There are many ways to produce HDR photos including:
- through the help of software such as Photomatix, HDR Efex Pro, Oloneo Photo Engine or others
- through the use of Luminosity Masking
- through manual blending
Of course, out of the aforementioned techniques, the easiest and the fastest way to produce an HDR image is through the use of software. Each software package has its own strengths and weaknesses. For the purpose of this article, I will be taking you through the workflow and the process of creating an HDR image through the use of HDR Efex Pro 2 from Nik Software. One advantage that I found of using this software is the ability to create a very natural looking and clean image with minimal effort. Most of the time, it does not create any or only produces minimal halos (which is usually the mark of bad HDR).
I will be using a photo that I took using my Nikon D7000 and the Tokina 11-16 f2.8 lens (I might be biased – but it could possibly be the best ultra wide angle made for a crop sensor camera). This photo was taken at the Westminster Bridge with the iconic Big Ben and Westminster Palace in the background. This photo was taken around the blue hour, right just after the sun had set. This time, along with sunrise and sunset are the best times to take photos as the skies are usually filled with wonderful colors and if you are into architecture, this is the time when the buildings are being lit up. These extra elements will make your photo stand out more.
Now, I cannot stress this enough before I start going into the technical stuff. HDR is not a SAVING GRACE for a bad photo. The basic of photography still applies. You still need to think about your composition. You still need to watch the light. Do not take a photo with the sun right above your head and hope that you will get a good photo. Oh, yeah, also always take a shot in RAW format. As you will be doing lots of post processing in your PC or Mac, the more information you have in your photo the more flexibility it can give you.
Here are the original brackets for the photo. There are 8 brackets here.
As you can see from the photos, there are some moving elements such as the clouds, people and cars. Also if you notice it closely, the photos are not aligned properly as some tourists knocked my tripod during the process of taking the brackets. Even with these moving elements, HDR Efex Pro 2 will still be able to handle this problem and 90% of the time will produce a decent result. My own technique is to take at least 5 exposures with 1 exposure value (EV) apart or 3 exposures with 2 EV apart, by varying the shutter speed while keeping the other variables constant ie. ISO, aperture and focus.
I personally use Lightroom for my workflow. Not only it does arrange your photos in a nice library with categories, flags and keywords, it also has a very nice integration with Nik Software Products (or other kinds of plugins and add-ons).
First, choose all the bracketed exposures that you want to process in HDR Efex Pro 2, press right click, and select Export -> HDR Efex Pro 2
Lightroom will then process the files (for those who are interested, it will be converting the files into TIFF in the background. If you do not use Lightroom, you have to manually convert the RAW file into TIFF first) and start the HDR Efex Pro 2. You will then be presented with the Merge Dialog as shown below.
In this Dialog, you are given a few options before the HDR image is created. First is the Alignment checkbox. As I stated previously, my tripod was knocked off by a passing tourist, which made the bracketed images not properly aligned. If you are forced to shoot handheld, or if you have some movement even when shooting with the tripod, make sure the Alignment checkbox is ticked. The software will do all the hard work to align your shots and it does a pretty amazing job of it.
The second checkbox is the Ghost Reduction option. As this image has a lot of moving elements, it’s best to have this option ticked. You then choose which image will act as a “Ghost Reference Image” on the top. Then choose the appropriate Strength. You can preview the result on the main picture in the dialog box. As every photo is different, experiment with the two variables and decide from the preview which one suits your taste. In this case, I have decided on the brightest exposure as the ‘Ghost Reference Image’ at 100% Strength. There is a slider that adjusts brightness control below the preview image. Note that this brightness slider will not affect the end HDR result. If there are no moving elements or ghosting in your photo, then do not worry about this option.
The last checkbox is the Chromatic Aberration (CA). When shooting with a Ultra Wide Angle lens and shooting with a backlight, these color fringes tend to appear. And they also tend to get worse after the tonemapping process, and tend to be associated with bad HDR work. Fortunately, HDR Efex Pro 2 has excellent Chromatic Aberration removal tools. For this image, there is a very subtle Cyan CA around the fringe of the street light. There is a loupe tool (Magnifying Glass Icon) where you can use it to really zoom in to your photo. For this example, I set the Red – Cyan slider to around -40 to remove the CA. Every photo is different so you may want to experiment until you remove the CA’s as much as possible.
