After attempting to capture the breadth, depth, tonality, and visual emotion of Zion National Park, I have come to the painful realization that I need a new computer.
I usually don’t take issue with my machine’s ponderous pace (having grown up in a small farm town, I find it’s lack of hurriedness somewhat nostalgic), but I’ve been experimenting with something called HDR composite photography (I’ll get into what that means a little later). Basically, I’m taking 20+ photos and merging them in multiple ways to create one gigantic photo. When using a 5-year-old Toshiba laptop with the memory of a goldfish, that process takes a lot of time and patience…..but especially time.
Many of the photos below took multiple hours to create. I just want you to keep that in mind when you think, “It looks like a normal national park snapshot to me.” IT TOOK ME HOURS!
Anyway, I’m doing something a little different with this post. I’m doing a step-by-step tutorial. Generally, I don’t feel like I have anything unique to share, and this is no exception, but my therapist tells me I need to try new things. So, if you just want to look at the pretty pictures but don’t care how the pictures got pretty, feel free to skip to the bottom.
What is HDR photography?
HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. It’s a digital photography technique that tries to achieve what the human eye is naturally good at. Here’s an example:
You’re standing inside a dimly lit room looking out a window at a bright winter scene. Your eyes even out the light extremes so you can see both the details of the room you’re in as well as the details of the very bright scene outside.
Cameras don’t do this nearly as well. They depict a limited range of light which means that the bright areas are often completely washed out and the dark areas have no detail. HDR means taking multiple exposures (meaning the camera shutter is open for different amounts of time) of the exact same shot and combining them to even out the extremes. The photo above was created that way.
If you ever mention the acronym “HDR” to a photography purist, you may be surprised to find vehement vitriol against the technique. Through all their wailing and whining, what they’re really trying to communicate is that they hate photos that are over processed. It’s pretty much the same as saying, “I hate burnt toast.” Nobody likes burnt toast.
HDR is a technique, and like all techniques, it can be taken to the extreme. Personally, I prefer to use HDR in such a way that you can’t tell I used HDR. My goal is simply to portray what my eyes saw and my heart felt when I looked at something. HDR is a tool I use to do that.
What is composite photography?
Composite photography involves taking multiple photos and combining them into one. That could mean superimposing a piece of a photo onto another photo, merging a photo with a texture, or combining several photos to create a panorama.
This photo is a composite of two composite photos (Inception, anyone?). I took 27 zoomed photos of this mountain and then combined them into one huge photo. I did it again two days later (that’s Utah weather for you) from the exact same spot. I then meshed the two huge composite photos together to create the photo below.
I became interested with panoramic composite photography after visiting Rodney Lough Jr.’s photo gallery in San Francisco. Rodney is basically the best wilderness photographer in the world. He uses large format film and takes incredible panoramic photos which are blown up to enormous proportions. One of the photos in the gallery was more than nine feet wide but still had some of the most incredible clarity I had ever seen.
In an attempt to get close to that same grandeur, I overcome the limitations of my “prosumer” digital camera (a Nikon D3100 DSLR) by combining multiple shots into a JPEG file with 169,429,040 pixels. Basically, I want my landscape photos to be capable of being printed as large as Rodney’s.
What is HDR composite photography?
Ok, now it get’s crazy. So, with HDR photography, I take three photos of the exact same thing and combine them together into one photo with dynamic range. With composite photography, I take multiple zoomed photos and mesh them into one huge photo to show a wide scene. With HDR composite photography, I combine multiple HDR photos into one huge panorama photo meaning that a composite image comprised of 10 zoomed shots would actually require 30 photos to create.
If your corpus callosum didn’t just splatter on the inside of your cranium, then you’re not human.
How to do it
Ok, so enough theoretical chit chat. Let’s talk about how to actually do it.
First, find a large subject you’d like to photograph that has lighting extremes. I chose the cliffs above the Upper Emerald Pool in Zion National Park because of the shadows on the cliff and the reflective surface of the rock that was in the sun. Make sure you’re using a tripod to keep your camera completely stationary and to keep track of what portion of the scene you’re photographing. I also highly suggest setting your camera to take RAW images rather than JPEGs. The reasoning behind that is complex, but basically a RAW image is like moldable clay while JPEGs are more like dry clay. The RAW image allows you a lot more leeway when editing and changing levels.
