‘Temple at the Top’ – the workflow behind the image by Ben Fewtrell

STEP 1 – Capture your image

Like every good HDR image, it all starts with a great capture. Most of my shots I use a tripod, it just makes it easier when I get back home and start processing images, I don’t have to think about whether or not to align my images… having a tripod also forces me to take my time, and as a result I always end up with a sharper image.

I typically will take 5 exposures everytime I take a photo, unless I am taking it into the sun, then I will increase this to 7 exposures…. Why 5 exposure? well, to create a HDR image you need multiple exposures, I really only need 3 out of the 5 but my Nikon D800 has an ‘auto bracketing’ feature that only takes exposures at 1 EV (Exposure Value) spacing. For HDR like the photo we’re about to work on, I like to have -2EV to +2EV, to get party bouncy castle this with Auto Bracketing I have to take 5 shots… Even though I could create the image with just the -2ev, the properly exposed image and the +2ev, I still use all 5… this becomes important in the photoshop stage of the workflow.

Every camera works slightly differently, so you may need to read your manual to understand how to use ‘bracketing’.

To get this particular image I used my 16-35mm VR lens at 16mm, VR was off (always keep VR or IS off when using a tripod). My ISO was set to 100 and aperture was f6.3, I would normally use a smaller aperture (higher f number) but my travel tripod is not as sturdy as I would like, so by selecting a bigger aperture it increases my shutter speed and this minimizes the chance of my shots not being sharp… when using lower f numbers I run the risk of not getting everything in focus due to the shallower depth of field, not a huge problem with a wide angle lens but certainly something to keep in mind.

In regards to your ISO, always shoot at your base ISO if you can, HDR does not handle even the slightest bit of noise, so whilst your camera may normally shoot a descent image at ISO3200, once you start tone-mapping images this noise becomes far more noticeable.

Once I am home, I use aperture to import and organize my files. I will select the files I want  to use and right click and select export > versions . I then export my 5 images as JPEG files to a folder called ‘processing’.

Step 2 – Tone Mapping

I use Photomatix Pro to do this step. You can download a free trial here http://www.hdrsoft.com.

I have tried a few different ways of processing my HDR images, but have kept coming back to Photomatix Pro, it is quick, easy and does a good job.

Open Photomatix and select ‘Load Bracketed Photos’ then find the folder you have your 5 exposures stored in (in my case this is the processing folder) and the click OK.

A ‘Preprocessing Options’ window will appear, you have 4 choices to make. Firstly is whether or not to align your image. I only use this if I have not used a tripod to take the photos. I shot this Temple using a tripod so I don’t need to use ‘Align Source Images’. The next option is to Remove Ghosts. You can use this option to remove ghosting that was caused by anything that moved during your multiple exposures. I don’t use this at all, I always use photoshop later to remove ghosts, and sometimes I leave ghosting to give a sense of movement to my image. The third option is then noise removal, I only use this if I have shot at a higher ISO than my base ISO of 100, and sometimes I will let photomatix process one with noise removal and one without and use both in my post processing. In this case, I shot the temple at ISO100 so no need for any noise removal at this stage. The final option is to remove chromatic aberrations. I have never used this feature in Photomatix, I tend to remove chromatic aberrations later in photoshop. Now hit ‘Preprocess’ and wait for the magic to happen!

I always then close the preset thumbnails that will appear below or beside your image, and I also usually hit the Reset: Default button for a new image, if I am working on a series (say for a panoramic HDR) then I will use the setting stored from the last image processed. You will see that Photomatix has a lot of sliders you can move around, and I encourage you to slide them all over the place. Here is my order of slider adjustment for the first 4 adjustments I always make;

Move strength to 100 (full right)

Move Black point to half

Increase Detail Contrast (about +6)

Increase Gamma until it looks okay…

Now these 4 steps are not going to work the same with every image, but these are the first things I move around to give the image ‘depth’. you will have to play around with them to get the look you’re after, but this is a good start, and I always start with these 4 in this order. I will then play with the white point, keeping an eye on the histogram as increasing this too far can cause you to have blown highlights.

Depending on the image, I may increase color saturation, adjust luminosity and lighting adjustments. Sometimes I just leave these all in the middle…

My tip for great HDR is not to expect Photomatix to work great with 100% of your image… I always work towards getting the main feature of my image the way I want it, then hit ‘Process’. For the Temple image, I am making sure the temple is looking great, the rest I can fix later in photoshop. Photomatix will make blue skies look dirty and your whites look grey if you’re not careful. So just focus on getting the most important part of your image right and learn how to polish it off in photoshop.

Here is the image after it has been processed by Photomatix. The main issue is there is a Halo around the roof of the temple and the sky is not looking very good at all.


Step 3 – Finish it off in Photoshop

My 3rd workflow step is to make any final adjustments in photoshop. I use Adobe Bridge for organizing my ‘processing’ images, so next I open this and locate my 5 original exposures and also my newly tonemapped image from what we did in step 2 with Photomatix.

What Photomatix does if you do not change the file name (I never do) is add 1_2_3_4_5_tonemapped to your original image name so it should be easy to find, of course, if you were using 7 images for your HDR image then that would include the numbers 6 and 7.

Once you have selected your images in bridge, select tools > Photoshop > Load files into Photoshop layers…

Photoshop should now load your images as layers, once loaded hit the F key to go to full screen. During this next part of my workflow I use layer masking to bring through parts from my original 5 exposures, for example, in 99% of cases I will mask in a sky from one of the original exposures, this will fix what Photomatix has not done a good job with. I also use layer masking to remove any ghosting, I just choose my favourite photo from the multiple exposures, if it is too dark or too bright I will adjust the exposure value in an original RAW file, and bring it into photoshop as another layer. If you haven’t used layer masking before I suggest you google it… there are many great tutorials and it really is the secret to producing great HDR.

Once I am happy with my overall image, I have removed ghosting and halos, fixed anything that is out of place, I will then flatten it into one layer and decide if I am going to use a plug in to make further enhancements. I really like using Topaz Adjust. Before I do make any changes I will save the .psd file then make a copy of the layer. That way I have the copy as a backup should I mess things up really bad…

Once I am completely happy with everything about my images and I have finished applying filters, sharpening etc. My final part of the workflow is to inspect the image at 100%, I am looking for noise and dust bunnies… I will remove any dust bunnies using the healing brush, and then if I need to remove noise, I make a copy of my layer, run the Photoshop reduce noise filter on the layer copy.

My settings are Strength on 10, Preserve details at 0%, Reduce Color Noise on 100% and Sharpen Details on 0%, I select Remove JPEG Artifact and hit OK.

This creates a VERY soft layer copy of your image, I will now create a layer mask on my top layer and brush through the noise reduced area until I am happy, usually the sky can be at 100% opacity and less on other areas, it is also a great way to apply softness to areas of your image that aren’t the focal point, making the feature of your image POP out!

I then save 2 sizes of my image in JPEG, one at full size, this is for prints, and a smaller version for Blogs, Facebook etc. They get saved in two seperate folders, one is called DONE and the other is TO BE BLOGGED…

I hope this give you an insight into how I process my HDR images. The main thing to remember is to try different things, just be careful not to overdo your HDR…. Have fun!

Ben Fewtrell is based in Sydney, Australia and has been a keen photographer since the 1990’s. He fell in love with HDR in early 2012 and now processes 95% of his images this way. His main interest is landscape photography and most mornings you will find Ben with his Nikon D800 on the coast of Sydney waiting for the sun to rise… you can find him at www.facebook.com/on3legs or follow his blog www.on3legs.com

    thanks Ben, nice Tutorial