To HDR Or Not To HDR?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk/5708714179/in/photostream

Stairs, Snohomish, WA (Non-HDR version) 70mm, f/22, 1/2s, ISO 100

You know HDR is a verb, right?  I didn’t realize until WordPress renamed my link that I’d used that title before (see that post here).  Which do you like most?  The non-HDR version (above) or the HDR version (below)?  There’s no right answer of course but my favorite is the non-HDR image.  I’d post them side-by-side but WordPress is giving me formatting fits…will update the post if I ever figure it out.

While in the Seattle area for a wedding last month my son and I went on a short photowalk in the little town of Snohomish.  Snohomish is one of those cutesy towns with shops for tourists and all that.  That morning it was just wet, dreary, and cold — somewhere in the high 30s with a stiff breeze to go along with it.  The wet and dreary thing makes for decent HDR conditions typically but the cold I could have done without, especially having had temps in the low 80s when we left Austin the afternoon before.

On our walk I grabbed some brackets of these stairs for a semi-abstract image.  It’s sort of urbex but maybe I’d call it “garden urbex” with all the moss growing (the stairs were surrounded by plants and flowers too).  The dynamic range frankly wasn’t very high but as I’ve posted before one can get cool images just going through the tonemapping process.  Last night I decided to process this scene but as I inspected the brackets I determined that using a single exposure would give me the image I wanted.  Part of that decision was driven by the fact that I’ve gone through a few of David Nightingale’s (chromasia) tutorials and was itching to try my hand at some things.  On a whim I took 5 exposures and did an HDR for comparison.  It’s not an entirely fair comparison though as I only spent a quick 5 minutes tweaking the Photomatix output.  However, I wasn’t really interested in trying to match the single exposure I processed.  Rather, I purposely processed it without even looking at the single image so that I would rethink everything as I went through the process again (albeit very quickly).

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk/5709250674/in/photostream

Stairs, Snohomish, WA (HDR version) 70mm, f/22, ISO 100

Some details on the processing of the single-exposure image (shown at the top of the post):  I began with the intent of going black and white but as I played with the channel mixer I ran across some color settings I liked.  I ended up using -26 red, +129 green, and -7 blue.  I used various curves layers to tweak parts of the image to taste (see the screenshot showing the masks below).  All curves were simply adjusted on the RGB channel.  This image was ripe for some individual color adjustments but I only have so much time for all this photo stuff.

A quick rundown on the curves layers: the darken and s-curve layers were blended in normal mode and the s-curve went a little stronger on the highlights side.  The lighten and “curves 1” (forgot to rename it) were in luminosity mode and as you see from the masks, targeted very specific parts of the image.  Curves 1 was a very strong s-curve to bring out the contrast in the beam along the steps.  “Lighten” brought out a bit of detail in the wet shadows in the nooks and crannies.  I topped things off with a vibrance adjustment of +14 (the HDR image had a +25 adjustment b/c the curves layers I used didn’t bring nearly as much color as in the other image).

Non-HDR layers screenshot

Notice that the original (below) has a piece of peeled paint on the bottom step.  I cloned that out since it interrupted the edge of the frame.  It fit with the image but was just in the wrong place.  That’s the only cloning I did.

Cropping was difficult.  Not quite happy with it but I was less happy with the 17 other ways I tried.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/michaeltuuk/5708679587/in/photostream

Stairs, Snohomish, WA (Straight out of the camera) 70mm, f/22, 1/2s, ISO 100

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7 responses

  1. I think I like the first one best… the colors seem stronger. Sometimes you can do great things with just one bracket, and other times nothing but HDR will do.

    May 10, 2011 at 11:28 pm

  2. Michael,
    I like the first image best as well. I have come to the same conclusion on HDR vs non-HDR. Now I check my histogram and unless I am having difficulty capturing the range of light I usually do not bracket for exposure anymore. I have bracketed for focus though. Sometimes I want that HDR look and will bracket away. There was time, not that long ago where I was bracketing almost everything.
    Cheers,
    Don

    May 11, 2011 at 7:17 am

  3. I also like the first one best. I think that you could have gotten the same results by tweaking the hdr version, but there becomes a time and a place where tonemapping is just not needed. Thanks for sharing this post Michael!

    May 11, 2011 at 9:09 am

    • Jason, I agree — colors could have been fixed, original exposures blended and all that. It would have required (for my personal taste anyway) blending back the vertical railing posts to remove all the extra noise for example. A lot more work. I’m starting to really see how improving my general PS skills can really pay off as opposed to relying on tonemapping to get texture and depth.

      May 11, 2011 at 10:07 am

  4. Nice shots. “Garden Urbex” made me laugh 🙂 I can def see where you were going with that.

    May 11, 2011 at 11:04 am

    • Thanks! Yeah, it has an urbex look but no graffiti or dangerous alleyways, etc 🙂

      May 13, 2011 at 9:41 pm

  5. you know I like the HDR one my friend! we need another lunch soon!

    May 16, 2011 at 11:54 am

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