Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range, Part 2

If you've ever photographed an idyllic landscape and ended up with a washed-out sky and dark, underexposed blobs instead of shadows, you'll understand why photographers are falling in love with High Dynamic Range photography. HDR allows you to capture far more color, brightness, and contrast information in photos than has been possible.

Last week we talked about how to capture the series of photos that would become part of our HDR masterpiece.

Combining the Images

Shooting the series was half the battle; now it's time to combine the photos into a single image that takes all the best parts of each.

You've got a wide choice of programs to create HDR photos. Adobe Photoshop CS2, for example, has an HDR feature. So does Ulead PhotoImpact. There are also some stand-alone HDR utilities out there, like Photogenics HDR and Photomatix Pro.

I downloaded the free trial version of Photomatix Pro. There's no time limit on how long you can use the trial version, but it inscribes a watermark across each of your photos unless you pay $99 for the license.

Using Photomatix Pro

To use the program, drag your set of bracketed photos into the program window and wait for them to display. If you haven't made any HDR photos of your own yet, here are some sample source images you can use (I took these photos on a tripod in front of my house near dusk):

Choose HDR, Generate from the menu and click OK when the program asks if you want to use the open images.

In the next dialog box, select the check box to align the source images--this lines up your photos in case you were handholding the camera or the tripod moved a bit between shots--and choose the default "standard tone curve." Click OK.

After some processing time, you'll get a result. It probably won't look very good, but don't worry: The composite image holds more contrast information than a typical computer display is capable of showing. The final step is to optimize the image for the screen. Choose HDR, Tone Mapping from the menu.

On this final screen, you can tweak many aspects of the photo, such as the white and black levels, the color saturation, and contrast levels. Feel free to experiment with the settings.

You'll probably find that often you can just click OK to accept the defaults; the results will look impressive without much tweaking. I used a series of five photos for my HDR image, which appears on the right.

HDR isn't perfect. Because it relies on a series of photos, it's not appropriate for action photography--or, in fact, photos in which pretty much anything moves at all. It requires meticulous setup, a tripod, enough patience to configure a series of bracketed images--and, of course, the software to glue it all together at the end. But if you can deal with those shortcomings, you can make some photos that are nothing short of stunning.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique. Every month, the best of the weekly winners gets a prize valued at between $15 and $50.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This Week's Hot Pic: "Summer Snack," by Patrick Marcigliano, Cumming, Georgia

Patrick says: "I took this shot of my daughter at a beach house after she had just come in from the beach to eat some lunch. She was hopping up and down at the table's edge, playing hide and seek with me. I just happened to catch her when she paused for just a second to see what I would do."

Patrick shot this photo with a Canon PowerShot S2 IS.

See all the Hot Pic of the Week photos online.

Have a digital photo question? Send me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have the Digital Focus Newsletter e-mailed to you each week.
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