Organic HDR: It’s HDR without the HDR!

Organic HDR photo of a pier at night in naples, florida

Notice the subtle detail under the pier and the detail in the highlights? (Click to enlarge).  Nikon D7000, f/14, ISO 200, 10mm, 30 second shutter, Induro Tripod.

HDR, or high dynamic range photography, is generally accomplished by taking three (or more) photos with varying exposure levels and then combining the light information to create one single image that carries detail in both the shadows and highlights.  That’s the HDR that we all know and love.

However, you can hold detail in your shadows and highlights to achieve a higher dynamic range than a traditional photo with just a little tweaking in Photoshop or Lightroom.  This is what I call “organic HDR.”  Organic HDR produces photos with SIGNIFICANTLY less grain than HDR photos (for more on reducing grain in HDRs, check out this previous post), it does not always require that the photographer take more than one exposure, and the result looks so natural that it leaves most photographers wondering how you achieved the shot.

There are many ways to create organic HDR photos, but here I will mention just two in today’s article.  I find myself using these two techniques more and more, and creating HDRs with Photomatix less and less.  I find that the results are stunningly realistic and don’t nauseate me nearly as much as some HDRs.

Organic HDR Method #1:

I created the photo featured on this page using this method.  Assuming you have your screen properly calibrated, you can see the detail underneath the pier and also detail in the bright areas of the clouds on the right-hand side of the photo.  Normally, the pier would be a silhouette in this type of photo, but this method allows me to capture detail in both areas.

  1. Shoot in RAW to capture as much light information as possible.
  2. Slightly over-expose the photo to capture as much shadow detail as possible.  Don’t worry, we can bring back the slight clipping later.
  3. Bring the photo into Lightroom or Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw tool
  4. Turn down the “exposure” setting to reduce the general overexposure in the photo.  In my photo on this page, I intentionally made the shot quite dark to add some mood to the shot.  I’m sure some people would argue that it’s a bit too dark, but I don’t especially care :-)
  5. Bring up the “fill light” setting until the shadow areas show the amount of detail you like.
  6. Drop your blacks level from 5 to the desired level.  I find that I generally prefer a value of 0 for creating this type of image.
  7. Add just a touch of contrast or the image will look too flat.
  8. Enjoy your beautiful organic HDR.

Organic HDR Method #2:

This method can also produce clean high dynamic range images without the use of an HDR processor, and without the disgusting side-effects of the HDR process; however, this method does require a little experience in Photoshop.

This method simply requires the photographer to take multiple photos of a scene with varying exposures.  Then, the photographer simply opens all of the photos in Photoshop in separate layers  (you can use a shortcut for this by going to File > Scripts > Open as stack).  Then, simply mask together the photos where they hold detail.

This method works very well, but it takes a skilled Photoshopper to do it correctly.  One quick tip for making this work is to make use of layer styles extensively.  Suppose you have a streetlight that is overexposed, but you took a different shot of that same street light that is properly exposed.  Simply put the underexposed layer on top of the overexposed layer and play with the layer styles until you capture the look you want.

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