We’ve had quite the journey thus far. By now, you have rocked it out in the field and captured some fantastic brackets. You’ve also nailed down your image management process, ensuring that you know exactly which images you will be tone-mapping. This leaves us with our final phase. The last stop. I admit it’s bold to say that every digital image you take will see some sort of technical refinement but it’s the truth. Barring strict photojournalistic ethics, just about every image you share, in one way or another, will be refined to taste.
The term most commonly used to describe this refining phase is called ‘Post Processing’. It’s also typically referred to simply as ‘Post’, as will be the case for the rest of this Guide. The craftsmanship of your final results rests squarely on your ability to utilize and navigate through the tools that you have at your disposal. In most cases, people usually make core adjustments to an image: the exposure level, contrast, and saturation. HDR imaging brings it to a whole new level because before you can even start adjusting any of those values, you first have to derive your tone-mapped image.
If you think about it, your brackets are the paint on your easel. The quality of these brackets will directly affect the color and quality of what you can paint with. Hopefully, the first two parts of this Best Practices Guide have helped ensure you get the best possible brackets. An optimal series of brackets will contain detail ranging from the highlight areas (typically found in the darkest bracket images) through the mid-tones (the normal exposures) and onto the shadows (the brightest bracket images). Reviewing these brackets while still in the field is integral to ensure that you get the correct details in all of your exposures before leaving the scene.
You’ve seen me use the term ‘tone-mapping’ here and you’ve likely read it on other websites. For the sake of thoroughness, let me quickly and loosely define the term as it is a critical step in the HDR process. In actuality, just about every LCD and printer that you are currently using cannot accurately display all of the data in an HDR image. There is simply too much information in the highlight and shadow areas for your screen to output. To mitigate that limitation, algorithms have been created to ‘tone-map’ the HDR image into a range that your screen and printer can handle. This process of scaling the HDR image down is done at a pixel-by-pixel level and, as a result, you really want to make sure that the pixels found in all of your brackets contain enough exposure detail so that the entire scene is represented accurately.
Ok. I’m hoping that will be as cerebral as I’ll get in this Guide. :)
You will find a quick list of the hardware and software that I use throughout the lifecycle of my HDR Post at the end of this Guide. I will be referring to these applications explicitly. I just happen to find these applications to be ‘Best in Class’. I will also include coupon codes at the end of the guide that discount the cost of some of the software listed.
One more thing to note: as was the case with the first two parts of this Best Practices Guide, my goal is to share with you tips, tricks, and ideas that can be applicable to the broadest array of photographers and images. Instead of going through the Post of a particular series of images, I’d rather give you the concepts that will help shape how you process accordingly. I’ve found that seeing someone process one or two images does not do much in terms of creating a repeatable and sustainable process for the individual. So take the concepts below and fuse them with your own standing Post process.
Now that we have a good introduction and understanding of what we’re about to get into, let’s have at it!
Best Practice #1: Always Work On A Level Playing Field
In Part I / Best Practice #4A of this Guide, I expressed the importance of using the X-Rite ColorChecker Passport in the field. It will ensure that you can achieve a proper White Balance and offers you the ability to create custom DNG color profiles. Kudos to you for taking this important step.
Now that you are in front of your LCD display, you really want to make sure that the colors of your images are being displayed accurately. When you buy an LCD display, it comes configured with a standard color profile. Most of the time, this profile is pretty off-base from what is accurate and will often times result in skewed color. That is why I cannot stress the importance of using a display calibration device.
I personally use and recommend the X-Rite ColorMunki Photo to calibrate both of my LCDs connected to my Mac Pro workstation, as well as the LCD of my Macbook Pro laptop. Furthermore, I have a scheduled task reminder to recalibrate each display quarterly. Actually, I calibrate the displays right after I create my new quarterly Lightroom catalog (as discussed in Part II / Best Practice #2).
Having a properly calibrated display is an absolutely critical starting point to HDR Post.
And while we’re on the topic of gear – I cannot express how much love I have for my pen tablet. If you intend on doing any sort of heavy editing in your future, please consider picking up a tablet. I use the Wacom Intuos5 Large for all of my editing and can’t live without it. You can head over to B&H and check out their full selection of Wacom tablets, if you’re interested. It was one of the best investments that I’ve ever made.
Best Practice #2: Just Because You Have It Doesn’t Mean You Need It
So you went out shooting and you took a bunch of brackets for your HDR image. You checked them out on the back of your LCD after you shot them and you know that you’ve got detail from the highlights throughout the darkest shadow areas. Excellent.
