My HDR Workflow

I've had a couple people ask about my method for doing HDR photography. My first piece of advice to grab a glass/cup/bottle of your favorite beverage and head over to the well documented tutorial over at Stuck in Customs by Trey Ratcliff. One thing to keep in mind with that and most other tutorials is that the camera of choice seems to be DSLRs, but it doesn't have to be. For me HDR boiled down to being able to take RAW photos (for the most in photo control), an auto exposure bracket function on the camera, then software to process the photos into one photo.

It's important to understand what HDR is. A typically auto exposed photo doesn't normally capture all the light detail in a shot, which is often why when we look at a shot that we've seen with our eyes the photo doesn't match up to our memory. Details in shadows that we can see with our eyes are often times not shown, and the same in bright areas. HDR attempts to bring out that detail by exposing for the details in both the bright and dark areas, along with the normally exposed photo, then merging the 3 or more photos together into one. There are certainly more complex and detailed descriptions out there, but I find this serves for getting your feet wet.

Another thing that all tutorials stress is the need to use a tripod, or some kind of stabilizing device, to minimize any camera movement between shots. I whole heartedly agree with this, in theory, but I rarely leave the house with the tripod, or if I do I leave it in the car. It is very important, especially if you like tack sharp photos, to keep the camera as still as possible. During the day it's usually not that hard to do handheld HDR shots, but in the evening and especially at night where the shutter will stay open longer than half a second you aren't able to keep it still long enough.

So what makes a good HDR subject and shot? I find myself constantly asking that question when I'm tackling a new style of shooting. Any subject and shot can be a candidate for HDR processing, but I've found that subjects and photos with lots of colors and a range of dark and light areas turn out better. It's important to know that HDR isn't a magic process that takes a bad looking or just blah looking shot and make it into a jaw dropper. I have found this out from trying multiple times. If you don't like the shot before you process it chances are you won't like it after either.

I shoot with a Panasonic GF2. It's not a DSLR but a relatively new type of camera that is all digital. It takes away the mirror of the DSLR camera which lends itself to being a smaller camera body. It also has the ability to switch out lenses. Generally it produces better photos than a typical compact camera and on par with most entry level DSLRs. The camera can shoot in the RAW format which gives me far more versatility when I start editing.

My software editor and library of choice is Apple's Aperture. It has much of the feel of their popular iPhoto application with more non-destructive tools. I love how it handles versioning of photos. So after a photo shoot I'll import into Aperture first. Then the magic can start.

Noise is my enemy. I hate those little things that show up in your skies. If you process an HDR image without reducing the amount of noise in your photo you'll see more of it. Your blue skies will look murky. Aperture has noise reduction, but it's not very strong so I turned to a plugin made by Topaz Labs called DeNoise. It's important to realize that noise reduction can degrade the quality of your photo, so don't overdo it. DeNoise allows me to select from a handful of presets, then further customize if needed. With the noise under control it's time to take the photos into an HDR program.

There are many HDR programs available, in many price points. To a certain degree I believe you pay for what you get. If you buy one of the $10 applications in the Mac App store don't be surprised if the output isn't quite what you were hoping for. I use Photomatix Pro 4. At $100 it's on the pricey side, and takes a little getting used to, but after trying three other programs I found this to be the best for me and my workflow. Features I would look for in buying an HDR program: motion detection of some sort. Especially if you plan on shooting without a tripod. This is probably what bumps HDR programs into the $100 range.

After the photo leaves Photomatix and comes back to Aperture I usually end up putting it through one more plugin to give the photo a little more oomph. Topaz Labs Adjust plugin is perfect for this. Their latest version has something like 100 presets to cruise through. Anything from completely different to subtly altered.

My Equipment

  • Camera: Panasonic GF2 (Originally a Canon SX10is)
  • Apple Aperture
  • Photomatix Pro
  • Topaz Labs plugins, namely Denoise, Adjust, and Detail
  • Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 for black and white conversions

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