Torc Waterfall in HDR

A blog that I started reading really caught my eye a while back as I was researching the 1.5 million technical terms in photography.  Stuck In Customs is a blog by Trey Ratcliff who is big on HDR photography and his work is unbelievable.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and is generally created by taking several photographs of the same object taken at different levels of exposure then combining them together into one image.  I absolutely love the high contrast, the vivid colors, and overall, the extra intensity that I feel these photographs give, sometimes I feel like I see in HDR and I photograph in a somewhat more bland range.

To get the same photograph but with the different exposure levels, you would use a technology known as bracketing.  Most high end cameras have the option to bracket your photographs, and basically, it will alternate the exposure levels you set.  If you forget to turn off bracketing when you are done with your subject, it is an excellent way to ruin a few future photos, as I learned on a few occasions in Ireland.  What steps you want your exposures at is up to you, but I set mine for 5 photographs, at steps of 1. (So one at normal exposure, one at -1 one at -2 one at +1 and one at +2)  The best way to do this is to use a tripod, as any movement from your hands can make it difficult to stitch the photographs together, but since I balked at the idea of taking one with me…. I’ll do the best I can.

Today I’m going to work on a picture of Torc Waterfall that I took in Ireland.  Here is the normal exposure version of the picture that I took.

Torc Waterfall as it came out of my camera

To create an HDR image, there are a lot of technologies out there, I personally have learned to use Photomatix.  This program stitches together multiple photographs at varying levels of exposure and does a lot of the heavy lifting for you.  So to begin, I load Photomatix and select my five photos, the above photo and 2 with exposures at -1 and -2, and 2 with exposures at +1 and +2.  You can see them in small below.

Disregard the three other photos, I’m not a professional blogger, so I don’t have to clean up my folders for screenshots. 😛

Anyway, you can clearly see how the second photo is extremely dark, and would be very difficult to salvage alone without instituting a lot of noise into the photograph, and the fifth is so bright as to be almost blinding.  And trust me, at full size, it almost hurts the eyes.  From there I am given a variety of options to choose from in how I want Photomatix to process the images as seen to the right.

Obviously, since I did not use a tripod, there are slight differences to my photographs, so using the Align Source Images option is very helpful to me, it will even crop out the unnecessary parts as it goes.  I allow it to automatically reduce ghosting artifacts, which again helps with my hand motions and allow for the reduction of noise and chromatic aberrations.

HDR photographs do tend to generate a lot of noise when combined, so I choose it for the merged image, as hopefully my source ones won’t contain much if any noise that will cause an issue.

After I hit OK, Photomatix takes its time stitching together the images, aligning them and generally going about the business that I selected in the Preprocessing Options to the right.  When it finally finishes this process, I am given a screen that looks like this:

At the bottom of the screen is a list of default options/styles to work with.  I recommend clicking on each one just to get a feel for the options and what the program can do to the picture.  To the left is a group of sliders that can be used to change a variety of different aspects of your picture.

 I have attached the final settings that I settled on for this particular photograph to the left.  I almost always increase the strength to 100 and Color Saturation to 70 or above.  As I mentioned, part of my love for HDR is the VIVID colors and the intensity that they can add.  This is obviously a personal preference and there is no wrong way to do this, since as I see it, your goal is to make something you love out of the picture.  I increased the microcontrast, as I like to see a good deal of contrast in my photographs and upped the Black Point because it again sharpens the contrast and makes the shadows from all the foliage and rock formations really stand out.

Finally, this location was extremely wooded, and our light was mostly filtered through a wide variety of green leaves, due to this the light was a little off and the auto white balance on my camera didn’t adjust far enough in my opinion, so I took the temperature down a notch to where I felt the whites looked white.  Once completed, I clicked on process and let Photomatix churn some more.

When it was done this is the image that I received.

Torc Waterfall after Photomatix Processing

One other piece to this I mentioned previously is that HDR Processing tends to make a bit of noise.  As far as that goes, this particular photograph actually came out pretty clean all things considered, but I have another program I use for cleaning up the noise called Noiseware.  Adjusting the level of noise is a quick and simple process that amounts to loading the photograph, then choosing how much adjustment you want.  Afterward you press Go and save your image.

Image in Noiseware

Finally after you have adjusted the sliders to the left to your liking based on how much noise you feel there is, press Go and it processes the image for you.  Here is my final result after the work.

Torc Waterfall in HDR

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