NOTE: If you do not have a photo editing program that can read RAW files, then don’t bother with it.
TIP: If you’re photographing a subject with varying distances, use auto focus to focus on the focal point of the scene. Then switch your camera to manual focus to take all of the photos for your composite shot. This will create an even depth of field for the whole image.
In order to create an HDR photo, you need to take two or more exposures of the exact same shot. Many digital cameras have a feature called “bracketing” which means that your camera will take three photos with different exposures automatically. This is a fantastic feature that my camera does NOT have, so I have to manually adjust my shutter speed to get what I need. This sometimes results in me bumping my camera slightly (my Wal-Mart tripod isn’t exactly rock solid) or not doing it fast enough to catch clouds in the same spot for all three photos.
Notice how the image on the far left is light enough to show detail in the shadow areas but is far too bright to show detail in the clouds. The image on the far right is too dark to show detail in the shadow areas but allows us to see the clouds clearly as well as the deep blue color of the sky.
Once I have the RAW images on my computer, I compare the different shots using Adobe Bridge to make sure I select the ones with the best clarity. Even if the photos look exactly the same on the screen, sometimes a closer inspection will show that one is actually quite a bit clearer. Adobe Bridge’s comparison tool makes this an extremely easy process.
I then rename the photos I’m going to use to keep them organized.
When selecting photos to create and HDR image with (which is the next step), you can’t actually see thumbnails of the photos, so it’s important that you rename the photos in an organized way to better facilitate that process. What I do is keep the original file name and add tags to the end like HDR 1-1, HDR 1-2, HDR 2-1, etc. That way I know which three photos out of the 27 photos I’m using will combine to create which HDR image.
TIP: The image above shows two kinds of file types. NEF files are what RAW images are called when taken with a Nikon camera. XMP files are created when an image is altered at all in Adobe Bridge. We’re just worried about the RAW files in this instance.
Now we start combining photos using computer wizardry. To create the HDR images, I’m using Adobe Photoshop CS5, but the process is very similar in just about every other version of Photoshop. I click File–>Automate–>Merge to HDR Pro. When I do that, this little window pops up which allows me to select which photos I want merge. This is the part where the renamed image files become EXTREMELY handy. Make sure to check the “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images” box before clicking “OK.” If your images aren’t exactly the same, this will fix that problem.
Now I have a preview of my HDR image with some sliders that I can manipulate it with. This is where you need to be careful. You can get all kinds of crazy with the gamma, saturation, and edge glow and burn the crap out of your toast. If you like burnt toast, then feel free.
I took a very conservative approach and just tried to give some more life to the photo in a natural looking way. I wrote down exactly what settings I used and then did the same thing for eight more HDR photos.
TIP: If you have clouds or something in the shot that moved slightly among the three images, make sure to check the “Remove Ghosts” box at the top left. That will fix the problem.
At this point, I’ve created nine HDR images that I now want to merge into one large panoramic image. I do this by going to File–>Automate–>Photomerge. I now have this box pop up where I select which photos I want to merge. They don’t have to be in any specific order for it to work, but you definitely need adequate overlap among the photos for Photoshop to stitch it together.
The difficult part about it is deciding which layout is going to work best for the scene you’re looking at. If it’s a panoramic landscape, Auto generally works just fine. In my case, I have a very dynamic scene where I’m at the base of a tall cliff looking almost straight up.
The first attempt was a complete failure.
The second attempt was a complete failure.
I finally figured out that Spherical was the best layout choice for this angle. Unfortunately, the first two mistakes took up A LOT of time.
I cropped it down to be the biggest rectangular shape I could make it and then started the editing process. That would be a tutorial for another day, but mostly it involved some dodging, vignetting, contrasting, and sharpening.
And for those of you who didn’t care how the photos got pretty, here is the Zion National Park gallery with a few St. George temple photos (the black and white photo is an HDR image, and the other photo is a composite image that I edited a dozen people out of, so be impressed).