HDR Advisor No. 1 – Sun, Sea, Boats and Halos

Welcome to HDR One Magazine’s, regular HDR Advisor feature. I would like to start with something of a disclaimer. This feature is not about the rights and wrongs of HDR, nor is it a critique of any individual’s photographic or processing ability. Instead, it is about education and the sharing of knowledge in order to get the very best visual experience from HDR photography. Please give me a minute to explain. A photographer with 50 years experience told me some years ago, “The day you think you know everything about photography is the day you should quit. Photography in any form is a constant learning process and there is no place for arrogance, as it will ultimately reflect in you images.” This statement stuck me immediately as a truth not just in the photographic field, but also for life in general. It was especially poignant as it was coming from a then 70 year old man of revered stature, who was at that very moment struggling to learn and use the new digital image transmission technology that was just being adopted by the press worldwide.

It is for this reason that I would like to issue an open invite. While I consider myself a competent HDR processor, I do not and never will profess to be an HDR “Oracle” or “Master”, as I still have much to learn myself. If I do not know how to correct something or achieve a desired effect, I will ask for help from both my fellow contributors and from the readership of this magazine. I am constantly looking for ways to innovate in and improve on my own imagery, and I am writing this feature not just to share what I know, but also as an exercise in self-improvement through challenging myself to solve real problems people are experiencing with their HDR workflow process. If you look at the finished reprocessed image that I have created in this article or any HDR advisor article, and can think of an action or procedure that could further improve on it, please comment and share the knowledge, instead of just looking at your screen and saying, “I could do better”. It is through sharing that we all learn and that is the whole point of this feature.

With that said, let’s look at the image we are going to attempt to correct. The photographer who made this composition approached HDR One saying that while in his opinion this was a good image with solid composition, he thought it could benefit from better processing, though he could not pinpoint exactly what he would change. Therefor the first thing to do in this case, is to analyse the image in depth.

  Above: The original completed HDR as sent to us

My first impressions of this image are mixed. I like the subject; the contract between the navel vessels and the modern city background and I love the mixture of colours as they have the potential to really punch out and grab the attention. However, I don’t like the HDR halos around the buildings and the masts of the ship, or the smudging in the sky left over from the processing. I am also unsure about the slight lack of contrast between the image elements and the saturation of the sky, which looks slightly unnatural. I also dislike the dead space to either side and to the bottom of the composition. On blowing the image up to 100% in Photoshop, I also notice that the buildings in the background are not quite as sharp as I would like in comparison to the foreground.

Looking at the camera data in Photoshop file info provides a few answers (File>file info> Camera Data tab).

  Above: The Camera Data tab in Photoshop File Info for the middle exposure.

This set was shot on the follow equipment at the following settings (middle exposure):


Nikon D7000 (1.6x crop sensor body)

Sigma 8-16 mm f/4.5-f/5.6 DC (Digital Camera, 1.6X bodies only) HSM (High Speed Motor AF)


8mm focal length (equivalent to 13mm on full frame bodies)

Shutter Speed: 1/160 sec

Aperture: f/9

ISO: 100

Camera Setting: Aperture Priority (AP)

Matrix metering

No fill flash

The first thing I get from the camera data is the reason for the slight softness in the background of the image, the aperture of f/9. While ultra wide angles have a reputation to be sharp all the way through the aperture range, the HDR process will find even the slightest faults and intensify them. I regularly use the full frame version of this lens, the sigma 12-24 DX and would not consider using it for cityscape photography at less than f/16. Even then, the background can be slightly soft and I would usually try to shoot at a mixture of apertures, f/16, f/18, f/20 (in different sets) in order to cover all the bases and if needs be, to mix various parts of different images together.  For this shot, I would have dropped the shutter speed a stop and increased the aperture value in order to give a greater depth of field and make sure everything was sharp. However, hind sight is a great thing and I cannot even count the number of times I have sat looking at images thinking, I wish I had done this or that. Although it doesn’t apply to this image, it is worth mentioning a general point here. A good, solid tripod is one of the most essential tools for HDR photography. Lighter tripods, although easier to carry, are also liable to move in even the slightest breeze, making your image slightly muzzy on time exposures. Unfortunately, there is no getting around it; a medium to heavy weight tripod is a must.

