I spent the fourth of July with family, helping them work around the house and yard. Their gardens are absolutely amazing and between the work, I couldn’t help but capture bits of it with the camera. I found a really amazing looking flower, which quickly dominated my attention and became the subject of the vast majority of my pictures. There were white, purple and blue varieties and the detail in these flowers was absolutely stunning.
No one seemed to know exactly what they were, so once I got home and downloaded all the pictures, I set out to find out a little more about these. I found that this plant is in the genus Nigella, which contains several different species, one of which is actually the source of the spice black cumin (yum). This is not the cumin-producing variation, but it’s still pretty awesome to look at. This particular variation appears to be colloquially referred to as “love-in-a-mist”.
The detail in the flower was difficult to preserve, particularly in the white petals; the petal details had a tendency to get blown out when the rest of the image was appropriate exposed. Because of this, I had to do some post-processing on this photo in order to preserve the details of the petals without the rest of the photo being too dark. Fortunately, there is a processing technique which is particularly well-suited to such a task: HDR.
I have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with HDR, mainly because it is, in my humble opinion, so easily and widely abused. I, too, am guilty of such abuse. HDR can be a marvelous tool, but it can also make an otherwise great photo into a monstrosity, if you’re not careful. These days, I use HDR for a very specific purpose, in order to bring out detail that is otherwise lost in the photo. HDR stands for high dynamic range, and it basically is a means of digitally extending the range of lighting possible in a photo, so it more closely matches the range of the human eye.
The problems with HDR, however, are numerous. If you extend the range too far, you get a weird haloing effect, which some people find desirable, but I personally am not a fan. Included in HDR software is also a saturation feature, which gets abused as well, so lots of HDR photos end up being over-saturated and haloed, in my opinion. I know it might seem like I’m bashing on overdone HDR a lot, but it’s because I’ve been there, done that. Several years ago, when I first learned the HDR technique, I produced overly dramatic HDR images, and that was my preference. But as I’ve grown artistically, it simply no longer suits my tastes.
The primary software that I use for processing HDR is called Photomatix, and it is, in my opinion, superior. Photoshop has recently come out with their own HDR processing feature, but I feel it pales in comparison in terms of both usability and final output.
An HDR image is a composite of three images taken at different exposures. How you obtain three exposures of a single image is up to you, but for the reason of minimizing ghosting in the final image, I take one RAW image and manually change the exposure bracketing in Photoshop, then throw the three exposures into Photomatix. You can take three separate bracketed images with the camera, but even extraordinarily slight movement of the camera or the subject being photographed will cause the three images to not align properly. This is why I prefer to work with a single RAW image.
I typically bracket my exposures at -1, 0, +1, as I find this generally gives a very desirable light range. Once I have three bracketed photos, I just load them into Photomatix and the rest is relatively simple detail-tweaking. I usually bump the strength slider up fairly high, because I want to get the most dramatic effect out of Photomatix, leaving me the most room to work with when I bring the image back into Photoshop. I tend to leave the saturation neutral, because I don’t want to get an overly-saturated image. I also bump up the details contrast slider pretty far. As for the luminosity, I often leave that on the lower end of the scale, because increasing the luminosity too much has resulted in many a haloed photo.
Once I’m done tweaking the image to my liking, I save it and import it to Photoshop, along with the original exposure. Generally, the image straight out of Photomatix is not very good; it is grainy and overdone, and needs some additional love in Photoshop to make it just right. So, in Photoshop, I stack the HDR image on top of the original image and immediately apply a layer mask to the HDR layer. In this particular example, I only wanted the HDR effect applied to the petals, because that was the area of the photo where the details were being blown out. So I filled the layer mask with all black (black masks that portion of the layer, while white reveals it) and then took a soft white brush and painted over the petals, revealing the HDR, on top of the original exposure.
The result was the original exposure, with the details of the petals being restored via the HDR layer. This is how I prefer to use HDR: restoring lost details to a photo without over-doing it to the point where someone looks at the photo and goes, “whoa, hello HDR”. The point is that I want the HDR to be subtle and enhance the original photo, not completely remake it into something else entirely.
If you’re interested in using the HDR technique for yourself, you can download the free trial version of Photomatix at HDRsoft.