Monday, December 27, 2010

hdr - scott kelby - and me

One down and one to go. Only New Years is left to survive and then the days return to normalcy. I'm not saying that I'm a grinch, by any means. I do admit that the days become somewhat stressful. As soon as I celebrate the ending of this year's madness, I'll be counting the days until next year's chaos.

Today, I've decided to post a video. It is a quasi tutorial about HDR photography. The star of the show is the one and only Scott Kelby. Why quasi? Well it only shows how one would actually shoot for HDR, it does not show how to actually create the HDR in post. I briefly touch on how that is accomplished. Briefly? You'll soon understand why this is not an HDR tutorial, per say.

Who the hell is Scott Kelby?

I have not just chosen some random schmuck to be the video star of my blog post today. Scott Kelby is the Photoshop king. Some of his credits are but not limited to, president and co-founder of NAPP (National Association of Photoshop Professionals), editor and publisher of Photoshop User and Layers magazines and is also the author of almost 50 award winning books. These books are targeted towards digital photographers. I admit, The first book that I bought regarding photo editing was written by Scott Kelby. It was back in the days of CS2. The book was titled The Photoshop CS2 book for Digital Photographers. His writing is fantastic. Aside from being extremely funny, his tutorials make for simple understanding. Scott's books have enhanced my photoshop knowledge exponentially. Even if you have advanced knowledge of how to edit your photos in Photoshop, I would still recommend his books. I could bet the farm that there are techniques that he teaches, that you did not know existed. Each time I upgrade my CS versions, I go and grab the latest edition of this book. I never know what secrets will be unleashed.

So, this is why I have chosen Scott Kelby as today's guest star. I think his credentials speak for themselves.

What on Earth is HDR?

I'm sure there are plenty of readers that know what HDR is. On the other hand, I'm guessing that there are readers that, have no clue, or have heard the term, or know the term and know what an HDR image even looks like but have no idea how the process was achieved.

HDR is otherwise know as High Dynamic Range imaging or photography. The simple explanation is that through a series of techniques a wider range of luminance or light is captured in an image that would not be possible otherwise. The darkest of darks along with the lightest of lights will be visible in one photo. Normally, to capture one end of either spectrum, the other would be sacrificed. The result would be either an overexposed or underexposed photograph.

Before I go any further, check out [these] awesome HDR photos. The fourth (bird) and the 18th (corner building) are my favorites. I'm just saying...

If you have already watched the video, you may have an understanding of what I'm saying. If not, either watch or pay close attention. The first step in getting an HDR image is right in camera. First, you must have a camera that allows full manual control. Next, a tripod. Some say that a tripod isn't always necessary. Trust me, it is. Then, you will have to fire off multiple frames of varying exposures. Many DSLRs have a feature called 'exposure bracketing.' This is an in camera feature that will, when set, take multiple exposed frames at a single press of the shutter. Personally, I do not like this feature for HDR photography, since it puts limitations on how creative you want to get each exposure. You can take anywhere from three exposures or more. At a minimum of three, you will have one properly exposed frame, one underexposed and one overexposed. If you are new at the game, try not to overkill on the over and under exposures. Adding and subtracting one stop on either end of the spectrum will work fine for newbies. For those who have dabbled, I say keep around five exposures and never more than seven. Those shooting over seven should be locked up for gluttony and greed.

Now you have your images and you don't know what to do with them. What happens next is they will be opened into one file and blended appropriately. If you are using the latest version of Photoshop (CS5 or later), then you will have new and improved HDR feature built in. Earlier versions have a HDR feature but users have had little or no success. Those angry photographers opted for a standalone HDR generator. One of the most popular applications to date (I've used also) is Photomatix Pro. Photomatix can also be purchased as a plugin, although I feel that the standalone has much more functionality. Another popular standalone application and/or plugin is called Topaz Labs. Topaz works quite like Photomatix, each has its own bells and whistles. Choosing between the two is a matter of personal preference.

Once the files are placed and opened in one of the mentioned applications, that app creates an algorithm and applies it to those files. The result, an HDR image. Just like working with any other photo editing software, you will be able to adjust aspects of the image, according to taste. Save the file and there you have it, the first of what can destroy you as a photographer. HUH?!?

The Rise and Fall of HDR

Like many, you may have finally blended the exposures, stared at the screen, thought that the crazed confusion on the monitor is something cool and unique like no one else on the planet had ever conceived of. Right? Wrong!

It was about two or three years ago when HDR hit a peak in its popularity. It was at about the same time that it found its way to the grave. Why? What happened so quickly that caused the demise of such an interesting and unique technique? Yes, you guessed it, I'm going to tell you.

When the use of HDR had become more mainstream, photographers, pro and amateur alike, used and abused its functionality. How so? As with many things in life, photographers began to think that more was better. They took their images and put them through HDR hell, tweaking the sliders in Photomatix or whatever software being used, to extremes. As this practice became the norm, the need for such photography quickly became extinct, since the "look" was no longer unique. Everywhere you turned, no matter what the photo content was, you saw freakish tones and alien like exposures. The creative community quickly turned their noses up to anyone trying to pass off this type of work as original. Take a look again at the [link], there are a few photos that I will not mention, that could have been spectacular, had they not been shot for HDR. In my opinion, once the image begins to look more like a cartoon and less like a photograph, all can be lost. I stress the words, "can be."

My name is Michael, and I too was an HDR junkie. I was like any normal photographer. I was cruising the internet, searching for some new gear and some new software. I'd seen HDR photography before. I was curious, I do admit. Then I saw it. A free trial of Photomatix Pro. Just a taste. I wanted to say no, but it was free. Why not give it a try? What could go wrong?  It's just going to be this one time. Before I knew it, I was begging for more. I wanted the full version. The trial was not good enough. Once I got my hands on the real thing, I was reckless. I began shooting anything from cars to cats, dogs to daisies, everything was HDR. As time passed, I didn't know what I was doing. I thought that all of my work had to be done in this fashion. I tried to stop. I even started cheating my way to HDR. I used RAW files to create different exposures, this way I didn't have to waste time in camera making multiple exposures. I was full time HDR'ing. People mentioned to me that they thought I was doing a little too much. I told them that I had it under control. I was only kidding myself. I finally hit rock bottom. I was at the point that if a photo wasn't HDR'ed, then I would simply add a ton of it or trash it all together. I knew now that I needed help. After a month of withdrawal, I was cured. I have to say it felt great to be freed from the grips of this demon. From time to time I look at the icon in my dock and fight the urge to abuse once again. 

There is a moral to the story. I mentioned earlier that "all can be lost," in regards to artistic photography when HDR is applied. As with anything in life, moderation plays a large role. To this day, I still use HDR from time to time. Many people may not even know that it's there. If I use it, the whole image is applied as a layer mask. With the layer mask, I may paint in certain parts of the photo, with minimum opacity. This may give certain components in the photograph a little pop. Again, I use it very sparingly. I don't even remember the last time I did so. 

The moral is that HDR, although a fad that has come and gone, still has its place in photography. If done properly, with the right amount of effect, the results can be amazing. Don't overdo it! If you have newly discovered HDR and the photos are starting to look like cartoons, you may have done too much. Sure, there are many that will argue that, art is unique to everyone. That there is no right or wrong when it comes to being creative. I couldn't agree more. But just take a moment when you look at that new monstrosity called HDR, that you have created. Are you sure there aren't a billion others posted to Flickr that look identical? 

Let's bring HDR back from the dead. I have no problems supporting its cause. 

On the other hand, if you have found yourself hopeless, lost and lonely in a world of HDR addiction, I'm  here to offer free counseling. Put the mouse down for a second. . . I know, it will hurt at first, but that is a big step. Recognize that you have a problem.