Posted by: In: Post Processing, Techniques 03 Feb 2011 0 comments Tags: , , ,

This is the final installment in the trilogy of posts regarding HDR. It’s also the most complex (or simple!) depending on your point of view.

Part I: What is HDR? is available here.

Part II: Getting HDR Right In-Camera, is available here.

As a Photographer, I don’t want to spend hours in post processing. I want to get as much right in-camera, then do a minimum of work afterwards. In some cases though, a little more care is required.

The image below was shot at sunset in January 2011 at Castlerigg Stone Circle in the Lake District.

Castlerigg HDR at Sunset

For me, this is a lovely image of an iconic site (I would say that). But as with any photograph, miles of tweaking in HDR won’t help a badly composed  image. In this case, I avoided trying to take in the whole circle, and went instead for an angled view as the sun set with beautiful colours in the sky and on the stones themselves.

So. Where did I start?

I took the images 1/3 of a stop apart. The metering in this case indicated that 1/125sec captured all the wonderful sky detail, but nothing in the shadows. At 1/10sec, all the foreground was lovely and crisp, but the sky was a whiteout. In total, I took 12 exposures. Now this may sound a lot, but when you’re simply rolling the shutter speed wheel one click in between each shot, it doesn’t take long at all. In fact, with the inevitable cloud movement and the speed of the setting sun, haste was probably of the essence.

Which Software to Use With HDR?

Well. This will be down to your own personal choice. Photoshop comes with HDR built-in, and there are numerous software packages both as a free download and as a purchased option. I have tried free, and tried Photoshop, and none give me the level of control I need that Photomatix does. I have not invested any money in other paid HDR software packages, so I cannot comment on those, but if you’re thinking “I’m not going to grab this on one persons recommendation”, I agree completely and suggest you Google “Best HDR Software” or similar. Do it now. If you find a concerted group of people telling you something else is better, the rest of this tutorial won’t help much! However, HDRSoft do offer a free trial, which doesn’t expire or have limited functionality, but does put a watermark on your image. To have a play, download and try it. It won’t cost a cent/penny.

Now there are a LOT of people for whom “sliders” are things that need to be either completely on the left, or completely on the right. You may have seen those images on your search for HDR images. They are not for me, but some people enjoy that first “wow” when they blend those multiple exposures. When I first bought Photomatix, I did the same, and I now cringe at those early images.

It’s my very humble opinion, that if photographers say to you “Is that HDR?” because they’re not sure, then you got your processing spot on. You are trying to portray the full range of tones and colours from the brightest to the darkest areas, mapped evenly across your image.

Which version of Photomatix should you buy? Well that’s up to you. I have the standalone version because my computer is falling apart and can’t handle the RAM needed to run Lightroom, Photoshop CS3 and Photomatix all at once. It forces me to close other applications to get one running, and images bleed through on the screen from Lightroom into other programs. It’s not good… I also worry about having a version of Photoshop that would be incompatible with Photomatix. Having a standalone app, I need not worry. Your mileage may very well vary though. Final caveat: This tutorial is explained using the Photomatix standalone client on a Windows machine (Windows XP at the time of writing). Photomatix is available as a Mac version, and does appear to work under WINE for Linux users. More information on the latter is available under the FAQ heading on the Photomatix website.

Getting Started Using HDR Software

The first step, is to import your images into Photomatix. This is done easily with the “Load Bracketed Images” image button. You should then be presented with an option to browse your computer for the files. In the future, I shall be writing a Lightroom tutorial explaining how to set up the Photomatix import swiftly, as a separate guide around the Lightroom Export function (which is marvellous!). Photomatix can handle RAW files, but my experience is that it’s best to examine your files in a RAW viewer (I use Lightroom) and then export them as .tiff’s to a dedicated Photomatix folder.

Select your images (shift+click to select a group, or crtl+click to select individual images), and click “OK”.

You’re then given an option screen. Again, my experience with these may differ to yours but here’s what I’ve found.

