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Creating A Tasteful HDR Image from Verona, Italy


Verona’s Bottega Vini at Dusk


So much of what you find on line and even in galleries these days that passes for HDR or High Dynamic Range imaging is garish, so obviously HDR. Yes, it can be striking. The highly-saturated colors, the dynamic contrast, the haloing in skies and the overtly surreal quality is hard to miss. To me, the real challenge with HDR is to impart some of these qualities with a modicum of taste. I’ve tried to accomplish this with the image above taken just after dusk on a very narrow street in Verona, Italy.

This is one of my favorite images from our travels around Italy. I was wandering the streets and alleys of the old town of Verona just after the sun had set, stalking images. You never know where you’ll find something. Up a short side street off the main pedestrian street, I found this lovely scene of what I understand to be one of Verona’s finest wine bottegas.

The street lights and business lights had just come on. It was a very narrow street. I crammed myself and my tripod against the opposite wall as close to parallel with the front of the bottega as possible to cut down on the severe angle. Sure I could’ve used a wider angle than my 28-300 allowed, to cut down the angle more, but when I’m out exploring, I travel light. Besides, this angle is just fine.

Dusk or before dawn seem the best times to work with HDR. Balancing the exposure brackets at these times works better for me for the results I’m after. And of course, not every image lends itself to HDR.  Here, where there is still some light in the sky and where the shadows on the street aren’t too deep, the technique works beautifully. It conveys a feeling I can’t accomplish any other way.

First, there are the brackets. I made five exposure brackets in one stop increments starting two stops over-exposed and progressing to two stops under-exposed. People walked through the scene, a car pulled into its driveway, some guy on a bike passed by during one exposure, and another guy stopped to look at the menu, so patience was necessary. But that’s part of the game and provides a meditative component.

I start with getting a good, medium exposure. I set my camera on Aperture Priority so the shutter speed is what is bracketed. Bracketing the aperture is asking for trouble. Checking my histogram, I adjust my exposure compensation until I get as even a histogram as possible, as neutral an exposure as possible, as few blown out highlights and blocked up shadows as possible.

Then, I set the auto exposure bracketing to five stops and start shooting with a mirror-up cable release for as little vibration and movement from the camera as possible. A tripod is an absolute necessity for shooting HDR. I’ve tried handholding during the day and shooting on motor drive but it just doesn’t cut it. There’s always movement between frames. Maybe a camera that shoots a burst of ten or more fps could do it, but five fps is pretty hopeless.

After these exposures, I changed angles to the opposite side of the doorway but this angle was much more interesting.

To create the HDR image, I selected the three brackets below to take into Photomatix; the two outer brackets: -2 stops,  +2 stops and the middle, neutral exposure. I exported them straight from Lightroom without any adjustments, just my default import settings. And of course, I exported them as 16 bit ProPhoto RGB images.





After importing and combining the now 16 bit ProPhotoRGB TIFs, Photomatix generates its 32 bit file and a series previews from very strong, through grunge, to black and white and then softer effects. Clicking each preview enlarges it so you can get an idea where to start.

Just for fun, I first went for a very strong effect. After Photomatix processed it and imported it back into Lightroom, this is what I got:


As you can see, the color’s really oversaturated, really fakey fakey (that’s a technical term), obvious halos run along the roof edges and the motorcycle handle and the building is pretty grungy looking.

I messed with the saturation, vibrance, clarity, black clipping and exposure in Lightroom but still it screams HDR!!! Judging from what you find on line or in Flickr if you  search for HDR photography, lots of people like this look. But there’s nothing very subtle about it. I feel that art has a lot to do with subtlety.

I again exported the three RAW images into Photomatix and started this time with what they call Enhancer Painterly, made some adjustments in Photomatix and re-imported it to Lightroom. This was more like it but still, l not good enough, it’s pretty flat:



I messed with the clarity, vibrance, saturation, fill light, black clipping and contrast and came up with this:



I then exported it to Photoshop to use the Content Aware Fill tools and the Patch Tools to get rid of the motorcycle handle, some ghosts from the guy on the bike on the left and to clean up the street a bit this is the final image:



I tried exporting things to Photomatix again and making it a black and white HDR but I think I’d get better a tonal range and contrast changing the final HDR image to black and white in either Lightroom or Nik Color Efex but probably even better with Nik’s Silver Efex, which I don’t own:



Just for fun, here’s a shot I did from the opposite angle looking into the bottega with a nice reflection of the chef in the door’s glass:




Copyright 2012 Dennis Jones/Dreamcatcher Imaging