Time For Some Serious HDR
How many times have you searched for HDR photography and seen photos of broken down rusty cars or a post-industrial apocalypse wasteland landscape with ominous skies? HDR is one of the most misused terms in the photographic lexicon.
True color HDR techniques recreate what we see naturally with our own eyes. From the moment you open your eyes in the morning until you close them at night you are viewing the world in HDR, actually 3D HDR Video to be exact.
More than just a special effect or grunge treatment, real true color HDR offers a unique toolset for professional photographers to shoot in lighting conditions that are difficult if not impossible to handle otherwise. One application that literally screams out for HDR treatment is architectural photography. Being able to balance dark interiors with bright windows and exteriors has always been a challenge. Add to that a lot of glass, mirrors and shinny surfaces and you have a recipe for disaster. This is exactly where true color HDR tools like HDR Expose 2 and 32 Float v2 can come to the rescue.
Last Tuesday I had the pleasure of co-hosting a webinar on professional architectural photography with Michael James owner of Digital Coast Image in Destin Florida. Michael’s work is truly impressive and a great example of commercial uses for serious HDR photography where the goal is to recreate the feeling you would have standing in the room viewing the same scene with your own HDR Vision.
If you have any interest at all in, as a professional or amateur shooting architecture of any type you owe it to yourself to check this out, the webinar was recorded and posted in two parts here:
In addition to the webinar links, you can also find additional video tutorials on our website. http://www.unifiedcolor.com/video-tutorials
This webinar broke all our previous records for pre registration and attendance. Many questions were asked by the participants that we were not able to address during the live session, so I’ve collected them and Michael was kind enough to answer them below.
To see more of Michael’s work go to:
As mentioned in the webinar, Michael usually prepares for each shoot, by scouting out the property using Google Maps in advance of the shoot in order to plan for the right lighting conditions and time of day. He typically shoots alone without an assistant with a camera, wide-angle lens and sturdy tripod. In some cases he may shoot a flash frame for specific detail blending in Photoshop, but mostly relies on available light using HDR techniques, both to respect the interior lighting design of the property as well as to bypass any heavy shadows or reflections in glass, mirrors or bathroom fixtures.
Michael has worked with several different makes/models of cameras and lenses over the years. His current go-to kit is the Nikon D3 and the AF-S NIKKOR 14-24mm f/2.8G ED lens. In order to minimize any movement between exposure bracket frames, Michael goes out of his way to stabilize the camera on a sturdy tripod ensuring that the tripod feet are firmly secured and do not move during the exposure sequence. He uses the Promote Control to trigger the camera and shoot as many brackets as he needs for the scene. The Promote Control can be programmed to shoot more brackets than most cameras support in auto exposure bracket mode and also allows him to program the EV steps for each shot. Once the Promote Control is programmed he will shoot in burst mode 9fps in order to minimize any ghosting artifacts caused by objects moving in the frame between shots.
Michael always shoots in Raw, typically with manual WB. He often includes WB targets in the shots that he references later in the post production process where he is able to measure the actual white balance in software for one image and apply the same values to the real image without the target. Since he is shooting RAW the question of sRGB or Adobe RGB is irrelevant. Once he is done tone mapping the HDR images in 32-bit color, he saves the result as a 16-bit ProPhoto RGB TIFF file that he takes in to Photoshop for final adjustments and output sharpening. He delivers the final output files based on his customers’ specifications as sRGB JPEG or TIFF files.
One of the questions most often asked, is how many exposures are needed for each shot. Unfortunately there is no simple answer to this. The dynamic range of an image can vary greatly from scene to scene. In order to ensure that he captures the entire dynamic range of a scene, Michael will set the camera to spot meter mode and measure what the shutter speed is for a given aperture setting in the highlights, and then repeat the process for the shadow areas of the image. This provides him with a beginning and end point for the exposure brackets. Depending on the noise profile of the camera sensor he will use larger or smaller EV steps for the brackets. He typically shoots at .7 EV or 2/3 stops to cover the full range. It is always more important to shoot more on location to ensure that you have captured the full dynamic range of the scene and then choose which frames to use during the merge process in post.
