To HDR or Not to HDR…

[Yes, I know the more proper title may be “To Tonemap or Not to Tonemap” but it just doesn’t sound as good]

HDR is fun — a downright blast I’d say.  It’s very easy to get caught up in it to the point where you (1) always bracket your shots and (2) always tonemap in Photomatix or similar software.  Why?  The images are often stunning.

Lately I’m finding more and more high-dynamic-range situations where tonemapping isn’t my preferred option.  Take, for example, these exposures of 6th Street in Austin taken on a photowalk organized by Alex Suarez during SXSW.  I wanted to tone down the intensity of some of the lights yet show detail in other areas.

Three 6th Street Exposures

After tonemapping, I got this:

Tonemapped image

I played with combinations of settings and some were better than others.  In the end though, no tonemapping settings produced an image which I was personally happy with.  I decided to start with my center exposure as the base layer and see what I could do with it.  I rather like the final result and I’ll explain below how I processed it.  I’m sure there are better ways to do this but frankly I’m a CS4 novice and this fits in my current skill set.

6th Street At Night (click to view on flickr)

Here’s the short description of what I did:  I started with the layer which contained the normal (“0”) exposure on top.  I placed the -2 exposure underneath, created a layer mask and blended the darker layer into some of the blown-out areas (neon signs for example).  I darkened a few other spots according to my taste as well.  Using the same masking process I blended in parts of the +2 exposure to bring out some detail in the shadows — went very easy on this because I still wanted this to look like a night shot under the streetlights.  I also played with all the layers to get the look I wanted with the moving traffic.

Next, I had to do something with the people on the sidewalk.  Ideally I would have taken them from the normal exposure but there was too much motion blur.  The only acceptable exposure from this standpoint was the -2, but the subjects were far too dark.  I simply duplicated the -2 layer and gave it some treatment — bumped up the exposure, played with the contrast, etc. — in order to make the sidewalk and people roughly match the normal exposure.  This allowed me to blend them in reasonably and obtain the (roughly) still look I wanted.  I also used that layer to touch up a few other areas.  One of the guys in the foreground still ended up without an arm…but I worked with what I had and he was moving in all the exposures 🙂

Of course I finished off with curves, sharpening, etc.

So, that’s it…I hope you like the shot and I also hope I’ve inspired some simple non-HDR experimentation.  I’d love to hear your comments, particularly related to what approach you might have taken to process a shot like this.

9 responses

  1. thats a brilliant result

    March 16, 2010 at 8:07 pm

  2. Thanks for sharing. I have thought about doing something similar to that but haven’t spent the time yet. The results look excellent! It is motivating since the natural look is much better IMHO. 🙂

    March 17, 2010 at 12:00 am

  3. ermm..looks nice..will try it..I`m actually fans of tone mapping..but will try it and looks what the result will be

    March 17, 2010 at 12:27 am

  4. Really good work, and a great explanation. I like this result better than the tonemapped image.

    March 17, 2010 at 6:38 am

  5. joeandrews

    Fantastic post! I think I’m a bit of an HDR addict but sometimes the night scenes can be extremely challenging. This is a great method that I will sure try out sometime soon. Thanks for sharing.. Final product shot is awesome and 6th street is just all kinds of awesome!

    March 17, 2010 at 10:43 am

  6. looks good my friend, great result!

    March 18, 2010 at 7:42 am

  7. Thanks everyone for the kind comments.

    I want to add some clarification regarding the tonemapped image — I almost never would use a straight tonemapped image without masking some other exposures in (ie, I never expect a great image out of Photomatix). In this case I didn’t think it was even good enough for a starting point which is why I threw it out.


    March 19, 2010 at 5:26 pm

  8. Mike – Nice explanation and great job using bracketing to give the photo a true “night photo under street lights” look. I think it’s absolutely the way to go for this type of scene – again great job!

    March 19, 2010 at 11:48 pm

  9. Pingback: To HDR Or Not To HDR? « Michael Tuuk Photography

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