UPDATED FOR 2012
I have developed a deep interest in and appreciation for HDR Photography. I just love what it can do to my photos. If you are not sure what HDR is, you can read about it here. It is by far my favorite type of photography. I am clearly not an expert, and I continue to learn more all the time, but I have had a lot of questions from people about how I create some of these images, so I thought it would be fun to write up a tutorial and hopefully it helps! If you have any feedback, be sure and drop me a line.
It seems like more and more folks are experimenting with HDR and it also seems like everyone has a slightly different way of using the tools and crafting the images. So, this is my version. As I add new tips and tricks, I will come back and update this tutorial. Also, I consider this a quick tutorial, in that I do not use Photoshop and can process an HDR photo in 15 minutes or so. There are other great HDR Tutorials I have found on the web, and they all differ somewhat - some are quick like this one, and some are very detailed and in my opinion, complicated. This one is my simple, “anyone can do it” version of an HDR Tutorial.
I do all my HDR work with essentially 3 products: Photomatix (to create the HDR itself), Color Efex Pro (an awesome collection of filters that I use on EVERY HDR photo - see review here), and Aperture (where I remove dust spots, straighten things up if needed, etc.).
There are several software products on the market that you can use to create HDR images, but this tutorial is based on HDRSoft’s Photomatix, which I use exclusively and I find it is used by everyone else I know doing HDR too. So, I guess I am saying we all think it is good. :) It is a great product and I recommend it highly. If you decide to purchase Photomatix, you can click here to get a 15% discount.
The basic tools that I use for shooting and creating HDR images:
- a camera that has auto-bracketing, or the ability to nimbly move your camera settings between shots
- a tripod - it is vitally important that your images line up so that you can avoid blurs etc - I have shot a few handheld HDR shots, but it's not always easy so a tripod should be your 2nd best friend (after your camera of course!)
- software that will allow you to create the HDR images from your files - I highly recommend that you use Photomatix. You can read my review of it here.
- some version of Lightroom or Aperture to manage basic edits (I use Aperture)
- Color Efex Pro from Nik Software - this I use on every image for HDR - it has a dizzying array of filters that help me finish off the HDR photo
- a nice add-on product which can add a little zest to an image is Topaz Adjust - I really like the product and you can read about it here
- an Apple computer! (but you can do this in Windows too!)
The basics before you start firing off shots:
- get the camera on the tripod and line up your shot - this sometimes takes me a bit as I like to move around and check it out from various spots, as you probably do too!
- put your camera in Aperture mode - this gives you control over the Aperture, but the camera uses it’s own brains to figure out how many seconds per shot (shutter speed)
- set your Aperture depending on the scene, available light, etc.
- set up auto-bracketing with the number of exposures you want (3, 5, 7, etc), assuming your camera has auto-bracketing, and if not, then adjust your Exposure Value for your first shot and get ready to rumble! (I normally use 7 shots per HDR photo, each 1 stop apart)
- check to make sure you are shooting in RAW format - I recommend that since you will capture a greater level of detail with each exposure
- check your ISO, I frequently leave mine at 200 (the basic setting on my Nikon 700)
Basic Outline of my HDR Workflow: 2012
I manage all of my files in Apple’s Aperture program. I really like the product and actually use it for some touch-up and other adjustments after I have completed my Photomatix and Color Efex Pro adjustments. Here is a basic snapshot of my HDR workflow:
- dump RAW files into a Project in Aperture
- select the appropriate images, and drag them to the Photomatix icon on my dock, which opens Photomatix and allows me to begin merging the files into an HDR image
- make all necessary adjustments in Photomatix (more of that to come) and save the file as a TIFF file, and then bring it back into the original Project in Aperture
- from Aperture, click Image > Edit With > Color Efex Pro
- Apply chosen filters in Color Efex Pro: my favorites (and most frequently used) are Tonal Contrast, Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Glamour Glow - though which I use depends on the image, and sometimes I use them all!