  • Align Source Images. I now always use a tripod, so I know my images are aligned. If tree branches have moved, the software isn’t going to gobble RAM tying to align things. The only time I tick this box, is if I’ve shot handheld. Otherwise leave this unchecked.
  • Reduce Chromatic Aberrations/Reduce Noise. I always tick these two boxes. Photomatix are the experts, so I let their NR and CA removal tools do their stuff. For Noise, I leave the strength to 100% and set it to “all sourced images”. Depending on your camera, you may want to check the “underexposed images only”. I like to cover all the bases, and have so far experienced no ill effects.
  • Reduce Ghosting Artefacts. I leave this unchecked as a rule. At the “taking the photo” stage, I tend to compose to make sure moving things aren’t in the image. Tree branches swaying in the wind, people, water, clouds etc. If you have any of this in your shot, Photomatix will try and blend them together. For water and clouds, this effect is (in my mind) quite pleasing, but with things like cars and people, you end up with some ghosting that you will have to fix in further post processing. If you have movement in your shot, go ahead and check the box. I then strongly urge you to click “Help” and “User Manual” and read the section on Ghosting Detection. It’s very clever stuff…

Then click “OK”.

Eventually the tone mapped image opens on your screen and you’re ready to go.

The screen is split into three roughly speaking.

the main Photomatix window

On the left, you have the adjustments window, in the centre you have your image, and at the bottom, you have a presets window. A lot of the information on what does what is available in the manual (“Help>User Manual”), so go there in the first instance!

Presets are very straightforward. They consist of a collection of  “settings” to give a desired effect. Once you have found the perfect settings for an image, and especially if you take a lot of images in that style, it’s well worth saving the settings. They might not be perfect for every image, but it will give you a benchmark place to begin. Always save a setting if you like it! You can either save it during the Tone Mapping process, or once you’ve finished, so don’t worry if you forget!

With all the sliders and settings I mention below, one method I’ve found is to swing the slider all the way to the right, then all the way to the left, observing the change in the image. This gives you an idea of precisely what that slider does in terms of your image in particular. Play play play is the advice here. However…

I try to separate my workflow into distinct areas:

  • Tonal range (bright and dark areas as well as the contrast between them)
  • Colour
  • Detail

By concentrating on one thing at once, I find I tend not to get distracted with “slider obsession”. I also tend to look at an image with a fresh perpective when I tackle each area. I tackle “Detail” last, because the details slider can destroy an image, and by the time I get to that section, I’m getting very happy with what I’m doing.

Tonal Range

This is where you need the histogram. You’re looking for a range of tones from white through to black (in brightness terms – not colour!). Unless you have a particular artistic bent, a good rule of thumb is to try and get a good range. The majority of your tones should be in the middle of the histogram (which means they are “mid-tones” in the image) like this…

Example of toning in HDR

The histogram drops off at the left hand edge as you can see, indicating I don’t have much black in the image, so I need to start tweaking! But, out of the box, it’s a pretty good start. And it should be! Don’t forget, you’re blending a load of images with the end result of a perfect tonal range. You exposed for the highlights and you exposed for the shadows, and everything in-between, so when it’s all put together, you have a perfect exposure! (Well… you should have…)

For Tonal Ranges, the best tools are:

Luminosity (under the main header): General tone compression that tends to be an overall brightness modifier.

Smoothing (main header): This is the powerful one. It controls the smoothing of the contrast in the scene, and can be over-used. By all means use the “Light” mode, but this tends to give very surreal results – I prefer having the “Light Mode” box unchecked. It’s interesting to play with, but if you’re looking for an image that closely. By controlling the smoothing, you are varying the range of tones across your image. Every single image has a different look, and I’m sure you’ll find one you like. It’s the Smoothing slider that has a large degree of control over this.


White Point, Black Point & Gamma, under the “Tone Settings” menu.

White point increases the brightness of the bright areas of your image

Black point increases the darkness of the dark areas of your image

Gamma increases/decreases overall brightess

Initally, I would leave the luminosity slider, and use the tools in the Tone Settings. Keep an eye on the histogram as you make changes, as well as on your image. Remember one thing – if you like the look of it, then the histogram doesn’t matter. But if you aim to get the majority of the tones in the middle, you’ll be in a strong position.


