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Welcome to part two of the Beginners Guide to HDR Photography (links to Part 1). Part one was a huge success, and I can’t thank Digital Photography School enough for giving me the opportunity to do this three part series here. The feedback has been amazing, and I can’t wait to dig in to part two. I’m currently on a plane heading across the Gulf of Mexico from Texas to Florida. I’m going on week long trip to Disney World in search of incredible HDR images. By the time I’m done with this article, I should have some of those images processed, so I’ll be sure to include a couple at the end of this post!
In part one, we learned just about everything there is to know about how to set up your camera to shoot for HDR. We went over auto exposure bracketing, aperture, ISO, shutter speeds, white balance, metering, et cetera. Hopefully, some of you got the chance to try these settings out on your own whether in the field or just around the house. Today, we are going to hone your HDR skills in the field. What gear should you take with you into the field? What about composition and light? How do you know when you nailed the shot? All of these topics will be touched on in the coming paragraphs. Finally, we will go over a nice workflow of what to do with your images once you get back home to your computer. This is known as “image or file management.” Be prepared, there is going to be a LOT of information today. If you love HDR as much as I do, you will love every minute of it. Let’s take the jump.
There are two ways to approach a photo shoot or photo walk. You can do no planning at all and just see what you can find, or you can plan every shot and place out beforehand. I think each option has its place. Either way, there a few things you need to always do before going out. I went over most of the gear you’ll need in the previous section, so I won’t get too in depth there. Here is a checklist of things you’ll need, and I’ll also include the equipment I use for reference.
Camera with AEB feature
Backup camera body if you have one
At least one lens (preferably 28mm or wider)
Extra lenses if you have them. It’s good to have a variety of lenses to cover multiple situations you may find yourself in. Here’s a list of lenses I ALWAYS carry with me no matter what.
A sturdy tripod to keep your camera still
A good tripod head that allows you to level the camera easily and quickly
A hot shoe level to make your images straight and pretty
Plenty of memory cards to fill up
There are plenty of times where I just grab my gear and see what I can find (the first option). But when I have a trip planned, like Disney World, there are so many resources at my disposal that can drastically increase my chance of getting great shots.
This is probably my single most valuable resource for planning my photo shoots. Google Earth has been around for a while now, but it keeps getting better and better. With the addition of 3D building at popular destination, and the ability to get in close with higher and higher resolution images, Google Earth is taking us closer and closer to feeling like we are actually there!
If you have an iPhone, SoLuna is a great resource for planning when to head out. This app tells you the exact times (based on your location) for sunrise and sunset. It also gives you times for civil, nautical, and astro twilight. If you ever go and shoot a sunset with a bunch of photographers, you’ll notice something interesting: As soon as the sun dips below the horizon, everyone leaves! The truth is, that’s just the beginning to getting some amazing travel and landscape images.
If you have the iPhone 3Gs or later, this app will use the built in compass of your phone to tell you exactly where in the sky the sun will rise or set. How cool is that!? Just hold the phone and pivot around until the sun on the phone is directly between you and the horizon. This can be used to pre-visualize your scene and determine how you want to frame it. It can also be used to determine what time the sun will rise and set.
You’ve learned all about the camera settings needed for HDR. You’ve prepared your gear and even picked a place to go out and shoot. You’ve researched the place and have at least an idea of the shots you’d like to get and where to get them. Now it’s time to actually take your first set of brackets. The term “brackets” simply refers to your set of auto bracketed exposures. As we discussed earlier, this can be 3, 5, 7 or even 9 or more depending on your camera and set up. When you set up your first shot, pay attention to the way you frame it. Unless the symmetry of the scene absolutely calls for it, try and avoid centering your subject in the middle of the frame. Placing your subject off center is visually pleasing to the eye. Some cameras will have “rule of thirds” grids built in. Use these guides to line up your subject. This also applies to your horizon line. Instead of having your horizon shoot straight through the middle of the frame, line it up on one of the “rule of thirds” lines. If you really want to get scientific about how you frame your scene, study and learn the “Golden Ratio,” Fibonacci’s ratio of 1 to 1.618. I am a full believer that this ratio produces even more interesting compositions for the viewer in a sub-conscious sort of way.