A smart habit that you should get into is reviewing your brackets on your computer LCD before you send them in for tone-mapping. Just because you’ve got all of these brackets doesn’t always mean that you need to use them. Pay attention to the brackets on the far ends of your series, especially the ones exposing for shadow details. A lot of times, the longest-exposed bracket contains just about no useful exposure detail. It’s just one big glob of white.
Including this bracket won’t add any meaningful quality to your tone-mapped image. In fact, it could be a detriment because it can contribute to added noise, as well as bulk up the file size of the image unnecessarily.
Best Practice #3: No Two HDR Images Are The Same
Let’s face it. A lot of photography software our there can be pretty complex. You have an idea in your head of what you’d like it to do but what you are presented with is a massive amount of sliders, radio buttons, toggles, preferences, and menu items. To help get you productive sooner, a lot of software vendors have built presets, plugins, and templates to give you that little head start.
In Photomatix Pro, for instance, you are presented with the option of retaining the settings that were used to tone-map your previous image. In Version 4, you now have presets from which to choose your launch point.
My advice to you is to ignore all of this. The very first thing that I do as soon as my tone-mapped image is rendered in Photomatix Pro is click of the ‘Default’ button to reset all of the sliders to their original places. My rationale is straightforward: I want as little bias as possible when I start refining my tone-mapped image. I always want to start at a baseline. Doing so will ensure that I have as much consistency in my process and it also helps me give each and every HDR image a truly unique look because each slider is being sourced from its default position. This actually segues me quite nicely to my next Best Practice.
Best Practice #4: Make Friends With Your Sliders
For a newcomer to HDR, the main palette of sliders that you are greeted with in Photomatix can certainly be intimidating. I find a lot of us experience a sort of paralysis when confronted with so many options, especially when we have little-to-know idea how they will affect our image. This often translates into a type of apathy and neglect of actually using them and ultimately results in substandard quality images.
Fear not, my friends. These sliders are not enemies. They are friends… misunderstood friends, and they are here to bring your image to the place you want it to be. But here is the rub. I am not going to go through each slider and define what its intended effect is. That would be robbing you of one of the best learning experiences that I have had while trying to master HDR. Instead, I offer you these three tips:
Best Practice #4A: Treat Each Slider Like A Fickle Friend
There is a simple way to learn the effect of a particular slider or setting that has an intensity scale (ie 0% <-> 100% or -100% <-> 100%). Just take the slider and slam it all the way to the left. Let the image render and take note of the effect. Then take the slider and slam it all the way to the right. Again, render and take note. Finally, start moving the slider gradually and less abruptly to either side. Notice the subtleties and nuances. When you are done with that slider, move onto the next one. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
This was the best exercise that I had gone through during my time learning Photomatix.
Best Practice #4B: 100% Does Not Mean 100% Of The Time
There are two ways that you can approach your HDR Post. You can start whisking sliders to one extreme or the other or you can shift them up and down with finesse. Both certainly have their merits but I will tell you that as I got more immersed in HDR photography, the more I started to appreciate the finesse approach.
It’s very simple: just because a slider can go to 100% (or -100%, for that matter), doesn’t mean it always has to. The easiest example to use is the ‘Strength’ Slider in Photomatix. This slider generally controls how much of the overall HDR ‘effect’ is applied to your image (predominantly controlled by the ‘Smoothing’ slider, discussed below). I’d say that the de facto action taken is to jam that slider all the way to 100%. And that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Often times, my images use 100% Strength. The key is to learn when 100% is needed and when it isn’t, because there have been plenty of times when 85% was the right amount to achieve my desired result.
Possibly the largest offender of slider jamming is the ‘Smoothing’ slider. Think of the Smoothing slider as hot sauce. The more you slide it to the left, the spicier the hot sauce. Keep jamming that Smoothing slider all the way over and you’ll eventually puke because you won’t be able to stand the taste. In all of my time tone-mapping images, I have -never- come across a need to jam this slider. It is the leading cause of HDR hatred today. Trust me. I usually hover between -.10 and .10 on the Smoothing slider and it has never failed me.
Now, my goal here is not to convince you that going to 100% by default is wrong, but rather to bring up the point that you generally do not want to get in the habit of routine settings during post (as previously mentioned in Best Practice #3 above). Try dropping that Strength slider to 80%. Try toggling a slider that you had previously ignored entirely. The goal here is to get in the habit of studying how subtle changes to your sliders can impact your tone-mapped image.
