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High Dynamic Range Photography

A number of folks at my photoblog as well as a few readers of this blog have asked me how I get saturation in some of my photos. And the secret is my use of HDR and a few tricks in Photoshop.

The following is a mini-tutorial on my approach.

The shooting location for the image was McClures Beach — roughly a two-hour drive north of San Francisco. I had arrived to the beach an hour or so before nightfall. An unfamiliar location, near dark, strong winds and pretty high waves.

I only had an hour or two of shooting. The area was a fantastic area to shoot. The light was perfect but the difference in light from the ground and the sky was too great for the camera’s sensor. I did not have any neutral density filters with me to cut the difference in light down so I opted to bracket my exposures. That way I could blend the exposures later in post processing to compensate for the differences.

Here are the bracketed shots for one of the exposures.

Okay. So I covered all of my bases. I shot with a tripod. I had a decent composition. But I could not get a balanced exposure because the range of light was too great for the sensor. In the first shot, which was the exposure taken from the camera’s meter, we can see that the sky is blown and the foreground, although not too bad, is still a bit dark. The second shot gives us a better sky but the foreground is way too dark. The third shot has a pretty bright foreground but the sky is completely overexposed. What to do?

I use a tool called Photomatix Pro to combine images like this. Differently exposed frames get “blended” into one image with a wide variety of color and tonal adjustments. Once I had finished making my adjustments using Photomatix, I had an HDR image that looked like this.

The magic now starts to come together. Nice sky. Nice foreground. But there is still a bit more work to bring out the finer details of the image. The horizon is a bit crooked. No surprise there as the wind was howling making it somewhat difficult to level the tripod. The image could also use some cropping as well as some contrast adjustments. Perhaps even a subtle glow effect to warm up the overall picture.

Here is the final result after processing in Photoshop.

Nice frame. Colors are vibrant. The sky presents a lot of character. The saturation was achieved by adding a duplicate layer of the base image. I used a filter, Gaussian blur, set to 15 pixels. The blurred layer was set to soft light. Blended with the original image, I achieved a more dynamic rendition of the scene. I did have a layer mask on the blurred layer and painted out some of the blurred effect on the rocks to maintain detail.

I hope that gives you some idea of what is possible with High Dynamic Range photography. Perhaps one day, in the not too distant future, image sensors will do a better job capturing a wider range of data in just one exposure as opposed to several. Until then, we can use some contemporary techniques to make our images stand out.