Getting The Image You See In Your Head: Blending vs HDR - Digital Photography School

Getting The Image You See In Your Head: Blending vs HDR

This shot is an HDR shot blended from 6 bracketed shots.  Each shot is one stop different from the next. The exposures range from -2 through +3. Aperture was set to f/16. The shutter speed ranged from 1/125 at -2, to 1/4 at +3.

This shot is an HDR shot blended from 6 bracketed shots. Each shot is one stop different from the next. The exposures range from -2 through +3. Aperture was set to f/16. The shutter speed ranged from 1/125 at -2, to 1/4 at +3.

Often times when I’m photographing landscapes, the image the camera sees versus the image in my head are quite different.  Sometimes that image in my head doesn’t mesh with what the camera capture, because the dynamic range is far too great.  The contrast between the highlights and shadows is just too great.  Such was the case with this shot I took a week ago of Arch Rock in Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

These are the six shots I used for the HDR blend. I also used the even exposure, and the +2 exposure, for the two image manual blend I did in Photoshop.

These are the six shots I used for the HDR blend. I also used the even exposure, and the +2 exposure, for the two image manual blend I did in Photoshop.

With the sun setting directly behind it, exposing for the sky would have rendered the rock a silhouette.  This may have been fine had I intended a silhouette shot- which I did capture and intend to use. But ultimately I wanted some detail in the rock, I wanted detail in the sky, and I wanted to maintain the drama of the spectacular desert sunset that I was witnessing.  Because of the way the landscape was laid out before me, graduated neutral density filters were not going to work for this shot.  If I wanted to bring down my highlights and keep detail in the shadows, I was going to have to either blend two shots, or use an HDR program to get the result I was looking for. HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, meaning an image where the range of tones is higher than what the camera can accurately record.

I really wasn’t sure which processing technique would give me the best results.  And sitting there in the desert, I didn’t want to place any bets on it.  So I bracketed my shots using the auto exposure bracketing mode on my EOS-1D X.  I shot in Av mode, at f/16, with the EF 14mm f/2.8L II lens. I bracketed for 7 exposures, but ended up only using six. The -3 exposure really didn’t add anything to the HDR, so that was dropped from my processing.   I use Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 for my HDR processing to blend the exposures, and then finish in Photoshop, adjusting color, saturation, etc.  Nik HDR Efex Pro offers a variety of presets, but I always try to keep the HDR processing fairly subtle. I don’t like the over the top look that some get, but I do like the image to pop a bit. I try to minimize any halos, and keep the tones fairly smooth.

Before I processed the HDR image, I also tried a simple two shot blend in Photoshop. I first processed the even exposure and adjusted for color and saturation.  Then, I took the +2 exposure, and processed in the same way, dropping that image on a new layer in photoshop over the even exposure. I then apply a layer mask to the +2 layer, and paint the entire mask black to hide the layer.

Then, using white, I painted the arch back in to reveal the arch at +2 against the sky at even exposure. This takes a lot of patience since with the exposure difference, it’s very easy to see halos if the masking isn’t done carefully. One way to ease the transition is to run a gaussian blur filter on the mask to soften the edges. How much will depend on what the mask is like. You may need to run the gaussian blur more than once to get it just right.

Looking at the two images, the HDR blend seems to have a smoother transition from lights to darks, as well as a richer overall look. I know there is a lot backlash against HDR, and I understand it’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But I believe in using any tool available in order to express what I felt when I looked upon the scene as it happened.  Every scene will be different, and will lend themselves to different processing techniques. Understanding what techniques are available to you can help you overcome the shortcomings of technology and allow you to express your creativity to the fullest.

This shot was done by blending an even exposure with a shot exposed at +2.  The +2 exposure was masked off in Photoshop so only the areas I needed to show through did.

This shot was done by blending an even exposure with a shot exposed at +2. The +2 exposure was masked off in Photoshop so only the areas I needed to show through did.

 

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Rick Berk is a photographer based in New York, shooting a variety of subjects including landscapes, sports, weddings, and portraits. Rick's work can be seen at RickBerk.com and you can follow him on his Facebook page.

  • mma173

    None of them looks natural. I like to blend pictures and my technique consists of using luminosity masks and some free-hand masking while paying attention to the edges. After blending, I enhance the details using filters such as Topaz Adjust.

  • http://www.rickberk.com Rick Berk

    I don’t believe I ever stated I was going for “natural”. But I can tell you that what the camera captured wasn’t “natural” either. The images didn’t match what my eyes saw, as there is no camera that captures the dynamic range of the human eye. When I shoot, I am not looking for “natural”. I am looking to evoke a feeling. If I wanted reality I would have been a photojournalist.

  • mma173

    I wrote a comment with a 620 px wide picture; however, it didn’t appear here.

