Archive for the 'Before and After' Category

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Photomatix vs Hand Blended HDR

View from a Cave House in Cappadocia (Photomatix version)View from a cave house in Cappadocia

Selime Monastery, Cappadocia, Turkey (Left: Photomatix version | Right: Hand Blended version)

In my previous post, I talked about how I used the concept of Luminance Masks from Tony Kuyper’s blog to make a hand blended HDR as an alternative to Photomatix. This post shows a side by side comparison of the Photomatix version of the image on the left, and the hand blended version on the right.

Bear in mind that I haven’t worked as much on the Photomatix version, which could be made to look a little better, but it still serves as a good comparison. Also bear in mind that I’ve only done one hand blended HDR to date and many, many Photomatix ones, so Photomatix has the advantage there. I’m not going to talk much about how to do hand blending as Tony does an excellent job of it on his blog, and I recommend that you read it.

Here’s what I think so far:

    • Ease of Use.
      Cave with a View (Photomatix Settings)

      Photomatix tonemapping settings used for this image.

      Photomatix is far and away the easier of the two techniques to use. Tonemapping your three bracketed images in Photomatix takes all of a minute, and the final image can then be cleaned up and adjusted in Photoshop, which should take from a few minutes to an hour at most. Hand blending requires far more decision making, followed by a lot of selections and actions in Photoshop. These can be speeded up by automating in Photoshop, but even so this first image took me three evenings to complete. With practice, I could reduce the time a lot, but it would still be nowhere near as fast as Photomatix.
    • Control. Photomatix has a few sliders to twiddle and then it throws out a tonemapped image. There’s not much control, but it does what it needs to do very well. The downside is that you can only work on the overall image, and you seldom get it that you are happy with the entire image. Hand blending lets you have an incredible amount of control. You can split your images into as many zones of tonal range from light to dark as you like, and you can decide exactly which ones to blend together in which part of your image. The choice is so open that it’s quite overwhelming, but that’s the fun of it. On the image above, I think Photomatix has flattened the rock texture in the cave too much, and has done odd things to the sky, but has improved the texture on the light ground outside the cave. Hand blending allowed me to improve the inside rock texture, although I think I could have done a better job on the outside ground.
    • Picture Quality. 
      Cave with a View (Photoshop Layers)

      Photoshops layers used for hand blended HDR instead of Photomatix tonemapping. The bracket set is arranged from darkest on top to lightest on the lowest layer, and the luminance masks are carefully created to ensure the best blend of the three images.

      The way in which the techniques differ makes a big difference in final image quality. Photomatix blends your three bracketed photos together into one tonemapped image, and in the process can increase the amount of noise in the image considerably. If you go too aggressive on the settings, you can also get unpleasant looking haloes forming on edges between light and dark  areas (for example at the rock / sky edge of the above image). With hand blending you layer your bracketed photos on top of each other in Photoshop. You then use masks to determine which parts of which image you want to see. Because you aren’t processing the underlying images, you aren’t increasing noise, forming haloes, or producing other undesirable effects on your image. The difference is very apparent to me when I look at a full size version of each of these images, but makes less difference at web sizes.
    • Look. Photomatix has a look that has become quite prevalent in the world of HDR. Some people love it, some hate it. I enjoy it, especially when not overdone, but it remains a very distinctive look. What I’ve enjoyed about hand blending so far is that it doesn’t seem to automatically have a look, or at least it’s more natural, and you are far more free to make the HDR image match your memory of the scene.

In summary, Photomatix will allow you to process your HDRs quickly, they will look pretty good, but will have a distinctive Photomatix look. Hand blending will take considerably more time and Photoshop skills, but will allow for a better quality image with a very high degree of control in the blending and final look.

Cave with a view

View from a cave house in Cappadocia

 

Selime Monastery, Cappadocia, Turkey

If you were a monk living in the Selime Monastery, this is the lovely view you would have from your room … of the volcano. Maybe to remind you of the fire and brimstone that awaits you in the next world if you don’t behave yourself in this one? The volcano is the reason this room is carved from the rock, and why there are so many cave houses in Cappadocia. This volcano, and the two others in the neighbourhood, have over time covered the whole area in a volcanic rock called tuff, which is quite soft as rock goes. From about the 5th century AD the area became popular with early Christians who were hiding from the Romans and later from the Turks, and they accommodated themselves by carving dwellings out of the tuff. This entire monastery complex is carved from the rock, with chapels, sleeping rooms, store rooms and stables, and dates from about the 13th century. There are several other churches nearby, also carved from the rock, and some are still covered in beautiful wall paintings dating back many centuries. Nearby there is even an underground city carved from the rock, which descends 11 stories and 85 metres underground. The whole Cappadocian region has long been distinctive for its cave dwellings and many are still in use even today. It’s an amazing place to visit, and totally weird and alien.

