Finishing HDR Images

I love sharing my HDR images on Google+ (and other places online). Sometimes I mention the techniques I used to arrive at my final image and I’ll say: “and this image was finished in Photoshop.”

My personal thoughts about HDR photography and post-processing HDR images has been evolving for over five years now. The shot of the lathe (above) is a good example of how I like to process HDR images now and it looks totally different from how I  processed HDR images in the past.

I got my start with HDR photography a long time ago when I was certified to operate the Spheron 360 VR camera for Ford Design North America. That is one super cool camera that really taught me a lot about 32 bit images. For his blog post I don’t want to talk about equipment, camera settings, using a tripod or tone-mapping software. Instead I want to talk about how I finish my HDR shots in Photoshop and I’ll be concentrating on some of my personal theories about color, contrast, sharpness and blur.

You May or May Not Agree With What I’m About to Say

I have my own unique ideas about HDR photography. I’m the first to admit that most of my ideas are kind of out there but believe me when I say that I’ve come to my conclusions by doing a lot of research and being fortunate enough to work with color experts who know a lot more about color than I ever will. But I’m not saying my way is the only way, it only means I process images the way I do for a reason.

I believe that HDR photography is an art form and it’s totally acceptable to create something unique for a final image. I also believe that we should arrive at a final image that represents how we see a scene in our minds. Any image we share should look exactly how we want it to look. The great thing about photography is that we’re all sharing a personal creation so it’s completely acceptable to use software (like Photoshop or a plug-in) to realize our unique vision.

I should also mention that I rarely produce HDR images for my clients. When I’m not on a deadline to deliver an image I like to spend time creating something very personal. Most of the time my HDR images are printed and sold as fine art so there’s nothing wrong with putting in extra time and effort. I like to think of myself as a painter who will work on the image as long as it takes to complete my painting.

When it comes to HDR photography I’ll spend a considerable amount of time working with targeted color correction and selective blurring. The reason I spend so much time attacking colors is because merging to HDR always seems to create color casts all over the place (especially when I’m photographing a place with numerous light sources). You can do a global white balance adjustment (changing the color balance of the entire image at once) but whenever I get one part of an image looking good another part can end up looking really bad. My personal solution is to find a white balance setting that gets most of the colors right and then I look at specific areas for targeted color correction.

To give you an idea what I’m talking about here’s a look at a shot I took at the National Gallery of Art (in Washington, DC). In this first shot I haven’t applied my targeted color corrections. This is the tone-mapped image directly out of Lightroom 4.

It’s an interesting shot but overall it has kind of an yellow/orange feel to it. One thing that really jumps out at me is the color of the ceiling. In my mind I believe the ceiling should be white so I targeted it first. Then I removed the yellow color casts from the black tile floor so that it looked more like I expect a black tile floor to look. Here’s the final version of this image after I applied my targeted color corrections:

I think there’s a huge difference between the two images with the colors really popping  in the finished version. This version may not be 100% accurate but it’s what I want it to look like. There are a few other tricks I used to arrive at the final image the targeted color corrections made the biggest difference.

Color Dynamic Range

One concept I’d like to share is that dynamic range is not just the difference between bright and dark areas of a picture. Sure, contrast is thought of as the difference between black and white (or dark and bright) but that’s not the only way to think about contrast.

My definition of contrast is:  in visual perception (of the real world), contrast is determined by the difference in the color and brightness of an object compared to other objects within the same field of view.

I believe that color contrast occurs when you have a color in an image that looks more saturated than another color that you can see in the same image.

For example, If you want a color, like red, to appear more saturated then your first thought might be to boost the saturation of the color red. If I want a red area of my image to have more “pop” then the color red in that area needs to have something by it that is considerably less red. This is an important thing to consider if you’ve already achieved maximum saturation for the color red (this happens when the RGB value of R is at 255). When this happens you can’t get more red into the image but you can make the color red appear more saturated if you remove some red from anything close to the area you want to appear more red.

I know, that probably sounded technical and if you’re confused I apologize.

Let me make it simpler. When I want my colors to “pop” I like to desaturate nearby colors to make things look “snappier”. Here’s an example of a tone-mapped HDR image that I desaturated some areas to get other colors to look more saturated:

The comment I’ve received most about this image is: “great colors.” When this image was tone-mapped I didn’t boost the colors much (by increasing vibrance or saturation sliders in Lightroom) and I didn’t go crazy boosting the colors in Photoshop when I applied my finishing touches. What I did do was remove the orange color casts from the walls and ceiling. By removing the color from the walls and ceiling (turning them white) the orange color of the columns begins to pop out from the background. And it happened without a major saturation boost. Here’s a quick look at the same image before I removed the color from the walls and ceilings:

Quite a difference. In my final image the white walls next to the orange columns helps the oranges look more orange and the whites look whiter.

The bad news? Going in and removing color takes time. Unfortunately I don’t know of a super fast one-click way to get the colors of an image to look exactly the way I want them to so I have to go in and target areas one at a time. This kind of work is perfect for using a pen/tablet system like a Wacom. I create adjustment layers with a color desaturated, hide the adjustment layer behind a mask (fill the mask with black) and I paint in my desaturation (use a brush with my foreground color set to white). Some images take me hours of color work before I’m happy.

Focusing the Viewers Eye by Using Sharpness

Sharpness is one of those things we all look for with our photography. Maximum sharpness is achieved when you use a good lens and you have it properly focused. One thing you need to remember is that a lens system can only have a single plane perfectly in focus (and that’s called the focal plane). If your lens is focused at 3′ then everything on that plane parallel to the lens and 3′ away is in focus. Everything else is out of focus. That means that for most of our images a majority of the shot is out of focus.  Superior lens design (and use of exotic materials) can minimize how out of focus an image looks close to the focal plane but it’s still out of focus. I’ve worked with some very specialized projection lenses (some costing well over $36,000.00) and even they have a very specific focal plane that you need to work with. That’s why Bokeh is so important to photographers.

The bokeh (I pronounce it “bow-kay”) of a lens describes how good the out of focus areas look and it’s a lens characteristic that can be super important. Aperture setting can’t actually get more in focus (change depth of field), it just makes things appear more or less out of focus (or acceptably out of focus).

Luckily, sharpness and focus are not that important to me when it comes to producing a final HDR image. I try to get the important areas of my picture as in focus as possible and if that means capturing multiple shots at multiple focal lengths then that’s what I’ll do. When I’m processing an image I like to direct a viewer through my image and my technique for focusing a viewers attention where I want it is to slightly blur the less important areas of the picture. The trick for me was finding a way to apply a blur that didn’t ruin the image. I’ll talk more about my personal technique for doing this in a future blog.

Here’s an example image where I used selective blurring to make the sharper areas look a little sharper:

In this image there is a lot going on so I used my personal Photoshop blurring technique to keep a viewers eyes focused on the areas that I didn’t blur. If I did it right it’s super subtle but it is there. Here’s another HDR shot where I used my selective blurring technique:

And here’s a final image from the Air & Space museum that received my targeted color corrections and selective blurring:

I hope this helps to make sense of how I “finish my HDR images in Photoshop.” It’s a lot of effort sometimes but I am really happy with how the finished images turn out. And the best part? These images look a lot better printed then they do on a computer screen.

In upcoming posts I’ll share some of my personal techniques for targeting a color correction and for applying a slight blur to areas of an image.

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1 thought on “Finishing HDR Images

  1. Monico, your HDR processing is so “spot on”. You can tell they’re hdr by the dynamic range in the images, but without the typical “over-processed” look that you see too often. Very well done.
    I’m going to school on this post and try to improve my own hdr.

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