For most scenes that do not have an extreme dynamic range i.e greater than 13 EV, Michael uses the simple merge and processing tools in HDR Expose 2 as demonstrated on the first example in the webinar. For images with larger ranges or critical window/exterior exposures, Michael uses the 32 Float v2 workflow in Photoshop with the additional dual processing step and blending of layers with luminosity masks as demonstrated with the second example in the webinar.
That said, here are some answers to specific questions raised during the webinar:
Q: How long do you allow to process each image in post, and how long does it take you to shoot each shot?
A: I spend 15-30 minutes per image to achieve a portfolio quality image. As for capture, the biggest time commitment is getting the alignment nailed. The actual capture part of the equation is at up to 9 frames a second for the number of shots needed for that scene. I can shoot a 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom condo with a living space, dining area, kitchen, balcony, and front shot in an hour flat. Shooting the living space with various angles means 11-14 shots. Roughly 4 minutes per shot. Most of that time is spent framing and making slight tweaks to items in the room for staging. The actual time needed to meter and fire off the frames is less than 30 seconds.
Q: What is the average number of shots you take for a standard room with bright sunshine outside and far between each photo?
A: Because I have light reflecting off of water and the brightest quartz sand in the world. I have to take fairly large brackets to capture both the dark interior and that scene out the windows. The dynamic range can be brutal. Other times I’m shooting a home on a golf course or in a community and the range is not as dramatic. There is no simple answer. I described how I meter for the highlights, then the shadows on the webinar and then showed that the device I use (promote control) allows me to choose the EV steps, number of shots and shows me the starting and ending shutter speeds. That way I know when I hit the start button it will take the needed number of exposures to capture the full dynamic range of that scene. If you opt to use the camera’s AEB you may need to work with its exposure compensation and touch the camera several times to cover that full range. Or just set it to manual mode and no AEB and just keep adjusting shutter speed while in AV mode. However, that means you need to touch the camera over and over again, risking mis-alignment.
Q: How do you know the shots you took are going to work? You took 15 of the bedroom. How do you know the images will work in-the-field before the HDR processing?
A: I use the spot metering mode of the camera and aim it at the brightest point of light in the scene. Normally I walk up to the windows to do this, but if you are shooting near dusk, that brightest point might be an exposed bulb inside the property. So go with that. Then go at least 1/3rd EV faster as your starting shutter speed if you want to make sure you got everything you need. So if you aim at the brightest point and the shutter speed reads 1/250th, then start your bracket at 1/320th. This assures you that you will have at least one frame where the brightest highlights of the scene are nowhere near clipping and if shooting 2/3rds EV jumps (0.7), then this means you will likely end up with two full frames with perfect highlights data.
As mentioned in the 1st half of the webinar, every sensor has it’s own unique dynamic range and the chart I showed I’ll will upload to my blog and do a blog post about it. In short, if you are shooting with a camera that is low on that chart you may need to shoot tighter EV steps (.3 or .5) to get the same results you would get with a camera that ranks high on that chart shooting .7EV steps. If shooting an APS-C sized sensor and you are low on that chart in ranking, then most certainly you will need to shoot those tight EV steps to get the same results as a high ranking camera and/or high ranking full frame camera.
Q: I'm still using CS4. Is Expose 2 compatible with CS4?
A: 32 Float v2 is the Photoshop Plug-in that Michael used. It is compatible with CS3, CS4, CS5 and CS6. HDR Expose is a stand alone application that also provides export plug-ins for Aperture and Lightroom
Q: When you do a tight interior, do you combine multiple shots to create a panorama in addition to doing an HDR?
A: No. My Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8G covers very tight rooms quite well. There is an amazing difference from 16mm to 14mm. When I went from Canon and it’s 16-35mm f/2.8L II lens I was amazed at how much more room I could capture with just those two extra MM.
Q: Please repeat the name of the lens correction plug in you use
A: PT Lens. Epaperpress.com
Q: Question to Michael: Can we shoot a professional quality HDR from a Nikon D7000 (it has got 3 brackets and isn’t a full frame camera) ? What about its DX lenses, can we use them to get satisfactory results?
A: Yes. I would recommend using the promote control with the D7000 (it is supported). Many of my portfolio images were shot with a Canon 60D and Sigma 8-16mm lens. The 60D does not have anywhere near the dynamic range per image that the Nikon D7000 has. Even if you used the same Sigma 8-16mm lens in Nikon mount you should get better results than I could with the 60D. You just have to realize that you have to shoot very tight brackets. At most you should have your EV steps at .7EV (2/3rds EV) jumps between shots. Landscapes and exterior shots you can get away with higher EV steps, but not for interiors.
