8 ways to improve your HDR photography

Article by Jimmy McIntyre

We all, to some degree or another, strive to get the best out of our imagery. After all, our art is an extension of ourself or our identity – we naturally want to create it to the best of our abilities. I imagine that there isn’t a photographer alive who thinks he or she has little else to learn about his or her art form.

What differs between photographers is the degree to which a person is willing to go to improve their photographic technique. Often this improvement isn’t simply about processing skills, it also comes in the form of awareness, of knowing where you are now and where you wish to be, and knowing that you have the cognitive capacity to achieve it.

With any art form, it’s important to stay away from people who try to impose rules on you. I recently went shooting around an old chateau with a French photographer who only shoots in black and white film. Besides from being a very nice guy, he seemed resolute on imposing upon me the belief that digital photography is too easy – it wasn’t an art form. Naturally my ears shut down and I chose to take photos instead of talking about taking photos.

In the very first article for HDR One I wrote about the importance of not accepting other peoples’ ‘shoulds’ in your art. So with that in mind, I’d like you to take the following ideas as helpful pointers that may or may not help you in your quest for HDR improvement.

8 ways to improve your HDR photography

1. Make sure the balance of light in your image is logical. If you’re Tone mapping an image, let’s say in Photomatix, the Lighting Adjustment slider can change not only the source of the light, but also how the light in an image is distributed. Moving the slider to the right gives a more natural look, making sure the shadows are where they originally belong. Moving it to the left will bring light into the shadows and often darken the naturally brighter areas.

The most common example of this is an HDR image with a grey, dark sky and a bright foreground. When you’re shooting during the day or golden hour, it’s very unlikely that your foreground will be brighter than the sky unless it is artificially lit. I always try to keep that balance in my images.

2. Less noise removal is better. I try to fight for every piece of detail that my images have. This means I’m extremely cautious when I remove noise which will suck the detail out of your image. Every time I apply noise removal, I do it selectively, only affecting the areas that really need it.

For this image I applied noise removal to the sky and only selectively to other parts of the image.

3. HDR doesn’t mean no shadows or underexposed areas. Understanding how light affects mood is something a person can spend a lifetime studying. In HDR I often meet people who are obsessed about having details in every part of their image – nothing can be too dark or too bright. For me, on the other hand, shadows play integral part of the moods I try to create in my imagery. They’re suggestive of a deeper story behind your image.

In the image below, the tone mapped shot contained significantly more information than my final image. You could make out more details in the tree behind the train station, and objects could be seen all the way down the train track. I chose to sacrifice those details in order to increase the mood of the image.

4. Don’t be intimidated by new software. I once spoke to an HDR photographer who had recently bought Nik’s Color Efex and thought it was fantastic. However, he admitted to getting confused about the Control Points Nik’s software uses and so he chose to never use them. He put it down to them being a ‘step too far’. Once I explained the simplicity of them he seemed enthusiastic about trying again.

The fact is, there is too much amazing information on the internet to ever feel intimidated by software. If in doubt, look for a video tutorial on youtube – you’ll more than likely find what you’re looking for.

5. Control your colours! By this I don’t mean that your images should contain natural colours, rather, simply know how to get the best out of the  colours in your image. The first step to doing this is by leaving the Saturation slider alone in Photomatix. I keep it around 40. Anything too high and you may be left with those terrible luminous colours that have helped to give HDR a bad name.

When adjusting colours, try to do it locally, instead of globally. Sometimes it’s only particular areas that need to be altered.

If you’re looking for a way to correct colours in Photoshop and reduce colour cast, it’s important to establish white and black points. Here’s a great video on how to do that:

6. Stop asking photographers what camera they have and start making the most out of the one you’ve got. This is very important. It’s a question that photographers get asked every day. Sometimes it’s a question borne from curiosity, and other times I think it’s a grass-is-always-greener attitude. You can shoot great HDRs with a cheap DSLR and kit lens. Yes, more expensive gear makes a difference, especially when you’re working for commercial gains, but ultimately most people are producing images to be viewed on the net as smaller sized images.

Spend more time learning about what your camera and lenses can do instead of feeling down that you don’t have top-of-the-line gear, and you’ll be better prepared to handle any shooting situation.

7. Control your contrast after the HDR process. In Photomatix or Nik HDR Efex, my goal is to have a balanced image that contains the greatest amount of information. This means my image is generally very flat after the HDR process. Yes, I may choose to reduce details in certain areas later on in post, but when I initially import my image into Photoshop I will have a greater range of options because it will contain the optimal amount of information.

8. Finally, shoot in RAW. This simply isn’t debatable for me. By not doing so you will never consistently get the most out of your HDRs.

I hope these points have given you some ideas to work with and if you feel you can add to the list, please feel free to add them in the comments box below. Any idea you offer will add to the ever-increasing information already available on the net, and that can only be a good thing!

Feel free to connect with me on facebook, G+, or check out my HDR blog.

You can also learn HDR with me – Learn HDR Photography

  • Bob

    Of all the many sites, yours consistently works for me. I have been doing this since 1966 so I don’t need a bunch of photography 101. Keep up the great work. But, with all the great add-ons like Onone, TopazLabs,Diffen DFX, and Photomatix I have given up Photoshop. I do use Elements 11 only as a jumping off location. I tried LightRoom, but again no need.

  • http://www.rscpics.com/ Scott

    Great tips!! Thank you

  • Jim Nix

    well said my friend! ties in nicely with something I am writing ;)

  • http://www.facebook.com/raphael.chekroun Raphaël Chekroun

    totally agree. But i’m still wondering how the control points work in Color Efex:) Anyone knows where i can find an “how to” ?