HDR Photography Tips [Duel]

This week's theme is HDR.  Unfortunately, HDR has a very negative connotation among photographers because we have all seen so many poor uses of the tonemapping technique that make the resulting photo look unnatural, overcooked, and just plain nauseating.  In this post, we hope that we can show you two examples of how HDR can be used to show off texture, preserve exposure, and add an eye-catching effect.

New to the weekly Improve Photography Duel?  Check out this page, where we explain how it works.  A new camera duel will be released each Monday, and we're asking YOU to vote on the photos below.

HDR Photography Duel

Jim Here:  I spent this weekend in Utah for a funeral.  Salt Lake is an amazing city for photography, so I took advantage of the trip to shoot some of the beautiful gothic architecture that can be seen at many of the old churches and temples in the city.

The doorknobs of one such building caught my eye for the ornate detail, and I thought it would be an excellent shot in HDR.  Usually HDR is only used to capture tricky exposures, but this time I wanted to use HDR to bring out every bit of the detail in the doorknob and old wood.

These doorknobs are at the front entrance to a temple that took forty years to complete due to the intricate and detailed construction of the solid granite temple.  I thought these doorknobs were a detail that captured the thought and effort that went into every aspect of the building.

Jim's Process:  I shot three photos of these doorknobs hand-held.  Because the dynamic range was not difficult to control in this shot, I took a photo at -1, 0, and +1 EV in aperture priority mode.

I brought the photos into Photoshop and created a basic HDR photo without pushing any of the tonemapping sliders too far, which would make the photo look unrealistic.  Then, I processed that photo into one layer in Photoshop and overlayed the original photo on top of the HDR and set the opacity to 50%.  This created a blend of a normal photo and an HDR photo, which further reduces the unrealistic effect created by tonemapping.

Jim's Metadata:

Shutter speed: 1/25 second, Aperture: f/4.5, ISO 1000.  I would normally have chosen a higher f-stop, faster shutter speed, and lower ISO, but it was quite late in the evening.

Camera: Nikon D800, Lens: Nikkor 70-200mm f/2.8.

Lighting: Natural light

Salt Lake City LDS Temple doorknobs
Doorknob architectural detail

Dustin Here: For the last couple of weeks – I have been going on these walks along the New York Canal in Boise, ID and the sunsets have been absolutely amazing!! I've had a chance to discover and scout out some of the interesting man-made artifacts of the canal that I feel would add interest/depth to the photo. Taking an HDR of this was pretty much a no-brainer to me because I wanted to capture more than just the foreground or the background but the detail and the beauty of the entire scene.

Dustin's Process: I have started doing a new HDR process that I have come to like very much and has proven to have some great results. Here are the basic steps that I take:

1. Take your multiple exposure shot using AEB (Auto-Exposure Bracketing) settings on your camera.
2. Once you have selected the images you want to merge, go into Photoshop (I used CS6) and select: Edit > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro…
3. Load in the exposures you are going to use.
4. Change your bit-depth to 32-bit. You'll have different settings for this mode, leave everything at default.
5. Click “Ok” and let the images merge together.
6. Save the image as a TIFF file > Close.
7. Using Bridge, or Lightroom, load the new TIFF image into the CameraRaw (or Develop) mode.
8. Edit the image as you normally would. However, the difference now is that you have all of that data of the 3 images to adjust exposure, contrast, saturation, and any other edits you want. You can round-house back into Photoshop for final touches and then save your final HDR image as a JPG to share with others. 🙂

This process has been very effective in working with HDR images to avoiding the often over-processed tone-mapping that comes with HDR software. However – keep in mind that HDR comes with a lot of artistic preferences as there really is so much you can do to an image.

Dustin's Metadata:

Shutter speed: 1/3, Aperture: f/16, ISO 100

Camera: Canon 6D, 24mm, Lens: Canon 24-105mm lens

Lighting: Sunset – HDR

Canal Sunset - by Dustin Olsen
Canal Sunset – by Dustin Olsen

Let the Voting Begin!

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27 thoughts on “HDR Photography Tips [Duel]”

  1. What exactly are we voting on? It’s difficult to gauge which method of HDR is better when using two different images. And although one is more appealing to me than the other, it doesn’t mean I would prefer the method used on the photo.

  2. @Ann- You aren’t voting on which technique you prefer, just which photo you prefer.

    The idea of the duel is that we get out and both take a photo on the topic so we can practice learning new things and sharing what we learn.

    By shooting different things in our own way, you can see how the techniques can be used in a variety of settings.

  3. @Chaia – OVERDONE!??!?! I looked at Dustin’s photo long and hard, and it really doesn’t look overdone at all to my eye. In fact, it looks VERY realistic to me.

    The color seems natural, the dynamic range is approximately what a human eye would see, the sharpening doesn’t seem overdone….

    I guess I’m not sure what you’re seeing that makes this seem unnatural. What makes you say it’s overdone?

  4. I think they are both terrific, the temple doors, so rich and full of symbolism, and that amazing colorful Boise sunset. Great captures guys!

  5. Jim, in referring to @Chaia’s “overdone” comment, I took it to mean that generally speaking, photos of sunsets are somewhat commonplace and overdone, whereas your shot of the door knobs is highly unique… NOT that Dustin overdid the effects in his image.

  6. Always been fond of sunset photography and HDR, this one justify a good approach to the technique 🙂

  7. I think I’ll try Dustin’s workflow next time I do an HDR image. Every time I do HDR I get bogged down in the settings that I don’t quite understand or like in the HDR Merge Menu; processing it all into one and then bringing it back into Camera Raw would be a lot easier for me to work with. Thanks for the examples!

  8. I agree with Rick. I am going to try Dustin’s workflow next time. As for the voting, I like the sunset and its just about subject not about who’s looks better.

  9. IrisElizabeth

    I love them both. I have always had a thing for doors, especially big wooden doors and the sunset is perfect!

  10. Looking great!! I love the detail in the door knob photo, however it seems to be quite crooked, not sure how that was overlooked in post. I love the colors and the clouds in the sunset! I’d love to see all of the exposures that were combined for each image.

  11. @Zach – I’d have to agree with Gaylene about the crooked door. I actually took this into Photoshop and used guides on 5 different places to make sure it was perfectly vertical and… it is.

  12. I agree with Gaylene, (and Jim) the door knobs are NOT crooked! They are both wonderful pictures. I’m just a sucker for a sunset. I don’t think sunset pictures are “over done” like mentioned above. Each sunset is individual. You will never get an exact same sunset, even if you tried. Good job, guys, you both did well.

  13. I am SO sick of this “overdone” stuff.


    Hint: photography doesn’t always have to look realistic. it’s called “artistic freedom”.

  14. Door knobs ARE slightly crooked. That’s the first thing I noticed without reading the comments….There is more door showing on the left than the right….not much, but you can tell. I bet if you took a ruler to the screen and measured you’d find the variance. It’s perfectly symmetrical objects in the picture and so it becomes even more noticeable because of that.

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