Q: Is there a training video that Michael has that takes through the full process of HDR from shooting to the end, and where can I buy it?
A: Yes. When I launch the next set of training videos it will be announced from http://www.hdriblog.com . The best thing to do is go to the site and put your email into the right hand column box. That is through feedburner and it sends out emails to you when I post a new blog post. An RSS feed update via email of sorts.
I first created a set of videos back when the BP Spill hit my beaches. Prior to that I had no free time to do so despite dozens of photographers asking me to teach them. Since then I’ve created various additional videos, but with the launch of Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6 I am now updating the entire workflow series. This because of the changes in both apps with new features which has altered my post workflow.
Q: How does Mike eliminate dark dirty shadows around window casings doors etc. Normally with HDR the white windows turn dark and muddy.
A: That’s covered in my training. It actually takes a 25-minute video to explain in detail and couldn’t be answered in short form.
Q: I’m shooting for realtors in Sweden and we use flash…and we have only 1.5 hours to shoot, how long does it take you?
A: From a prior question I said a 3 bedroom and 3 bath condo or home takes me just about an hour. I have no idea how big your properties are so I can’t really answer to your question in detail. Also, I know my camera inside and out and have shot hundreds of properties. For someone with less experience it might take longer at first until the routine becomes just that.
Q: Have you used Photomatix Pro and how does HDR Expose 2 compare?
A: Photomatix is an app I go back to time and time again with each new update. I’ve attempted to process brackets with it and pass it off to clients and every time I’ve been told it doesn’t look photo real. More like a painting. It tends to over saturate and turn tungsten too orange and daylight blues too cyan. I always feel like I’m spending too much time with the sliders to get acceptable results.
Q: What is the best way to market your work?
A: The one thing I can share is that the better the homes I shot and got into my portfolio, the more inbound calls I got for higher end work. Most of my business comes from referrals or web searches. Just today I had someone contact me because they own 5 beach homes they rent and their competitors had my images up on their site. The guy actually dug into the EXIF data and then found my website and called me. I’m not the person to ask about marketing your local market because I went from managing properties to shooting because others wanted my photos so much that I realized I’d make more money shooting for others.
Q: Why are you using 3rd party lenses?
A: Sigma has focal lengths that Canon/Nikon couldn’t match when I bought them. The sigma 8-16mm for aps-c is the only one on the market made for an APS-C sensor. Neither Nikon nor Canon has a comparable model. The Sigma 10-20mm in Nikon mount was the only one that could get that wide on an APS-C sensor for years until Nikon finally released a 10-24mm. The Canon 10-22mm is a great lens, but the Sigma 10-20mm I showed was for a Sigma DSLR which only takes sigma lenses. 3rd party lenses can be far better than Canon/Nikon. Zeiss is 3rd party for example.
Q: My biggest problem with HDR in commercial properties, is the color balance with the sunlight mixing with the incandescent lighting. How do you balance that?
A: I didn’t have time to cover all aspects during the seminar. There were a lot of requests prior to the seminar for information about gear and that is why there were so many slides and references to those points. The issues relating to getting perfect color balance is covered in my video training and takes a half hour of video to convey. It’s a webinar all in of itself. It would be a short book in text to convey.
Q: When shooting do you use bracketing what ISO setting do you use. Some cameras like the D3 have very good high ISO performance that can help reduce even the longest shutter speed. Do you shoot at higher ISO or always at the lowest setting even if it requires longer exposure times?
A: Always from a tripod and always from a camera’s base ISO during daylight hours. Some cameras will have an extended mode to get down to 50 ISO or in the D3’s case down to 100 ISO (the D3’s base ISO is 200 ISO). DO NOT use those lower extended ranges. In all cases you lose the maximum full dynamic range of each shot in exchange for better shadow data. You end up with highlights clipping sooner per frame. Which would mean you’d need to take even more shots and tighter brackets. Shooting above the camera’s base ISO is only something I do when shooting night exteriors because as you increase ISO, the dynamic range decreases. Anytime you move away from the camera’s base ISO this happens.
Q: Can you say again about how you use flash and blending modes. I am doing a HDR panorama of a large and beautiful Azalea. As you would expect for azaleas there is a lot of shade and also sunlight filtering down through the pines. I had to take a week just to shoot it because I had to wait for the wind to die down.
A: My flash frames are used to place as the top layer in Photoshop and then change the layer blend mode from NORMAL to COLOR. I described this in the 1st half of the webinar.
Q: I missed something. Were you doing contrast and color adjustment before or after HDR processing?
A: Both. You’ll see I did changes in HDR Expose 2 processing and then I showed (for example) an exported tiff where I added levels and color balance adjustment layers as a final contrast adjustment and color balance. This is not always necessary, but I generally do final sharpening and lens corrections in Photoshop so I’ll often do any needed contrast and color tweaks in photoshop as a final step.
Q: Wow !! Beautiful shot beautiful staircase! Where is it? How was it done (taken) Where were and how were you positioned? When was it built and who built it? Amazing again and any info you can give I would appreciate it. I can wait for answers on the blog.
A: The builder was http://regalstephens.com/ and you’ll have to ask them details about the build. I had a chair a foot behind the railing to support the legs of the tripod and had to extend the D3 out over the space and below the chandelier and wait for it to settle. Then I shot 9 frames spaced 2/3rds EV steps between shots using a release cable. I then pulled in the tripod and would look at the LCD to see if I guessed right on composition. It took 3 tries before I nailed it.
Q: FF v. smaller sensors: I've found that the smaller the sensor that you use, the finer granularity of your brackets that you require. I might be able to shoot at 1 or 1/2 stops for a FF sensor, but with an APS or 4/3 sensor, I need to shoot at 1/3 stop brackets
A: That’s what I was saying on the webinar. I should have clarified the numbers as you did here, but I wanted to make sure we got to the demos so I rushed out of that topic before saying exactly what you just did.
Q: Hi Michael, I'm from Miami and I do 360 panoramic photography and I'll like to know how do you manage the movement with trees in long exposures and also how many exposures you take for a single photo??
A: I don’t do long exposures. I shoot mostly during the day where shutter speeds are high and at 9fps. Even the best de-ghosting can’t remove long exposure tree movement. I don’t have any tricks to overcome that one.
Q: Since your clients don't ""see"" all the time you spend in post, how do you charge/deal with justifying your post related charges?
A: Most of my new clients come to me after looking through my entire portfolio. It is over 18 months old. They generally email me and then I send them links to my newest work galleries and they are generally even more engaged at that point. When I hit them with pricing it is either something they are shocked at or were fully expecting given my images are like nothing else anyone locally is producing. So I either had a real prospect all along or just a fan of my work who is only willing to pay X dollars for a shoot.
Q: Can you address deriving Dynamic range from Raw Images.
A: I’m not sure here. I’m assuming you are asking about DXOmark.com and the way the scientifically test each sensor. The chart I shared in the webinar addressed this. DXO mark used to call this “Dynamic Range”, but if you look for that stat on their site you’ll need to look for “Landscape” designation.
Q: How many shots do you typically shoot per property? How much time do you spend processing for a property?
A: I shoot a lot of rentals. There is a vacation website called VRBO.com and they max you out at 16 shots so I get a lot of shooting requests for 16 shots regardless if it is a 2 bedroom or 6 bedroom home. As answered earlier I spend 15-30 minutes per shot in post to create images I’d be proud to put on my portfolio.
Q: what do you use for screen calibration?
A: I have bought the spider thingy and it didn’t work at all no matter how many times I ran the calibration test. I just use my Mac’s monitor calibration tools (in system preferences). I have a 4yr old MacPro and a 24” Viewsonic monitor.
Q: How do you take 9-12 shots without introducing some camera movement when making aperture adjustments. Do you have a special tripod? I find that with > 3 images I get blurring.
A: I assume you mean shutter adjustments because aperture stays locked.
I spent a lot of time on the webinar talking about the importance of not touching the camera at all during capture. Hence the shutter release cables and promote control. That’s why I showed the slides showing what I do to lock down the tripod on tile or fluffy carpet.
Q: If Michael is comfortable sharing, it would be helpful to know what to charge a customer for a typical job (i.e. a 5000 sq ft house).
