Landscape Photography: HDR or Blending Layers or Both

To say that HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography has created a chasm of division and argument amongst nature photographers would be an understatement. It wasn’t too long ago that the most contentious argument was film vs. digital. It didn’t take long to see who won that battle although there are probably more than a few who are now thinking otherwise in light of the recent discovery of the lost Adams’ negatives valued at over $200 million.

It was almost exactly three years ago that I made the jump into HDR waters for my work with landscape and cityscape photography. As with most HDR newbies I went “heavy-handed” with the tone mapping adjustments provided with the Photomatix Pro plug-in for Adobe Photoshop. The effect was so cool and new that I pushed those adjustment sliders all the way to the max. But once the results began to move too far away from what originally captured my creative eye in photographing a scene – particularly with nature and landscape subjects – I readjusted and began to tone the effect back a bit, preferring instead to mix the results with basic curves adjustments. I also learned to nix it all together when I was working in bright daylight and/or a bright sky. But I still loved the rendition of a wide tonal range between dark shadows and bright highlights in “hand of man” foreground subjects such as old buildings, fences and cars, as well as the range of subtle colors in a pre-dawn or post-sunset sky.

However, even with those obvious advantages there are still many photographers who remain adversely opposed to HDR photography – the “purists” who insist that somehow the application of this tool betrays the art and the subject and that it’s just too easy. Only with pain, struggle and positioning oneself for perfect light can one consider him herself a true, professional nature photographer. I admit that knowing your subject and knowing the light, and capturing it right within the camera, should always take precedence, but for the photographic artist to keep his or her mind completely closed to all of the tools at his or her disposal is nothing to brag about. It’s all about what works best to visually communicate the photographer’s approach to light and subject.

The most obvious benefit of HDR is the ability to capture detail in the darkest and lightest areas of the frame. This has always been a challenge in landscape photography. But could there be other digital options besides tone mapping in HDR programs ? Indeed there is, and it’s digital editing technique well worth considering. I came upon the following tutorial video by fellow pro photographer Joseph Rossbach, who really has some very impressive work. In “Manual Blends of Two Exposures for HDR” Joseph shows what can be accomplished by simply blending two exposures – one for sky, the other for foreground – using layers, masks and brushes in Photoshop to put sky and landscape more in balance. Beautiful technique. Beautiful results.

But what if the photographer still wants to include an old structure in the scene, the type of weathered subject that practically calls out to be captured in all of its tonal range beauty using three or more exposures and Photomatix, or similar program ? Or perhaps there is not nearly so much a clean break between sky and foreground ?

Why not do both ? Merge layers using masks and brushes AND use Photomatix for tone mapping, and then combine both enhancements in a single image in Photoshop.

Because I archive all of my original raw image files, straight out of the camera, I was able to revisit one of my favorite autumn landscape images taken during a September 2007 visit to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The following three versions show what can be accomplished using 1) Rossbach’s suggested technique of merging two exposures in PS, 2) the HDR image from three exposures using Photomatix Pro, and then 3) the “hybrid” version merging both techniques.

When it came to rendering the sky without overblown highlights, I preferred the merging of two layers technique. However, I lost all of that wonderful tonal range in the old wood of the farmhouse as well as in the fence posts. The effect also introduced a bit of a halo around the tree. The grass in the autumn field also went a bit too “flat” for my liking:

Now in the Photomatix HDR version I’ve picked-up the depth of tonal range in both the old house and the field, but that bright area in the sky is way overblown:

The “hybrid” version, using both techniques, produced the most pleasing results:

Keep in mind that almost every scene and lighting situation is different. Also, which technique to use will also be determined by type of subject and the placement of that subject in the photograph.

Bottom line is that there is no right way or wrong way. There is only the way that best communicates the photographer’s interpretation of light and scene. There’s also what I find the most rewarding aspect of photography in the digital age – the never-ending process of learning and growing.

I’ve been asked if I will be presenting a workshop in Dayton on subjects such as HDR photography and other more advanced techniques and tools for digital editing and enhancements. I’m considering such a program for sometime in early November 2010. If such a workshop is of interest, please email me.

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