When you have your scene composed perfectly, it’s time to shoot off some brackets! If time permits, I always like to do a little pre-shot checklist of my camera settings. First, I check my white balance. There was a little debate on the last post on the importance of getting white balance correct in camera. I think this really just comes down to preference and your approach towards post processing. In most situations, you can correct white balance in post if it’s off a bit. But I think relying on post is a dangerous mindset. There are occasions where your white balance can be so far off that it can’t be recovered or corrected. Or in order to correct it you must sacrifice the quality of the pixels. My approach is to get as much done in camera as possible so I don’t have to worry about it as much in post. The more images you process on a daily basis, the more important this topic becomes. If I nail my white balance in camera, that means I don’t have to worry about changing my white balance on 2,000 images from a trip or event. This is simply my approach towards it and you are welcome to embrace or ignore it. To get my white balance, I turn on my live view screen on the camera. From there, I can flip through each white balance setting to get the one that is the most accurate. Most of the time, I simply switch to the Kelvin setting and dial in the correct temperature when the colors on screen match what I see with my eye.
After my white balance is set, I’m free to take as many images as I can under those lighting conditions. Next, I double check to make sure my self timer is on so I don’t have to have my hands on the camera. I set my timer to two seconds which is perfect for me. Some cameras only have an option for ten seconds though. Next I determine the aperture I want to use. This just depends on the scene before me. If I want everything in focus I usually start around f/13 or so. Setting the focus ring on the lens to infinity will ensure everything is in focus most of the time. If I want to freeze action in the frame (like water or waves) or if I’m in low light I may choose a lower aperture. Or if I want to create some blur in the background. Now it’s time to determine where and how I’m going to meter the scene. Personally, I use spot metering about 90% of the time. This means that I can set a precise point in my frame to meter off of, and the camera will determine the correct middle exposure (0) for that given point. With that said, I will spot meter off the most important or evenly lit part of the frame. Next, I check to make sure my ISO is as low as possible for the shot I’m taking and that my shutter speed is within the 30 second limit. If I’m taking five exposures and my meter reads that my first frame is going to be 2 seconds or less, I know I’m safe. Why is this? Well, if my first frame is 2 seconds, it’s going to double with each frame if I’m shooting in 1EV intervals (-2,-1,0,+1,+2). So my sequence will be 2 seconds, 4 seconds, 8 seconds, 15 seconds, and 30 seconds. Anything more than 2 seconds on my first bracket means that my later brackets will be off. Finally, it’s time to ensure tack sharp focus. I use my live view screen for this as well. If I’m in a hurry or the situation calls for it, I will just set my focus ring to infinity which makes everything pretty much in focus. But the trick is getting the focus ring set to exactly infinity. I like to zoom in on the my subject to 10x on my live view screen and use the focus ring to micro adjust the scene into tack sharp focus. Ok, am I missing anything? I don’t think so. Now it’s time to shoot. With everything ready to go, I simply press the shutter down once to start my timer and then step back from the camera. Two seconds later I hear the glorious click, click, click, click, click sound of the brackets firing off.
Now it’s time to make sure I got the shot. Again, sometimes I don’t have time do all of this and I have to just have faith that I got the shot. But if time permits, here’s what I do next: First I pull up the last shot on my screen. On Canon cameras, if you press the “info” button with an image on the screen, you can get a screen that shows your histogram. A histogram simply gives you light information for your shot. For HDR, you want your histogram to sweep from one side to the other. For your darker exposures, you want all the light to be bunched up on the left side with no information on the right. As you scroll through your brackets, the light should start moving from one side to the other. When you get to the brightest exposure, you want the light to be bunched up on the right side, with no information on the left. If you have this, you know that you’ve successfully captured ALL of the light in the scene. Congrats! Now all there is to do is make sure the image is in focus. Just use the zoom function to zoom in tight and scroll around in the image to make sure you got everything tack sharp.
