A Year in HDR - Lessons Learned

A Year in HDR - a few lessons learned in this noble pursuit!

I love shooting in HDR, but that’s probably fairly obvious from all the references to it on this site, not to mention all the HDR images on my blog.  It is fairly addicting, at least to me and some other photographers that I know, and once you get hooked it seems to hold you in its grasp pretty firmly.  But what’s not to like about it?  It can give you so much more than a traditional single image and can really bring a photo to life.  If you want to read more about HDR, you can on my About HDR page. 

From the moment I first got exposed to HDR, I knew I wanted to create HDR images.  I just love them.  But, as is the case with nearly every new endeavor, it is easy to get started but there are always things you just don’t know yet.  That’s ok - it’s just a reflection of experience (or lack of, actually).  In this article I thought I would just compile some of the key things I have learned over the last year in the hope that they will help you accelerate your learning curve.  I came into this with absolutely zero knowledge of HDR, and very limited knowledge of photography to boot.  So I literally started from scratch.  It is certainly not a comprehensive list for everyone, but that is to be expected because it seems to me that every photographic journey has its own road and pace.  I have no idea where I am on that road - I only know that I am on it and lovin’ it!

As a point of reference, as of the date of this post, I have spent just about 1 year creating HDR images, and according to my library I have nearly 600 images that I have shot and processed in HDR (they aren’t all published yet so they aren’t all on the site yet - stay tuned for more HDR goodness coming every week!).  This is clearly not a ton of pictures, but it is quite a few and it is enough to get some good experience under your belt - and enough to give one a good sense of how/why/where/when to use HDR.  

By the way, I am not an expert nor do I think that I am.  I am a complete amateur with no formal training in this stuff whatsoever.  I still have a ton of stuff to learn, both about photography in general and in HDR specifically.  I do not have a background in photography of any kind and am essentially self-taught (I do ask questions of others and learn that way a lot!).  I am just a guy with a hobby called photography, and hope that by sharing my experiences I can help some other folks out there like me!  I do hope it helps!  I also need to get even deeper in my post-processing and learn more and new techniques for processing HDR images.  There is so much to learn!  

So, without any further delay, here are the key lessons I have learned and thoughts I want to share after spending the last year creating HDR images.

1.) Anyone can do this.

That may sound like a simple generalization, but it is true.  Of course, you have to have some basic equipment and the like (decent camera, a tripod, and some software), but you can do this.  It really isn’t that hard.  When I first started looking into HDR, I thought “Man, this has got to be hard”.  But it really isn’t that hard.  You can get it down fairly quickly, if you have some time to invest in it.  I also feared that since I didn’t have all the fancy and expensive equipment that some others use, that I wouldn’t be able to accomplish it.  Again - not true.  As of this post, I am still using a fairly basic Nikon D40x camera.  If your camera has auto-bracketing your life will be easier (mine does not), but as long as you can adjust your exposure compensation between shots you can make HDRs.

Now, there are some photos that due to whatever reason are harder to pull off than others (I still find nighttime HDRs to be a bit challenging, though I have a few that I am proud of), but generally speaking to accomplish a good HDR you just need to make some simple decisions and choices and then spend some time in post-processing.  My early attempts at HDR were fairly poor all around (for a lot of reasons), but over time you start to “see in HDR” (more on that later) and will recognize when a particular scene will look quite good in HDR.  Then, it’s about simple camera settings and software.  If you are seriously interested, just keep at it and you will improve - just like anything (including general photography). 

As an example, this is the first HDR photo that I ever created.  It looks fairly bad, coming at it a year later. There are halos present around the trees (that is an easily fixable thing in Photomatix), the grass is some version of green that you might find in a cartoon, the tires look blue and there is even a dust spot that I didn't fix.  But hey, I was just starting out and having fun, so at the time I was pretty excited about it.  The other thing I notice is that the composition is nothing exciting either  - just a shot straight at the tractor. Composition is a key element to making beautiful photographs and something that I continue to try and improve.

So, just to make a fair comparison, I went back to the original files and re-created this HDR as if it was new to me, trying to utilize what I have learned, etc over the past year.  This is not something I would normally do, and have actually only done it a couple of times, but in this case I thought it was relevant.  Usually I prefer to leave old images alone (by old I mean images previously posted) because it was a reflection of where I was at that time, both in terms of vision as well as processing skills.  Plus, when you learn new stuff, who has the time to go back and fix everything you did before you learned the new stuff? Anyways, I digress.  Here is the result:

In my opinion, the image is much better now.  To be fair, some of that is processing experience but some of it is also personal preference.  When I first started, I tended to go for the more edgy, wow-that-looks-unreal sort of HDR images.  Those are fine and there are many of them out there that I have seen that I really like.  But, nowadays I am happier creating them to be as realistic as possible with all the added benefits of HDR.

The other thing is that if I was shooting this picture today, I would completely alter the camera settings that I used, and take a much wider range of exposures (not to mention change the composition).  I would also take the photo during softer light, like at dusk - if possible.  This one was taken in the middle of the afternoon with a bright sun overhead, but I just saw it while driving by and was an hour or more away from home, so sometimes you just take the photos when you can!  Again, that comes from experience and preference, but you will see things differently after you have done this for a while (which is what #4 is about below).

Here's another tip that I find rather useful: take quite a few different exposures.  When I first started, I used to take 3 exposures and merge those into an HDR.  Often, they were 2 stops apart, such as:  -2, 0, +2.  Nowadays, I take 5-7 exposures and take them 1 stop apart.  I find that gives me more detail to work with and helps the image appear smoother.  This may be personal preference but it seems to work for me!

2.) Photomatix is the first step, not the only step.  

