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I'm a Cairns, far north Queensland, Australia professional photographer specialising in travel, editorial and environmental portraiture.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Poor man's HDR without the cartoony look.

I like shadows, I really do. They add depth and meaning, and often mystery to an image. But there are some times where you just don't want them.

Take this picture. Taken on the deck at the Mungalli Creek Dairy Farm. Can you tell that it's a shot of people enjoying an afternoon tea on the shady deck?

Not at all because they're in shadow. Instead it's a photo of a nice green lawn, blue sky and some mountains in the distance.

And yet I could see the people clear as day with my eyes. And that's a big limitation with photography - the camera can't record a huge difference in highlights and shadows in the one frame. At least until now.

I've been reading up a bit on the latest fad to hit the photography world - HDR or High Dynamic Range. One of the most famous proponents of this technique in the travel photography world is Trey Ratcliffe. And while I can appreciate the art of it, it ain't for me. That cartoony look just doesn't do it for me. But just because you don't like the extreme look doesn't mean you can't use similar techniques to create realistic images when the contrast range is beyond what your camera can capture.

The first thing you have to do is take more than one picture! Although you might be able to get details in both shadows and highlights in one RAW image, the chances are the shadows are going to be noisy and the highlights slightly blown.

So you need to take one shot that exposes the darker part of your picture properly as in this image here. You can see that the patio area is nice and clear whereas the sunlit bit is way overexposed.

For the second shot (which was the one at the top of the post) I exposed for the outside areas, which then rendered the patio dark as dark can be with no detail whatsoever.

Now there are a couple of ways you can blend these two images - you can get special HDR software such as Photomatix Pro or you can do what I did here. The poor man's version of HDR is to bring both images into an image editing programme like Photoshop and place them one of top of the other so that they are layers in a single file.

Then it's just a simple matter of rubbing back the top layer so that the bottom layer shines on through.

That's what I did here. I put the brighter image (with the burnt out sky) on the top layer and just painted the sunny area back using a Layer Mask to let the bottom (darker image) shine through.

Painstaking? Yep. Tedious? Not too bad. Would it have been easier with HDR software? Dunno I don't have any. But I found it a pretty easy process and when I only had a few minutes to make a shot with impromptu models (tourists) and no big lights with me then it's a really fantastic solution.


Scott Viney said...

Hi Paul,

I started out on that route too. With this image, I tried the PS layering method has you have described but took a lifetime. I went looking for a better way.
I enjoy using Enfuse. Which I used for the previous image as well as this one.
Do a bit of research and give it a try.

Aerokev said...

I think there's a time and place for HDR. Personally not a huge fan of the super comic book look, I sometimes create an image to more closely reflect what the eye sees rather than to manipulate light to such a degree as to create a new image totally.
This one's about as far as I would push it. http://www.flickr.com/photos/aerokev/4281568802/

Paul Dymond said...

Thanks guys, some nice images. Scott I could only see the same image twice but it looks really natural. I'll check out Ensure, I've never heard of it before.

Kev, great to see you're still working hard on the photo a day project. That's a nice shot and doesn't look too much like HDR at all.

You've both given me food for thought.

Happy Australia Day for Tuesday!