Colour is the easiest to explain and controlled by the “Color Saturation” slider as well as the three sliders under the colour settings tab.

That’s it! I tend to use colour temperature to reign in any over-colour-toned images (shots that look overly warm or overly cool). The key here is not to overdo it. Tinker with the sliders to get the effect you want.

One important note here is for creating black & white. There are a myriad of methods for creating black & white images from colour, and the most common uses the channel mixer in Photoshop (or similar software). This changes the tonal range of every colour, based on the strength of that colour. So if you are going to go B&W with an image, my recommendation would be to increase the saturation to slightly “overcooked” levels . When you then get it into Photoshop, you have a greater degree of control with the conversion. As a quick example, here’s a church door before and after. Note how the “before” version looks very over-saturated, but that is completely lost in the B&W conversion which has a beautiful range of tones.

An image of a church door in HDR before black & white conversion

And after… (This time with cropping, a border and a clone out of the security light)

An HDR image of a church door after B&W conversionSo you can see that you need to keep thinking about your final image and how you want it to look, and not worry too much about how it looks in-between. “Never show an idiot a half finished job”, as my wife says.


On to the final part of the process. The detail slider is covered in many areas, and also has an affect on the tones of your image, so you may need to go back and tweak the tonal settings.

Strength controls the strength of the contrast between light & dark. Further to the right with the slider, and you get a very moody image. To the left, and it’s more ethereal and (in my mind) a little flat. I tend to have the slider on the right, past the half-way mark. But pay attention to what this does to the detail in your image!

Micro Contrast enhances detail by increasing local contrast. To this end, fiddling with this and pushing it too far right can leave you with black shadows. If you like this look, that’s fine, but if you don’t, and you want to keep these micro contrast settings, you may need to go and lighten image to compensate. With Photomatix in particular, it’s a careful balancing act.

And lastly, the Miscellaneous Settings. These all provide smoothing options, so if you want detail, they should all stay to the left. If you’re after a more dreamy look, then begin to push them to the right. However if you’re doing this on a landscape, watch your skies! The “Highlight Smoothness” slider can ruin delicate cloud detail very quickly, so that’s where you should be looking if you change anything here.

Now You’ve Accomplished HDR Processing!

At this stage you need to take a final look at your image and decide where you’ve gone too far. The temptation is to bring out all the colour and all the detail you have, but this can spoil the image. As with everything written here though, if you don’t like the effect, or prefer highly saturated images, it’s your show! After all, you are the artist.

If you like the final image, save the settings. I’ve found that different types of images need different settings as the light balance can change. Landscape and Interior shots benefit from having the presets saved, as well as shots you intend to B&W at a later date (over-saturated in colour). There’s nothing worse than having an image everyone says is wonderful, but losing the settings you had in Photomatix that created it. Save, save save. What’s the harm?

Once you’re completely happy, click “Process” and the software goes off to process your image.

Once that’s complete you now have the option to crop, resize and make other minor modifications to your image. I personally prefer to save it at this, and do that processing in Photoshop as I have more control, but it is good that these tools are offered, especially if all that is needed is a quick crop.

But… Before you shut the image down… (If you have ten more minutes…)

Click on “Process” and “Tone Mapping“. You can re-HDR your HDR image! This can create some really surreal and strong effects. Begin the whole process again! But remember to save before you start this as there’s now way to step back .

So that’s it! You have created your first HDR image. Hopefully this will inspire you to go and take more exposures. The key to HDR is getting the images in the first place. Capture a good range of tones in your original shots, and you’ll have a much easier time in the software afterwards.

Finally, it’s time to read the manual. I’m sure 99% of people load the software, play, then begin to ask questions without ever using the help button. The manual is extremely comprehensive and helpful and is a simple PDF rather than a complex search function that never returns what you’re after.