When I first started, everyone that I spoke to mentioned Photomatix as the product to use to create these stunningly beautiful HDR images.  So, with so much first hand feedback from people, I went ahead and got it.  And you know what - it is great.  I do love it and think it is a wonderful product.  You can read more about it on my Photomatix Review page if you are interested.  But after creating some images, I felt like they were missing something, though I didn’t know what.  They were just not as exciting as others I had seen, and it was little things that I noticed that I didn’t notice in other folks’ photos.  Here’s what I learned: when you finish creating your HDR image in Photomatix, you are not really done with it.  There is usually a bit more work to do on the picture.  Photomatix does a great job of tonemapping and helping you to achieve that “HDR look”, if you know what I mean, but when I started I didn’t realize that I still needed to do more.  I created my first HDRs and thought “they look way cooler than a single exposure, but not nearly as good as some HDRs I have seen on Flickr”.  And that’s true, and that is due both to inexperience at the time in terms of how to use Photomatix, but also due to not doing anything else with the photo after I created the HDR image in Photomatix.  Nowadays, I will make further adjustments and refinements in Photoshop Elements, Aperture, Topaz Adjust - or even all three.  It is amazing how much better a photo will look if you spend a little extra time and effort on it.  

Coming out of Photomatix, an image is often over-saturated (blue skies get REALLY blue, and green grass can go neon on you - remember the tractor shot above?) and sometimes a bit “noisy” (the sky above that tractor is a mess!).  It also lacks the appropriate level of contrast, has minimal sharpness and the details just aren’t all there.  Even though it is an HDR, it is still what I call “flat”.  So, to more accurately recreate what you saw with your eyes, it needs a little more work.  That’s where these other software products come into play.  The nice thing is that they are not very expensive (Photoshop is pricey but PS Elements is <$100).

Here is a photo that has just come out of Photomatix.  It has gotten as far as it can in Photomatix, but looks rather boring to my eye.  How about yours?  It looks pretty "flat", right?

Here is the same photo after doing some post-processing in Photoshop Elements and Topaz Adjust.  See how much more interesting the photo is?  I don't think you could ever call this photo "flat".  There is a whole lot more texture and detail, and overall I think the photo is much more interesting.  If you want to see my entire HDR process and workflow, please visit my HDR Tutorial page.


3.) Continue to experiment...AKA don't get stuck in your ways.

Just like with anything, once you learn a new technique it quickly becomes a habit, in the sense that you continue to do things the same way every time.  As far as HDR goes, and especially with Photomatix, my best “advancements” in my knowledge have come when I have dropped my “usual routine” and decided to take my time and try new things.  Photomatix has a lot of sliders that you can move around to make various adjustments to your photos - so, move them around!  I went for a long while early on with the same settings, and then at some point decided to mess with the sliders a bit more and see what I could come up with.  You know what?  I learned quite a bit more about how it works and more importantly how the various sliders impact the image.  That may seem obvious to everyone, but it took me a while to figure it out! So, take your time and move those sliders around. 

Here is an example.  This is an HDR that I took on Laguna Beach in Orange County.  In the first photo, I positioned the slider for "Strength" at the low end.  Here are the settings:

And here is how the photo looks:

It came out fairly dark, which is ok if that is what you are going for, but I feel like I sacrificed the detail in the foreground, which is a lot of what I liked about the image in the first place.

Next, I left all the sliders the same, except for "Strength" which I have now moved all the way to the right, like this:

And the photo looks like this:

The differences are pretty obvious, right?  Primarily I notice that the foreground is much lighter and brighter, as is the bottom half of the photo.  That may not seem like a big deal, but in some photos it is a huge deal and has a major impact on how the final image appears.  So, as I said before, move those sliders around and experiment.  You may find exciting new ways to handle scenes in your photos!

Here is how the photo ended up after I was done with all of my adjustments:

4.) Your eyesight will change.

Ok, so technically your eyesight will remain the same, but after doing HDR for a while you will start to see things differently, and you will start to recognize how HDR will work in a scene.  Basically, this is about how experience counts.  When I started I used to see something that I wanted to shoot, and I would shoot it.  It was that simple.  Now, with a year of practice under my belt, I take it slower, look around, and visualize what I am trying to accomplish with HDR in this shot.  HDR is about light and shadow and picking up details that a normal photo would miss.  Essentially it more closely mirrors what the human eye can see.  Once you have taken HDR photos for a while, you will start to recognize the vital elements in a scene and your shots will improve.  You will start to see shadows and light in a whole new way, as well as recognize details in places you never thought to look.  It really does change the way you look at things.  Which reminds me on one of my favorite quotes, by Wayne Dyer:  “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”  I have a whole collection of great quotes you can read here.

5.) HDR works for Black & White images too.

Though most of my shots are in color, and my bias is in that direction, I also find it fun and interesting to experiment with B&W photographs.  Initially I thought that HDR was about producing big, bold colors - and though it can do that, it is really about light and shadow and detail.  It brings to a photo that which you can see with the human eye, but which a single exposure cannot reproduce.  It’s magical.  It’s wonderful.  And it looks good in black & white too.  Give it a try and see what you come up with!

For comparison purposes, here is an image that I created in HDR, and though I like the photo, I thought the color version was only decent, not spectacular in any way.

After sitting on it for a while, and trying to figure out what to do with it (if anything), I had the notion to convert it to Black & White in order to see how that would look.  After the conversion I made a few adjustments and just thought it made a stronger statement.  What do you think?

Either way, the point is that because HDR is about light, shadow and detail, it can work in Black & White images too.  So, don't be afraid to experiment!

Well, that's it for my "lessons learned" in year 1 of my HDR photography endeavors.  Hope this helps!