A reader’s HDR Workflow – Part 1

Chris approached me recently asking if he could write a workflow article for HDR One. As Chris is still very much involved in the steep learning curve of HDR, it was agreed that this could be a learning opportunity for him and others. Therefore, while Chris has presented his workflow below, I will write a brief article soon in which I offer some friendly suggestions that may help him to improve his overall workflow. This will include the reprocessed image by me.

For now, please feel free to read Chris’ workflow and offer any suggestions for improvement.

Being an HDR novice I find it inspiring to see “the experts” creations but at the same time it can be a little off putting to think that I can never achieve the same results with the camera I have. I bet many of you have thought that. I once read that the best camera to have is the one you’ve got! So never let it put you off that the guy next door has a million megapixel camera and a super dupa lens. The one I’m using at the moment is the same one I was using five years ago – a Nikon D80 10.2mp camera that gives good results. The main lens I use is a Sigma 18-200mm  1:3.5 – 6.3 but I used to own a Sigma 10-20mm wide angle (for about three weeks) until I lost it in a river!! Still haven’t been able to replace it and there are times that I miss it. But we make do with what we have. I’m sharing my workflow here of a recent shot I took while on a visit to St.Mary’s church, Warwick, here in the UK. Only 30 minutes drive for me just to show that you don’t need up to date, all singing and dancing cameras to achieve good results. It’s the person behind the camera that takes good pictures.

Finding the right software to meet your needs can be a bit of a minefield but by reading blogs, forums and looking at web photo mags, you’ll soon see what most other people are using. But just because it may be the most popular doesn’t always mean it’s the best for you. Photoshop CS5 is my main editing software, although it’s not the only weapon in my arsenal. I tried lots of different software programs and downloaded free ones, free trials etc. I tried to stick with Photomatix for HDR work (like everyone else was using) but I just could not get on with it and wasn’t getting anywhere near the results others were achieving! Then I discovered Oloneo Photo engine. This came with lots of presets and worked with a single image file.

This was great for me at the time as I was now beginning to get the sort of look I was looking for. Very often I would start at the “Grunge” pre-set and work from there, then just back tweaking the sliders as “grunge” was slightly over the top for most images and then finish off in Photoshop. But because it gave great results from just a single image I stopped taking bracketed shots, thus also saving room on my 2gb cards so Oloneo became my default HDR software. But it still wasn’t quite giving me the results I was after. I put this down also to the fact that my Photoshop skills are only shall we say basic to intermediate level.

Then a newer version of Photomatix came out (Pro 4.2) which is what I’m using at the moment, but still found myself using Oloneo. It’s easy to settle in your comfort zone I guess and tend not to try new things. Then a couple of months ago my other half upgraded her camera to a Fuji finepix HS30 EXR with a whopping 30x zoom (24-720mm) with 16mp censor and she wanted to start doing some HDR work. So I had to brush off the cobwebs on my copy of Photomatix and start to produce some decent HDR images as you can bet your bottom dollar she will be asking,,,,”how do I do this and what do I do next”?

To my surprise I found the latest version of Photomatix so much more user friendly and easy to work with, much better than the previous version I had tried to work with.

Coincidently while looking around for tutorials for my version of Photomatix I came upon HDR-ONE, this wonderful new web mag via some link on my FB page and this really started to get my juices flowing again.

Although I have been doing digital photography since 2004 (started with a sony 3.2mp camera)  I’m still a novice when it comes to post processing with HDR software and Photoshop etc. So hopefully my part here will help others at a similar level as me to achieve better results. The images you see is a before and after shot. The before is straight from the camera. All I have done is convert the raw file into a jpeg.

The middle pic of 3 raw files used straight out of the camera

The shot comprises of 3x raw files set at 2.0 and shot using a try-pod and loaded into Photmatix. I nearly always set the sliders back to default, unless I’m going to be working with similar images, then I leave them at the previous setting as this can save a little time on the next image and will probably just need tweaking rather than a full blown maker-over.

On the reprocessing screen you are given the option to align source images and remove ghosts etc. I leave this on default for the most part but I do select the `with selective de-ghosting tool` if I have people in my shot. Click ok then you can draw around the part of the image that needs ghosting. Sometimes it works and other times it doesn’t.

The first setting is the Strength. I set this to 100 as I want maximum detail. Color set to 58. The one thing that tends to be over done in my opinion on many HDR shots is that they are often have too much saturation. Plus you can add more selectively later in Photoshop if needed. But we are all entitled to process as we see fit at the end of the day. If you’re happy with the end result, you have achieved your goal.

The next was Luminosity. On this image I have it set to 6.7 You need to be a little careful with this tool as you can get too much fringing around trees etc.

Detail contrast I set to 6.0 again to try and get as much detail as possible without  incurring too much noise in the shadows.

Lighting adjustment is something I don’t always use, but it’s like most things, it’s just a question of trial and error and see what works best for you. For this image though I did use it as the ceiling was a lot darker than the rest of the shot and I tried to balance this out a little. Set to -8.6.

Smooth Highlights I left at 0

The white point, black point and gamma tend to work together and it’s just a question of mixing and matching them to get the best results with the contrast etc.

White point was set to 2.000%

Black point was set to 1.000%

and Gamma at 1.00

Temperature was left at 0 as this can be altered in photoshop.

