How To

HDR Single Exposure

This is a follow-on to my previous post HDR Explained

To recap – HDR is a method of blending images to get as much detail as possible from multiple exposures.
In this post I’ll (hopefully) explain why it’s best to avoid it if possible and show you an example of why you don’t really need HDR.

So ….. you’ve taken a picture of a landscape and created an HDR composite.
You like it.
Your family and friends like it.
You share it on Flickr and a bunch of sheep say that HDR is rubbish and false and rubbish (x2 so it must be true). Probably because they heard a friend or an ‘internet Pro’ dissing it.

The fact is that people can’t say someone is wrong when it comes to a personal opinion or personal taste.
If you like it then you like it, if you don’t then you don’t – there is no right or wrong. But nobody should tell you not to do it just because they don’t like it.

So, do I use HDR?
…. er… no

I know I just did the big "in defence" thing, but the reality is that, unless you’re a landscape photographer (which I’m not) then in most cases HDR isn’t really practical. It’s a possibility when you have a static subject, but when you want a dynamic image and you’re photographing something like racing or sports or doing portraits then it’s really a no-go.

So to still make your images "pop" then you need to start digging into the areas of lighting and/or more advanced post-processing.
This means you actually have to do some work instead of pressing 2 buttons and letting your computer do the heavy lifting for you 😉

At this point you probably want me to show an example so …..

Here’s an example image which I took waaaay back in March this year.
You will see that the image has almost bleached the sky and yet under the car is still soooper dark.

I take the Raw file from the camera and enter it into Lightroom. From here I’ll start making some non-destructive adjustments to the file to the point that it looks something like the file below.

As you’ll see, I’ve recovered a lot of the details back into the image and it now has a better balance. At this point I’d normally export it for a client to see as part of their online gallery/contact sheet so they can make their selections.

Normally this would be 95% there, but cars can usually take quite a hard edit, so from Lightroom I’ll export the image as a 16bit TIFF (for maximum detail) into Photoshop.
In PS I’ll start running through some actions that I’ve built with an aim to get to the image I have in my head. In the example below – this took me a little while to do which is why I’ll only do it on client selected images, not all of them.

This to my eye is the way it should look with perhaps some final polish to finish it off.
Part of my editing involves "painting" in the detail and dynamic elements to the image, whereas with HDR it’s like pouring a bucket over the picture and what you get is what you get.

Generally speaking HDR looks quite flat because the contrast has been eliminated during the blend, but it also tends to look "soft" too. You’ll see the processed single image is 100% pin sharp and has depth and form created by the contrast.

So, by taking the time to build some PS experience I can create something I’m happy with.

So there you have it. HDR Vs Single image editing. No composites or pulling elements from other pictures. It’s enough to catch someone’s eye and if you look deeper you can see it’s edited, but not enough to make it too detailed and flat the way HDR does.

For more examples of single exposure editing – see my earlier post on Colonsay Panoramas. Some of those were stitched together from up to 19 images to create 1 huge panorama which was then edited once in photoshop. I shudder to think of doing those in HDR (PC meltdown).

Click the split images to see a direct before and after:

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If so then drop a note below 🙂

For those that don’t know what HDR is …. its an acronym for High Dynamic Range and it’s a method of blending multiple images together to create a single image composed of the detailed elements of all the images.

Why do it?
The main reason is to do with limitations of a camera sensor/film Vs the human eye.
If you were to look into shaded woodland with the sun overhead then the human eye can almost cope with the extreme bright and extreme dark that’s visible …. almost.

Ansel Adams created a zone system which segments the extreme Low and High tones.
The human eye (amazing thing that it is) can see a huge range of zones, most film can see about 4/5 of the range at a time and 35mm digital cameras about 3/4 (although they’re getting better every year). But the bigger the sensor chip, the bigger the range of tones captured.

11 stop zone chart from Imroy at wikipedia

Because the camera sensor is limited, when you take a picture of a subject which is an extreme zone you can "bracket" your exposure over multiple shots and pull all the data from each one to create the single image with the composite detail from the darks to the lights.

You can do the composite in-camera, but more often than not people use software which’ll do an HDR composite for you in a minute or two.
Most commonly Photoshop and Photomatix.

Good right? Not quite 😉

  • The good is that if you don’t have time or experience in editing then you can pull together an interesting image quickly and with little effort.
  • It also can create surreal images which are more like paintings than pictures, although some photographers tend to look down their nose at those

But there are downsides.

  • You have no control over the final result. Ok, you can adjust the intensity of the tonemapping, but it’s applied to the whole image
  • If you have any noise…. any at all in the image, then the HDR process will multiply it and it can look pretty bad (esp. in extreme tone mapping)
  • You have to take up to 9 exposures to get 1 final image which eats into storage space.
  • If you move the camera, even a fraction, between shots then chances are it won’t work.
  • It’s ok for 1 static subject, but a nightmare if you want to do a panorama, stop motion sequence etc…
  • If anything moves in your shots (trees, water, politicians, skateboarders…. :)) then they’ll repeat as ghosts – ruining the final image

So …. do I use it?
Yes and No. I rarely do HDR as I’ve developed a workflow that means I don’t need it, but that’s not to say I won’t do it if I’m in a pinch …..

