If you like cartoon candy cane colors HDR or tone mapped imagery certainly can easily produce that for you but you don’t have to settle for that. I use HDR techniques quite often on architectural and product shots but strive for a more realistic appearance. My goal is to increase the amount of highlight and shadow detail without increasing the contrast between colors.
As with all HDR (High Dynamic Range) imagery the process starts with a series of bracketed exposures. You need to have your camera set to either manual control or aperture priority as you want the ƒ-stop to remain constant between exposures. Ideally you should also switch off autofocus as well just to make sure your camera doesn’t do anything unexpected while you make the exposures. It also helps to have the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod as well.
Ideally you start with a wide enough bracket so the darkest frame captures as much detail as possible in the highlights and you increase exposure in one-stop increments until you are not clipping exposure in the deepest shadows.
For this photograph that required five frames. The darkest frame was shot at 1/100 @ ƒ/8:
And the brightest at 1/6 @ ƒ/8:
Now here’s a trick about making the exposures: don’t necessary limit your self to bracketing around where your camera’s meter is telling you the best exposure is, For this series that was the second brightest (ƒ/8 @ 1/13):
But if I had only shot a bracket around that exposure I would have lost many of the highlight details in the walls, pews and chandeliers. So start and end your bracketing a stop or two beyond where the camera’s histogram is telling you should, so way you have the luxury of choosing the frames you want to work with later.
I use Lightroom 3.x for most of my raw processing but when working towards an HDR composite I make as few adjustments as possible – I don’t touch any of the basic develop controls (Exposure, Recovery, Fill, Blacks, Clarity, Brightness and Contrast). I will use the sharpening tool but in Lightroom or ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) this is a mild capture sharpener and the Noise reduction settings as needed. I’ll also check for chromatic aberrations and correct for those if they are occurring, and I’ll try different camera calibration settings to see what basically looks best. Whatever settings I settle on I’ll apply to all of the images I am going to use for the HDR /tone mapping blending composite.
There are several HDR processing programs like Nik HDR Efex Pro which has oodles of controls and presets:
Adobe “Merge to HDR Pro” script (path: File >Automate > Merge to HDR Pro) in Photoshop CS5 is pretty good and has a much simpler control set:
My favorite more realistic, natural feeling work is however is the Enfuse plug-in for Lightroom. It comes from Timothy Armes and is available from http://photographers-toolbox.com/blog/2008/12/lrenfuse-for-interiors/
In truth Enfuse is not an HDR process: it blends exposures. They explain Exposure blending this way:
“Exposure blending essentially involves examining a group of photos with varying exposures and creating a final photo, pixel by pixel, by choosing the best exposed pixel from all of the photos.”
HDR on the other hand: “…uses 32 bits per pixel, and these bits are used to store a floating-point value. …the result is that an HDR image allows for each pixel to contain practically any exposure value, so if the difference between the darkest and lightest parts of an image is 20 stops, this will be faithfully preserved in the HDR’s file format.”
I added two post processing adjustments to get the final photo you see above. First I adjusted the color balance using the Curves adjustment tool set for middle gray and Color layer blending mode; and then with a second Adjustments layer, this time set to Brightness made the midtones just a little brighter.
I look forward to your feedback.