Improving Image Quality with HDR

This post is part of a series of posts about image quality. This post is going to be looking HDR to raise your image quality. You can follow the Image Quality series here.

The topic of HDR has been written to death. There are those who hate it and will tell what is bad about HDR and how it doesn’t make a picture better. Others will go even further saying that HDR isn’t even photography. On the other hand there are those who are passionate about HDR and all that HDR style ideas. If you want to read these types of articles you can google I love or I hate HDR. I want to talk about HDR as a method to improve image quality because I will agree that at times HDR will degrade an image but it can also greatly improve an image.

HDR Sunset Lodz

HDR of a winters sunset over the track and railway lines.

I first read and attempted HDR back in 2005. The idea for me was intriguing, open up the shadows to more detail and brings back detail from the highlights. This to me made sense as a step forward in digital photography. At the time Photoshop had a HDR tone mapping feature that really wasn’t brilliant and any HDR images I made I did so by “hand” (no automation and sliders).

For those that don’t know HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. With HDR photography you take 3 or more exposures and merge them together taking advantage of the difference in the tonal range create an image with more light detail than a single exposure. To merge your exposures there are programs like Photomatix (the most popular) and Niksoft HDR Efex (both of which I use) as well as  Photoshop and others that you can use.

Problems with HDR

Some Bad HDR of my own

Some Bad HDR of my own

The issue with HDR is, that there is HDR (where you used multiple exposures to bring out detail) as well as the “HDR Look”(an image that has strong contrast and saturation that makes the image look unreal).  This unreal look is sometimes what you want but in most cases it in fact is not a true HDR and the image losses quality because of it. The “HDR Look” also leads to one of the biggest misconceptions of  HDR, that it looks fake.

A bad HDR image with bad editing will look fake. In the past I have been guilty of this. I wanted a punchy image and didn’t want to work for it. A HDR image has been correctly put together can look amazing and will not have people jumping up and down pointing at the image.

Another misconception is that you must have a tripod, this is technically true, a tripod can be important to create a good HDR, though with the quicker burst speeds of modern DSLRs  as long as bracket and you have quick exposure times you don’t need to have a tripod because you would not have moved too much between exposures and the software will be able to align the images. If I have a tripod I will always use it, sometimes I will also take 5 or seven exposures and when doing.

Some people think that HDR is for all occasions, this is wrong. The Idea of HDR is to reduce the contrast of a scene by opening up the shadows and highlights bringing more definition to them. If you take an already contrasted scene and create a HDR image, it will just become more contrasted.

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There is also a myth that only one exposure is needed to create a HDR image. This is not true, you are able to using many techniques bring more detail out of shadows and highlights especially with a raw image. A single image that has been tone mapped is not a HDR image and in my opinion is the reason why there is a lot of what is considered bad HDR.

With all filter based workflows some people believe HDR is a once click process. HDR is a process that needs fine tuning with each individual image needing subtly different settings. There is nothing wrong with working from a present as a starting point, and then tweaking the settings.

When should I use HDR?

Take a look at a scene, if there are details in the shadows that you want to see but are hidden, HDR can be the answer. The same answer if there are details in the highlights. When I take landscape images I usually use HDR because there are details in the sky that I want to preserve eg the clouds, while at the same time keeping the tonal quality of the foreground.
HDR in portraits can work but I would never apply HDR to the skin of your subject. With portraits I create a HDR of the image and then in Photoshop add the exposure with the best skin detail and mask the skin in.

HDR does not stop at tone mapping

When you create a HDR image it will need to be edited again to fix problems of the HDR process.

Although the HDR has worked well in the scene as a whole, you can see haloing along the trees and sky.

Although the HDR has worked well in the scene as a whole, you can see haloing along the trees and sky.

Halos are created because of the contrast in a scene and usually are found on the edge of two contrasting areas. In Photoshop I add a layer with the a matching tone to the halo area mask this in.

In this image you can see the uneven sky clearly. It is a lot darker on the left side than the right.

In this image you can see the uneven sky clearly. It is a lot darker on the left side than the right.

Uneven skies can look ok at first. On a second viewing one area of the sky being one different to another is not what the sky looks like and adds to the idea that HDR looks fake. Once again finding a matching exposure and masking it in can work to even out the sky.

HDR in churches usually works quite well, but you can see in this image that people were walking and praying which has created ghosts in the image.

HDR in churches usually works quite well, but you can see in this image that people were walking and praying which has created ghosts in the image.

Ghosts are created when something has move in the frame and the HDR program has not or has been unable to compensate for the movement. Once again taking an exposure with a matching tone can be added to cover these areas or just some generally cloning and healing.

Drawbacks of HDR

One of the negatives of HDR is that it can create more noise in an image especially in the shadow areas. This means that HDRs can really only be made from shots with a low ISO Setting. One way I have got around this is to pre-edit a shot in Lightroom, reducing the noise and then exporting to the HDR Editor.
With HDR it will be difficult to capture motion as you need three exposures taken at different speeds. Of course with water which has been blurred due to a long exposure can be gotten away with. Another way to capture motion and use HDR is to photograph the main action with the correct exposure and then bracket afterwards. After processing the image as a HDR you can mask the action in.

Alternative Approaches

Single image edited in Lightroom using multiple local adjustments to lighten, darken, sharpen and adjust clarity of the image

Single image edited in Lightroom using multiple local adjustments to lighten, darken, sharpen and adjust clarity of the image

Use Raw editor to widen the dynamic range of the image. In doing this you won’t be able to widen the dynamic range further than the cameras maximum.  You can use multiple adjustment brushes can get a similar effect to HDR but with a single file.
In Photoshop you can load multiple layers selecting what you want from each exposure and blend in the areas you want. You can even load the same shot multiple times with a different exposure settings from the raw editor.
You can also use programs like Photomatix, Color Efex and Topaz to create a HDR look from a single image as well as push the boundaries of an images dynamic range.

My Opinion

HDR Wroclaw 2

Night time HDr, taking advantage of the long exposure to create movement in the water.

HDR is a tool in a photographer’s belt. When photographing landscapes I will use HDR especially if there is a large architectural element. In still life I may blend some elements together if the setup needs it. I don’t think It helps all images and in the past I made a lot of the mistakes I wrote about earlier. For me the best HDR image is an image that does not shout HDR at you.

What is your opinion of HDR? Is it the bain of your life or is it something you really love. Have you experimented with HDR, How did it go? Or if you have anything else to share, you can in the comment box below.

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All images are the Copyright of Benjamin Rowe , ALL RIGHTS Reserved unless credited to another photographer.
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