Best Practice #4C: Slider As Pulleys
This may have been one of the most frustrating, but rewarding, lessons that I learned after using Photomatix Pro for so long. It would behoove you greatly to not think of these sliders as independent entities but rather as conjoined friends. I came to this realization when it became clear that no one slider acts predictably from image to image. That is to say that the Luminosity slider, for example, would behave one way in Image A but a totally different way in Image B. You can imagine the frustration there.
That was until I realized that these sliders are supposed to work like pulleys, in tandem with each other. For instance, if I am not happy with the highlights of my shot because they are too hot, I may try decreasing the White Level. But, I’ll also gently increase the Gamma and perhaps the microcontrast to compensate.
The key here is to learn which sliders work best with each other and in tandem. Mastering this instantly up’d my ability to maneuver within the tone-mapping process.
Best Practice #5: Tone-mapping Is Just Half Of The Battle
There is no other way to say it. Tone-mapping will only bring you so far in this HDR game. When you are finished with your sliders, toggles, and radio buttons in Photomatix Pro, what you are left with is a tone-mapped HDR image. This is not your final image. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that the next phase of Post is the really exciting one, and is critical in terms of correcting some of the ‘issues’ introduced during the tone-mapping process, as well as applying your personal sense of style.
Best Practice #5A: Quell The Noise & The Dust Spots
One of the byproducts of HDR that you can pretty much count on appearing in some varying severity is noise. This is the graininess that appears typically in blue channels, as well as in darker, shadow areas. There are a lot of factors that go into the introduction of noise, most notably the size of your camera sensor (full vs cropped) and what ISO your camera was set to at the time of your bracket capture (as discussed in Part I / Best Practice #4C). Don’t worry if you have noise in your image. Even the Canon 5D Mark III, with its 21 megapixel full frame sensor and noted high-ISO performance, is not immune to it (even at ISO100). The key is addressing it in Post.
More often than not, I notice noise in images that contain a lot of sky. My solution to combat this is to use the powerful noise reduction tools built right into Lightroom.
Another piece of housecleaning that is certainly not limited to HDR photography, but is just as prevalent, is around dust spots. Whether these critters are on your sensor, lens, or anywhere else – dust spots are really not attractive. Dust spots also tend to be more pronounced when you are shooting with a small aperture, so be cognizant of that. Both Lightroom and Photoshop have fantastic cloning and healing tools that make getting rid of these artifacts a breeze.
Best Practice #5B: Put On The Mask
Masking is a technique that I routinely use in Photoshop. The easiest way to describe masking in the context of HDR Post is: you have your tone-mapped image on one layer and then you present one of your source brackets onto its own layer within this image. What a Mask allows you to do is draw out the parts of your tone-mapped image that are not visually pleasing by revealing whatever is found on the layer directly below (typically, one of your source brackets). The key here is to mask from a source bracket whose exposure best matches your tone-mapped image. Furthermore, it is not uncommon to have several layer masks where you bring in details from multiple source brackets. It may sound daunting but trust me, it is well worth the effort.
There are a few prime instances where effective use of Masking will bring your final HDR image to the next level. It will significantly improve the polished look and feel of the image. The instances are:
#1 – Moving objects/elements – By now, you should be very familiar with the effects of moving objects during tone-mapping. It usually results in ghosting as the tone-mapping software tries to find commonality across your brackets. By masking in details from a source bracket that has these elements frozen (or in whatever motion that suits your taste), you can ‘snap’ that element into place. This works wonders when you have to contend with ghosting of clouds in the sky and moving foliage.
#2 – Blown highlights – The next time you take a look at a tone-mapped image that has some blown out highlights (usually in bright clouds and light sources), try bringing in a source bracket that has these elements exposed properly. It will give your image a cleaner look in those areas, as opposed to having totally clipped detail.
#3 – Neon signs/lights – This goes hand-in-hand with #2 but it deserves to stand on its own. Tone-mapping tends to blow out most signage that you shoot, especially neon-lit signs. You should have at least one good exposure on the faster end of your bracket series that has the proper details of these signs. Masking them in will do wonders, trust me.
#4 – Light trails – This also goes hand-in-hand with #2. Vehicles in motion are awesome when captured in a compelling way… and they do look awesome in HDR. The problem is that light trails are susceptible to a weird sort of ghosting where you’ll see the outline of the trail but it will be transparent in the middle. This simply doesn’t look natural and masking in a solid trail from one of your source brackets will fix that right up.
Best Practice #5C: Bring Back The Texture
One of my favorite applications of HDR is how it brings out textures in the surfaces within my image. Walls covered with graffiti. Rusted pipes running up and down massive corridors of an abandoned mill. Brick, metal, wood, rock, dirt – it all has an amazing amount of texture and applying HDR processing can help bring all of that out.
The problem is that these textures can sometimes get lost in during tone-mapping or if you apply a global noise reduction filter. One of the best ways that I know of to bring that ‘pop’ in the textures is by using a little adjustment brush that I created in Lightroom. It basically boosts the Clarity, Sharpness, and a bit of Contrast and Brightness.
Best Practice #6: It’s All About Style
Believe it or not, we are almost at the finish line! You’ve come a long way from when you were out in the field, capturing those brackets, to sitting over here crushing your HDR Post. At this point, you should have a solid tone-mapped image that has nice clean, crisp elements. Noise should be reduced/eliminated and any ghosting should be masked out. The final step is to apply your style to the shot.
Now, style is a very tricky subject to talk about here, mostly because it is totally subjective. What I find stylish can be totally horrid to you. That is perfectly fine. The key lesson here is to style your shot out to suit your taste. Unless you are being paid by a client to process an image a certain way, you should always style your image in a way that is pleasing to you and you alone. You will always have your fans and your detractors, but at least the image that you created fits your bill and no one can change that.
There are so many different products, add-ons, actions, and effects out there for you to use. Lightroom itself has a massive amount of power, allowing you to edit the look of your image in all sorts of ways. There is no shortage of presets, both free and premium, that you can download and import in.
One point that I’d like to make is that you begin to understand how core tools like Contrast, Clarity, Brightness, Saturation, and Vibrance affect your edited tone-mapped image. Most of the time, I’m usually dialing down Saturation because of how potent it is when it reacts with HDR images. The same goes with Clarity. Be very careful with Clarity. Overly liberal applications of this slider can really enhance halos and detract from the look of your image (unless that is what you’re going for). So, get comfortable with your tools and figure out how they fit in to achieve your look.
For me, my money is on Perfect Effects 4. I am a HUGE fan of Perfect Effects 4 by OnOne Software. I love the product and I easily endorse it.
The important thing to note is that style is the best way to achieve your own brand or look. By coming up with consistent and (ideally) distinctive looks to your images, people will begin associating that look to you. Some notable photographers who have achieved this are Dave Hill, Trey Ratcliff, and David Nightingale, amongst others.
Best Practice #7: Bring it on home
Wait. There is more? I know, you have this ridiculously awesome HDR image that you worked really hard on to bring it to its final state. You put it on your blog, Facebook, tweeted it out and rested it on Flickr. But, really, what is there to show for it? In a week or so, the image will move further and further into the bottomless abyss of the Internet. It will get forgotten. Please believe this. But why should it be? If the shot is something that has meaning to you, why not immortalize it by making it tangible. There is no Internet abyss when your image is hanging on your wall or on your friend’s or family’s wall.
I’m not saying that every shot that I process gets sent off to be printed. But, I can assure you that if I finish a shot that has some sentimental or emotional significance to me or someone that I care about, I can guarantee you that it will get sent off to be printed.
Now, everyone has their preferences in terms of the style and formatting of their print. I am a MASSIVE fan of canvas. I’ve had a good number of HDR images printed on canvas and I cannot tell you how fantastically they translate over to this medium and I entrust this process to one single place – Artistic Photo Canvas. I have never come across a friendlier group of people who take such pride in their work and back it up with such amazing quality. I use APC exclusively because I simply want my tangible images to look their very best. I really cannot recommend APC enough.
So that’s it. These are the Best Practices that I’ve put together and refined after years of trying, failing, trying some more, and eventually squeaking out some successful images. The overall process of how you get to your final HDR image should never be cookie-cutter. Each one of you will bring your own nuances, tastes, and practices. You may choose to incorporate some of my techniques and ignore others. My primary goal here is to help shed some light on the known obstacles and pitfalls of HDR Photography and to help couple it with your own sensibilities and style to create a final image that is yours and that you are truly proud of.
As always, please feel free to contact me using the Contact form on my blog or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thanks for sticking it out to the end. I had a blast sharing all of this information with you.