- Final touch up in Aperture (saturation adjustments, straighten if needed, remove dust spots, etc)
Possible extra steps:
- There are times when I use Topaz Adjust to finish off my HDR images - it gives some nice finishing touches that I am really enjoying
- if using Topaz Adjust, which functions as a plug-in to Photoshop/Aperture/Lightroom, then from Photoshop click on Filter > Topaz Labs > Topaz Adjust, and it will launch the program for you
- make any updates you wish in Topaz Adjust and then click “ok”, taking the updates with the image back to Photoshop
- once finished with Photoshop, save it and it takes the updated image back into Aperture
- now I have an image that has been through Photomatix and Color Efex Pro (and possibly Photoshop and Topaz Adjust)
- if necessary, I make final minor adjustments in Aperture and I am good to go!
So I will begin this tutorial with the seven frame bracket you see below. This is a shot I took in Vienna, Austria. These 7 shots were each taken at a different exposure value, ranging from -4 (really dark) to +2 (really bright). They were taken on a spring morning, before full sunrise.
Next up is the Preprocessing Options box...it looks like this:
I always check "Align source images" and "By correcting horizontal and vertical shifts".
I always check "Reduce Ghosting Artifacts" and usually go with "Automatic", unless you want to get really specific, in which case you can check "Semi-manual" which lets you highlight an area to de-ghost. It's pretty intellient, really.
Next, I always check "Reduce noise" and do so "on merged image".
Lastly, I also check "Reduce chromatic aberrations".
Then, click "Preprocess". This is where the fun begins. You are now ready to Tonemap your image. It's great fun! Here is the primary adjustment menu for Photomatix. Note that in addition to "Tone mapping" that there is also an option for "Exposure Fusion". This tutorial is based on applying Tone Mapping, but sometimes it is worth clicking the Exposure Fusion button just to see what you get!
First things first: always make sure you look at the very bottom of this menu and select Default for Reset and Presets - otherwise you may actually be starting with your last used settings, which can definitely affect your outcome. Always reset to Default before beginning!
Now, onto the slider menus...
Strength: this can affect the brightness of your image and also seems to work better for me when I leave it in the middle, somewhere around a setting of 50. Also, the higher the number, the more of an HDR look you get, so I try not to push this one too far. I tend to aim for a more natural look. Well, most of the time. :)
Color saturation: this one is obvious, and I usually leave it right where it is at 46. I can always adjust saturation later in Aperture, where I prefer to do it anyways.
Luminosity: this also affects how bright the image is, and I leave it alone unless it's really needed (and it rarely is)
Microcontrast: another slider that I just don't touch - it smooths out the details
Save the file to your desktop in your preferred file format (I typically use 16 bit TIFF).
I then import the image back into Aperture and get ready for the next round of adjustments, which will occur in Color Efex Pro.
So from Aperture, I right click on my newly-imported HDR photo, and choose Edit with Plug-In > Color Efex Pro. There are several filters here that I love: Tonal Contrast, Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Glamour Glow. I thought I would go ahead and try them all on this photo, just to show you how much of a different result you can get with this incredible product.
So I start with Tonal Contrast. Here are my settings:
If you are not familiar with Color Efex Pro, this is not a full review, but you can find one I did here.
For Tonal Contrast, it really brings out the details. If there is a sky in your photo, be careful with the Highlight Contrast because it can add a lot of grain and noise in the sky, which I personally do not want. So you can see I dropped it on this photo, and bumped up Midtone Contrast. I left Shadow Contrast and Saturation alone. Here is the result after applying this filter:
It really brought out the details in the building, which I like. But, I am not done.
Now, let's add the Pro Contrast filter...and here are the settings that I used on this one.
I really like this filter, and use it on almost every shot. It really makes the photo POP!
Here is how the photo now looks, after getting the Pro Contrast filter applied...
Ok, now we are getting somewhere! The contrast is much better - this filter really took the photo from "blah' to "almost there".
Now, I am going to apply the Brilliance/Warmth filter. Here are my settings that I used:
I bumped up the Brilliance to give it a bit more pizazz, and slightly dropped the warmth so that the sky would get a little bit more blue. Here is the result after that filter: