I think a lot of people consider HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography as something special in that it should only be used to make an image look far away from how reality actually appears. That’s not exactly true. While HDR photography does have a reputation for helping some photography look freakishly strange, if you want your photo to look normal, it’s not difficult to do that with type of technique. The freakish photos I’m referring to were generally made that way after the HDR process took place. I guess you could say that the HDR transition opened the door, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
So, what is HDR photography? Well, it’s merely a method for revealing a wider dynamic range within a scene. Multiple photos, with different exposures, of the same scene are captured and then the cluster of photos is run through a process in an image editor. Of course, the image editor must have the capabilities necessary to translate the varied exposures it sees in the cluster of photos into one “high dynamic range” image, but these types of editors are readily available today. One such editor is Adobe Camera Raw, which is part of Photoshop. I just like referring to it as its own application because it’s so far reaching and can accomplish so much.
In today’s post, I’d like to run through the process of dealing with what’s referred to as “bracketed photography” in Adobe Camera Raw. “Bracketing” consists of taking two or more photos, each with a different exposure setting. The reason someone might do this is to access those areas of a subject that are a challenge to capture with just one image. The process goes like this; a photographer sees a subject that he or she would like to photograph. They notice that the subject is either overexposed, underexposed or both in certain areas. To manage the situation, the photographer will take, for example, three pictures. The first picture will be underexposed, in order to reduce some of the brightness. The second picture will be taken with the camera’s recommended normal settings, which will give an average result that’s expected and the third picture will intentionally overexposed, in an effort to bring some of the shadows out from hiding. Merged together and processed by an image editor, the resulting image can show the best of three worlds. A world with varied exposures that aren’t too bright or too dark throughout. One with a dynamic range that reaches much further than any one photograph could ever display on its own.
Capturing the Scene
When I thought about writing this post, I knew I’d have to find a subject that’s been consistently difficult to take a good picture of. That’s when I thought about the flowers we have in our back yard. Photographing flowers has been a real challenge for photographers for a long time because the colors sometimes look completely blown out under normal conditions. You’ll see what I’m talking about below when you see the images. The flowers I photographed were pink that that pink is totally overexposed while the rest of the image looks fine.
I ended up using the exposure compensation feature on my Canon Rebel T7i to take seven pictures, each with a different exposure setting. I began at the bottom with very dark photos and worked my way up to the top with very bright pictures. Take a look.
By the way, the method I used for created this multi-exposure image was to create a stack of layers in Adobe Photoshop and then to use guides to help organize the images into sections. Then I deleted certain parts of each layer to reveal the layer below.
Here’s a screen capture of the guides.
And here are the layers all lined up.
Creating an HDR Image to Expand Dynamic Range
I’ve done a bit of experimentation with these images and I’ve come to conclude that they aren’t all necessary. Actually, using only two of them gave me the best result and believe it or not, the two that I chose are the darkest and the lightest. So, for this demonstration, I’ll use the first photo and the seventh photo to create the composition. What I’m going for is the widest dynamic range I can get.
To start off, I’ll select both of the images in Adobe Bridge. Then, once selected, I’ll open both of them into Camera Raw. Here’s what they’ll look like in Camera Raw. By the the way, I captured these images in RAW mode.
Now that I have the source images in Camera Raw, I can work through the simple process of converting them into an HDR image. To do this, I’ll select both images and then click on the small menu in the upper right part of the left column in which the thumbnails currently reside.
After that, I’ll click the Merge to HDR menu item and as a result, the HDR Merge Preview palette will appear.
Inside this preview, I’ll see the final result of the combination of photographs. There are also a few options that I’d like to go over.
Under the Options heading, there’s the opportunity to Align Images. This is especially helpful when not using a tripod and for capturing landscape scenes. Camera Raw will align the edges in the photos as best it can. Even for up close shots, this feature can be helpful, but not as much. Yesterday, when taking these shots, there was a slight breeze. The flower swayed somewhat, but the background stayed still. I suspect this application would find it challenging to align a moving subject with a fixed background. It did okay though. I really tried to wait for the wind to die down, so any alignment efforts were marginal.
The other option under this heading is called Apply Auto Tone and Color Adjustments. This does what it says and if selected, after merging the images, you’ll notice that some sliders in the Basic panel have been moved. That’s Camera Raw making the best of how it thinks the image should appear with corrections applied.
Finally, we can Deghost the image. This is an attempt by Camera Raw to reduce or remove any bright or shadowy areas along the edges of the final image. There are three options for this, Low, Medium and High and you can even show a red Overlay on the areas Camera Raw removed the ghosting. Just be careful with this option because it takes a while to complete and if you start clicking around while it’s working, Camera Raw will likely crash.
When finished, I’ll click the OK button for the final merge to take place. This will take a few seconds and at the end of the process, a new DNG file will be created and you’ll have the option to name and store that file anywhere you wish. The file thumbnail will appear in the left column of Camera Raw with the other thumbnails.
Now that that’s done, I can check out the settings in the Basic panel and make any adjustments I see fit.
After a while of playing around, I’ll get this as the final image.
As you can see, there are no underexposed or overexposed areas of the photo. While a picture of a landscape would add some “wow” factor to this, these flowers exemplify what I was after, and that’s a greater dynamic range than any individual photo can show.
I hope I clearly explained what bracketed photography is and how to create an HDR image in Adobe Camera Raw. If you have any questions regarding this post, please let me know in the comment section down below. Thanks for reading!