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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.

Point Reyes National Seashore

Arriving early into San Francisco, and with meetings not starting until tomorrow, I took advantage of the afternoon and evening to shoot McClures Beach at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Only I did not plan very well for the hike.

Point Reyes National Seashore is an exceptionally large area — over 70,000 acres. As you can see from the map below, it is a big place. I had a specific location in mind, which was good, except that it turned out to be near the northernmost tip of the area. Almost a 40-minute drive from the Bear Valley Visitor Center.

Point Reyes Map

Let’s go back for a moment. I am staying at the Sofitel San Francisco. A very nice hotel in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco. I had arranged for a rental car to be dropped off at the hotel for 12 noon. I was scheduled to fly in at 11am and I allowed for some time to deplane, gather luggage and get to the hotel.

Everything was fine. The plane arrived slightly ahead of schedule. Unlike the typical 45-minute wait at Toronto Pearson to get luggage, my bag was on the carousel within minutes. Beautiful sun and warm weather. Nice limo ride to the hotel. Room ready. Car arrived on time.

For whatever reason, the rental company had not filled the tank with gas. It was running about a quarter of a tank. No problem, I thought, I will fill the tank when I get to the Point Reyes area. My plan was to drive along Highway 1 — the coastal highway — until Point Reyes.

There are no gas stations up there. None. I arrived at Point Reyes at 3pm. Sunset was at 6pm. But I knew that I did not have enough gas to get to the northernmost tip of the park and get back to San Francisco. I had to drive another hour round trip to find a gas station. By this point, I was panicking. I know, I know. Typical perfectionist response. However, in this case, it was because I did not know how long it would take to physically get to McClures Beach. Having traveled this far, it would be extremely disappointing to miss the best light of the day.

I found a gas station in Fairfax. Made it back to Point Reyes by 4pm. And, with a bit of risky driving, made it to the point in 30 minutes as opposed to 40 minutes.

It is about a mile or so from the parking area to get to the prime shooting area of McClures Beach. I did not have my hiking boots. I forgot water. I forgot my flashlight — a flashlight comes in handy when you are hiking back from a strange area in the dark. I did not have appropriate clothing and I was drenched in sweat from the hike. And, when evening descended, I was shivering cold from the ocean wind and spray.

Aside from all of that, the area was fantastic and worth the six hours of driving. Here are a couple of frames from Point Reyes.

PR 4

PR 2

PR1

PR 5