HDR Without the Plugin


Maybe you’ve seen or heard about HDR (High Dynamic Range) images and you’re wondering how they’re done.  You poke around the internet and are stunned by the incredibly powerful colours, and sheer impact that some of these images carry with them.  Perhaps you’re one of those people who are in fact tired of seeing the same wildly over-saturated, “over-cooked” images that push the very boundaries of what is visibly appealing.  Sure,it’s fine at first, but like many processing techniques, it has become over-done, finding the only merit for the photo in what has been done to it, rather than the artistry involved in creating the photo to begin with.  As a photographer, I would rather be defined for my creativity, rather than my post-processing.

What is HDR?  Without going too deeply into what makes an HDR image, in a broad sense, an image with high dynamic range will contain portions of the image that are normally imperceivable to a camera’s visible range of light in a single exposure.  They thus require several images taken at different exposures, and then blended in such a way as to benefit from each other, preventing blown out highlights and providing rich details in the shadows.  HDR toning can be created from a single exposure, but in most cases, it is destructing to the image integrity, creating artifacts, and artificial colours since the software is literally inventing information that isn’t there to begin with, or extrapolating from the camera’s RAW file.

How much dynamic range is acceptable?  Personally I draw the line where the human eye reaches it’s limit.  Anything beyond a natural perception of range becomes offensive since the image takes on an unnatural look.  Sometimes this is acceptable as artistic license since the picture becomes a caricature of the subject, but should only be done to accentuate or communicate an aspect of your subject.

So what happens if you really want to try making HDR images, but don’t have the software to do it?  This was a challenge for me since the latest version of photoshop can be very costly just to have a plugin that will do it for you.

For a long time I’ve been shooting images with a broad dynamic range in an effort to replicate what I am used to in film, since film typically has a wider range than that of a APS-C or 35mm format digital SLR.  Here’s how I’ve done it:

Ideally using a tripod, shoot several images of the same scene at different f-stops though if you don’t want to change the depth of field, you’ll need to shutter bracket.  My sample image provided here is what the camera produced from it’s automatic, full frame metered mode.

It is a bright sky, so the camera keeps the exposure “safe” from over-exposing the sky, but sinks the foreground into black oblivion.  Now I could expand the dynamic range by using lighting to bring the exposure of my foreground up, but I didn’t have any with me, and it becomes time consuming and tedious work to get the lighting right, but it is often worth it, especially with portraits.

I shot 5 frames shutter bracketed and set to work blending them later.  I first popped it into the adobe plugin, but often times I find the results I get are unnatural, so usually find myself using this technique later anyway.  It wasn’t that bad, but I want to show you how close you can get with layer blending available in most layered programs like bibble, photoshop elements or others.  Yes, that’s right, you can do HDR in Elements.

I first opened all of the pictures and made a quick jpeg conversion.  Shooting in Raw allows more flexibility for choosing my layers.  Then I create a new file with each frame as its own layer.

When blending, you may find that some of the colours get dull, so I usually pop in a vibrance and/or saturation layer on top and a levels layer.  Don’t touch them yet, though the beauty of this technique is you can edit each layer individually on the fly.

Next I use a simple formula to ensure even blending : 100/Layer = opacity.  So layer 4, which is actually 5. results in opacity 20%.  If you did not use a tripod, you’ll need to manually align all of the images first.  The plugins can do this for you, a big time saver for sure.  To align them, work from the bottom up.  Select the layer above the background, drop its opacity to 60% and jig it this way and that, maybe even rotating it a little, to align it with the layer below.  Then, raise its opacity to 100% and work on the layer above it until all of the layers are aligned.  In other words, use a tripod.

Alright, I’ve got 5 layers at 20%, 25%, 33%, 50% and 100%.  Note that my layers are arranged with the darkest on the bottom.  If I want to change the overall tone of the image, I can bump up the opacity of the layer that best describes the area of the image I want to lighten.  If you want to get more precise, you can mask parts of the layer, or isolate and create a new layer of the range you want to deal with specifically.  In photoshop, you can right click on the layer and access “blending options”.

With the blending options, you can control the specific areas of the histogram that are visible from each layer.  Option-clicking will allow you to feather each limiter when you move it back and forth.  This option is not available in photoshop elements, but you can still get very good results by using a levels adjustment on the layer you want to adjust.

So Here’s a comparison, on the left, done with PS CS5, with the HDR Plugin, on the right, layer blended as described above.

Personally I find the layer blending a more natural look, but I’ll let you decide which you like best for your own uses.

A parting shot, layer blended.

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