HDR is a subject that polarises people pretty clearly into one of two camps – “Love it” or “Hate it”. It is possible to use HDR tastefully, but amongst the challenges faced by landscape photographers wanting to extend the dynamic range of their photographs is how to deal with movement.
The traditional approach to HDR has the photographer take a series of, usually three or five, bracketed shots, combining them in post processing to gain a larger dynamic range than would be possible with one shot. The way this usually works is one shot is taken at 0, one each at + and -1 compensation and optionally, one each at + and – 2 compensation. In this way, in a typical landscape consisting of a bright sky and a darker land mass, the detail of the sky can be retrieved from one of the – frames and the detail of the land from one of the + frames. Combined you get something equivalent to what the eye sees. Of course a moving object such as spray in the photograph above, causes problems because of the time lag between the three or five shots.
There are a couple of ways of dealing with this. With something like spray, because it is so fine, I used Nik HDR Pro. I took one photograph and made two virtual copies in Lightroom. I adjusted the exposure on the two copies to bring out the dynamic range I wanted – this was taken during the golden hour, on Brighton beach, and then combined them using the HDR software.
This picture of the Peace Angel was done differently. Because the elements I wanted, Sky and Statue were graphically easy to define, I opted to use a technique called double processing in Photoshop. I processed one layer with an eye on the sky, ignoring the fact the statue was in silhouette by the time I’d got the sky looking the way I wanted it. I then created another layer, from the original, and worked on the statue. To complete, I combined the two shots, adjusting the opacity until I got the right blend.
I like to think both of these images are pretty close to how I saw them when I took the original shots. Both have that little bit of extra drama that we associate with HDR, but hopefully neither could be classified as HDR Horrors!
I was a little surprised when Google announced a month or so ago that they had acquired Nik Software, the company that brought us the excellent Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro photo editing software.
The acquisition made sense on the level that Google had already acquired Piknik the on line editing suite aimed at entry level photographers and that Google + has been more enthusiastically taken up by photographers than perhaps any other sector, but I’m sure I was not alone in fearing for the future of the earthbound applications.
Given the general feeling of trepidation, the announcement last week that Google were making the entire suite available for $149 took everyone by surprise – and the news that they would upgrade existing customers at no cost was as welcome as it was surprising. A couple of forums reported problems with downloads and support for installation, so I waited until yesterday before e-mailing Nik Customer support to see if I was eligible. They responded within minutes, to my surprise and after I had supplied the license key for my installed version of Silver Efex Pro sent me the download link within about five minutes.
The software installs on top of existing Nik software, no complicated uninstalling required and I carried out some preliminary experiments to check that it was all working. Installed easily and seems to work just as well as it always did.
Well done to Google for this – I’d already bought Silver Efex Pro and HDR Efex Pro, now I have Color Efex Pro, Sharpener, DFine and Viveza at no extra cost. Color Efex Pro consists of a set of pre-defined adjustable filters for colour enhancement, Sharpener does what it says on the tin, very effectivley. DFine is a very effective noise reduction application that allows you to choose which areas to reduce noise in. Viveza is the flagship editing application allowing the user to control contrast, luminosity, brightness, saturation etc.
I’ll be using Sharpener and Dfine, probably more than the other extra applications, but there is something here for everyone and at this price point, it represents excellent value for money.
The technique involves exposing a range of identically framed shots at shutter speeds calculated to expose for points between the darkest and lightest parts of an image. By default, where an image contains extremes of light and dark, cameras only expose perfectly for a part of the picture, whereas the naked eye is quick enough to compensate for the variations in light reflecting from the various surfaces included in the field of vision. The picture here for example might have been challenging because the sky is much brighter than the tree so a choice for a single exposure would be to expose for the sky, leaving the tree as a silhouette, or to expose for the tree, leaving the sky to be blown out. With HDR I take a range of shots at different shutter speeds and build a composite in software to get the optimal exposures combined in one image.
I’ve used Nik Software’s HDR Pro 2 for these shots, partly because I’m a big fan of Silver Efex Pro, their essential Black & White plug in for Lightroom & Photoshop, and partly because I’m trying to achieve results that are on the lifelike end of the scale, something that Nik advertise as a strength of their software. This is an entirely subjective decision, I like drama in a photograph, but like Techno or Heavy Metal, it can be wearing if it’s applied indiscriminately. Objectively, I decided that using realism as a yardstick would present a measurable and repeatable test of the software.
Those familiar with Nik Software will know that the user is presented with a range of presets, choose one that is close to what you want to achieve and fine tune it. All of the presets are achievable from the default image in any case, and some people prefer to start with the default and add to it selectively.
