Saturday, July 11, 2009

The poor photographer's guide to photography and HDR

I'm afraid that this posting will reveal how ignorant I am about all of the fancy camera stuff. I discovered that I can substitute intense use of software for actual photographer knowledge and skill. Here's an attempt to relay the process I use. (sigh) Here goes:

One of my favorite HDR photos:

For amateurs, HDR ("High Dynamic Range") can dramatically improve your work. In flickr you can see typical heavy-handed use in photos that have an almost animated paint-by-numbers feel. But I find that it can also be used more subtly to enhance a photo and create the view that made me pick up the camera to capture the scene.

HDR is digital photo post-processing software that combines several exposures into one picture. For example, it's an easy way to get a single image that both shows a dramatic sky along with the details of the subject.

How do you get several images with different exposures? I took the easy way out and made sure that my camera did this automatically. Most high end digital cameras have an easily accessible setting for this. It's not always called the same thing, but I've seen the term "Auto Bracket" used a lot. Many high end cameras will automatically take 3 shots at different exposures.

But I jiggle the camera when I take photos! Me too. But there are ways around that.
  • The results are a lot better if you have a stable camera. Either place it on something solid or use a tripod. (You can get a tiny tripod to carry around that doesn't look too dorky. )
  • If you still think that tripods are too much bother, you still have a chance. The HDR software tries to align the photos before applying HDR. Since I'm impatient with tripods, I had to find HDR software that does this alignment exceptionally well.
  • Whether you place the camera or use a tripod, though, keep in mind that pressing the shutter jiggles the camera anyway. So for the best results, set the timer. Here's an embarassing admission. Sometimes I'll set the timer and hold my breath so I feel like I'm not moving much while I take the shot. Silly, eh?
What are the steps, specifically? When you want to use HDR, (1) select autobracketing on the camera, (2) place the camera on something solid, (3) set the timer to go off in two seconds, and (4) press the shutter. (5) Since I have no clue about all of the other settings on my fancy digital camera, I'll usually repeat this a few times with some random twists of the automatic settings dial (e.g, try, Landcape mode, Portrait mode, Sunset mode). If I'm really intent on catching a scene, I may end up with as many as 30 shots (i.e., 10 groups of 3 shots that I can try with my software).

Which software should I use? I've heard of people using the feature within Photoshop, but I don't use Photoshop and can't vouch for it. I've tried the version that comes with PaintShopPro X2, but I found that it generated poor quality results. I tried several others as well, and I've had the best success with Photomatix. But it also gives a dozen ways to adjust the result allowing me to pick dramatic or subtle effects. (e.g., how much color to soak into shadows.)

Is that it? Just put photos into HDR and let it run? No. At least for me, I find that I can spend hours and hours on post-processing.
  • First of all, I usually have to filter out bad shots. Typically, there's at least one poorly focused set or some version where my camera jiggled.
  • Many of the sets will have an over-exposed white-out shot that is rarely good for HDR.
  • Alignment isn't always perfect. My software, for example, offers two ways to get alignment ("matching features" or by "shifting"). Sometimes you need to try both.
  • There are so many options, I usually try several approaches on a photo and compare the results.
  • Once I have an HDR image, I find that I have residual effects that I need to edit out. For example, the software doesn't always align well, so I need to look for ghost lines to remove. It doesn't deal with bright light well, so those bits need to be covered up. And HDR yields funny colors that sometimes could use some editing.
Sometimes I'm lucky, and a photo works right out of the camera. (With aut0-bracketing and multiple settings, I can have as many as 30 shots to choose from). If not, there are times when I'm almost as lucky, and an HDR photo comes out perfect after the software runs. Mostly, though, I'll have several versions of an image that I stare at and fiddle with on-and-off for weeks before it feels right. Even then, there are times when I just toss the whole mess out and hope to get a chance to go back and try again.


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