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waterloo falls workflow


welcome to the first of hopefully many tutorials on thinsite. i often get the same questions from different people so in the spirit of sharing i’m going to offer full disclosure on how some of the images on thinsite are created from beginning to end. bitchin’!

capturing hdr shots
technically, a tripod will make any hdr shot better, but i really hate using a tripod so i’ll often just machine gun it if there’s enough light to handhold three quick shots. in a situation like this there’s no way i could get away with handholding it so out came the tripod and remote. i set my bracket as wide as my camera will go and manually underexposed by a 1 1/3 stops cause in this shot there was only about a half hour left of light and wanted to capture the fact that it was sunset.

overexposed by 1/3 stop
properly exposed
underexposed by 1 1/3 stops
underexposed by 3 stops
some tips:

  • focus lock. don’t trust your camera to focus the exact same between exposures. if you don’t use focus locking then focus once and set your lens to manual focus until you’re done taking all 3 shots
  • shoot in aperture priority. if the depth of field changes from shot to shot then it’s gonna look like bunk.
  • amp that iso. if your underexposed shot is slower than your shutter’s maximum shutter length, then up that iso until it’ll fit within your shutter’s capabilities.

it’s important to remember that if you capture the original bracketted shots as raw then when converting your raw file you gotta make sure that your raw processor doesn’t go willy nilly adjusting stuff for you. the only thing that should be consistent from shot to shot is the white balance and the sharpening and by sharpening i mean don’t sharpen it. that’s the last step.

merging your bracketted shots into a single hdr exposure
everytime that i’ve tried photoshop’s merge to hdr feature i’ve been underwhelmed by the results so i wouldn’t bother with it. go ahead and load up photomatix and open your three exposures. press ctrl-g to merge to hdr. let photomatix do it’s thing and you’ll end up with a terrible looking exposure. don’t panic. go to the hdri menu and choose tone mapping.

there are a whack of settings you can adjust and truth be told i usually just fiddle until the exposure looks the way i want it to. typically i’ll set smoothing to high which is what i think a lot of the flickr hdr group forget to do. when the smoothing is medium or low it creates terrible halos usually… well, at least in my experience. typically i think hdr shots end up with too much colour saturation so i’ll pull back on the strength and colour saturation sliders to make the shot look less like a candy wonderland.

here are the options i used for this particular shot. the options have been reorganized a bit to make it fit better in this tutorial.

photomatix options

and the result:

merged exposure

save it as a tiff and fire up photoshop.

post processing in photoshop
at this point i’m not at all happy with the image. it looks like bad flea market art that i wouldn’t spend a dime on so it’s time to touch it up a bit with photoshop to create the mood that i think is more in line with the shot.

i’ll outline the reason and result behind each adjustment layer, but for now here’s the final photoshop pallette:

photoshop pallette

and now the nitty gritty

selective colours adjustment layer selective color adjustment layer: i often start with a selective colours adjustent layer to adjust the black level of each colour. most times i’ll only adjust the black levels of the black and white colours, but in this case i adjusted most colours cause i find that hdr shots can often look soupy and not have enough separation between the different colours of the spectrum. this isn’t an exact science so just play with it until you’re happy with the results. here’s what i used: reds +100%, yellows +30%, greens 0%, cyans +45%, blues +100%, magentas +100%, whites -50%, neutrals 0%, black +100%
gradient map adjustment layer gradient map adjustment layer: this part might seem a bit counter productive because in the previous step i made the colours richer and now i’m about to take a bunch of colour out, but really the purpose of the previous step was to create better separation of colours not stronger hues.i like using a black to white gradient map to desaturate an image. it always does a better job than the actual desaturate command. i adjust the opacity of this layer to 60% so that there’s still lots of colour coming through.

unfortunately this took more of the reds and yellows out than i wanted so set the opacity of my brush to 25% and painted some of the reflections on the water back in.

levels adjustment layer levels adjustment layer: the levels adjustment layer was a bit of an afterthought cause i wasn’t satisfied with the depth of the black in the shot so i just pulled in the shadow input level to 20
gradient fill adjustment layer gradient fill adjustment layer: i think the downfall of a lot of hdr images is the terrible halo effect that often shows up between the highlight and the shadow. there wasn’t much of it in this shot and to be prefectly honest the sun was setting in the direction of the shot so there was a natural gradient to the sky when i photographed it, but still, i didn’t like the sky as it was and i wanted to darken it a bit.i created a linear gradient fill from black to transparent starting at the top of the frame. the scale is set to 50% cause there wasn’t that much sky showing and with the palette open i positioned the gradient towards the top of the frame. the overlay method is set to hard light but the effect is too strong so i turned down the opacity to 40%. because of the treeline a lot of the gradient spilled into the foreground which looks really odd so a layer mask is required to separate the foreground from the background.
colour fill adjustment layer colour fill adjustment layer: the image is quite blue at this point which is not much like it was in real life where it was mostly lit by incandescent street lights so i wanted some warmth put back into the shot.

the colour fill adjustment layer is a warm brown (r175 g82 b0) with opacity set to 40% and the overlay method set to soft light.

the final step was to create a touch of a vignette, but i’ll skip over that part cause it’s pretty simple and maybe i’ll cover it in another mini tutorial.

resizing / sharpening for posting to the web
after i’m satisfied with the outcome (sometimes doesn’t happen) i resize to whatever size is suitable for posting on the web. the image is resized to 900×600 using the bicubic method cause i don’t trust photoshop’s bicubic sharper method. i’ll handle the sharpening thank you very much photoshop.

this image looks susceptible to those nasty halos that often show up where the foreground meets the background so in cases like this i’ll duplicate the image and sharpen the duplicated layer.

using the smart sharpen tool i normally set the sharpening amount to 85% with a radius of 1px. i then tweak the shadow and highlight sharpening to create a subtle but sharp look. in this particular case shadow sharpening is set to 20% fade amount, 50% tonal width, and 1 px radius. the highlight sharpening as pictured below is set to 20% fade amount, 70% tonal width, and 1 px radius.

smart sharpening

now we’ve got a sharpened image with halos on top of the unsharpened image. next, on the sharpened layer i use my eraser tool to trace along the edges of the halos that i want to remove thereby allowing the unsharpened edges of the original image come through. that’s it. now it’s saved and ready for the glory that is the thinsite photoblog.

click here for the final image

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