HDR Photomatix techniques made easy.

(Note: All information in this guide is based on personal observations and may NOT have strict factual content. The descriptions of the settings are based on my own observations while using this software and how it affected my own photos. Those looking for absolutely detailed info about this software, feel free to read their own help manual. Thanks)

Most of you would be using a software called Photomatix Pro. Some of you are using photoshop for your effects. Others might even use a different HDR software, but from personal experience, I have preferred Photomatix over the rest.
This is just a little workflow about photomatix.

It will help you shoot photos like these :

and so on.

Now, you can go the official photomatix website and download a trial, in which case you will have a "photomatix" watermark all over your image once its done processing. If you like the results, buy the software to get rid of the watermarks.

Now, there are tons of ways you can use this software. It depends on your own style, whether you wish to go towards the more surreal HDR styles or more realistic images(like you see in the examples above)

But before you guys continue, I hope you know that for HDR photography you need at least 3 images of different exposures.
Those who don't know what HDR is, its better if you check that out first(on clubsnap or google)

I'll explain it briefly.

Basically you take three(or more photos) with varying exposures, either with 1 step difference each, or two steps, depending on your style. You could go 1/3 step, but I don't recommend it since there's hardly any range covered that way.
What you are trying to do is get one properly exposed image, one(or more) overexposed, and one(or more) underexposed image. So basically you have covered the full range : shadows, midtones, and highlights.
(Check bracketing in your camera. Most of you will have it and it will allow you to take these three(or more) shots directly without you having to fiddle with the settings. All you have to do is set the first properly exposed image, and then keep clicking until everything is complete)

Now using Photomatix, you merge these images and create the 'ideal' blending of all three so you get a beautifully high constrast, vibrant image.

Note: Its best to use a tripod, because you definitely do NOT want to move the scene while taking the 3 shots...trust me.

Anyway, The steps for using photomatix are :

Drag your 3 or more photos to photomatix, and use the Generate an HDR image option.
A new menu should pop up :
1. Align source images
I generally align by matching features(works every time). You can use the vertical/horizontal shift options when you have a clear landscape. But as a personal preference I use the matching features option..

2. Reduce chromatic aberration.
I have this ticked off because its generally not required unless you have significant chromatic aberration...mostly happens in landscapes near the trees.

3. Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts
Quite self explanatory. If you shoot landscape, go for background movements. If you have too many people, go for moving objects/people. Keep the detection at normal.

4. Tone curve
Select the Take tone curve of color profile. You can try to reverse engineer tone curve on photos that still aren't looking good after processing is complete.

Now, before we continue further...a quick note on exposure fusion. Exposure fusion will just allow you to blend 3 exposures properly. Its an alternative for those who don't want to fiddle with the HDR settings at all. Keep in mind, exposure fusion will NOT give you an HDR image...it will simply give you a cleanly exposed image(which you could probably shoot directly from the camera if you want too)

You want the tone mapping option because that will allow you to edit the shadows and highlights along with blending the 3 exposures.
Soooo...click on tone mapping.

Again you will have to main tabs in the menu : Details enhancer and tone compressor. You can use either one of the tabs.

Tone compressor .
As a general rule, I use tone compressor only when I'm not getting the desired look in the details enhancer. The settings in the tone compressor are pretty basic and don't really require explanation.

Now in details enhancer, you have strength, color, luminosity, micro contrast and light smoothing.

The more you increase the strength, the more surrealistic you get your image.
Conversely for smoothing, the lower you smooth the light, the more surrealistic the image.

So basically if you want a realistic HDR keep your strength below 50 and light smoothing as high as possible.

Color will obviously increase or decrease the color saturation in the image. I prefer you don't increase the color too much. You are better off tweaking the color settings by adjusting 'Vibrance' in photoshop.

Microcontrast is useful to get those little details back and sharp. It just finetunes the contrast.

Most of the time my settings range is :
Strength : 75%-100%
Color : 65%-75%
Luminosity : 2-5
Micro contrast : 10

For the tone settings,
White point and black point add the amount of white or black you want to be seen in the image. I have rarely made changes to the white point since most of my photos are shot during the day and I want to darken them up a bit.
Black point values usually ranges from 2%-5% for me.

You can play with the gamma if your picture is severely over or under exposed.

Color settings
Here you can play with the color temperature, making the image tones warmer or cooler. You can also choose to modify the color in the shadows or highlights... so for instance, if you shoot a picture of a cloud and you change the color tone for a warmer feel..you can blast out the saturation highlights to get a nice warm glow on the edges of the clouds.

Miscellaneous settings.
Micro smoothing does the opposite of microcontrast. It gives a soft glow/blur effect to the image...useful if your pic has a bit too much noise. This is generally useful again, while taking landscape shots because, from my experience, the night sky photos generally produce a lot of noise, even when shot at the lowest possible ISO.(but I recently found out that could be because I shot at f/22...probably might not happen at f/12.)

Shadows smoothness and clipping is similar.
Smoothness will blur out the edges, making the shadows blend more nicely.

Clipping makes the shadows darker
I don't usually tamper with the misc settings...only micro smoothing if required. Its easier to make changes to shadow/highlight using photoshop. You have a much better control there.

Lastly, the 360 image option. I'm not sure of its use myself..but from what I have noticed, if you tick it, the image lighting becomes a bit more darker and surreal.
Worth checking out.

One more thing, its better to save your settings. Chances are you will be using the same settings quite often.
I've 5 different settings saved for landscape, portrait, night, realistic and extreme.

Avoid the common HDR mistakes :
1. Overprocessing. Trying to get a surreal look is fine, but you don't have to go overboard with it. This actually applies to all kinds of post processing.
2. Halo rings. Often formed when you go towards the surrealistic side during light smoothing. Its better to balance the light between real and surreal.
3. Oversaturation. As I said, its better to increase the vibrance in photoshop. Photomatix increases only saturation. A vibrance will give more effective results. As a general rule, its good to saturate any one of the three primary colors in photoshop. Going for all 3 just makes the image a colorful mess.
4. Play with the white and black points to get a clean colors. Often landscapes with skies show dirty white in the highlights instead of clean white, which is often more appealing in HDR.
5. Know your composition properly. Certain things just don't look good in HDR. Don't try to force it.
6. Keep in mind that white gets messy in HDR. So avoid white shirts in portraits, white flowers in nature, white toys etc.. you can still shoot them if you are going for a more grunge look..otherwise, no.
7. Keep an eye out for clouds during the daytime. If they turn black in the processing, increase the gamma a bit. Clouds are never dark black during a bright sunny day..specially when the surrounding landscape is all bright.

That's it for now.
Do check these cool photography collections for inspiration.

And obviously, its better to learn from the masters. look for professional video tutorials online or buy the books. I referred to HDR photography workshop when I was first trying out these techniques. Its a good book for beginners. After that you pretty much develop your own style keep experimenting constantly. Link to the book : http://www.ebooksdownloadfree.com/Photoshop-graphics/HDR-Photography-Photo-Workshop-BI10174.html

Go forth and snap!

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