    Anyway, I know that there is no camera that can capture the scene as it is; but I picked the incorrect word (natural). What I wanted to say is that they were improperly blended; and this can be subjective.

    Thanks’

  • http://skyfirex.net Kevin Etter

    I like the detail in the foreground rocks in the HDR shot and the sky in the blended version. That said, if this were one of my babies I would blend these final two into one.

    The 2 methods aren’t mutually exclusive, so blend away! :)

  • Kendall

    To me the sky and ground look totally unconnected in the HDR version, as if you had just pasted in the sky. I think it robs the shot of the “wow he took a sunset through the arch” factor.

    The blended version looks much more like the ground and sky are related and taken at the same time.

  • http://soc.sty.nu/ Tim

    Indeed, go for it. If an HDR workflow gets what you want, more power to your shutter-finger.

    That said, the result is nice but not quite to my taste – seems rather too locally-contrasty in the sky and the red tones of the distant sun through the arch are a bit strange. But at least that’s just a choice of tonemapping parameters – you’ve got all the image-data which is the important bit; come back in a year and reprocess the same files.

  • http://www.about.me/larrymaupin Larry

    The scene and both photos look great! I prefer the HDR version. The blended image seems to have some masking issues. Thanks for sharing. I’m working on a night/light painting project that requires a lot of blending and/or HDR work. Your info is helpful. Thanks again!

  • http://christinielsen.com Christi

    Nice job on the HDR. HDR is just a tool, just like levels, curves, or anything else. It’s the overuse of that tool that most of us cringe over. Yes, HDR can often overly flatten an image, but that comes with the territory. The blended version seems a little muddy and lacks detail. The HDR version does a much better job of relating the magnificence of the scene, the power of nature, etc. I feel like I can touch that rock. To me, it’s more expressive and it holds my attention.

  • Sallie

    The title of this article intrigues me. It is a common decision that we are faced with and “subjective” is the focus. Over the top is so common and yet sometimes it draws your eye searching for all the details and the interesting overall effect, realistic or not. Trey Ratcliff for example, I am fascinated with his work but I do not like to create that style in my own work. I also am a Topaz fan, I love the options that can help me create “what I saw” or the image that is in my mind whether it be blending, HDR or plugins. In this photo, I love all of the detail! My eye moves over the photo searching the sky, arch and foreground. Thanks for the tutorial and your suggestions.

  • Ron

    I just had to comment on the HDR picture. Just got back from Valley of Fire State Park in NV. Believe me, the rock formations are very red. Wish there was a simple way to include some of the images I have processed in HDR. Am new to HDR processing so not as detailed as shown here. The color of the rocks glared at you through polarized glasses. There was also some beautiful flowers there in bright pink and yellow colors. BTW, great job on both imagines.

  • Amani

    I totally agree with you, very nice article there

  • Gautam

    A very helpful and informative article. Thanks for the details.

  • http://mariovar2.blogspot.com Mario Vargas Galgani

    The problem with the 2 blend exposures compared with the 6 HDR pictures is loosied detail in highlights, taht is catched in the minus 1 or 2 shot.
    I usually blend 3 exposures
    Nice excplanation
    thanks
    Mario

  • http://davidhbrooksphotography.com David Brooks

    I’m a big HDR fan and I think your HDR version is great.

  • http://about.me/jamiebates Jameson Bates

    I really enjoyed the tips about the different programs you used to create these HDR pictures. I’ve taken some myself and really enjoy it because of the look they give to the pictures. It helps convey a feeling that you mentioned in an earlier comment. Thanks!

  • Nik

    I’d like to know what kinds of adjustments you did to the image as far as how you richened up the sky and rock colors and added nice coloring to the sunset.

  • Manthira Dear

    Can anyone tell , What is the key difference between HDR and Digital Blending???

  • deanimator

    I think that it can be done more simply and result in a more natural image: An exposure which picks up enough detail in the sky (RAW and processed to give a good sky and some shadow detail) laid over an exposure which captures good shadow detail (also RAW is optimal ). Erase the top layer very gently where required using a soft eraser set at 3 – 5%. Artifacts and halos can be generally avoided. The result is a far more natural image than HDR or the author’s method of blending.
    RAW files can of course be further modified to give more detail for further blending if required. The key is that “less is more”.

  • Thomas Dumonet

    The title is misleading. Digital blending, is a way to obtain HDR images.

    A more accurate title would be : 2 shots vs 5 shots exposure blend. Because these are both methods the writer used, but for both methods, the goal is the same.

  • Gaz Prescott

    I think it’s more about whether to allow a program to decide what parts to recover or to manually blend the separate exposures together to give more creative licence. The blended version is 3 shots… even exposure with a +2 and a -2 and the writer has left more depth of shadow to my eye than in the hdr program version. I suppose it’s a matter of preference at the end of the day but I personally prefer the blended hdr since it has a more natural depth.

