David Cardinal: Using HDR to Create Realistic-Looking Images
Feb 2013 26

Initially heralded as a revolutionary breakthrough for photographers, High-dyanmic-range (HDR) images have unfortunately become known for looking fake and overblown. What many photographers don’t realize is that the over-the-top look typical of most HDR images isn’t the fault of the technology – it’s the fault of software tools that make it hard to create natural looking images, especially in the hands of photographers wishing they were painters.

There is a time and place for painting-like HDR images, and I’ve certainly done my share (some may say more than my share) of them. But sometimes I just want to use HDR to capture a scene that requires more dynamic range than my camera can capture in a single frame. Until recently it was hard to do that and create a realistic image. Fortunately, HDRSoft, makers of Photomatix Pro, my favorite HDR tool, have added two new presets that make it simple to create great photograph-looking photographs from multiple images.

When to use HDR for realistic image capture

Any time you have to start thinking about exposure compensation is a good time to consider HDR. If you’re having to fiddle with making the scene brighter or darker to give you proper exposure on your subject, it probably means that something else in the image will be over-exposed or under-exposed. Otherwise your camera would probably be metering the whole scene correctly and you could just fire away.

As a case in point, we were at a San Francisco Giants baseball game during Fleet Week last fall. So there was not only a celebration on the field before the game, featuring the Marine band and a huge flag. Out in the bay fire department boats were letting go with their water cannons, and McCovey Cove was littered with pleasure craft. Unfortunately, while the default exposure did an okay job with the water and horizon, it made the scene on the field too dark:

Adding two stops of exposure compensation gave me a great look at the field, but completely blew out the sky and any detail in the scene on the Bay:

Purists will note that with a neutral-density graduated filter I could have darkened the top half of this image and might have been able to create a useable result. Aside from not having thought to bring one to a baseball game, it would have been very difficult to position it exactly along the shade line. Since the event was proceeding right in front of me, I wouldn’t have had enough time to shoot and reshoot with one or two ND filters to try to get it right.

I knew that with HDR I could get quality detail in the entire scene. In this case, though, I wasn’t looking to make the image unreal or “painterly,” simply to adequately handle the large dynamic range. So I shot a bracket of three images. The two you’ve already seen (one at +0 and one at +2), along with one at -2 to make sure I squeezed every bit of detail out of the scene on the Bay.

I simply opened the set of three images in Photomatix Pro. I used the Selective Deghosting option to allow me to select the fire boat water cannons so that they didn’t smear across the three frames, and allowed it to try to feature match for alignment, since I knew there would be plenty of small movement in the crowd and on the field between frames – even at the 5.5 fps of my Nikon D600.

Using the Natural and Photographic presets in Photomatix Pro

From there it was simply a matter of using one of the realistic presets offered by Photomatix Pro. In this case the Photographic preset looked okay, but the Natural preset did a better job of helping the players on the 1st and 3rd baselines stand out. I used the Midtone slider to brighten the action on the field from the default (having the full range of tonal values from the three images let me do that without increasing image noise), and then simply hit the process button. The result was an integrated image with plenty of detail both inside and outside the park:

For an even more journalistic look it is a simple matter to push the Saturation slider down a notch. In this case though, the evening light was gorgeous and colors were radiating at the game, so I thought the default saturation was fine.

You can compare this rendering to a more typical HDR “painterly” rendering that people are used to looking at (made from the same three images):

While there is certainly nothing “wrong” with the painterly version of the image (depending on how much of a purist you are), it is obviously not a photographic treatment and couldn’t be used instead of a photograph.

Tips for realistic HDR images in Photomatix Pro

When you’re making a painterly rendering of a set of images slight alignment errors aren’t that important, as sharpness isn’t of primary importance. But for realistic photos, you’ll want to space special attention to both the image alignment and object ghosting.

Photomatix Pro (and other HDR tools) typically offer a choice of settings for image alignment. Experiment with them to see which one gives you the sharpest image. With Photomatix Pro, for example, you can compare the results of asking the software to simply align the images or attempt to do feature matching across the image.

If any objects in your image are moving, you’ll also want to investigate the settings for ghost removal. If there are moving objects all over the image (like gently blowing leaves, or sequential frames from a moving boat or balloon) then automatic ghost removal is your best alternative. However, if there are only a few moving objects (like your subject or a couple vehicles in the background) then semi-automatic removal allows you to select the objects you want to protect and choose which of your images is used in the final image.

Some case studies of natural-looking HDR images

Here, one of the participants on my recent Myanmar photo tour was using HDR to capture an interior of the Ananda Temple. I wanted to illustrate his technique, but the light shining on the Buddha was much brighter than the hallway where he was crouching. I didn’t have time to set up a flash, so a quick burst of bracketed images, some de-ghosting and a Photographic rendering in Photomatix Pro did the trick:

Shooting into the sun is always tricky. In this sunset at the Shwedagon in Yangon, the sun was peering through a spire. I wanted to capture the golden tones of the sky, but not have the area around the sun burn out. A Natural rendering of bracketed images gave me a realistic looking result:

Temple interiors are always a challenge. Light ranges from full sunlight inside doorways to dim or none in some of the niches. Worshippers like the woman in this photo of a famous hallway at Angkor Wat add to the complexity by reducing our capture options. Here HDR was used to allow the camera to “see” the range of light we can take in effortlessly through our own eyes:

is a veteran travel and nature photographer who specializes in Southern Africa and Southeast Asia as well as North American mammals and birds. His images of creatures in the wild help communicate the importance of our natural heritage and our responsibility to preserve it. You can learn more about David on our Friends with Vision page, or on his own website, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow David on Facebook or join him on one of his Photo Tours and Safaris for plenty of experience