HDR Photography with Eric B. Wood

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By JOBY Inc on

A few weeks ago, we asked New York-based photographer Eric Wood to share some of his tips and tricks for HDR photography. We were curious about HDR and he was stoked to share with us. Instead of a simple list of tips and tricks, he came back to us with this awesome discussion about his HDR philosophy, his gear, how he post-processes and how he prints. Get ready to delve into the controversial world of HDR photography with Eric!  

As I’m sitting here trying to decide how to begin this post I am thinking of all the wonderful tutorials, amazing websites and awesome photographers devoted to HDR. There are lots of them…and most of them are very, very good. In fact, I learned (and still learn) about HDR from these very same resources. I’d like to think I came from the school of hard-knocks when it came to HDR but the truth is a simple Google search landed me a wealth of information from which my own passion for it grew. The base of learning this technique is already out there so rather than simply regurgitating information that already exists, I’d like to take a new approach and address a few things that aren’t out there yet. My hope is that I can shine some new light and make your life a little easier as you comb through this awesome, yet controversial technique.

Location: Cambridge, New York
Gear: Nikon D90 | Sigma 10-20
Shot: 3 Exposures (-2, 0, +2)
Tripod: GorillaPod SLR Zoom with Ballhead

Awesome HDR Tutorials
Stuck in Customs HDR Tutorial
Cambridge in Color High Dynamic Range Tutorial
Farbspiel Photography

Develop your Philosophy
So, here’s the issue with HDR. Some people love it and some people hate it. Some people think it is the future while some people think it should die where is stands. Some people think it is photography while others argue it is no such thing. Everyone has an opinion. Understanding these issues and knowing what your answers are goes a long way toward developing your HDR belief system. Notice I said “knowing what your answers are” and not “what the accepted answers are”. To use the old cliche, there is no right answer.

Since we are talking about philosophy,  I suppose this is a great segway to introduce you to my HDR beliefs. When I hear people talking smack on HDR or I read a heated blog post where HDR is referred to as a virus, I can’t help but chuckle to myself. But I also understand their point of view. For hundreds of years people have been capturing scenes with cameras and portraying it as reality, then along comes HDR. When someone views an HDR image with their photography goggles on, that person is compelled to conclude that the image is not a photograph. It doesn’t capture a scene or a moment in time and so it doesn’t have a place in the photography community. And you know what? I agree!

What? Did I actually say that? Yes, I believe that HDR and it’s process is not photography, and should not be passed off as photography. To me, HDR is imagery. The fact that the same tool—a camera—is used to create the foundation of the process isn’t the most relevant point.

When I go out shooting, I don’t strive to create a photograph, I strive to create an image—a scene that represents the way I choose to remember it, not necessarily the way I saw it. I want to feel free and not constrained by the shackles of traditional photography dictate as correct or proper technique. Basically, I want my imagination to be free to create what it was intended to create—an image.

Camera Setup
I’ve always been a stubborn guy when it comes to camera setup. I prefer to run a minimal operation when I’m out shooting; I don’t want to lug 50 pounds of gear around all day. So here’s what I do. First, I develop a concept of what I want to shoot. For example, a couple months ago I had the idea to shoot a retro railroad passenger car from the inside. I wanted to create a dramatic, almost ghostly image. Having a clear vision in my head allowed me to develop the right setup before I left. Railroad cars are fairly narrow and I knew I wanted to capture the interior seating in a very bold and symmetrical way. The only lens that was going to give me the results I envisioned was my 10-20mm. I bolted it on my body (a Nikon D90) and considered it done. I also knew I wanted to shoot brackets (-2, 0, +2) to cover the dynamic range of the image. No problem. Most all cameras have the option to turn on exposure bracketing. I always want the option of having all the luscious details in both the highlights and shadows (even if I don’t use them).  To make your life easier when bracketing, don’t forget your tripod and remote shutter release. Finally, I slip a lens cloth and an extra memory card in my pocket and I am ready to go. I usually shoot with a battery grip and have 2 batteries in camera. If you are gripless, toss an extra battery in your pocket or bag.