I use Adobe Lightroom to organise my pictures, here the original images are exported to HDR Pro. Note that the behaviour of other Nik plug ins is different, the user chooses “Edit in….”. This is slightly confusing, but makes sense since this is not an edit, but a composite of multiple images. The images are automatically aligned, but that doesn’t mean that you can throw random images at it. Ideally, the shots should be taken using a tripod so they match pretty exactly. I separated the images by one half stop, so in this case from -1.5 to +1 on the meter, giving me six images ranging from darkest to lightest. They don’t have to be in order, I shot the dark darler images progressively from 0 and then shot the lighter images. The software loads the images, aligns them and produces (in time) the default HDR image.
HDR Pro 2 does not work with presets from HDR Pro which may disappoint some people. The reason is the software has been radically overhauled, using new tone mapping algorithms and bringing the user interface into line with Nik’s other programs so legacy presets are now deprecated. It won’t take long before new presets are available, but for now, including the default rendering, there are 28 presets ranging from the realistic, through black & white to the properly hallucinatory. The screen can be split showing both the default and the edit in progress and the controls offer Nik’s proprietory U-Point technology to work on sections of the picture and a range of generalised controls allowing the user to adjust tone mapping, colour, contrast etc across the whole image.
I’m beginning to like this software, it achieves what should be the aim of all software; it allows the user to get on with the creative work rather than wrestle with obscure and obdurate user interfaces. I’m not a massive fan of the overblown school of HDR Photography although the results are undeniably impressive, however HDR is an interesting branch of photography. The software, be it Photomatix, HDR Pro or Photoshop itself is getting more sophisticated and it certainly has a place in the kitbag.
This photograph is one that I’ve been meaning to take for ages. The bandstand in Brighton is one of the most popular venues for weddings and if there isn’t a wedding there’s usually a photographer cluttering up the view. Today, I walked past and sure enough there was a photographer. It was a very grey day and as I walked, I started to think of ways of getting a good image.The flat grey sky wasn’t going to do me any favours, so I decided to go for a high contrast, bleached out look in post production. I stopped and looked back and the photographer was packing up. As an added bonus there were very few people around so I went back and took a series of shots quite fast, not worrying about the colour, but trying to get the geometry right.
This shot was desaturated and the contrast boosted in Lightroom, then converted to black and white. I used Silver Efex Pro to get the high contrast, bleached out look and was pretty happy with the result. Sometimes even the bad days are good!
Followers of iPhoneography will know Snapseed for its iPhone and iPad implementations. It is in my opinion the best value and possibly the most full featured editing app available to mobile photographers. Nik Software of course are equally well known for their professional editing tools Silver Efex Pro and Viveza to name but two. The release of Snapseed for the desktop at £13 in the Mac Store poses an interesting question – who is it aimed at exactly?
I decided to test the capabilities of the software using a problematic photograph I’d taken in Iceland. In the original RAW file, the picture was underexposed because of the unusual amount of pure white snow in the picture. I needed to boost the exposure to bring the snow up to the brilliant white it was in real life, but in so doing, lost the detail of the mountains. Bringing the red jacket through completely overexposed the snow.
I exported the file to jpeg as it was intended for the internet – this immediately set me on the path to a downgraded picture, so it may have been better to have taken the RAW file, however Snapseed does not offer the same degree of control over the RAW image as Aperture, relying on the underlying OS support for RAW in order to deal with the picture.
Snapseed offers two categories of adjustment, Basic and Creative. The Creative adjustments are mainly combinations of filters and textures – not what I was after here. The Basic controls offer Image tuning, Cropping & Straightening and Details. Given the issues I mentioned earlier, the main work was going to have to be selective. I needed to bring out the red of the woman’s jacket and bring up the detail of the mountain in the background.
Snapseed uses the same u-point technology in Image Tuning that Nik apply to their professional tools. Click on the area you need to adjust to create a Control point, adjust the size of the control point so that the changes are localised and then apply contrast, saturation and brightness as required. These controls gave me exactly what I needed. I was then able to use Details to bring out the structure. Time elapsed – about fifteen minutes.
For £13, this software is good value – as a taster for the professional tools it is excellent. I would not use it to create prints or images for print publication, but for internet publication I think its fine.
Positives: RAW Support, Ease of use, speed, price
Negatives: limited feature set (but very reasonable for the price)
Conclusion – although the feature set is limited, it is capable. This is very much a fun application delivering decent results quickly and easily. It does not offer the same levels of resolution as Aperture or Photoshop. Its mobile photography++. iPhone editing for the desktop and an inexpensive introduction to Nik Software!