Micro smoothing was set at 2.0 If I had set it to 0.0 too much noise appeared in the ceiling of my shot. This is a good tool to use if you find there is too much noise in an image where you have a lot of sky showing. Just slowly slide to the right to remove unwanted noise. But be careful not to over cook it as to lose too much of your detail on your main subject. If you find this happening, don’t worry. Just slide back to the left a little and remove what you can and the rest can be taken care of in Photoshop later.

That’s it. I’m now ready to click ok and process the image. After doing that there is one other thing you can do to tweak a little further if you want to before switching into Photoshop.

Once your image has been tone-mapped, if you click on the Utilities menu at the top of your screen you will see `Finishing Touch` by clicking on that you are given some more options. You don’t have to use this as you can more or less do the same things in Photoshop or whatever software you are using. But I always like to have a quick look while I’m there before saving my image.

Pretty much self explanatory as its more or less a curves tool with sliders for highlights, lights, dark’s and shadows. For my image I set the sliders to 0,3,2,0 respectively. Save as jpeg or tiff I then opened the image in Photoshop.

The first thing I needed to do was to correct the lens distortion and square the image off etc and adjust the perspective. No point in making fine adjustments to the edge of your image if you’re going to lose that area after cropping and correcting distortions.

Over time I have tried all sorts of plug-ins from all sorts of software developers. Some of the best ones on the market I can personally recommend are Topaz Labs, Nik Software and LucisArt. But I can say that Nik software offers far more in one package in the way of their ColorEfex plug-in for photoshop. There could well be other and better software out there that I don’t know about lol….I’m going to be using Color Efex Pro 3.0 and its’ nearly always my first port of call. But first I check a couple of basic things like Levels and shadows and highlights and just do some minor adjustments if needed. I then go to my Filters menu and load up Color Efex Pro.

When Efex opens up you have a large array of pre-set tools on the left, which you can mark as your faves for ease of use. B/W conversion, Darken/Lighten Center, Film Effects, Vignette Blur etc etc. You get the idea. On the right you have your sliders and fine tuning. What I like about efex pro is that apart from the sliders you have the ability to mask off an area or add an area for processing, rather than just having to do a uniform adjustment.

One of the first filters I use is the Graduated Neutral Density filter as I don’t use one on my camera and this can make a huge difference to the overall contrast to your image. The first slider available is the Upper Tonality. Then you have Lower Tonality, Vertical Shift, Rotation and Blend. Pretty much self explanatory and you soon get used to how they work.

For my image I needed to brighten the upper part of the image as the ceiling was way darker than the rest of the image, so I needed to balance this out a little. The values I set were,,,Upper Tonality +13%, Lower -25% and adjusted the vertical shift to 42%.

The Skylight filter is one I use often also as this softens your image by adding a warm glow and remove that blue cast you often get.

Reflector Effects was the next filter I used. This does a similar job as the skylight filter but with more control. Apart from the sliders on the right you have a drop-down menu giving you options for a gold look or silver or soft gold. The gold effect gives you a yellow/gold effect and the soft gold is more subtle. The silver option is a more neutral effect without the yellow. I need to balance out the bottom half of my image a little more.

The settings were Gold on the drop-down. Light intensity 26%. Light Falloff 9% and Source Direction 360 (being the bottom of the image)

After each of these processes and you click OK they are placed on their own layer in Photoshop so it is totally non destructive and by switching on and off that layer, you can see the change. You can always bin it and start again if your not happy.

That was all I needed to do in efex for this image, so at this point I flattened my layers.

I then did some selective burning in parts of the image with a setting of 30% using a soft brush.

That was just about it, job done!  All that was left to do was to sharpen my image.

As has been discussed many times before on many a forum, everyone has their own methods for sharpening. I often use the High pass method for global sharpening as I find this creates less noise than the un-sharp mask method. But on busy images where I have lots of different interest I use Nik software / Sharpener Pro 3.0 (Output sharpener) I like this as you can select to brush your image selectively rather than just doing a global sharpen. Or if you prefer, create a layer mask in photoshop. The workflow I used for this image was as follows….

Setting the output sharpening strength to 50% and the Structure to 35% I then used a large brush set at 30% opacity and did a global sweep over the whole image. I must point out here for those not too familiar with photoshop that if you lift your finger off the mouse and go over an area you have already brushed, you are effectively applying another 30% This is important to know when you are just sharpening small areas with subtle amounts.

I then changed to 20% and went over the tombs again and some other little areas.

Before saving the final edit.

The image also looked a little too bright for me so I reduced the brightness by -20.

A handy tip here if you’ve been working on an image for a while is to walk away for a period of time. Then come back and look at it again. I sometimes re-open an image in the morning after working on it the night before, only to make further adjustments on a few things that I didn’t spot the night before and i’m not quite happy with.

Now I’m sure the more expert Photo-shoppers here could do a better job than I have done. I know this image is far from perfect and more work could be done on it. (the 3 original raw files I will make available if you wish to see what you can do) But my main aim here was to show that it doesn’t take long before you begin to achieve some half decent results, thus given you the confidence to learn more and to keep trying new techniques.

Like myself there are probably many of you here reading this that may be relatively new to HDR processing and any help and advice is always welcome and I hope that my little piece here has helped in some way to help you achieve better results with your processing.

To give you an idea of my “expertise” shall we say…..I think I have only processed about a dozen images in Photomatix since blowing away the cobwebs.

Chris Sutton

You can see more of my work on my facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/pages/CJS-Photography/276282655819984