 

Before and After

This is my first attempt at manual HDR, and I’m quite pleased with the results. I used the usual -2, 0 and +2 exposure bracketing and hand held the shots. When it came to tone mapping, I abandoned my usual Photomatix and used the luminance mask technique of Tony Kuyper to manually blend my three shots. This let me carefully select which parts of each exposure to use, and allowed me to keep the HDR look quite subtle. The down side is that it took many more hours to produce the final result, and the Photoshop file was approaching a gig in size at some points. Even with 4 gigs of RAM my iMac turned into iMolasses. I’m sure more practice will speed the workflow up considerably though.

The before and after shots show the 0 exposure compensation shot on the left, and the hand blended HDR on the right. Next time I will post a before and after with the Photomatix version of this image, and chat about how the techniques differ.

 

View from a cave house in Cappadocia (before)View from a cave house in Cappadocia

Waiting for a train

Maputo Railway Station, Mozambique

 

Maputo Station, Mozambique

I’m quite perplexed about immigration procedures into Mozambique. I’ve been a couple of times now and it’s been the usual drill of passports and visas, but this time was a little different. By ‘a little different’, I mean non-existent. We were cruising in the MSC Sinfonia en-route to Inhambane, when a cyclone in the Mozambique Channel caused us to reconsider and to dock in Maputo harbour. So we ended up with a free day in Maputo. I was hoping for another stamp in my passport, but we were just turned loose with not a single official or formality (or form) in sight. I immediately started planning my anonymous life of crime in Maputo, but eventually all I got round to was taking a lot of photos and eating a very delicious lunch of grilled prawns and calamari at the fish market. And of course drinking the legendary local beer, 2M, pronounced doj-em! Wish I could find it in Cape Town.

We avoided the laid on and rip off tourist buses and set out to explore on foot. The first place we stopped at was the main Maputo Railway Station, a beautiful structure in the Victorian transportation style. It’s just shy of 100 years old and still looking good, with just a lick or two of paint needed. For a country once very tetchy about having pictures taken of anything vaguely like a target, no one seemed the least concerned about me and my camera.

The building is sometimes erroneously credited to Gustave Eiffel (of the tower in Paris and the Statue of Liberty), but was actually designed by architects of the names of Alfredo Augusto Lisboa de Lima, Mario Veiga and Ferreira da Costa. It recently had a moment of fame when it was turned into a hotel for the Leonardo diCaprio movie, Blood Diamond. I haven’t seen it yet, so it will be added to the already-too-long list.

 

Before and After

This is a typical 3 shot handheld HDR, at an exposure compensation of -2, 0 and +2. In retrospect, I would like to have had an extra shot at the lower end, a -4 or so, to help get more detail in the sky. Alternatively, a set of -3 to +3, with 1 stop increments would have worked well too. But I’m reasonably happy with what I shot anyway, and I think the final image turned out well. More shots would have meant tripods and more fuss, and I would have distracted the people on the bench, who make this photo for me.

After the HDR treatment in Photomatix Pro, I aged the photo with a fair bit of contrast, texture and sepia tones in post-production.

Maputo Railway Station, MozambiqueMaputo Railway Station, Mozambique

 

The tourists have landed

Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique

 

Portuguese Island, Mozambique

I’ve landed back home after my shipboard adventure!

It was certainly interesting. We travelled on the MSC Sinfonia for 4 days out of Durban and into Mozambican waters. I learned quite a few things. Like how to say ship instead of boat (still hard to remember, that one). That bingo is actually quite fun. That most cruise passengers prefer to lie around the pool all day, drinking from breakfast time and turning bright pink in the sun. And that I prefer to find a quiet, people-free spot on the stern and read geeky books.

The ship was a fun environment for HDR photography, and my tripod provided some humour for my nonplussed fellow passengers. We disembarked twice during the cruise for some exploration and great photo ops. The first stop was at Portuguese Island near Maputo. The second was to be at Inhambane, further up the Mozambican coast, but a cyclone the size of Madagascar put paid to that, so we docked in Maputo for the day.

Today’s HDR is taken at Portuguese Island in Mozambique. It’s a tiny island very close to Inhaca Island, in fact you can cross over via sand banks when the tide is low. It’s also pretty close to Maputo, probably 90 minutes or so by ferry. I gather that cruise ships stop here about twice a week, and transform this quiet and usually uninhabited island into Party Island. See the tourist hordes fanning out over the sands, with alcohol tents and beach barbecues in the background. It gets so busy that a permanent structure is being built, also visible in the background.

This shot was taken while fleeing from the crowds and setting out on a 7km circumnavigation of the island. I think we were the only passengers who did this, and we were rewarded with solitude, a close-up fish eagle sighting, and the spotting of many other curious sea creatures.

The people in the picture are investigating strange sand castings in the intertidal zone, that seem to have been made by some kind of lugworm. They looked like this close up, and you could see the sand being extruded out of the middle. Very weird.

Lugworm casting on Portuguese Island, Mozambique

 

We also spotted intact sand dollars that were the size of dinner plates.