Alright, I hope everyone is still with me! I know at this point there are probably some questions floating around. I know that not all of the settings I mentioned are available on all camera models, so you may have to adjust accordingly for your camera. If you’re confused, be sure to follow me on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) and send me a tweet with your question. You can also leave a comment below this post and I will try and get to it in a timely manner.
Congratulations folks, you’ve taken your first images for HDR and are now ready to get them ready for post processing (the next and last installment of this series). What’s that? You want to get straight to post processing? You don’t want to worry about organizing your files so you find them later? Well, tough! Image management is extremely important, and I refuse to lead you down a path of immanent destruction by not giving you a firm foundation in getting to your files. Simply throwing all your files into the “Pictures” folder on your computer isn’t going to cut it. Folders are there for a reason, among other things. File management organizes your files in a way that makes them easy to locate later, and ensures the files will never be lost or compromised. Ever!
I realize that some people don’t have the money to drop on all this software. However, you should realize that if you want to get into HDR and do it well, you’re simply going to have to invest some money into it. There’s no way around it. The software I use (and have always used) for my file management is Adobe Lightroom. Therefore, that is the software I will be teaching from and giving examples on. If you don’t have Lightroom, don’t like Lightroom, can’t afford Lightroom, et cetera, you will simply need to translate what I’m saying and apply it to your program of choice. Even if that program is simply folders on your hard drive. Lightroom goes for about $299. If you’re a student, you can get it for less. Lightrooms main competition is Apple’s Aperture which goes for about $199. Still, other options for file management are Adobe Bridge or Apple iPhoto. Sure, there are others, and if you have something different just follow along and apply what you can to your software.
The first step to organizing your files is to properly and efficiently import them to your computer. With Lightroom (or your specific program) open, simply connect your camera or card reader to your computer (you can set Lightroom to automatically open the import dialogue when it detects a card or camera connection). A dialogue box will open that will walk you through importing the photos. Be sure to check each section and make sure everything is right. Also, be sure to add blanket keywords to all your images in the metadata. This way, you can simply type in the keywords later as another way of finding them. Before importing the images, the first thing you need to do is come up with a filing system. I’ve tried all kinds of organizational systems, I mean ALL kinds. It’s been an ongoing battle trying to find the best way to do it. I started out organizing all my images and videos by region and place. My file structure looked something like this: Images > United States > Texas > Fort Worth > Sundance Square > all images from that specific place. That system gets out of control quick, especially when you visit Sundance Square often. Or what if I shoot clients there? Now my travel images are mixed in the same folder as client images. Not good. From the direction of a good friend, I eventually settled on a date format for all my images. Now my images are organized like so:
Now let’s go over why I organize my files this way. The main reason is that it’s easy to archive images. Right now I have somewhere around 35,000 images on my hard drives, and some places I shoot at all the time. A system organized by place would get too confusing. Maybe it’s just me, but I always have a pretty good idea of when I went somewhere or when I photographed something. That’s good, because I can simply go into the folders by date if needed and find what I’m looking for. The important thing I do though is I come up with a project name for every photo shoot I do (beforehand). That way, I can just use the finder on my mac and type in the project name (in this case: Key West). If it’s somewhere I go often, I’ll come up with a more specific project name, like “Key West La Concha Hotel.” If I go even go there multiple times, it’s no big deal. With the finder, it will find all folders from that project name and I will just have to choose a date. By putting the date in front of the project name, the computer automatically puts them in order by date, which is very convenient. This entire system is only here as a backup of sorts. Now it’s time to put images into Lightroom Collections.
