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HDR Tutorial: What looks good in HDR?

Cogmankloof, Montagu

This is a view of the road between Aston and Montagu in the Western Cape, South Africa. The road passes through the mountains here at Cogmanskloof. There’s a really short tunnel just below where the picture was taken, and a small stone fort above the tunnel, next to where I am standing. The fort was built by the British in 1899 to protect the tunnel during the Anglo-Boer War. You get a magnificent view from next to the fort, but once you go inside it’s quite scary. Suddenly, all you have for viewing the surrounds are tiny gun slots, and you can just imagine people creeping up to your position, completely unseen. Or maybe I’ve been playing too much Skyrim.

For this week’s tutorial I want to talk about what looks good in HDR. Now, first off, please bear in mind throughout this entire post that this is my opinion and is terribly subjective. You can choose to break these guidelines and be happy with the results, but they are my own rules of thumb built up through a fair bit of experimentation.

What looks good in HDR?

  • Landscapes. I find that big scenes with lots of details work very well, especially when you get to see them printed to a large scale or can view them on a high resolution monitor. The HDR process brings out all the myriad details, and brings light into all the shaded areas where you would normally not be able to see the detail. Once you combine with some sharpening, you can really get lost in these images as you explore every little detail.
  • Dramatic skies. HDR can do cool stuff to clouds, and to sunset and sunrise sky tones. Watch out for generating too much noise in your skies when you do it though. Sometimes the skies can go a bit too over the top, and start looking too unbelievable, so watch out for that as well.
  • Textured stuff. HDR brings out details, so any image with lots of texture can look good. Try it on things like rocks, mountains, bark, grass, sand, concrete, brick. Old stuff tends to have a lot of texture as well. Things like old weathered wood, rusted machinery, ruined buildings, and architectural detail often make good subjects for HDR.
  • Water. Water seems to do interesting stuff when you HDR it. Reflections can be beautifully enhanced, and things like sunset tones reflecting in water seem to get amplified by the HDR process.
  • Difficult lighting. Any scene that can’t be exposed correctly in one image makes a good candidate for HDR. That includes landscapes with skies much brighter than the ground, sunsets and sunrises, scenes with bright light and dark shade in them, backlit scenes, and interior scenes with outside views. Blue hour and night time also make for good HDR shots.
  • Interiors. I mentioned interiors above but they deserve a category of their own because they can work especially well. They usually have a lot of texture and architectural detail which can be enhanced. They usually have interesting lighting that’s a combination of natural and artificial. They often have windows that have very differently exposed exterior views. All these can make for a great HDR shot.
The shot of Cogmanskloof at the top of the post shows the effect of good sunset light, a landscape with lots of detail and texture in both the near and far rocks, and how HDR deals with some of the scene being partly in shade and partly in light.
This shot of Istanbul below from a previous post also shows some of the things I think make for a good HDR, like dawn light, the water catching and amplifying the light, the glass of the buildings doing the same thing, and the texture of the buildings and water.
Sunrise over the Bosphorus and Golden Horn, Istanbul, Turkey

 

Now for the flip side. What doesn’t work in HDR?

What looks bad in HDR?

  • Portraits. People, and especially their skin tones, just don’t seem to come out right. Give it a go if you want, but mostly the HDR process exaggerates every freckle and pore, adds in some more for good measure, discolours the skin, and ends up making the person look like the living dead. Unless your friends actually are zombies, you may well lose a few if you insist on HDRing their portraits. Don’t make Dale Carnegie cry. If you think their clothes and background would HDR well, then do that, but blend in non-HDR skin with your image.
  • Movement. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing, but you need to look out for it. Wind, for example, can ruin your shot. If you have a lot of trees in a scene and the wind is blowing, each of your bracketed images will have the leaves and branches in a different position. You just won’t be able to HDR successfully because the movement will turn into a smudged mess. The closer the movement is to the lens, the worse the effect will be on your image. Either leave it until a calmer day, or else blend in the moving trees from one image to keep them sharper. You might be able to use the ghosting settings from your HDR software to help. The same applies to things like waves and people (or cows) moving through your scene.
  • Don’t HDR everything. HDR is a cool look. But it is a look, and that can get boring if you do it all the time. Before you automatically HDR every photo you take, think about processing it in some other ways. You could process as a single image and not HDR at all. You could take two shots for say a sunset and manually combine one with a correctly exposed sky with another of the  correctly exposed ground. You could choose to use HDR on only part of your image, and blend in non-HDR parts to the rest of the image.
  • Don’t overdo it. Just because the sliders can go to 11 doesn’t mean you need to slide them that far. If you overcook your HDR image you get what my friend Stuart not-so-fondly calls psychedelic clown vomit. You don’t want clown vomit. Eeeew.

Here’s a before and after of what you get when you go too far. Well, it’s not really a before and after, just a side by side comparison. On the left is an HDR pushed to crazy surreal levels, and I get nauseous just looking at it. On the right is the severely toned down version of it, still HDR, that I personally think works much better. Keep it restrained is what I’m going to recommend.

Don’t do this! Seriously!

How not to do HDRStadsaal Cave, Cederberg



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