Sand dollar shells at Portuguese Island, Mozambique

 

 

Before and After

Today’s beach shot was a handheld snapshot, bracketed at -2, 0 and +2. I liked the way the people were fanning out over the beach, so I grabbed it as quickly as I could. I’m finding that Photoshop’s layer aligning feature does a very good job of putting together these handheld HDRs. The clouds were beautiful that day, so I wanted to bring them out as much as possible in the post-processing. They were building up higher and higher all day, threatening a thunderstorm that never came.

Tourists invade the beach at Portuguese Island, Mozambique (0 image)Tourists invade the beach on Portuguese Island, Mozambique

HDR Tutorial: What gear do I need?

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg

 

Right, everybody, it’s on to part 2 of the HDR tutorial, and another example image. This is a view of the Stadsaal Cave in the Cederberg, South Africa. It’s more of a real-world example than part 1 of the tutorial last week, where I shot a random window to show the trickiness of capturing a scene that contains extremes of light and dark. This cave scene is quite tricksy too. What to expose for, light or dark? Easy, expose for everything and let your software sort it out!

The cave’s name translates from Afrikaans to Town Hall Cave. I don’t know if it was ever really used as a meeting hall, but it has historic graffiti all over one of the walls, supposedly by long-gone politicians which tantalizingly hints that maybe it was. Or maybe it’s just graffiti from an age when people cared less about defacing such a beautiful spot. It’s certainly extremely far from the nearest town (or village for matter), so it would take quite dedicated and civic-minded people to meet out here.

 

What gear do I need?

This is a nice and short list, so no need to stress, unless you like to. I’ll be getting into much more detail on all of these items over the next couple of weeks.

Out on your photographic adventures you will need just three things, and most of them are pretty ‘doh!’:

  • Camera – Doh! To make your life easy, you really want to have a digital SLR, capable of shooting bracketed exposures, able to be triggered with a remote control, and with a tripod connector. Set it to RAW mode and the lowest possible ISO. If your camera can’t do any of those things they can all be worked around. I use a Nikon D7000 which does everything I need. Note to self: avoid stirring up a Nikon versus Canon fight.
  • Lens – Almost anything will do, but make sure it’s super clean. The process of combining multiple exposures into one tends to exaggerate any dirt and specks on the lens or lens filters. I suggest a good wide-angle or zoom used on the wider end, but the standard lens that came with your camera ought to be fine. I usually use a Nikkor 18-200mm lens.
  • Tripod – The sturdier the better. Which sadly for your carrying shoulder means heavier. Don’t scrimp of this one. Get something decent like a Manfrotto and you will be able to use it for your entire photographic career. Handholding is possible and I will dedicate a tutorial to that later, but setting up on a tripod will give significantly better results. I know it’s a pain to carry around, but you need to do it.

Having been out photographing and hopefully having captured some awesome images, you are ready to process your first HDR image. What you will need are:

  • Computer – Ideally a fast one with a BIG monitor, but pretty much anything should so. Further note to self: avoid stirring up an even bigger Mac versus PC fight.
  • HDR Software – This software will combine your multiple images into a single image through a process called tonemapping. There are several options here. I use Photomatix Pro, and find it very comfortable to use. You could also use Photoshop’s built in ‘Merge to HDR’ command, or Nik Software HDR Pro which is a plugin to Photoshop. As a free option, there are a couple of options such as Picturenaut or Luminance HDR. I’ve tried several of these, and am sticking with Photomatix for the time being. It just works. If you want to experiment with it, you can download a free trial from HDRSoft that will do everything the paid version does, but will watermark the image.
  • Photoshop – You’re going to need this to clean up your tonemapped image. You will never be able to get the tonemapping exactly as you would like it, so you will need Photoshop to adjust parts of the image, for example by bringing in part of one your original bracketed images to replace a portion of the tonemapped image that doesn’t look good. You could also get by with similar software such as Photoshop Elements or GIMP.
  • Software to help you with noise reduction and sharpening. I use the Nik Photoshop plugins for this, Dfine and Sharpener Pro, and they do a mighty fine job. Photoshop can also manage this without plugins. Photomatix can also help with the noise reduction part.

Next week I’ll be discussing what subjects look good in HDR and what don’t.

 

Before and After

Unlike my epic 11 exposure bracket set from the tutorial last week, where I was really just showing off, here is the bracket set I shot for this scene. This is a far more typical number of shots for me. 5 shots, at -4, -2, 0, +2, and +4. With practice you can probably set up the tripod and shoot the set in less than a minute. I’ll time it sometime and let you know.

 

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (5 exp set)

 

Here is the Before and After showing the middle shot and the finished product. The wind was blowing quite hard, which blurred the trees and made the post-processing quite a bit harder. Wind is the enemy of HDR, so avoid it if you can.

 

Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg (before)Stadsaal Cave, Cederberg



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