Essentially, there are two reasons for making HDR photos. First, as a photographer you often experience lighting conditions that have a higher dynamic range than your sensor is capable of recording in one gulp, so HDR photos capture and compress the brightness range.Done well, no-one will ever know it’s an HDR.
The second reason that you would use HDR is for the look — to boost the colours and contrast of a dull subject or to give your image a grungy feel. With these reasons in mind, lets take a look at 6 ways you can make HDR photos that are subtle and spectacular (and when you’re done you might want to check out our gallery of 21 great examples of HDR photography).
How to make subtle HDR photos
Tip 1: Capture great images
Take a really great set of Raw images one stop apart, altering only the shutter speed. Every other camera setting should be tied down manually – including focus, WB and ISO100. Capture more than the entire brightness range – a few extra images won’t hurt. A tripod is essential (see our 4 tips for sharper shots when using a tripod).
Tip 2: The grunge look
Photomatix, Nik, and the other independents give you a good ‘grungy’ image fairly easily. With Photoshop, it’s easy to produce a natural image, but to get Photoshop to grunge it up, you need to feed it plenty of image data. Aim for an eight-image set at a minimum, but depending on the light, 12 to 16 is often required.
Tip 3: Adobe Camera Raw
Calibrate or fix the following: White Balance, Noise Reduction, Lens Correction, and Cropping. Use Default, or non-Auto, for all exposure, contrast (Linear) and saturation settings. Turn off Sharpening and apply the same settings to all images in the set.
Tip 4: 16-bit TIFFs
If you use third-party HDR software, export TIFFs from Adobe Camera Raw. Don’t even think of using their Raw converters! For example, how do you fix chromatic aberration in Photomatix? You get my point. You can even build and export one HDR file from Adobe Camera Raw to open in your choice of program for Tone Mapping (you might also like our tutorial Make HDR images from 2 exposures).
Tip 5: Post Tone Mapping
Tone Mapping isn’t the finish line in HDR. Just like processing any other image, there’s still work to do. In Photoshop, try a Shadows and Highlights value of just 1 for each. Adjust end points and middle points in Levels, and create a pleasing S-shape in Curves to add snap to the midtones.
Tip 6: The build quality
Always move files between programs in 16 bits or more – think TIFF. If you use Adobe RGB (1998) in your workflow, make sure all the programs you use understand and support it at each step. JPEG is just a final step for the web, and remember to convert it to sRGB.