Picture Perfect Photography with HDR

How Did This HDR Photo Get Over 160,000 Views on Google+?

image:Day begins and the sandstone turrets awaken. Arches National Park

Day Begins and the Sandstone Turrets Awaken. Arches National Park-Moab UT

Getting Picture Perfect Photography with HDR.

The bad rap HDR gets, comes from the flood of HDR photos online which are way over-processed. The photographer either is trying to be artsy or just hasn’t learned how to control the HDR software, usually either Photomatix Pro or HDR Efex Pro.  My first attempt at processing today’s photo came about during my “trying to be artsy” period.    Last year, when I posted it online, it got up to a respectable 96.5 rating on 500px, and on Google plus it had 3000 views, 92 plus 1’s, and 9 shares and I was really happy with the image.  That was then.

Well, last September, my 99 year old Mom died and I began several months of re-assessment of my place and purpose. During this time I haven’t produced much art but I sure have been thinking about it a lot.

What Ansel Adams Taught Me

Back in the 1970’s and 80’s, I learned the fundamentals of fine art landscape photography. Ansel was actually doing HDR photography when he invented his Zone System and incorporated it into his darkroom workflow. You’ve seen  his most striking images with exquisite detail everywhere, clouds, cliffs, trees, and water. Today with digital HDR photography it’s now quite easy, under any lighting conditions, to get the same detail Ansel could coax out of a film and paper workflow.

HDR Landscape photography today, with a digital workflow, can be very awesome much easier than back in the days of film cameras. Unfortunately, most times it’s not.  There are some contemporary landscape HDR photographers who get it right though.  I want to be one of those.

My goal is more focused now than ever before. Building on my photographic roots. Shooting landscapes with black & white film, going for maximum depth of field, and evoking a unique sense of place and reality in my work. My goal now is to continue to use HDR to make picture perfect landscape photos.  What does that mean and what will I have to do differently?

Clouds & Sky in Landscape Photography

We landscape photographers don’t shoot much when the sky is bald.  Even though it’s possible to use Photoshop to drop clouds into a photo, I don’t do that.  In fact, I pretty much stay away from Photoshop altogether.  My Perfect HDR Workflow is designed to completely eliminate the need for Photoshop so that beginners can learn to make stunning HDR without a lot of expense or a steep learning curve,  So, clouds, which are a hallmark of much of Ansel Adams work are very important and somewhat difficult, to get exactly right.  Looking at my previous work,  I noticed that my clouds could use improvement. Solving the cloud riddle, I figured, will level up my landscape photography at least a notch.

Getting Clouds Right When Using HDR

The first photo with which I chose to test my new theory was one which I knew had high potential. The scene and sky were both awesome so I decided to re-process today’s photo and concentrate on getting the sky right this time. Clouds in HDR photography get funky very easily with gross unnatural dark underbellies, lots of noise and blown out areas because they’re so bright.  Those are the primary things I tried to get right on this photo.  Here’s what I did:

  • Using the adjustment brush in Lightroom, I painted the unnaturally dark areas of the clouds with positive exposure to lighten them.  This is the one most important thing to get great clouds.
  • Used the gradient tool in Lightroom on the sky alone with negative exposure, and positive clarity to make the clouds more dramatic while also adding a top vignette to draw the eye inward. Adding warmth to this same gradient will also help for sunrise and sunset shots.
  • Using the adjustment brush in Lightroom with positive clarity on certain targeted clouds to enhance their presence in the image.
  • Touched up any blown out areas with negative highlights using the adjustment brush.
  • Handled noise in the clouds using the adjustment brush very large and feathered with positive noise reduction.

Okay great!  I got really nice clouds.  They are believable and natural looking, yet dramatic. The image overall doesn’t look “HDRish”, yet, somehow while still looking “more real than life.”  Kind of a hyper reality look, which is exactly what I’m going for. I’m on my way to making picture perfect landscape photography with HDR!

How is the Newly Processed Image Received Online?

I’m blown away!  So far there are over 160,000 views on Google plus, along with 920 +1’s and 122 re-shares.  These results are 40 times better than the 3,000 views from the same image processed poorly, while trying to be artsy, last year.

  • James Harrison

    It’s so nice to see genuine natural looking photos. I’m so sick of seeing plastic looking photos. You can tell they’re not really natural. Thank you for taking the time to tell us old coggers how to simply do it right without $1000.00 worth of software. Thanks again. James

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