For me, photography is made up of equal parts solitude and social gathering. I’m often trying to find the perfect balance of these things…When I’m off taking photos on my own, I’m “in the zone” so to speak, and often have a very specific goal in mind. This was one such occasion, where I wanted to capture the evening rays in Queenstown in a way I hadn’t done before. I needed time to think this one through.
On the other hand, I’m frequently inspired by those I take photos with. And find it interesting to watch people’s specific approach to a situation, both in terms of composition and post processing. It’s also a healthy way to offset my competitive nature by being collaborative instead! however, this photo was one of those one thats result from me grabbing my camera bag and going off on an adventure by myself. This excellent spot is right on the far point of the Kelvin Heights Peninsula, and is about as exposed to the elements as you can get! I was drawn in by the fierce sedimentary rock formations (hence the title of this post) and the framing they offered for the approaching sunset. I also decided on this photo for this week’s post for another reason…
Thoughts on High Dynamic Range
Quote of the day: “Bad HDR is like being slapped in the face by an angry rainbow…”
I’m not sure why I’ve gotten worked up about this, but I think its about time I got my thoughts out there… First of all, this photo is very much a stereotypical HDR shot. I say stereotypical for a few reasons, but mostly because its heavy on tonal contrast, texture, structure and has pretty surreal lighting. These are all elements that make the photo very difficult to capture given regular photography methodology. That being said, most of the photos I publish aren’t the sort of scenes that one would normally use brackets exposures to capture.
I’ve come to the conclusion that I use HDR to compliment the final result, rather than have it stand on its own and draw attention to itself.
This goes back to when I advised people to spend less time seeking a result in Photomatix and focus on recovering the result in Photoshop — For me, this ratio used to be about 3 to 1 in favor of Photoshop time… These days I’d confidently say its more like 100 to 1. If anything, producing a workable HDR photo is about anti-processing. It’s about getting the thing as close as possible to a ‘normal’ photo while still retaining the magic that HDR can give a scene:
- Get the result from Photomatix
- Throw it in Photoshop
- Identify whats shit
- Fix the thing
Unfortunately, the masses have grabbed HDR and used it as a means to produce interesting results without actually learning what works and doesn’t work. I was guilty of this a year ago, but I quickly learned that HDR is incredibly easy to do badly, and challenging to do well. So I decided to put the work in, and started to identify what needs to happen to produce ‘portfolio worthy’ shots. In a nutshell, I raised my standards. And this week I’ve found myself cringing at some of the results I’ve seen, wishing others would do the same.
In my view, High Dynamic Range is an art form, and deserves to be done well. I’d liken this to painting… Because it’s a well understood art, and has been around forever, the average person will be able to differentiate between a horrible painting and a good one – even between genres.
However, the typical response I see from the public when they see an average HDR photo for the first time is that of astonishment, because they have never seen anything like it. I’m talking about photos with more halos and noise that you can poke a stick at, photos where skin tones are ruined (children turned green for example), and where the colors are so overdone that you feel as if you’ve been slapped in the face by an angry rainbow. Sadly, these results are honestly so bad that they become good – pleased don’t ask me to explain that one, I’ve got no idea how people can have such bad taste.
In a nutshell, I’m a bit saddened by the lack of appreciation HDR gets among the professional photography crowd, and I suspect this has something to do with the stigma associate with it. But that being said, there are many people out there doing a fine job… People like my friends Danny Xeero & Matt Chapman - there are many more, but these two immediately spring to mind because I know they put a great deal of thought into the aesthetics of what they produce.
I’ll try and make this a regular section on future posts, for it seems people enjoy reading about how I arrive at my final edits. Doing a full tutorial for every photo would be incredibly time consuming, but given I make only one post per week, I can afford to write a few paragraphs about my layers panel:
The initial HDR photo was generated from 19 brackets stepping by 0.3EV – again I’ll get around to explaining why I do this in more detail down the track sometime, but in this case its was mainly due to the contrast in the scene. I had a hard enough time seeing both the sky and the rocks with my eyes, asking the camera to capture both of these in one frame would be an exercise in futility.
My first adjustment in this case was a simple Pro Contrast color tweak via Color Efex Pro. However, I backed off the color corrections in the plugin drastically, as I wanted to keep the warmth.
I immediately noticed the need to bring in an original to avoid the water looking like an absolute mess… Fortunately masking this in was incredibly easy, and as always I feathered the selection appropriately to avoid any harsh edges. You can’t see this in the screenshot, but from memory it was around 25 pixels.
Following this, I tweaked the curves and vibrance ever so slightly to correct the look and feel of the water relative to the rest of the frame – notice how these two layers are pinned to the original that has been masked in. I then applied sharpening to the rocks via a simple feathered selection that was then turned into a mask.
Next, I merged these layers and cleaned up a few areas before running yet another color adjustment over to clean up the distant mountains.
The final step was one I deliberately left until the end and that was to eliminate the chromatic aberrations that had appeared as a result of using my wide angle Canon 17-40mm… To do this, I duplicated the layer below and applied a Gaussian Blur of 3.5 pixels to the entire thing before changing this new layer’s blending mode to ‘Color’ — Try this trick at home, it works!
As per my usual practice, I reused the layer mask from the sharpening as I needed the Chromatic Aberration reduction to cover the same areas – but specifically the rocks near the edges of the frame.
I’m working on several ways to get an ‘editing manual’ or sorts out to you guys… I think there is a bit of a gap in the market when it comes to basic yet effective techniques. I’ve developed a set of tools and practices that make my editing workflow very streamlined and contained – and I think people would enjoy reading about it.
If you’re one of those, please register your interest so when it comes time to make it available I can let you know! And please leave a comment below if you enjoyed this photo!