Location: Wiscasset, Waterville & Farmington Railway, Alna, Maine
Gear: Nikon D90 | Sigma 10-20
Shot: 3 Exposures (-2, 0, +2)
Tripod: GorillaPod SLR Zoom with Ballhead

That’s it. A setup that has everything I need and nothing I don’t.  I would prefer to have a refined, reliable setup than lug around gear that inevitably will not be used. If I had instead envisioned shooting the water flowing through a nearby stream, I may have opted for my 50mm lens with a neutral density filter. But again, that’s it. No extra lenses, no bags of cords, flashes, batteries, or other apparatus. Just an idea and the essential tools to execute it. I know what you are thinking. What if you came across a situation that required a lens you left in your bag at home? I don’t let it stop me. It is the perfect opportunity to hone your creativity and execute a unique image that others would might pass because they didn’t have the “correct” tools.

Wait, this is the JOBY blog, right? Yep, I love my Gorillapod and I truly feel it is an invaluable part of HDR imagery and photography. I know there are HDR professionals out there that can get reliable results handholding the camera through the brackets, but that’s not me. I really prefer to have a tripod for stabilization. Here is the problem though: tripods are not allowed in so many areas. Rather than fight with a security guard, I just get creative with my Gorillapod. I do one of two things:

1. Attach the GorillaPod to my camera and wrap the legs up the side of the camera so it resembles a flash handle. You are no longer carrying a tripod but a trendy handle accessory for your great camera. This is even easier if you run a smaller, compact setup.

2. Sling the camera around you neck like any other tourist and slip the GorillaPod in your back pocket with your shirt untucked. That’ll cover it nicely. Careful though! In this day and age, the odds of you passing through a metal detector in an area that forbids tripods is actually pretty high, and that super-durable Ballhead or Ballhead X is made of metal. That is going to bring attention to this mystery item that resembles a tripod. Just try to get through security at the Empire State Building and you’ll know what I mean.

Both of these approaches have worked well for me in the past, so choose one and get some camera stabilization going for those killer photos! It definitely makes a difference.

A Quick Example

Location: Cinderella’s Castle, Disney World
Gear: Nikon D90 | Sigma 10-20
Shot: 3 Exposures (-2, 0, +2)
Tripod: GorillaPod SLR Zoom with Ballhead

Here’s the deal with this example. I was wandering around Cinderella’s Castle all the while knowing I wanted to capture an image that was different than what I’d seen in the past. Images of the castle are commonly taken from the front of the castle or the side over the small pond. But I wanted something different. I wanted to capture the imagination of the castle; the hustle, the environment, but most of all, the legacy. Yes, the legacy. Seriously, this place is iconic. How could I be there, with all my gear (again, lens, camera, Gorillapod)  and shoot the place the same way millions of others have? I couldn’t. I dropped my GorillaPod on a bench, composed the shot and fired off 3 photos in 2 stop increments. A side note though, I didn’t have a problem in Disney World with my full-size tripod; they just suck to carry around all day.

Post-Processing
Now the fun begins! The first thing I did was pull the photos into Lightroom 3 and organize the 3 exposures. Next I export the 3 exposures to Photomatix 4.1 to generate the HDR image. Once some minor adjustments are made in Photomatix, the image is imported back to lightroom and developed. There is no standard set of processes for the development; it is whatever the specific image calls for. Typically, I adjust the Luminosity, Gamma and White & Black Points. Strength is almost always set to 100 and the Lighting Adjustment is usually on Natural+. Again, there are lots of amazing tutorials out there on Photomatix and HDR so don’t hesitate to check them out.

Next I sent the image to Photoshop CS5 for the final adjustments. Typically some curves, saturation and levels adjustments are in order, but by making use of layers and masks I localized the adjustments to specific areas of the photos. Masking is really an invaluable part of HDR processing as it allows you to focus your adjustments on specific areas of the image. Next, I added some detail to the photo by using Topaz Adjust plugin and finally I blended an awesome vintage texture over the final image. There you have it. A unique HDR image of that captures the imagination and spirit of the scene.


