As I have said in the past, a HDR (High Dynamic Range) photograph is made by taking over exposed, normal, and underexposed images and then using software taking the best exposed areas of the image from the layer with the best exposure. So the dark areas that tend to have little detail are taken from the over exposed images which has full details in the dark areas and likewise the very bright areas which have gone white in the normal exposed image are taken from the underexposed image. When combined we end up with an image with full details in the full range of light from very lite to very dark. This all takes a lot of work, both in taking the image and then post processing the multiple exposures.
Can there be a better way? The answer depends on the camera and in the best case is “kind of”. The newer digital cameras have improved the dynamic range. It is still not close to what your eye can see, but much better than cameras only a few years old. And of course the higher end cameras lead the way, however the lower end cameras are benefiting from the developments as well.
In order to make use of the expanded dynamic range it is necessary to abandon the use of the “jpg” format and go to a camera raw format. All “pro-consumer” cameras can do this and now many of the everyday “point and shoot” cameras have a raw option (often it is the “tif” format, but better yet a true raw format). Why raw? well the raw format is simply the exact level from every sensor pixel without any processing. It contains the maximum amount of information. The jpg image has been compressed to form a small file, but at the expense of a lot of information in the light and dark areas of the photo. The details in these areas has been removed and can not be retrieved in software. So the first step in shooting the photo is to set your camera to a raw format.
Here is a before and after the following One Shot technique
Single Shot post processing
For the type that uses stand alone HDR software (i.e. “Photomatix Pro” or “NIK”) there is a single shot option. However you do not require these programs for single shot. I use LightRoom to import and catalogue all of my photos. I also use it for the majority of my post processing along with Photoshop for some things. Lightroom is all that is needed. I am sure if you watch the steps in LightRoom, most other basic photo editors can be made to do a similar function.
Here are the basic steps in LightRoom Develop Module:
- Bring Highlight to -100 (full left).
- Bring Shadows to +100 (full right).
This is a very flat image but has more details in both the whites and darks.
- Adjust Whites just to the point of clipping (either watch the histogram or press the “alt” key while adjusting to the point that the screen is black with a minimum of colored spots showing).
- Adjust the Blacks to the point of clipping or slightly clip (either watch the histogram or press the “alt” key while adjesting to the point the screen is mostly black with only a few patches of color).
This produces a photo realistic HDR image. You can stop at this point, but wait there is more:
The image can then be modified in Light Room. I will go into a more detailed tutorial of the finishing in another tutorial, but the steps to the final photo are:
You can now make any of the adjustments that would be normal. I use the Exposure to brighten if required, but normally setting the white point does this. Also try different color balances to see what you like. Remember there is not many right/wrong setting in art! My camera does a great job of getting the color balance correct, but at time I like to play with it a bit. A good way to start is to simply go through the basic options (As shot, Daylight, Cloudy, etc) and see if I like any better than the default, if so what I like about it and how is it different. Then I may tweek the Tem and Tint controls to fine adjust it all.
A important control is the Clarity slider. I normally like to add some clarity, however moving it to the left may take out a little of the HDR look of the image and make some eyes happier. If there are people in the photo it also softens the skin which make people happy.
Then I normally will set noise reduction and sharpening + sharp mask. And the final touch is to play with the light a bit more (in this case I put some more light on the front row of houses with the brush tool and added a leading patch of light in the sand to the left of the birds with the Radial Filter tool. And as the final, final touch put a Graduated Filter on the sky to darken it a bit.
This technique is the mainstay retouching of a guy on the internet that provides a lot of free tutorials in exchange for him sending a lot of email about his tutorials for sale. I do find it a good exchange as watching an “expert” processing a lot of photos is a good way to get started. His name is Serge Ramelli and his free tutorials can be found at: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLJ6FIlZVNbQOYg4WXQN7ZpYK3FEH1GVco
Here you find a large list of youtube videos on post processing in Light Room and Photoshop. I suggest you start on the early ones and go through a few a day. You will see all of the techniques in this retouch and a lot lot more!