HDR Lifecycle Index:
1) Conception - planning & shooting
2) RAW Infancy - prepping photos for tone mapping
3) Tone Mapping Puberty - tone mapping & Photomatix
4) Photoshop Maturity - Layer blending & final edits
Once you get a good handle on your equipment, most likely you’ll start bracketing RAW photos like they were jack-rabbits (that simile makes no sense, but you get my point). This will quickly lead to the realization that with HDR you can’t just hit it and quit it (the shutter release, I mean). It’s time to become a responsible post-processor. In this article we’ll discover how to properly handle and prepare your straight-out-of-camera infant RAW photos so they have the best possible chance of making it through the next stage in the HDR life cycle, the always awkward and often volatile “tone mapping puberty” stage (covered in the next article).
If you want them to become big, strong HDR photos, you’ve got to start to them off right. Here’s what to do after you take the photos.
<em>Unfamiliar with HDR photography? It’s quite interesting stuff. Check out this (creatively titled) article “<a title=”What is HDR Photography?” href=”../2012/01/what-is-hdr-photography/” target=”_blank”>What is HDR Photography?</a>”</em>
1) Importing from Camera
I didn’t always use Lightroom to handle all my images, but then again I didn’t always shoot at ISO 100 when on a tripod either. Now I do both . Lightroom makes importing an intuitive process. I see no need to teach grandma how to suck eggs, so for those interested I’ve attached the video by Julieanne Kost which I found helpful when I first started out with Lightroom. Otherwise, there’s only one critical grey area that I feel the need to chime in on, the “Copy as DNG” button. (So we’re clear, I don’t have any affiliation with Adobe, Julianne Kost, or the video. It’s just a good video.)
“Copy as DNG”
There’s a long standing RAW vs. DNG debate. The bottom line is that both work fine and won’t impact the success or failure or your HDR. With that said, I am quite biased on the topic and always convert all my RAW files (for me these are NEFs since I shoot with a Nikon). This isn’t necessarily the right move for you, it all depends on what your specific needs are. To help you answer this question for yourself, I’ve summarized the basic arguments both for and against clicking “Copy as DNG.”
- 15-20% smaller file-size than RAW files
- No sidecar files to keep track of, everything is contained in the DNG file itself
- Developed and supported by Adobe so you can stop worrying about compatibility issues if you use their products (and most of us do)
- It takes time to convert, this could be costly if you’re processing thousands of images
- Not always compatible with software provided by camera manufacturers (i.e. Capture NX by Nikon)
- Loss of some specific metadata such as Active-D and Picture Control. If these are mission-critical to your projects then DNG is a no-go.
And here’s a completely shameless attempt to convert you to the DNG army.
2) Preparing for Puberty
With the files safely on your hard drive, there is still a few things to do before we jump into tone mapping with Photomatix (there are other good programs out there like HDR Efex Pro, but I personally go with Photomatix). The underlying concept here is that tone mapping will dramatically amp up all parts of your image. This includes defects too like chromatic aberration, sensor dust spots, and noise. Before subjecting our bracketed source frames to this process, it’s important that we make them as defect free as possible. Here are the usual suspects and how to deal with them.
On the fringes of all your images, zoom way in to an area of stark contrast (300% or so) and check if you can see any fringing of cyan/magenta or blue/yellow. Most likely you’ll have a bit. If allowed to remain into the tone mapping process, this fringing will become exaggerated and vibrant. The good news is that Lightroom is so smart that more than likely it has your lens on file and can automatically correct not only your aberration issues but other lens distortion troubles you didn’t even know you had. If not, simply click over to the manual side of the panel and play with the sliders until the colors in question fall into place.
Even if you never change lenses, somehow those pesky mites find their way in. I recommend getting one of these fancy air rockets by Giottos to prevent the issue as much as possible. However, inevitably you’ll have to face the music… or dust spots as it happens to be. After tone mapping, dust spots look like dark coffee stains. Although you can edit these out in Photoshop after tone mapping with the Heal and Clone Stamp tools, I think it’s worth it to get rid of them before so that Photomatix doesn’t take the dots into account when distributing value and contrast. In Lightroom this is easily accomplished with the Spot Removal tool (shortcut key is Q).
On a good camera, when you zoom in to 100% on an image shot at 100 ISO, there should be no visible noise. However, if for some reason you shot at a higher ISO most likely the darker areas will start to show some grit. I’ve found that even on completely smooth gradients like a blue hour sky, Photomatix will add grain sometimes. Keeping this in consideration, I like to zoom in all the way to the 3:1 level in Lightroom and adjust my noise reduction sliders before tone mapping. I aim for my source images to have good definition in areas of detail while also smooth field of color particularly in areas of shadow where noise crops up.
That’s it! Easy enough right? We’ll find out how well we did when we open up Photomatix and take the plunge into the next stage of the HDR Life Cycle, Tone Mapping Puberty!