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Tips for Creating Realistic HDR Imagery

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In this excerpt from his FuelBook, The Realistic HDR Image, Tim Cooper shares a few tips that will help guide your hand while you are creating your HDR images.
From the book Creating a realistic HDR largely depends on your ability to analyze a scene and translate your impressions into a photograph. We have seen that our eyes perceive things much differently than the camera. Learn to study your subject and become familiar with the tonalities, contrast, and color. The art world changed forever when observant painters began adding color into shadows rather than just using black. Here are a few tips that will help guide your hand while you are creating your HDR images.

  • Experiment with the software. Don’t be afraid to play. While subtlety is always appreciated, moving the sliders in big jumps to watch the effect can be very instructive.
  • Skies are almost never darker than the foreground. Keep your skies full detail but somewhat brighter than the foreground. There are exceptions to this rule, of course, but in general it’s a good basic guideline.
  • In architectural photographs, the outside usually appears brighter. The interior doesn’t have to be dark, per se, but the outside seen through the windows should be a bit brighter. Windows that are the same brightness as the interior seem to be painted on the wall.
  • Distant subjects have less contrast than subjects nearer the camera. Our HDR programs and Lightroom give us the ability to completely control contrast, so our temptation is to make all subjects equally high in contrast. Allow items in the distance to be somewhat lower in contrast.
  • Distant subjects have less saturation than subjects nearer the camera. As our eyes note subjects in the distance, the buildup of haze reduces both contrast and saturation. Allow this to happen in your photos as well.
  • Light sources, such as lamps, streetlights, and the sun, tend to be lower in saturation. When a bright light source is rendered as a darker, saturated tone, the effect looks like a cartoon.
  • Reflections are usually about one stop darker than what they are reflecting. Again, there are exceptions to this rule, but it’s a good basic guideline. Refrain from making that beautiful reflection in the lake as bright as your sky.
  • Avoid too much Local Contrast. Local Contrast in Photomatix or Clarity in Lightroom brings out the texture. When applied with a heavy hand, it has the effect of overwhelming the viewer. Far better to apply this locally rather than across the entire image.
  • Most images that have the need to be blended into an HDR will usually benefit from a deep black somewhere in the scene. Scenes that don’t have a deep black appear low in contrast and lack punch.

Figure 1 Shooting for HDR is more than just setting your camera on aperture priority, evaluative metering, and auto-bracketing, and firing off a few shots. Care should be taken to analyze the scene and set your camera accordingly.

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