Simple Ways to Create Photos With High Dynamic Range or Infinite Depth

Sure, you could use expensive HDR software or hyperfocal photography to create high-end special effects--or you could fake it and get similar results in your digital photos.

Faking It With Free or Inexpensive Photo Software

The laws of physics get in the way of capturing the photo you see in your mind's eye. Want a photo that's perfectly sharp from the foreground all the way to the background? Depth of field often causes problems. Would you rather have a "contrasty" photo with the full range of exposure from bright to dark? That's impossible with current sensor technology.

You don't need to put up with these limitations, though--some workarounds are available. You can use hyperfocal photography techniques to get impressively deep depth of field, or fake it with easy-to-use software (as I did here). Likewise, you can use expensive software to transform a series of photos into a high dynamic range image (check out "Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range, Part 1" and "Stunning Photos With High Dynamic Range, Part 2"), or fake it in your own image editor. Here's how to cheat.

Use Helicon Focus to Get Infinite Depth of Field

Some programs allow you to get the equivalent of infinite depth of field in your photos, with sharp focus from the foreground all the way to the rear. How is that possible? They use a technique called focus stacking, which involves taking multiple photos of the same scene and combining them afterward into a composite that features only the sharpest bits of each image. The best program of this ilk is Helicon Focus. A 30-day free trial is available, and the program costs $30 for a one-year license. Want to give it a try? Suppose we create a close-up photo of a toy astronaut and a globe--like this one, only with all the elements in focus.

Take a Series of Photos

It may seem easy enough to put the astronaut and the globe in focus, but when you move in close for your macro photo, you find that only a tiny slice of the scene is in focus. You can put the astronaut in focus, or perhaps the globe, but not both at the same time, as in these examples. You can use Helicon Focus to remedy the situation. Put your camera on a tripod, focus on the nearest part of the scene, and snap the image.Then vary the focus slightly and shoot again. Lather, rinse, repeat--take as many photos as you need to capture a series of images with various points in sharp focus from the front to the back of the scene. For this scene, I needed five photos.

Stack the Photos in Helicon Focus

Now start your trial version of Helicon Focus. Select File, Add New Items, and then choose your set of images.Click Run, located on the right side of the Helicon Focus screen. After a few moments, you'll see a composite image like mine. Now you'll want to go to the program's parameters tab and tweak the settings. To produce a sharper or more natural-looking image, try moving the Radius and Smoothing sliders. I have found that I need to reduce both settings for macro photos. For ordinary photos of the world at large, the program's defaults are pretty good.

Free Focus Stacking With CombineZM

CombineZM does basically the same thing as Helicon Focus, but for free. Ready to get started? You'll need some photos to combine. As you can see here, I chose a pocket watch on a stand, but you can select a flower, coins, or anything that makes an interesting subject. Set your camera to manual focus and tweak the focus until the rear of the scene is in sharp focus. Take the picture. Then shift the focus slightly and take the next shot. You should take from three to five photos to capture the whole scene.

Stack Your Photos in CombineZM

After you're done shooting, copy the photos to your PC and start CombineZM. In CombineZM, choose File, New and select the photos you just shot. You should see one of them appear in the window. From there, everything is automated: Choose Macro, Do Stack, and then sit back for about 5 minutes and wait while the program combines the photos into a finished product. In my case, I got this photo. I've seen pretty good results, especially when I'm careful to keep each photo in my series aligned by using a tripod. If you end up with a lot of blur or artifacts in your focus-stacked shots, you might need to tweak the program a bit--check out the included Help file for details.

Simulate High Dynamic Range Photography

Digital cameras don't have the exposure latitude to fully and properly expose the complete range of lighting in a typical outdoor photo, from bright sunlight to deep shadow. HDR software solves that problem by combining photos of the same scene taken at different exposure settings--but you can simulate that effect with your regular image editor using just a single photo. You'll get the best results if you shot that image in your camera's RAW format, since RAW has a lot more exposure information in it than ordinarily displays on screen. If you shoot in JPEG format, however, don't worry: The technique still works, though the results won't be as impressive.

Choose Your Base Image

Start by opening a photo in your favorite image editor. Any photo editor will do as long as it supports layers and includes an eraser tool. I'll use Adobe Photoshop Elements to demonstrate. You can see that my test photo here starts out kind of terrible: The sky looks overcast and bleached from overexposure, and the foreground is dark and murky. In other words, the camera chose an average exposure that didn't suit either extreme, and the picture is pretty bland as a result. To proceed, we'll need two copies of the photo. Choose File, Save As and save a second copy of the photo using a slightly different file name. Then open both copies of the photo in your image editor. Or, if you're using Photoshop Elements, you can take a shortcut: Choose File, Duplicate, and both copies of the photo will appear in the Project Bin.

Pump Up the Shadows

Now it's time to edit the copies of the photo. You are going to adjust the brightness and contrast of one photo to optimize the exposure for the shadows, and then do the opposite to the copy to obtain the best look from the highlights. First, optimize the shadows, as I did in the photo shown here. Select the first photo and choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast. Drag the brightness slider to the right to improve the detail and tone of the foreground. When it starts to look about right, adjust the contrast as well. As a rule of thumb, you'll want to change the contrast along with the brightness to keep the image from becoming washed out. This is a setting you'll need to apply by eye, using your own judgment.

Optimize the Highlights

When you're satisfied with the results, move on to the other copy to add some punch to the sky and other highlights. Choose Enhance, Adjust Lighting, Brightness/Contrast, and this time reduce the brightness and contrast until the sky and other highlights have some definition and detail.

The Final Product: Homemade HDR

Now it's time to combine the two photos. Select the copy, and then copy it; in Photoshop Elements, press Ctrl-A and then Ctrl-C. Switch to the first photo and press Ctrl-V. You should have the images stacked in two layers. Next, selectively erase the parts of the top image that are poorly exposed, revealing the improved exposure from the alternative image in the layer below; choose the Eraser tool and start erasing. You might want to adjust the size of the eraser in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. In fact, you might want to change the Eraser size a few times, using a big brush for large sections and then reducing it when you need to work around small details.

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