Category Archives: HDR

HDR Photography Sans Tripod | When It’s Not Practical

When I first started with HDR photography, back in 2007, using a tripod for the required multiple exposures was a must, particularly in the low-light settings that I prefer for the types of subjects that work best for this particular tool. I use two tripods, a Bogen and a Giottos, along with a Kirk BH-1 ball head and L-brackets. A cable release is required as well. Anything to keep hands away from the camera during exposure while providing a stable and secure platform.

But what about those situations and settings when carrying and setting-up a tripod is not practical and/or appropriate while at the same time coming across a subject that is tailored-made for HDR (High Dynamic Range) ? Just yesterday I was touring the streets of Savannah with my daughter Emma, capturing scenes of beautiful southern-style architecture, hidden courtyards and fine details that make this picturesque city a favorite for street photography. Keep in mind that Savannah in mid-July can be like working in a sauna with heat and humidity rolling off the pavement and cobblestones. Just carrying a pro-grade DSLR and a few lenses – which I do using a Lowepro fastback 250 – can be cumbersome enough. Add the bulk and weight of a full-length tripod and ball head and getting around the city while navigating through gaggles of tourists can be a daunting and hot task. But there was so much that caught my eye. I knew to fully capture detail from darkest shadow to brightest highlight I would need to shoot multiple exposures of the same scene for merging and use of tonal adjustments for optimal results in my digital workflow.

Enter the compromise. With the auto bracketing feature of  the Canon 1D Mark III I can usually capture my three exposures needed for most HDR (actually I prefer five to six for interiors) while going “handheld” and still retain sharpness. The key is the burst rate on the 1D Mark III – the fastest available on a DSLR at 10 frames per second. I boost the ISO up to the 1600 mark and sacrifice some sharpness by using a wider aperture (4.0 or 5.6), but the auto bracketing and the high speed drive fire-off the three exposures with ease and without any noticeable shake from the camera being handheld. Granted it’s not the ideal way to capture multiple exposures for HDR work but it works in a pinch. Where this technique is very helpful is when shooting outdoor portraits that have that little bit of something extra in the foreground and background. Another important tip is to always shoot in aperture priority mode and bracket with differing shutter speeds. As soon as the aperture is changed from exposure to exposure the photographer alters the depth of field between shots and that’s not going to match to well when merging the files.

Below is one of the results I obtained after merging three, handheld  exposures using the Canon 1D Mark III and a Canon 17-35mm f2.8 lens. The subject is the interior of the St. John the Baptist Cathedral in Savannah. Setting-up a tripod in such a location is  . . . well . . . for lack of a better term, “not cool.” Besides my daughter Emma had her hands just holding onto the Canon 1D while I changed lenses. Fumbling with anything more would have been too much, taking away from the ability to move fast and easy and just having fun.

Cathedral Alter by Jim Crotty

To HDR or Not to HDR | They Hated Digital Too

I was wrong. Last Friday I tweeted that I first took the plunge into HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography in 2006. It was actually around August 2007. Still, the fact is I’ve been “doing” HDR for a while now. Why the tweet ? It was in response to the latest round of articles in the photographic community as to whether HDR is a legitimate tool or just a passing trend.

One of my first HDR images. Technique is ideal for gaining greater tonal range in old buildings and structures.

Hate HDR ? Just a “fad ?” For me it’s one of the many tools that I choose to use, or not use, to fit my artistic vision and how I want to capture a particular scene through emphasis of the unique light of that particular time and location. It’s also important to point-out that with my use of HDR in my photographs I am in now way digitally adding any elements that aren’t true to the actual scene. The technique and tool, when used properly, simply expands the capability of both photographer and camera to obtain a greater range of tones, from shadows to highlights, than what was previously possible in a single frame.

Yes, I use it for outdoor landscapes as well for cityscapes and interiors. I’ve had great success with Photomatix Pro and I’ve recently added Nik HDR Efex Pro as a plug-in with Aperture and Lightroom. In almost all of my workshops I do a brief overview of what can be accomplished with these programs, and almost always there’s a strong interest in learning the programs as well as the best in-camera techniques for optimal results.

Personally I think the reason so many “purists” who hate it is because they’ve seen so much that’s been way overdone when applying tonal adjustments in the post-processing. The photographer has control over how much and how often.

Another reason why certain photographers refuse to even consider the professional legitimacy of the technique/tool is because, well, it’s just “too easy.” Not enough suffering involved. No difficult and strenuous learning curve where an aspiring photographer has to prove him or herself worthy of acceptance amongst those “who’ve done their time.”

“Bah humbug ! If you can’t get it right with a single frame then you’re not a true photographer.”

HDR just a fad and not a legitimate tool for professional photography ? HDR image of Dayton skyline now the backdrop for a local TV news program.

Really ? Seriously ? That very attitude implies the existence of a point of arrival in the art of photography, and that assumption indicates failure in learning the most important lesson – that one never stops learning, growing and developing, as a photographer, as an artist and as a person.

I think the odds are pretty good that the negative responses have more to do with the complainer’s overwhelming need for acceptance versus particular technical tools in the field of photography.

Kind of like being the younger person – or person young at heart – who’s suddenly surrounded by neighbors who’ve “done their time” and don’t exactly go out their way to make you feel welcomed in the neighborhood. Not that I have any experience in a such a situation, but that’s what can feel like when you’re a photographer moving forward with a new tool or technique versus fighting the inevitable progress of technology, and well . . . life.

I still remember about what was said of digital photography when it first came on the scene with the first DSLR cameras.

HDR photography is like everything else – it’s really a matter of maintaining proper balance. Also, one can easily make the argument of what truly is “high dynamic range?” The same can be said with simple dodging and burning in a traditional darkroom, or combining two images as layers in PS and using mask and brush. How about targeted adjustments?

HDR "cartoonish" looking ? Really ? The photographer always has many options within the settings of the tonal adjustments. Tonal range gained within this sunflower image would not have been possible without HDR and yet for me it still looks natural.

The photographer always has the freedom to use the tools available – and how subtle or how strong – at his or her disposal.

It’s all a matter of personal taste and style. Just make sure it’s YOUR taste and style, even if it’s always changing and developing.
P.S. – Of all the articles and resources regarding HDR photography, one of the best was just published in the February 2011 issue of Outdoor Photographer magazine. “Making the Best Use of HDR” by one of the top pros in nature and landscape photography, Tom Till. What’s even more interesting are the online comments in response not so much to Tom’s images included with his article.

Deep in the Heart of Winter | Finding Light in the Darkness

The middle of January. Gone are the last signs of the festive holiday season. Yet to begin is the first signs of the gradual shift toward the light of spring. It’s a time when deep shadows and muted tones take a firm hold on the Ohio landscape. This is when people truly hunker down inside, staying warm from the relentless cold while they count the days on the calendar till the end of the season, growing ever more impatient with a January and February that seem to linger with long, dark evenings.

Last Saturday I presented another in my ongoing series of photography workshops at nearby Cox Arboretum MetroPark. Most other times the main building and sprawling, beautifully maintained gardens are full of visitors. Even the trails leading back through the woodlands and meadow contain a steady stream of families enjoying one of what I consider Dayton’s best assets for outdoor recreation, the Five Rivers MetroPark. During my workshops held on Saturdays throughout spring and autumn there is almost always at least two weddings going on. Not last Saturday, January 15. It was just myself and my group of about 25 workshop students. Even the park gift shop was locked-up with the sign”closed for the season – see you on February 1st.”

But as I stated in my previous post, winter in Ohio still offers a variety of opportunities for the nature and landscape photographer. You just have to know where – and when – to look. The next day following the workshop I noticed a late afternoon sky taking shape that indicated to me the possibility of a colorful sunset full of dynamic, interesting shapes. I’m fortunate to live very close to another of my favorite locations amongst the Five Rivers system of parks, Sugarcreek MetroPark. It’s where I head-off to when I see the conditions coming together for the type of landscape and skycscape photography I like to do this time of year. Despite the cold I’ve found that it’s well worth the short hike along an ice-covered trail to capture the often overlooked beauty of a sunset in Ohio during winter. It’s just a brief hint of color splashed against the low clouds with a natural foreground of dark, reaching tree limbs and the tans and reds of the remains of tall grass and prairie plants.

The photographic technique employed was that of High Dynamic Range (HDR) multiple exposure photography using a Canon 1D Mark III DSLR camera with lenses that include Canon 17-35mm f2.8 L, 28-70mm f2.8 and 70-200mm f4 L IS. I always shoot using a pro-level tripod with Kirk ballhead. Multiple exposures are auto-bracketed with a usual difference of about two and half stops. Always raw file format. Programs used include Photomatix Pro and Photoshop CS4, with image file management maintained in Apple Aperture. With some of these images I also used custom, textured and framed actions in CS4.

November Photo Workshop for Beginners and Advanced

Day of Photography Workshop will be a two-session program, the first of which will be for beginning-level photographers looking to gain a better understanding of basic features and settings of the DSLR camera as well as basics of fall nature and landscape photography. I will be teaching the most important settings on the DSLR camera for greater creative control and more pleasing results. The session will include a demonstration on how I set-up and compose for nature and landscape photography, and then my step-by-step process for brining the digital file into the computer for basic adjustments and editing. Topics covered in this session will include understanding exposure, color space, white balance, file format, building a basic camera system for nature photography and elements of effective composition. I will also be sharing tips on where and when to go for best nature and landscape subjects on the Southern Ohio landscape during fall and winter.

The afternoon session will be for those who are more advanced, providing instructional tips on the business and marketing of nature photography. Emphasis will be on social media with marketing the photography business, including web site, blogging, Twitter and Facebook. Topics will include business organization, fine art print sales and installations, stock image licensing and publishing, editorial assignment photo shoots and more. I will be sharing tips and lessons learned based on nearly eight years of experience as a professional photographer.

Also, the afternoon session will include my step-by-step process for HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography, from in-camera capture to final print. I began integrating HDR photography in my digital “toolbox” when it first came on the photography scene in 2007. Learn my top tips for obtaining best results, including tonal adjustments in Photomatix Pro and stunning monochrome conversions using Nik plug-ins.

Both sessions will be limited to the first 25 people who register. Cost is $45 per person, per session. $80 for both. Non-refundable $20 deposit required for registration, payable via check or PayPal. Please call 937-432-6711 or email [email protected].

Framed Giclée Prints from Imagekind

Showing one of the framed, black and white Giclée prints that I recently ordered from my online storefront on Imagekind. This particular image is an excellent example of the pleasing results achieved when converting an HDR photograph to monochrome. The photograph is a combination of five exposures, combined using Photomatix Pro. I then fine tune using the tonal adjustment tool, bring the 16-bit TIFF file into Aperture and then convert to monochrome (black and white) through the use of Nik Silver Efex Pro plug-in, which I love because of its effectiveness when doing targeted adjustments. I’m excited about the coming release of Nik’s HDR Efex Pro.

On Saturday, November 6, 2010 I will be presenting an afternoon workshop at Cox Arboretum, designed for those photographers who are more experienced and advanced with digital workflow and editing. I’ll be going over my step-by-step process for HDR nature photography, from in-camera capture to final print.

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.