It’s one thing to organize your images into folders and do it well, I think I’ve accomplished that. But there is still no getting away from having to drill down countless folders to get to your images at times. Especially ones from a while back. That’s where Lightroom’s Collection feature comes in. At any given time, I may be working on multiple photography projects at once. I may be editing travel images, a commercial shoot, a wedding, a senior session, some images from vacation, and some others from a family get together. Collections give me an easy and quick way to get to images that I’m presently interested in. Collections take up no space on the hard drive, and they have no effect on your folder structure. They are simply organized through Lightroom and through Lightroom alone. To add images to a collection, just select and drag them into the collection folder. This ONLY organizes them into this folder through Lightroom, the images still exist in their original folder. The only difference is, now you have a quick one click way of getting to them, instead of drilling down. Any editing you do to the image in Lightroom happens to the image in it’s original folder as well, so when your done with the images, just remove them from the collection and your done.
To be honest, I don’t do much rating of my HDR photos. I do all kinds of rating for client shoots to select just the ones I want to edit, and then further ratings for ones that have been edited, ones that need changes, and so on. I even use flags and color ratings for this sort of thing. I just haven’t found much need for it with HDR. I simply throw my images from a travel shoot into my unprocessed travel collection and scrub through them to find a set I like. I don’t mind scrolling through hundreds or thousands of images, because I’m simply interested in finding a set that catches my eye. I’ve processed photos recently that I wrote off as inferior a year ago, yet now they are some of my favorite images. I want all of my travel images to have an equal opportunity chance of making it to post processing. If I rated them, they wouldn’t have that chance. Again, this is simply MY way of doing things, you can take it or leave it.
What good is an organized and efficient file structure if it’s not backed up? I learned the importance of backing up files the hard way, through losing everything. Hard drives aren’t built like they used to be, they fail and they fail way too often. I’ve lost three hard drives in the last year through various incidents. One was lost in a power surge the one time I didn’t have the hard drive plugged into a surge protector. The other two were just failures of the hard drive. The first time I lost everything. That was all it took for me. The second two times I had everything backed up. Here’s my current system:
Every backup system is scalable. Therefore, no backup system is right for every person. I’ll share my system here, and you can take it and apply it to your situation as needed. Feel free to tweak it to your needs and make it your own. I’m not saying this is the best backup system out there, but it has worked great for me and I can sleep at night knowing my images are safe. Now, I don’t keep any full res images on my computer. They are all stored on external hard drives that stay at home on my desk. I have archived hard drives for older work, and two current drives for current work. One drive has a partition on it for time machine which makes hourly backups of my main computer. I keep all of my photos on the external drives in the date format that I mentioned earlier. All of my images are then backed up in duplicate to Smug Mug offsite backup. Smug Mug is great because for one yearly price you can upload unlimited images to their servers. In addition to Smug Mug, I use Backblaze to backup everything (computer, all hard drives, images, everything). With that, everything on my computer and hard drives are backed up in triplicate. If my computer crashes, I have my external hard drives with time machine backup. If my house burns down, I have everything backed up offsite at Backblaze in California. If my house burns down, and California burns down; there are more important things going on than my photos!
Wow, that was a lot of information! I hope you were all able to keep up and make it this far. Again, if you have any questions about any of this, leave a comment below or send me a tweet at @jamesdbrandon. File management is the foundation to a good photography work flow. It let’s you sleep at night, it puts a smile on your face when you think about it, and it makes life easy when you need to get to any image in your archives. Please don’t underestimate the importance of this topic! Unfortunately, I think the majority of people don’t have anywhere close to this kind of system in place. I meet far too many people who just don’t think about this kind of stuff. People who have their whole lives on their computer with absolutely no system of backup in place. Or, their only system is a time machine backup sitting next to their computer. Come up with a good system for organizing and protecting your work, you won’t ever be sorry.
The next installment is probably the most anticipated of the three, so I will try and have it ready as soon as possible. In the next installment, we will go over all things post processing. I will share how I process my HDR images, what programs I use, how I use them, and why I process the way I do. I’ll also go over the importance of coming up with your own system. Stay tuned!
Finally, as promised, here are a couple HDR images I got from Disney World. Enjoy!