That’s not it from me on HDR, it’s just a beginning. There are numerous techniques for further post processing, and taking the shots in the first place, and I’ll be adding to this with new posts over time. Bookmark us, or follow us on Facebook (or Twitter once I figure out what to Twit).

At least visit HDRsoft and download the  free HDRSoft trial. Give it a go. You know you want to!


Posted by: In: In-Camera, Techniques 28 Jan 2011 0 comments Tags: , , ,

This is a follow up post to “What is HDR” and is the second in a trinity of posts about HDR. There are two phases to getting a decent image for HDR. Camera-side and Software-side. This post looks at the camera functions.

So – what do you need?

The answer to that, is that you need some form of manual control over your camera. You also need to know how to manually control your camera! Finally, you need a tripod, or a steady base for your camera (so that it doesn’t move)

As discussed in the last post, HDR is all about getting a balance between the lightest and darkest areas of your image. What I’m going to explain here, is how to take a range of images at different exposure settings so that you capture all the information. Beyond that (in the third post) I will detail how to blend these all together. But it’s important you know now that you’ll be blending these images in post-processing. That’s why the following is important:

– The camera must not move once you’ve started. The HDR software will cater for small movements in-camera, but you’ll be most likely shooting at low shutter speeds, and you need crisp, unshaky images to get the best results. Additionally, it’s probably wise to turn OFF auto focus and any image stabilisation. By reducing the light, the lens may want to hunt for focus giving you blurred images. When you’re set up with a tripod, find focus using auto-focus if you like, but then switch AF off.

– The Aperture must not change once you’ve started. Different apertures give different depths of field, so if you change the aperture through your shooting, some images will be out of focus beyond the focal point, and some will be sharp. When they are blended, it looks messy. That’s why Manual mode (M) or Shutter speed priority (Tv) if manual mode scares you, are the best options.

– The camera must be changed to shoot in RAW mode. JPEGS do work, but the effect and clarity is much better in RAW mode. There is simply more information in the RAW files for the post processing software to work with.

– The camera should be set to spot metering. You’re going to take light readings from different parts of the scene (the darkest and the brightest) and averaged meter readings will mess everything up. Set to spot metering and the middle 3% of the sensor is where the light will be measured.

So let’s walk through this with an example. My living room is a great place to start, as it has content in shade, and content in bright light. Just snapping a shot of the sofa shows the problem. When we expose for the sofa, the light coming through from the room beyond is totally white. We can’t see any detail.

Shows how a scene with multiple=

So what’s the solution?

Here’s where you need to know how to understand your camera. Looking at the display, when I point the camera at the sofa (the middle point of the viewfinder – spot metering meters this point), it shows a correct exposure at 1/10 sec, f5.6, ISO 500. However, when I point the camera at the bright areas, it shows 1/125 sec (f5.6, ISO 500 unchanged remember!)

Exposing for the highlights to get the top reading for HDR photography

So now we know that to capture all the detail in the image, we need to shoot exposures between 1/10sec and 1/125 sec.

Most modern DSLRs shoot in anywhere from 1/3 stop increments to 1 stop. I generally set my camera to shoot in 1/3 stop increments to get the best exposure possible.

So, in 1/3 stop increments, I need to shoot the images at: 1/10, 1/13, 1/15, 1/20, 1/25, 1/30, 1/40, 1/50, 1/60, 1/80, 1/100, 1/125.

“Twelve shots for a sofa?” I hear you cry. Yes. In the above instance, I wouldn’t take twelve, but then I don’t see a lot of artistic merit in a sofa… Outside, with a nice landscape, those twelve shots would merge into a lovely looking HDR.

In all seriousness, taking this number of shots isn’t a big deal. If you have shutter speed set to one of the wheels on the camera, it’s just a case of shoot, rotate wheel one click, shoot, rotate wheel, etc etc.

Misconceptions about HDR: i.e. “Why does my HDR look bad?”