The next thing we can see from the camera data is that wideness of the lens used (8mm) accounts for the vertical and horizontal distortion to the edges of the image and to the top of the lighthouse. Ultra wide-angle lenses will do this to your image no matter what, and it can be incredibly hard to correct. For the purposes of this article, I am going to leave it in it’s present state, as the correction of this problem would constitute an article in it’s self. If you would like an in-depth look at regular lens correction though, here is the link to Chris Mitchell’s great tutorial on lens distortion and correction:

Lets move on to the processing stage. The original creator of this work used Photomatix 4 and Adobe Photoshop CS3 for the processing. The only changes I will make to the original process are that I am using the CS6 version of Photoshop and will also be using Topaz Labs-Topaz De-noise, Detail and In-Focus for the finishing stage.

 Above: The three-image set we will be using.

I would have preferred to have a 5 or 7 exposure set to work with, as I think that it would have helped to give this image more depth and far greater tonality in the ships, buildings and water. However, what we do have is fairly well exposed and loads into Photomatix with no problems. The only things moving in this image are the slight ripples on the water. To get more definition in the water and the reflection of the warship, I will use the de-ghosting tool to select the entire water section and then choose the darkest of the three exposures. This looks a little dark in the initial image, but later processing will pull out the detail. To learn how to remove ghosts manually, please read Philippe Bleau’s excellent tutorial on manual de-ghosting in Photomatix:

Once on the main adjustments page of Photomatix, we will deal with most of the areas of concern that I outlined above, namely the halos, over saturation and the smudging.


 Above: Imported image at default settings

On first glance, the image does not look too bad, but as soon as you zoom in the halos around the building become apparent. I will use the following settings to correct this:

Strength: 77. Any more than this and the halos and smudges in the sky become heavily apparent.

Saturation: Default. I will add more saturation later in the process if required

Luminosity: +0.9. Balances the light and dark areas of the image a little better

Detail Contrast: +10.0. Gives definition to the buildings and the ships.

Lighting Adjustments: -6.6. Takes out some of the unwanted highlighting and help eradicate halos.

Smooth Highlights: 57 Again helps to further balance the image with the application of the above settings.

White Point: 0.036%. Gives truer whites.

Black Point: 2.932%. Punches contract into the darker areas and give tone to highlights

Gamma: 1.04. Lightens the overall effect slightly.

Temperature: Default. The image was shot on the correct white balance setting and I have no need for this.

Micro Smoothing: 24.4. I used totally eradicate the halos and smudging.

Saturation Highlight: Default. The highlights were already plenty saturated.

Saturation Shadows: -6.3. Helps to reduce the heavy shadows on and around the pier.

Shadow Smoothness: 36. Helps reduces the artefacts caused by the lightening process

Shadow Clipping: 52 Punches black into the areas of shadow that have gone a little grey through the mixture of other settings.

Even processing this image to a point for a base image to then work on in Photoshop was challenging and took a lot of experimentation to find the correct range of settings that complimented one another. To get my base, working image I look for a good tonal range with solid blacks in the shadows where necessary and true whites in the highlights, while retaining plenty of detail across the rest of the colour spectrum. The image must also be halo and smudge free before I move on to the next step. At this point the image looks flat, a little muddy and murky and does not have the correct contrast, but all of this will be corrected in the Photoshop based steps.

Above: The working image created by Photomatix

Once in Photoshop, the first thing I am going to do is crop the image. The reason for this has nothing to do with the HDR processing and everything to do with composition. I was always told when training to be a photographer that, if an element of the image was not adding something, then it was detracting something, and I think that is the case here. Of course composition is totally subjective, however, in the case of this image, I believe the clutter at either side as well as the mass of water toward the bottom distract the viewer from the main elements, therefore removal of these elements will enhance the composition. In cropping the image, I have tried to use the rule of thirds to allow the walkway in the foreground to lead the viewer’s eye into the other key elements, while the diverging angles caused by the ultra wide-angle viewpoint lead to either bottom corner. In my opinion this gives the image more compositional balance. This image highlights just how important in-camera composition is, as the original composition would not have had such severe distortion problems if the image had been composed using a less extreme angle of view.