Some older comments

  • Nik

    May 21, 2013 12:02 am

    I'd like to know what kinds of adjustments you did to the image as far as how you richened up the sky and rock colors and added nice coloring to the sunset.

  • Jameson Bates

    May 8, 2013 08:39 am

    I really enjoyed the tips about the different programs you used to create these HDR pictures. I've taken some myself and really enjoy it because of the look they give to the pictures. It helps convey a feeling that you mentioned in an earlier comment. Thanks!

  • David Brooks

    May 7, 2013 01:18 am

    I'm a big HDR fan and I think your HDR version is great.

  • Mario Vargas Galgani

    May 4, 2013 12:40 am

    The problem with the 2 blend exposures compared with the 6 HDR pictures is loosied detail in highlights, taht is catched in the minus 1 or 2 shot.
    I usually blend 3 exposures
    Nice excplanation
    thanks
    Mario

  • Gautam

    April 22, 2013 04:48 pm

    A very helpful and informative article. Thanks for the details.

  • Amani

    April 19, 2013 08:48 pm

    I totally agree with you, very nice article there

  • Ron

    April 19, 2013 11:49 am

    I just had to comment on the HDR picture. Just got back from Valley of Fire State Park in NV. Believe me, the rock formations are very red. Wish there was a simple way to include some of the images I have processed in HDR. Am new to HDR processing so not as detailed as shown here. The color of the rocks glared at you through polarized glasses. There was also some beautiful flowers there in bright pink and yellow colors. BTW, great job on both imagines.

  • Sallie

    April 19, 2013 10:25 am

    The title of this article intrigues me. It is a common decision that we are faced with and "subjective" is the focus. Over the top is so common and yet sometimes it draws your eye searching for all the details and the interesting overall effect, realistic or not. Trey Ratcliff for example, I am fascinated with his work but I do not like to create that style in my own work. I also am a Topaz fan, I love the options that can help me create "what I saw" or the image that is in my mind whether it be blending, HDR or plugins. In this photo, I love all of the detail! My eye moves over the photo searching the sky, arch and foreground. Thanks for the tutorial and your suggestions.

  • Christi

    April 19, 2013 03:54 am

    Nice job on the HDR. HDR is just a tool, just like levels, curves, or anything else. It's the overuse of that tool that most of us cringe over. Yes, HDR can often overly flatten an image, but that comes with the territory. The blended version seems a little muddy and lacks detail. The HDR version does a much better job of relating the magnificence of the scene, the power of nature, etc. I feel like I can touch that rock. To me, it's more expressive and it holds my attention.

  • Larry

    April 18, 2013 11:25 pm

    The scene and both photos look great! I prefer the HDR version. The blended image seems to have some masking issues. Thanks for sharing. I'm working on a night/light painting project that requires a lot of blending and/or HDR work. Your info is helpful. Thanks again!

  • Tim

    April 18, 2013 05:53 pm

    Indeed, go for it. If an HDR workflow gets what you want, more power to your shutter-finger.

    That said, the result is nice but not quite to my taste - seems rather too locally-contrasty in the sky and the red tones of the distant sun through the arch are a bit strange. But at least that's just a choice of tonemapping parameters - you've got all the image-data which is the important bit; come back in a year and reprocess the same files.

  • Kendall

    April 18, 2013 03:50 pm

    To me the sky and ground look totally unconnected in the HDR version, as if you had just pasted in the sky. I think it robs the shot of the "wow he took a sunset through the arch" factor.

    The blended version looks much more like the ground and sky are related and taken at the same time.

  • Kevin Etter

    April 18, 2013 11:28 am

    I like the detail in the foreground rocks in the HDR shot and the sky in the blended version. That said, if this were one of my babies I would blend these final two into one.

    The 2 methods aren't mutually exclusive, so blend away! :)

  • mma173

    April 18, 2013 10:45 am

    I wrote a comment with a 620 px wide picture; however, it didn't appear here.

    Anyway, I know that there is no camera that can capture the scene as it is; but I picked the incorrect word (natural). What I wanted to say is that they were improperly blended; and this can be subjective.

    Thanks'

  • Rick Berk

    April 18, 2013 10:25 am

    I don't believe I ever stated I was going for "natural". But I can tell you that what the camera captured wasn't "natural" either. The images didn't match what my eyes saw, as there is no camera that captures the dynamic range of the human eye. When I shoot, I am not looking for "natural". I am looking to evoke a feeling. If I wanted reality I would have been a photojournalist.

  • mma173

    April 18, 2013 10:11 am

    None of them looks natural. I like to blend pictures and my technique consists of using luminosity masks and some free-hand masking while paying attention to the edges. After blending, I enhance the details using filters such as Topaz Adjust.

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