Surreal HDR Workflow

This photo was taken during my short stay in Venice last summer. I spent three days there and it was enough time to realize how much the weather can change in that city. The days can start dark and cloudy, even with heavy rains and storms but finish with a beautiful sunset in the afternoon… and the other way around. So carrying the camera almost becomes a must to capture the beautiful skies that occur over there.

To take the picture, I turned the mode dial of my camera to “Av” (aperture priority), and I used the auto-bracketing [0, -2, +2] EV. I adjusted the ISO to 100 because despite of the clouds, there was much light, and F8 to get the proper depth of field. I always save the files as “RAW + JPEG”, then I can display them more easily later because of the lightness of the JPEG compared to the RAW file.

Once the photographs were taken (image 1), it was time of post-processing. Starting with Adobe Camera RAW (in Photoshop), to open the 3 RAW files. Here I adjusted some values like the white balance, lens distortion, chromatic aberrations, details, etc…

Image 1.

After this, I saved the new images as a JPEG format (I did this with each RAW file).The final step right before the HDR process consisted of aligning the 3 images. This was quite easy, opening the 3 images into one file and using the option “auto-align layers” in Photoshop. Finally I cropped them to remove the empty areas.

Now I moved on to another program, Photomatix. This is where  I introduced the 3 JPEG files previously aligned. I never use the same combination of settings to process my photos in this program, and do not even choose a preset, I think every image requires its own level of adjustment. But I always prefer to give the image a real look rather than unrealistic or psychedelic. Below you can see the tone mapped image

Image 2.

As you can see, the auto-alignment works pretty well in the areas of steady objects, but obviously it doesn’t do when moving objects appear on the scene, like people moving. To avoid this “ghost effect“, I needed to use masks. What you can do in these cases is merge the resultant tone mapped image with one of the JPEG files (previously processed with Camera RAW), or else tone mapping one single raw, which will give to the image a similar ‘HDR look’ than the first one. I chose the second way, and here you can see the differences before and after masking (image 3).

Okay, once I had completed this step, I had my HDR image ready. From that, I started observing the photo and thinking about what I could do to give a more interesting look to it. To be honest, during my stay in Venice I wanted to take a picture that later I’d have used as a reference to make a painting or a drawing. Finally I decided It’d be more interesting if I combined a picture and a painting together, I mean, real elements with sketches. And that’s what I did with this photo, which is very similar to a Matte Painting technique.

I had no hurry to finish the image and I took my time looking at it and creating ideas in my head… When I’m not sure about how to process a picture I prefer to leave it for some time and start processing a new one, but this time my inspiration didn’t come too late. The original cloud shapes were quite interesting, so I tried to follow those lines by stretching and exaggerating them with the help of the brushes.

Image 4.

The red touches of one of the images above (image 4), represent the idea I had about how would be the final result. It was time to catch my graphic tablet and begin to paint (it might be painted with the mouse but it’s very frustrating to change the hardness and opacity constantly). I selected a soft brush (hardness = 0%) and a proper size, according to the image and the clouds themselves. And I also set the opacity and flow to 100%. Now I needed to choose the colors to draw. With the “eyedropper tool” I picked a bright and a dark color from the image itself (image 5). To save much time you can select the bright as the front color and the dark as the background color (or vice versa), and switch them anytime pressing the “X” key (in Windows).

Now I had everything ready to start painting on the photo. Using the bright color I started creating the new shapes and the dark color helped me to make the shadows, trying to get a three-dimensional look. The following pictures show the steps I took to cover the whole sky (image 6). I started from the top right corner because I wanted to keep those clouds so I used them as a reference, and then moving to the left. When you have control of the pressure of the pen it’s easier to blend colors and avoid sharp edges. That’s why I use a tablet, it allows me to do this.

Image 6.

At this point the photo was almost finished. I do always reduce noise as a rule, but in this case I didn’t. There was only a little bit of noise in the sky but it was really subtle and after painting with the brush it almost disappeared. Therefore, one of the last steps I did was applying “curves” to darken shadows as well as enhancing the lights, increasing the global contrast. And finally the sharpening of the image using an “unsharp mask” with low values. Finally my image was done.

I’m constantly experimenting with my photos, so every of them constitute an exception in my way of editing. And I encourage people to do the same. Hope this simple “step by step” was useful and interesting for those who love photography, HDR and experimental techniques. Thanks a lot for reading it! And if you have any doubt you can post your coment below, I’ll be glad to answer you.

This article was written by David Rodríguez Palomar. You can see more of his photos on his facebook profile: