variety of customizable effects. List Price: $159.Photoshop ( has had HDR since CS2 and the capability continues to evolve into the HDR Pro mode. There are extended Local Adaptation controls for 16- or 8-bit images. Tone adjustments are included for control over highlights, shadows and midtones, while the Detail slider allows you to adjust sharpness. The Color and Curve dialog box includes Vibrance, Saturation and Tonal Curve adjustments for color intensity. You can save custom presets, and there are templates for a variety of effects. List Price: $699 (Adobe Photoshop CS5).

HDR Expose from Unified Color Technologies ( includes 32-bit support of its adjustment tools and works with a Beyond RGB color space for utilizing the 32-bit floating point data. The Dynamic Range Mapping tool provides single-click optimization, and there’s full manual control over the mapping process with adjustment over the dynamic range, brightness, highlight power, shadow power, colors, saturation and noise levels. The program is powerful and relatively easy to use. List Price: $149.