 Above: Cropping in Photoshop.

Below: The resulting cropped image.

 The next thing I will do is to get the colour and contrast to the correct levels. To start this process, I hit Auto contrast in the image menu (Image>Auto Contrast). This cleans much of the murk from the image immediately.

The next step I try is a total waste of time though. I open in the image in the Topaz Adjust plugin, but this only has the effect of bringing back the halos, which are still latent in the image. The only thing to do in this instance is to use the manual Photoshop controls to achieve the desired effect. To do this I go into the Curves menu (Image>Adjustments>Curves). This menu allows me to alter the histogram of the image by selecting various tonal points within the image and then lightening or darkening them. I selected two tonal points buy hitting the command key and then clicking on the part of the image I wanted to change.

  Above: Using the Curves tool in Photoshop.

I am very careful to only make incremental adjustments at this point, as, if you are heavy handed, it can have serious effects on other parts of the image. Doing this allows me to get a good range of tone and contrast in the image and due to the contrast boost, makes the image look sharper and more defined.

At this point I am going to de-noise the image using Topaz De-Noise. This image is not very noisy to start with, and looking at the original files, I suspect that they have been through some in-camera de-noising process. On my own stuff, I like to keep this to a minimum, as I prefer sharpness to less noise in original files, but it really is down to personal preference. However, this process will remove any artefacts in the highlights and shadows and also gives me the opportunity to use the ‘Clean Color’ feature in the software to remove any lingering colour casts. I always try to use this software sparingly, as it can serious soften the focus of your image. To make sure this does not happen, I pull the ‘overall strength slider up incrementally in conjunction with the Recover Detail and Reduce blur sliders until I am happy with the balance between noise removal and sharpness. I pull the ‘Clean Color’ slider all the way to 100% in order to achieve a truer blue and then set the correct Black level, so that I eradicate all the greys in the black areas.

 Above: My settings in Topaz De-noise

The image is now nearly complete, but there are a few more small processes that I want to go through. I now open the image in Topaz Detail. I am actually going to ignore the detail sliders as if I put much more sharpening of any type into the image, it will start to look over sharpened in the final sharpening process. Instead I use the De-blur sliders and the Saturation sliders.

Above: My settings in Topaz De-Blur.

Using the de-blur slider allows me to pep up the image a little more ready for final sharpening, while using the color menu allows me to add a level of saturation that will give the image real punch, while still looking natural. I am aiming to get a true sky blue in the sky and a greeny, sea blue in the water. This software does the job perfectly and the image is now punchy and sharp. The final step before sharpening is to manually “paint in” a little more detail into the hull of the ship. To do this I will use the Burn tool in Photoshop. This tool requires a delicate touch and a lot of patience. I use a large soft brush and an exposure setting of 6% to do this, gently enhancing the hull of the ship. I also give a little of the same treatment to the shadows on the building in the background to give a more natural look.

 Above: Using the Burn tool in Photoshop.

Once this is complete (add any amount of swearing and cursing you can think of to simulate the true environment around me during the burning process), the final step is to give the image a last sharpen. There are many ways to sharpen an image, such as Un-sharpen Mask in Photoshop; various software packages and the high pass filter method (read Justin Brown’s HDR Workflow Process article for great tips on the high pass sharpening method). However, for this image, I am only going use the following setting in Topaz In-Focus, as it will do the job more than adequately.

 Above: Settings in Topaz In-Focus.

So, there you have it, my finished version of this image. I will leave it to reader to decide if I have improved or degraded the effects of the original process. However, I will re-iterate my earlier invitation for anyone to comment on this feature and improve the process so that we can all learn a little more. This is not said as a challenge, but from a genuine thirst for further knowledge and to continue the constant improvement of HDR photography as an artistic medium.

 Above: My finished image

Below: The original finished image.


James Pawlowski – I spent 12 years as a photojournalist before changing my career path. I now just take images for fun and a few select clients. I starting using HDR during the three years I have lived in Korea and really enjoy shooting HDR night and early evening land and cityscapes. I also enjoy sports and action photography. My web address is: www.jpdesignandphotography.co.uk & my flicker account is: www.flickr.com/photos/jamesp1907