A: Every market is different. Square footage is a disaster for me. I have homes that are 2000 square ft on the beach selling for 3 million and 1 mile inland for only $400,000. I can’t price shoots that way. I charge a booking fee and per image fee. I don’t advertise rates on my site simply because I want to talk to the client before they click away based on price only. I’ve talked many a client into using me once I’ve shared real life stories about why photos are an investment and not an expense.
Q: What ratio between exterior/interior light levels would you advocate using? 1:1 looks false, to me, so a lighter look out of a window looks more natural.
A: I was trying to convey in the second video of the webinar that I like to control the contrast and luminosity of the windows and highlights separate from the interior lighting. Using masks, contrast and curves on the windows is what creates a more realistic image (my opinion). I ran short on time and never fully demonstrated this in the webinar. I cover this in detail in my video training series.
Q: is this process described on your website?
A: No, only in my video training series, which is a paid service.
Q: Given you use a bracket of upwards of 15 shots, what sort of power does your computer have, and from the point of loading a bracket set to a finished result (including Photoshop post) how long on average does it take you to get to the finished photo?
A: I don’t actually time anything. I am using a 4+ year old MacPro. What I normally do is load the images to merge and then go off and charge batteries or prep gear for tomorrow’s shoot. So I have no clue how long anything is truly taking on the merge side. I plan it that way. I get back from a shoot and dive right into processing and let the time any merging happens be my time to start cleaning lenses or turning around batteries and gear for the next shoot.
Q: Do you use Tilt-Shift lenses? Some of the images look TS.
A: I don’t own any tilt shift lenses. I would buy the Canon 17mm T/S if I were shooting with a full frame Canon. Nikon has no such wide angle T/S.
Q: Using auto focus or manual focus?
A: I use the live view feature on the D3 to zoom into the image and I generally focus on something 2/3rds into the room. Not the far walls because then the close objects like furniture or beds will be slightly out of focus. I also shoot at f/8 to obtain optimal lens sharpness.
Q: When doing exteriors do you want that twilight light after the sun sets so you get that beautiful blue in the sky as the exterior lights of the building come on.
A: I have a very specific way of shooting exteriors at dusk. It is too long an explanation and also part of my video training series.
Q: How do you deal with bright windows, during the shadow (longer) exposures where the light flares around the inside of the window trim completely robbing it of detail despite 10-15 brackets (often dark, wood trim)? I shoot twilight because Photomatix with 1 EV brackets on a Canon 5DII can't resolve window detail during daytime shoots.
A: That problem bugged me in 2005. It wouldn’t have been something I would have had time to describe on the webinar. I’ve long solved that one, but the solution a full video tutorial to describe and is for students of my video training only.
Q: How you deal with colorcast? For example, a bedroom with tungsten lights mixed with a sunlight coming from the windows?
A: I touched on this briefly in the webinar when someone asked the question about do I ever use flash. I use flash to shoot frames up into the ceiling and then use them as a top layer in Photoshop and flip the blend mode from NORMAL to COLOR. Change opacity or mask in only the regions needed. I have specific training videos that show how to overcome all white balance nightmares regardless of time of day.
Q: Do you stitch together wide shots of interiors while combining HDR?
A: No. I just stick with the 14-24mm at 14mm. That is wide enough for me.
Q: Please explain why one would use both HDR Expose and 32 Float, as opposed to just one or the other.
A: If you do a lot of Photoshop work you'll prefer using 32 Float. The biggest reason is you can keep re-launching 32 float on the original 32 bit file as I showed in the webinar. That way you can create layers that have either better window data, better interior light or if you have mixed lighting you can do color adjustments as well as toning in 32 float and you’ll end up with multiple layers that you can mask in just what you need in terms of perfect color or perfect luminosity (or both).
If you do more work within Lightroom and like to prep your files before sending it to HDR Expose 2 then that is one route to take. And you can do a huge amount of work right within HDR Expose 2 from merge to final export. Unified color also has a combo suite with both products if your workflow includes both Photoshop and Lightroom.
Q: With 13-15 images exposures, how do you handle camera bounce/mirror slap to ensure all images are in register?
A: Thus far I’ve never had an issue with mirror slap. My reason probably is this… I have my tripod head attached to a full steel and heavy tripod leg system. I will never buy the carbon fiber legs out there. For shooting interiors and bracketing you will benefit from using a tripod that has weight and built like a tank.
Q: Do you use reflectors?
A: Don’t even own one.
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