Natural Looking HDR

The human eye still has more capability to see objects in light conditions ranging from deep shadows all the way to very bright light than the best camera out there.  Lots of people are using software to create images that combine multiple images taken at different exposures into one image which can express the full High Dynamic Range.  Lots of these images are processed to create a highly stylized, almost cartoon like rendition of the scene.   Those are very creative, but the technique can also be used to create a more subtle and natural image as well.  We went back to the farmer’s market to shoot and my favorite sunflower vendor was there with his plants.  Since I was shooting with my 105 f/2.8 macro lens, I knew I wanted to capture as much of the detail in the blooms as possible.  To really do this well, you have to shoot on a tripod and set up your camera to bracket the exposure.  All that means is that your camera takes pictures with plus and minus shutter speeds from how you set it up.  You can choose the increment and the number of photos you want.  I shot a five shot bracket—two above and two below the shutter speed I originally selected.  Because I was using the macro, I wanted to control the depth of field, so I set the camera to aperture mode and established the f-stop at f/8.  I wanted most of the flower to be in focus. My base image was established for the mid-tones of the picture and was for 1/80 of a second.

  The camera then went down to 1/200 and 1/125 to get the shadows and up to 1/50 and 1/30 to capture the highlights.

In LR it becomes pretty simple, but does require Photoshop.  In versions prior to CS5, the HDR tools really were bad and you needed one of the many available plug-ins.  CS5 provides a very good tool suite.  Select all five of your photos and then go the menu and select Photo>Edit In> Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.  It will automatically stack them as layers and open up the HDR Pro Menu.  The filmstrip at the bottom displays your photos with the stops between them.   If you don’t like the impact of one of them, you can simply uncheck the selection.

Adjusting the sliders in the menu allows you to control the effect.  The largest impacts are from the detail and the strength sliders.  Here is one with both of them pushed up, it really highlights the contrasts in the image.

Just a few subtle tweaks though to those same controls bring out an image more aligned with how it looks to my eyes.  Of course there is no right answer, it is really all in what you the artist are trying to accomplish.