Not Tone-Loc, but Tone Mapping

By Mark

I can’t believe it is already August; the year is just flying by.  I am way behind on a long list of photography projects and have just barely managed to download the pictures from my last few shoots.  Last week’s blog just got eaten by events, so this week we are bringing something almost as cool as the funky cold medina; a discussion of tone mapping.   One of the areas I wanted to explore this year was how to push my image processing a bit more.  I wrote last year about High Dynamic Range (HDR).  Some HDR can be too surrealistic for me, but I have seen some really interesting work as well.  Normally, HDR requires multiple shots of the same object with different exposures and works best when shot from a rock steady tripod.  With the advances in RAW processing there is also a related technique which works with just one image.  Tone mapping extracts much more of the dynamic range from a picture and pulls out the details from the shadows.   When you are finishing a regular HDR image it is one of the last steps you execute from either Photoshop or back in Lightroom.

Just to get technical for a second and describe what is Tone Mapping.  We know that our eyes can see a broader range of light than our cameras can.   Often the sky is too bright and the foreground too dark in a photo, while we have no problem adjusting in our brain software for the contrast differences.  HDR combines multiple photos where each exposure is perfect for a portion of the image.  The sky is nicely blue in one all the way through to clearly seeing what is in the shadows in the last image.  Software combines them all into an evenly balanced exposure across the full range.   Tone Mapping then uses localized comparisons of the contrast which gives you picture with much more visible detail. 

I took this semi-abstract image of the Brooklyn Bridge while on my hike and found that it was a little flatter than it seemed in real life.   I applied the tone mapping and made the second image which was much more like what I had envisioned.

A little Tone Mapping magic

A little Tone Mapping magic

My personal tool of choice is found in the Google NIK tool suite.  Their version is HDR Efex Pro 2.  When you open an image from LR into PS for editing, my Google panel is set up to open as well.  Just clicking on “Tone Mapping (Single Image),will start you off with your choice of 28 different presets.  They provide a good starting point for most projects.   For the Statue of Liberty, I wanted a pretty dramatic, but not surrealistic result.

Preset Library--Balanced 2.PNG

Their menu structure allows you to work your way logically through the controls from top to bottom.  Work with the sliders for each section to evaluate the impact.  You can control the typical exposure, shadows and Highlights, but NIK has made one more term standard across their modules—structure. Structure is a much smarter combination of sharpening and contrast which really brings out the details in your image.  

One of the reasons I think I like the NIK tools is their version of Selective Adjustments.  Their Control Points allow very precise adjustments in a very intuitive fashion.   

You place a pin over the area you want to adjust and can control the radius of how far you want it to spread.  You can drag the Exposure, Contrast, Saturation, and Structure sliders for that very specific region.  You can duplicate that control or create new ones for other locations in your image.  I wanted the torch a little brighter as well as her face to be a little more visible.  

I think I like the more dramatic sky behind her but the green may be a little overdone.  It definitely has more “pop”.  

A lot of Tone Mapping magic  

A lot of Tone Mapping magic