“Five Exposures is best”

Some people will tell you that 3, 5 or 7 exposures are best for HDR, but that must be taken as a guide. If you want the best image possible, you need to take the number of photos equal to the number of stops (or fraction of stops) between the lightest and darkest area. In the above example, that’s 12 exposures. If we went in full stops rather than thirds, it would be 1/125, 1/60, 1/30, 1/15, 1/8 (five exposures)

“Auto-bracketing works fine”

Yep. It does. But the quality of the HDR can be a bit hit and miss. Auto-bracketing basically takes one shot at the correct exposure, then more shots +/- one or two stops. This is fine if you meter for the “middle ground” and there are no more than 4 stops difference between the brightest and darkest areas. If you’re in a hurry, by all means use this method – I did for years, but I’m now a convert to using a tripod and taking two light readings, then  a sequence of shots from light to dark.

“Hand holding works”

Also true, but you’re asking the software to marry up images that will have moved, and the end result is an image that has ghosting around the edges of your lines. Even the brightest day (equating to fast shutter speeds) will need slow shutter speeds for the dark areas. Again – by slowing down with a tripod, you get perfectly aligned images, as well as having to pause to consider other artistic elements that make up a good image. Composition being the most important!

For the tl;dr Crowd

  • Use a tripod, turn off Image Stabilisation.
  • Stop and think about composition.
  • Make sure you’re shooting in RAW
  • Once you’ve focussed, turn off Auto focus.
  • Make sure the camera is set to Spot meter and then meter the brightest and darkest areas.
  • Take shot #1 at one end of the shutter speed scale (1/125 in the above example)
  • Step through the range, taking one shot at each stop (or fraction of, depending on how you set up your camera). The more images you take, the better the HDR result will be!

Next time: How to blend the images in HDR software. You could make your sofa look like this!!

A final example of an HDR image

Yeah – it looks terrible, but as I said above, I wasn’t going to take 12 exposures of the sofa! In this case, I took just four exposures to “see what would happen”. For the software tutorial, we will use a proper image.

Next… Using Photomatix to create the HDR image


Posted by: In: Other, Techniques 26 Jan 2011 2 comments Tags: , , , ,

Photography is all about capturing light. Every image is a collection of pixels that have recorded the amount and colour of light falling on the camera sensor (or film).

In most cases though, the camera will have a problem with scenes that are lit with extremes.

Take a typical landscape scene. The foreground is usually dark, and the sky is usually bright (unless you live in England, in which case it’s overcast and featureless!). When you set the exposure settings on the camera, you’re telling the camera how much light to allow onto the sensor. If you’re on auto, then the camera makes the decision. In cases of extreme contrast (lots of bright lights and lots of dark shadows) the camera gets confused, and doesn’t know what to expose for. In most cases, a single shot of the scene will expose for one or the other, leaving you with half an image as you either can’t see into the inky black shadows, or the bright areas just show as white.

HDR is a means of capturing both the light and dark areas, revealing more closely the scene as you remember it.

The process is twofold. Firstly, you need to take multiple exposures of the scene. Then, you feed those exposures into some HDR software which blends the exposures together.

Take a look at the example image below of Castlerigg stone circle in the Lake District.

castlerigg stone circle hdr

As you can see, there are bright areas in the sky, and yet the shadows behind the rocks still reveal detail and colour. This is an HDR image.

Some photographers argue that using a neutral density graduated filter can achieve the same result. Quite simply, it can’t. A graduate filter blocks light from a certain part of the image, and is generally used to “darken down” a sky to bring the exposure times in-line with the foreground.

The problem with ND Grads is that they can leave a “band” across your image. Light is measured (in photographic terms) in “Stops”, where each stop doubles or halves (depending on whether you increase or decrease) the amount of light. So if there are 3 stops of difference between the foreground and sky, quite a severe filter is required to “reign in” the exposure difference.

With HDR, multiple exposures are taken, in “stop” increments, to capture all the detail from the darkest to the lightest areas. When processed in the appropriate software, this ensures a complete picture of the scene.

HDR has been lambasted in the past, and every photographer I know who has tried it has initially gone too far. However, as a tool to recreate the scene before you, and when used appropriately, HDR is an excellent weapon in a photographers arsenal.

Next: How to get it right in-camera…