The closest I get in reality when in extreme conditions is to take a 5 stop bracket (-2 to +2) and when I’m editing I’ll choose the best one of the 5 to edit rather than doing an HDR composite.

I’ll explain how to create a dynamic image with a single exposure in my next post. More to come…. 🙂

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I’m getting asked about this more and more so I thought I’d blog a simple answer for people to find
(or me to point them to 😉 )

Typical question:
"I have no idea where to start with licensing etc. I don’t honestly care what the client does with the images, as long as I can also use them in my portfolio. So how does that work?"

Scenario: A client asks you to take pictures for them. Product, commercial, event, whatever.
You do the job to the brief and you make the pictures and you ‘own’ all those images under creative commons copyright law.

For your client to use the images for their intended purpose, they also need to purchase a license for the selected images. Photographers will license for time, usage and exclusivity.

This can be from 1 day up to unlimited time.

From 1/4 a subpage on a website, a book cover, a billboard or broadcast on TV.
The potential usage is extremely broad and is normally grouped into braoder definitions

Normally images are either non exclusive or exclusive to an industry sector only. Very rarely are they exclusive across the board and it’s effectively locking the image down for the client’s use only. But you still have the copyright.

If a photographer sells or signs over the copyright then the new copyright holder canuse and re-sell or license the image as much as they like.

For Photographers AND clients:
To get an idea on expected basic licensing costs, go to a stock library, select a picture and choose the advanced licensing options.
Select a Rights Managed scenario to see how much 1 picture licenses for.

And that’s the very basics.
There’s a lot more to it such as how to relicense and building contracts or working with selling/working in the media and if you want to earn from pictures then you need to know it fully.
[subliminal message]buy BTL ….. buy BTL[/subliminal message]


Footnote: The question included "I don’t honestly care what the client does with the images".
We should. One of the main reasons the industry is falling apart is because the uneducated are ‘giving away’ their pictures for virtually nothing.

But there’s a simple fix:

Get the book
Read the book
Know your rights
Protect your business and more importantly protect your clients 🙂

I was recently asked:
"this is my first commercial job and all I’ve done so far is agree a price. Presumably I’ll need some sort of contract? Or do I? And is there such a thing as an example or template I could adapt and use?"

It’s a sad fact that the imaging industry is being eroded by the uneducated.

When I say "uneducated" I’m referring to people that don’t invest any time to know their rights, how to manage their copyright/license or just how to run a business.

It’s fantastic that talented image makers get an oppertunity to be rewarded when asked to make an image for a client, but when they don’t know how to quote and they give away their pictures for virtually nothing or their objective is only to buy a new bit of kit… that’s where a problem can begin for both client and supplier.

All too often people are doing bits on the side without covering their basics never mind making a profit.
(It is a business after all)
Some companies are quick to exploit the uneducated, because it keeps their overheads down. It’s not their fault. They’re looking for the best price and so they may discuss a project with someone lacking in business knowledge and talk them into working under the market rate.

But it can turn out like printer ink……

I stocked up on some cheap ink off the web for my document printer at 1/3 the price of branded ink.
Bargain I think. Keeping my overheads and expenses down.
The TV adverts said "Buy branded ink – it’ll last up to 30% longer than unbranded ink".
I sit there thinking "Yea, but I can get 3x the ink for the same price."
I get the ink, I put it in and it doesn’t work or the results are unreliable and no good, not what I wanted.
I end up trashing all the cheap stuff and having to go out and buying the branded ink to do the job right.
Waste of my time. Waste of my money.

You’ll notice that larger companies skip the ‘cheapest is best’ approach when it comes to their public image and they’ll go straight for the right person who can deliver the desired results first time.
They understand the value that they will bring to their product.

It’s easy to spot how we get programmed as it spills into other areas of our life too.
For example, if you go to a restaurant, and we find ourself looking at the prices more than the fare, then chances are we rarely end up with the best plate of food in front of us and we’re left unsatisfied.
If we ordered our favourite dish then we get what we want – even if it cost a few percent more

I’m happy that people get out there and sell themselves, there is plenty room for everyone, but to properly exist side-by-side with full time photographers, they need to correctly quote and bill for the job.
Even if the license is free/included, we still need to know how to create the paperwork to protect our commercial and private clients.
Clients also need to protect themselves by making sure they get hold of the right paperwork.

I did a couple of years semi-pro before I moved to full-time but I always quoted and billed a proper price, even though it wasn’t my main income. Ironically it was easier then as I had an income from the day job so I had some security. If the job didn’t go through then I had my weekend free to relax or do my own projects with no fiscal dent. Win-win.

So, how do we get educated?

If you’re interested in making money from photography then there’s really only one source that’ll answer all your questions. It’s the best investment you’ll make and is useful for clients that need to know their rights too


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