Fritz Photography – Surreal HDR Processing Workflow
A long time ago, before I was a photographer, I saw a photograph online that changed my perception on photography forever. It was a photo of a small run down shack in the middle of the woods with the sun shining through the tree tops upon the forest floor. There was a lantern lit in the window of the shack illuminating the walls within. The details were remarkable. It was like I was there! I remember looking at this photo and thinking, “How is that even possible? It looks real but it looks like a painting or 3D rendering! Which is it?” At the time I had no idea what HDR Photography was. This impression stuck with me and every time I saw a picture that had that “look”. I became more and more intrigued with it and needed to know how it was done.
Years later, here I am writing an article on the same techniques that I would have done anything to know the secrets to. I can’t really call this a technique, but rather an editing workflow that I have been adapting and changing throughout the years to get as close as possible to that look I saw in that picture years ago.
Step 1 - The first thing I always do is open the images in Lightroom 4. This is where I organize my photos and take a closer look at my brackets. I don’t own a high end camera (I own a Canon T2i) so I check for noise in the images by zooming in. Also remove any chromatic aberations that may be visble.
Step 2 - Then I export the photos from LR to Photomatix as a TIF file. For the process select Tone Mapping and for the Method choose Details Enhancer.
Step 3 - Since we are going for an extreme yet realistic look, we are gonna crank up some sliders. Here is a rundown of my typical Photomatix settings for something like this. Please keep in mind that these settings will vary depending on your image.
Strength – 100
Color Saturation- 65 (Color isn’t too important at this stage)
Luminosity – 10.0
Microcontrast – 10.0
Smoothing – This is where the magic happens.
Uncheck the Light Mode box and set the slider to your preference. For this image it was set to around 5.0 I try to maintain a realistic lighting look by adjusting this slider. If I need to I will go back and adjust the strength, luminosity, and microcontrast to achieve that realistic lighting look. Get it to look as close to what it looked like when you were there.
Tone Settings – White Point around 0.3%, Black Point 0.010%, and Gamma around 1.00 or less.
Color Settings – Like I said before, the color isn’t too important at this stage of the process so get it close to what you want but dont get too worried about it at this point.
Micro-smoothing – ZERO! If your images are nice and squeeky clean before you bring them into Photomatix you can get away with this. If they are noisy bringing this slider so low will make your image look terrible so make sure that your images are nice and noise free. Worst case scenario keep this slider as low as you feel comfortable.
Highlights and Shadows Smoothness is dependent on your image. Keep them as low as possible though
Step 4 - Save and Reimport into Lightroom. This is where I adjust most of the colors. I decide here what white balance I will go with, adjust highlights and shadows if it needs it, etc. In this case I cut the highlights about 50% and boosted the shadows about 50% also, gave it a contrast punch and cut the clarity about 15% to give a subtle softness.
Also this is a great place to remove chromatic aberation if there are any showing up still.
Step 6 - The first thing I do in Photoshop is clone out any distractions, dust spots, ghosts, etc. If it doesn’t contribute to the image, Im getting rid of it!
Step 7 - Photoshop is a very powerful editing tool. I like to take advantage of the layer masks and adjustment layers. If I need a certain area lighter/darker, or more/less saturation, this is where I will do that work. I assume most of you know about these techniques, so I will not go into detail here about that. However I will demonstrate one of my dodging and burning methods.
- Create a new layer (Shift+Ctrl+N) Set the mode to Overlay and click the fill with 50% grey box.
- Now you can paint onto this layer using black and white to dodge and burn. The white will dodge (brighten) and the black will burn (darken). I suggest using a soft brush at about 10% or so.
- After you done making your adjustments you have the option to reduce the layer opacity. That is why I like this dodging and burning method
Step 8 – After you merge those layers together all you have left to do is sharpen the image. There are many different ways to sharpen but one of the tried and true methods that I like is the Unsharp Mask in Photoshop.
I sharpen my photos a lot! I love detail!
I usually crank the sharpen amount up to about 150% and the radius I keep between 1.5 and 2.5. The higher the radius the more surreal and illustrated it looks. The threshold I keep at 0 or 1.
Here you can see three images. The first being one of the original images, the second being the tone mapped and color corrected HDR image, and the last being the dodge and burned/sharpened final image. I hope I was able to shed some light on HDR editing and hope you take my methods and develop your own techniques from them.
There is no right or wrong way to make a photograph, and if someone tells you otherwise just remember… Rules were made to be broken!