Now, lets get to the really fun stuff. Hit the Create HDR Button. Wait for awhile while the software creates the HDR tonemapped image. You are then shown the main interface of the HDR Efex Pro 2. This is where you can let your creativity shine. Let’s talk about the most important sliders/controls that will determine the final look of your HDR image. The sliders/controls which are grouped under ‘ Tone Compression’
This slider controls the actual Dynamic Range that will be included in the photo. Sliding it all the way to the right, will compress the tonality of the image ie. brighten the shadow and darken the highlight, giving the photo that HDR look while at the same time lowering the contrast of the image. This is up to your own personal taste and preference. I usually tend to keep it between 25 – 75%. For this particular image, I decide 62% is the best value.
This slider affects the detail and the local contrast of the image. Slide it to the left, you will be left with a soft image. Slide it to the right, you will have more detail and a sharper image thus giving it a bit of drama. Again, this is up to your personal preference, but I like my image on the sharper side. For this image, lets decide on 66%
The negative byproduct of HDR tonemapping is lost of contrast, leaving us with a flat image as the tones are compressed (as previously mentioned). HDR Efex Pro 2 has made it easy for us users with this Slider/Selection. With one click, it allows the software to give that depth and dimensionlity back to the image. Any of the 3 options are fine, and I usually tend to stay away from the Strong option as the effect can be a bit overwhelming.
This option controls how the fine details are rendered. If I can ask you a favor here, please stay away from the Detailed and Grungy option, unless you are really into those surreal over the top overly grungy HDR shots. The Soft option gives it a glowy dreamy look. Normally I stick with Realistic, or if I need an extra details or when the photo does not include a sky, I sometime choose Accentuated. For this photo, Realistic is the way to go.
This option controls the style of the tone mapping of the image. Its a bit hard to explain but according to HDR Efex Pro 2, it “identifies different areas of an image based on tonality and colors, working to accentuate contrast in those areas”. Sounds like total blah to me. What you need to know is it gives a different look for each option, ranging from the natural to the creative/surreal. I tend to stay within the Natural or Deep Option as my style tends to gravitate towards the natural kind of HDR.
Please do note that different combination of options and types of photos being processed will give different results. As I have mentioned before, this is where you can explore your creativity to create an image to your taste and liking.
Under the Tonality section, I bring up the exposure Slider by 16% as the resulting photo was a bit dark and some shadow was a bit too deep. Usually this is where I ended my workflow in HDR Efex Pro 2, as I usually brought back the resulting image to Photoshop and enhanced it there further before coming to my final image.
You do not have to do this, especially if you are just discovering HDR photography or just want to make cool images without having to waste 3 hours post processing a photo (yeah, sometime it takes that long). In fact, HDR Efex Pro 2 is equipped with enough tools to post process your photos directly within the application. In fact, before I learned Photoshop, these are the only workflow tools that I used.
Firstly, some global adjustments: I brought up the Contrast slider by 10% just to give it an extra punch. Under Saturation, I increased it by 20%.
Now for the next step, let me introduce you to the magic of Nik Software’s Control Points. Control Points is the proprietary technology which allows you to make local adjustments to the image. It is like layer masking in Photoshop only that it is easier to use as the software intuitively selects the area/section of the photo which you would like to adjust. It might not be 100% accurate but it works quite well most of the time. You have all the necessary controls under your fingertips like Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, Structure, Blacks, Temperature, Tint and Method Strength. These local adjustment and changes are the ones that will set your photos apart from others. You can find these under the heading Selective Adjustment.
For example, I would like to make the Westminster Abbey and the Big Ben stand out more. So, I start by dropping a Control Point on Westminster Abbey then adjust the size until only the Abbey is white leaving the rest of the image black. Remember, white areas are those that will be affected and black areas are those that will not be affected, while shades of grey will effect the parts of the image partially. Use as many control points as you like. This is where you can be as detailed as you want and make sure that only the areas that you want to be affected are marked in white. After that, group the control points together, so when you change one they will affect all the intended control points.
I then increase the Structure to 100%, Saturation to 37% and Contrast to 14%. This will effectively achieve what I intended to do ie. putting all the focus and attention to the Abbey and the Big Ben as those two are the focus of the photo. You can see the Before and After below.
I also decided to enhance the street light in the foreground and a bit of the setting sun near the horizon just to make it more prominent. In total, I have 16 control points applied to this image. Be imaginative and put all the control points where you need them! Again the key is subtlety. Small adjustments here and there will make a big difference in the end.
Now click Save and you are done! You have created an HDR image and enhanced it using HDR Efex Pro 2.
Here is a comparison of the tonemapped image before the enhancement and the final image.
As you can see it is quite simple and HDR Efex Pro 2 has made the workflow very simple and intuitive.
Next up, I will be writing part 2 of this tutorial to show you my normal workflow, where I enhance the photo further using Photoshop and a range of Nik Software’s other products.
Please get in touch with me if you have any questions about this article. Now, lets get out there and shoot some brackets!