HDR photography is not loved by all and HDR images can take quite a lot of flak for being over processed. The dislike stems from “Bad HDR”, which if you google you can find some prime examples. For me HDR is a tool to take the camera beyond its limitations, extending the tones and colours that normally are clipped. Listening to the “Jpeg 2 Raw” podcast a few weeks ago there was an urbex (urban explorer) photographer called Andy Wheeler who said he was editing his HDR photography in 32bit. This piqued my interest as I have always believed you should shoot with the highest image settings you can, because if you start with the best quality image you are more likely to finish with a high quality image. In part I reiterated this last week, when I wrote about bit depth in digital. The question I had was how to edit in 32bit?
To create a 32bit image you need to a start in the same way you process a HDR image with at least three bracketed exposures. You can do this with the likes of Photomatix (which now offers a plugin just for creating 32bit images) or Photoshop (cs6 or above). I gave it ago in Photoshop as Photomatix really was having problems saving my images for some reason. I have never really used Photoshop’s merge to HDR, because I’ve had bad results in the past. I will say it has improved a lot in Photoshop CC. I sent three shots to Photoshop from Lightroom, using merge to HDR option. Once you get the dialogue box you need to select 32bit editing and then you can choose to edit the image in Adobe Camera Raw or uncheck this and once you click next save the image and edit in Lightroom.
In Lightroom you have all the tools available to you to edit the image, you can use presets, adjustment brushes, gradients ect. Since the image has such a wide dynamic range small adjustments have a huge effect and some of the tools like sharpening and clarity haveslightly different effects on the image. I used a lot of adjustment brushes to selectively edit areas of the image. It really reminded me of editing in the dark room when you made a base exposure and contrast settings and then made a sketch and noted areas to dodge, burn as well as increase contrast or even decrease contrast.
I did notice that with the 32 bit editing is that you don’t get the texture feel you normally associate with HDR images created through the micro contrast of the tone mapping process. This could be because I didn’t have enough exposures as well to spread the dynamic range even further. I felt that my 32bit image was lacking something. If I was to export the image to plugins or even Photoshop the image would be taken down to 16 bit.
In the end I came to the conclusion that the 32bit editing was similar to the tone mapping in HDR Efex or Photomatix and then final tweaking could be done in 16 bit. I wanted a bit of micro contrast to give a bit of depth to the image and exported the 32 bit image to Nik Color Efex, and used the detail extractor.
To see a real comparison in the outcomes of the different processes I took the same image and processed it as I would in Photomatix and did some basic tweaks in Lightroom.
Although I am used to looking at the Photomatix style of image; the soft yet still contrasted image looks great, but artificial. The clouds are more contrasted and there seems to be a bit more noise and digital artefacts in the image. The 32bit image, although less textured, looks natural and pleasing to the eye.
Editing in 32bit is more time consuming as you are not just flicking sliders and have to edit the image zone by zone. But the quality of the image surpasses that of Photomatix as well as being non-destructive. You can always go back through the Lightroom history and correct mistakes.
Is it the future of HDR? For those who want surreal images, tone mapping will still be a good way to go, but for more natural high dynamic range images 32bit editing I believe will be the future. 32bit editing has been available since CS6 and Lightroom 4.1 but no one has made a huge deal about it, apart from some Adobe blog posts. This was my first attempt at 32 bit editing and I feel I have just scratched the surface of what I could do. I have a feeling I am going to be editing a lot more landscapes this way.
What do you think, which image do you prefer; The HDR in Photomatix or the 32bit edited version? Let me know in the comment box below.
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