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Realistic HDRs — How To Create Natural Looking High Dynamic Range Images In Two Simple Steps

Realistic HDRs! Sounds like a marketing gimmick for an image editor. Right! Hey wait a minute, go through these examples of natural looking HDRs. Now, it makes sense! Even HDRs can be created in such a way that they replicate the effect of a single exposure; i.e. no evidence of merging like false colors and dramatic effects. Well, it needs a lot of practice, hard work and time to invest on various HDR techniques like tone-mapping, exposure blending and so on. And for all this, it requires you to be calculative and artistic in your approach.

Getting those natural colors, exact details and realistic appeal in HDRs comes with mastering the art of HDRs. Over time, the masters of HDRs have adopted various techniques to make the magic happen; to turn their bracketed shots into real HDRs or HDR masterpieces. Amongst other HDR photographers like Rob Hanson, Chris Robinson, Malcolm MacGregor and so on, Trey Ratcliff, the Stuck in Customs fame finds a special mention. Check out Stuck in Customs’s photostream to have an idea about what I am saying. Also check out his HDR tutorial to begin smart with HDR photography.

Natural Looking HDR By Stuck In Customs

And for now let’s check out two simple steps for creating natural looking HDRs.

  1. Bracket The Shots

    Let’s start with a brief primer for HDR. HDR (High Dynamic Range) is a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods. It requires merging of three shots taken at different exposures — one normal, one underexposed and one overexposed, for midtones, highlights and shadows respectively. The Auto Exposure Bracketing feature of your DSLR is good at producing images with varying exposures. Just turn it on and take three (or more) successive shots of the same scene. Depending on the camera’s settings, one of the shots will be shot at normal exposure and the other two with +2 EV and -2 EV respectively. You can however change the bracketing settings to take more than three shots in bracketing mode and also specify the exposure compensation for sucessive shots. This is known as bracketing.

  2. Merge The Photographs

    Once you have loaded the bracketed shots to your PC, you are all set to roll in action. You can use Photoshop CS5 or Photomatix Pro to get started with merging the bracketed shots to result in a single image representing the range of intensity levels found in real scenes. We will be using Photoshop CS5 for creating the composite HDR image through Photoshop’s command Merge to HDR pro.

    1. Go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro. Choose the bracketed shots — normal, overexposed and underexposed. You can get the sample images here — normal, overexposed and underexposed. Click OK to merge the exposure of the three shots.
    2. Photoshop will smartly create an HDR image by merge the loaded photographs. However, this intelligent automation gives a surreal looking image with fake and dull colors.
    3. Merge to HDR pro however gives you several options to fine-tune the resulting image. Just play around with the various options to arrive at the desired result. You can either use the presets or customize the settings to saturate the colors and thus simulate the real-life colors. The settings however vary for different images. For instance, the images used for this tutorial can be fine-tuned by applying Photorealistic preset. You can manually fine-tune tones, details, edge glow, colors and curves as well.

      Merge To HDR Pro - Photorealistic Preset

Creating natural looking high dynamic range images is nothing but an art — the art of adding realistic appeal to surreal looking HDR images. There are number of ways and techniques to create realistic HDRs. Watch this space for more realsitic HDR techniques. Meanwhile you can share your HDR techniques and beautiful HDR images in comments.

3 comments… add one
  • mike April 13, 2012, 8:04 pm

    I use Photomatix Pro so does Trey Ratcliff the reason is it is a much better HDR program than the one found in Photoshop. The one in photoshop is a lot better than it used to be but still falls well short of photomatix which can be used as a stand alone or plugin. Photomatix has many presets which will get you close to or right at where you want to be. I do agree with the author in that the realistic approach is the best in most situations. Another thing about Photomatix is the last time they had a major upgrade they sent me an email so I could upgrade for FREE!,very much like what Topaz Labs does. When is the last time Adobe sent out an upgrade for free (reader doesn’t count). Until Adobe got huge pushback from customers they were not even going to let CS4 users upgrade to CS6 you’d have to buy it at full retail- they did relent for CS4 users for the 2012 time frame but anyone else (or after 2012 for CS4 users) tuff luck.

  • Dave Harley July 3, 2012, 9:53 am

    Another that is as good or better than Photomatix is Nik software HDR EFEX PRO. Tons of controls, presets, and the such. I flip between Photomatix and efex pro, but find myself edging a bit more towards the latter one. But both are very good programs.

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