HDR photography is a gift of the digital age. To a one-time film photographer like me, it’s magic. I never imagined that one day I would be blending together bracketed images to create a single photograph with an extended dynamic range. A photograph in which I was able to retain details in the shadows and not blow out highlights.
Wanting to improve upon my magic, I recently found my way to Photomatix Pro, an HDR processing software. I like Photomatix. It is easy and painless to use, and provides different styles and presets to draw upon, expanding my imagination. I consider myself a newbie–I still have lots of experimenting to do, but that is the fun of it.
The best way to start with Photomatix, if you are interested in developing your magic, is to just jump right in and start using it. Load in bracketed images, click presets and move adjustment sliders. The application is very intuitive to work with. You can download a free trial if you don’t already have the software installed on your computer.
A few tips:
- Photomatix has several tutorials on its site. I suggest initially watching the introductory tutorial. It takes about 4 minutes and will give you a feel for the software. Then when you decide you want greater depth, you can watch other tutorials as well. Also download a User Manual onto your desktop. I have found it very handy to have available—an excellent resource.
- When shooting images meant for HDR processing keep the subject matter and lighting simple at first, as you find your way. Use at least three bracketed photos, to get optimum results. Shoot one photograph for highlights, one for midtones, and one for shadows. Usually +/- 2 stops is sufficient.
- Check your histograms right after you take your bracketed shots, before you move your camera. In your lightest image, the dark shadows should be shifted into the midtone section of the histogram. If that is not the case, take another longer exposure, to move those dark shadow areas further right on the histogram. Photomatix has an HDR Exposure Calculator which you may find helpful once you start working with more complicated lighting such as shooting the interior of a building with light coming through the windows.
- When bracketing images you should only change the shutter speed. If you adjust the aperture your depth of field will be different in each image. If you change the ISO, the quality of your image will be impacted, as the ISO is moved to a bigger number.
- Fine tune each bracketed image before you merge them in Photomatix. I do this in Lightroom. For example, I may adjust white balance or calibration, syncing all three images.
Once you have uploaded bracketed photos to Photomatix, you will be provided different options regarding alignment, chromatic aberration, noise and deghosting. Proper alignment of images is important, in case your camera moved between images. I always put a check in the alignment box. I also check the chromatic aberration box as color fringing resulting from chromatic aberration is typically an issue for HDR images. Noise reduction in underexposed or dark areas is important, and should probably be chosen.
Deghosting is your last consideration before your images are merged. Ghosts appear in your merged bracketed images if any thing moved as you took the photographs. Deghosting eliminates these “ghosts.” Deghosting at higher settings can affect the quality of your photographs, so it is better to deghost at a lower setting. Photomatix Pro allows you to deghost the entire image automatically, or manually to select areas of the image to deghost with a lasso. Instead of using higher settings, it is recommended to deghost manually using a lasso.
Once your images are merged, the merged image appears in the middle of the page. On the right side you will see a panel of what your image will look like with the provided presets. On the left side is a panel of adjustments you can make. Now is the time to explore what Photomatix can do for your image.
The key to HDR processing is controlling the blending process, using the presets and adjustment sliders provided within Photomatix. Start by picking an image style, and reviewing all of the presets related to that style. Exposure Fusion provides a more realistic, natural result than Tone Mapping. Determine which you prefer for your image and then go the adjustment panel and move each of the sliders back and forth to see how the changes affect your image. Changing these adjustment sliders is central to improving your images so it is important to become comfortable with using them.
The bottom line is that nothing is set in stone and nothing is right or wrong. Click away and experiment. Get a feel for Photomatix and how it responds to different settings. Create your own preset or install presets created by others. Once you have experience with the application, you can watch more tutorials and read more articles to build on your understanding on how best to use the application for your purposes. As with any new software, it is a process. And then one day you will suddenly realize you are no longer a Photomatix “newbie,” but a confident, experienced user.