Just a quick mid-week post to illustrate how a photographer’s vision takes place beyond the camera. There’s the design and concept stage of an image, but this post is more on the execution and processing.

As an example, below you’ll see one of the images from my recent trip to Colonsay which I blogged about earlier in the year


photography vision

The left image was as it came out of the camera. The right image is the image once I had finished post-processing it.

I knew when I saw the scene how I wanted the final version to look well before I set up the camera to take the shot and I took the picture with my camera set up to suit the post-processing I had in mind.

I was aware I already did this, but the recent photowalk I joined really brought it to my attention and it made me realise how much I think about realising the final shot before I’ve even gone near my camera.

It’s just as well it’s disposable 😉

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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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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