Post-Processing Resources
Farbspiel Photography HDR Cookbook
Before the Coffee PhotoMatix Tutorial

Textures
I love blending textures with HDR images. Again, this goes back to my willingness to understand that HDR is not photography but rather imagery. An awesome texture is exactly the touch that takes an image from ordinary to extraordinary.

Location: Pemaquid Point Lighthouse, Maine
Gear: Nikon D90 | Sigma 10-20
Shot: 3 Exposures (-2, 0, +2)
Tripod: Tripod with Joby SLR-Zoom Ballhead

When I first arrived at this spot I had a pretty good idea what I wanted to capture. I knew the coastline here was treacherous. There are crazy rock-faces leading to the water, the waves are constantly crashing with amazing force and the area is covered with signs warning people to enjoy at their own risk. The scene was great. The sun had just come up and there was a great glow bouncing off the lighthouse itself. All I could think was how amazing it is that the lighthouse has withstood nearly 200 years of coastal rains, wind, rain and snow.  When I saw the final HDR image, I knew something was missing. The image was remarkably peaceful, but I really wanted to capture an image that was reminiscent of the tattered and torn coastline itself.

I jumped on Creative Commons and did a quick search for “grunge textures” and was excited to find one that would really make the image pop. I pulled the texture into Photoshop and simply dragged and dropped it over my original HDR. This process puts the texture on its own layer just above the HDR image. Pretty simple, right?

Now here is where the blending happens. All you have to do is make sure your texture layer is active and change the blend mode from “normal” to whichever mode gives you the effect you are looking for. In this example, “overlay” was perfect because this mode preserves the highlights and shadows the original image. You may find the texture too strong. In which case, reduce the opacity of the texture layer. One important consideration is that you don’t want the texture to detract from a significant focal point of the image. Here in this example you can see there are a few very distracting texture nuggets on the fence and lighthouse which I could have easily removed by healing the texture. Keep that in mind and you won’t make the same mistake I did. But on the flip-side, I was able to capture the scene in all its glory—rough & rugged, yet amazingly beautiful.

Texture Resources
Flickr Textures4Layers
Flicker Creative Commons Textures

Printing
It is amazing to me how the output of photography and imagery has changed over the last couple of decades. At one time, the only real output was photographic prints. You’d shoot a great shot, have it printed and enjoy it for years as it hung on your wall framed in all its glory. Over the past decade or so, the shift to a purely digital output has begun. No longer do we envision a final product to be one that hangs boldly on the wall but instead it is one that is displayed proudly across your website and social media outlets.

But don’t fret, printing is not dead. In fact, the ability to hold something tangible after a long day of shooting and a long night of post-processing is an amazing reward. Luckily, HDR images are remarkably print-worthy. In similar fashion to the rest of this post, I’ll save you the basic “get it printed professionally” speech and just jump right to a couple of print products that represent HDR very well.

1. Metallic prints. These are simply amazing! Metallic papers are typically available at any professional print shop and give your prints a “super-gloss” look. Technically, this paper has a pearlescent finish that renders amazing depth and bold color. And the best part, the cost is only slightly higher that standard prints

2. Metal prints. Whereas metallic prints are printed on a paper, metal prints are printed directly on a sheet of aluminum. In very much the same manner a car or a motorcycle is painted, a base-coat of white is applied to the aluminum sheet prior to your image being fused onto the metal. The result is a stunningly vivid piece with rich colors and bold detail that will beat even your LCD display.

The Future of HDR
I am a firm believer that HDR imagery is here to stay. After all, combining multiple exposures to create a scene has been around almost as long as camera technology itself.  Photography has evolved in the digital age, and HDR is just an expression of those expanded capabilities. When the open-mindedness of creative people combines with an increase in hardware and software options, more people experiment and change the way we see the world.

Have a  specific question for Eric?  Want to share your thoughts on HDR? Let us know in the comments! 

 

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