Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Toning Back on Tone Mapping – An HDR Example

Cornich Flowers un processed
When I first started in the very cool and relatively new approach to photography, High Dynamic Range (HDR), like any new toy, I played with the extremes.  The best way to find the range of usefulness for any new technology or technique is to push it to the limits.  Pushing HDR to the limits results in some very surrealistic results.  If you click on the HDR label in the right column, you are sure to find some of my “over cooked” HDR photography.  In the fullness and richness of time, I have come to appreciate HDR photography more when greater restraint is used during post processing.
Corniche Flowers processed
The purpose of this post is to examine HDR photography when applied in a restrained manner along with a several approaches to post processing.  The photography shown here features a flower garden along the Abu Dhabi Corniche and all begins with the first photograph; the completely unprocessed photograph is posted first (with all it’s warts such as dust spots).  This shot is the middle exposure in a three shot bracket.  What you do not see is the exposure made at two stops over exposure and the third at two stops under exposed…use your imagination.
Corniche Flowers Tone Compressed
The second shot is a routine adjustment in Lightroom with exposure, spot correction, saturation, contrast, noise and sharpness adjustments.  Still nothing to write home about.  In the third version, the three photographs were processed in Photomatix Pro using tone compression.  In my opinion, a dramatic improvement.  The colors are deeper, the shadows contain more detail, the sky is more dramatic, and the flowers take a more prominent role in the composition.  Meanwhile, the photograph has not transgressed the border to hyper realistic.  The photograph following was processed similarly, except the tone mapping function of Photomatix Pro was used – a more aggressive yet restrained approach.
Corniche Flowers Tone Mapped
In this shot, we see a nice improvement in the sky, but I am not happy with the treatment of the flower garden.  The leaves have turned more yellow, the balance of the shot is skewed a bit, and we are beginning to head toward the hyper realistic.  This version was processed using the “details enhancement” tools in Photomatix Pro.
The final version of this photograph was processed with more aggressive application of the tools in the details enhancement mode.  This type of processing is where many people run aground having veered dramatically into the hyper real.
Corniche Flowers hyper
By comparison to some work many people (and I) have done in pushing the limits of HDR, this version is not horrible.  However, if you compare this to the third version in this series, I think you will agree that the former is a more believable and possibly appealing representation of the scene.
Understand that I am not summarily criticizing aggressive post processing of HDR photography.  There are good artistic reasons to apply these techniques.  My simple recommendation is to understand the full range of potential outcomes, and choose the method that best suits your intentions.  Experiment, and don’t let the toys available to you derail your art unintentionally.
Have fun, and go make some great photography.

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