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How to Use HDR for Nighttime Photography

Making pictures at nighttime can be challenging. Parts of a picture that are lit with street lamps or other lights are very bright compared to the darkness of the sky or the shadows under trees and porches. This scene is described as having a high dynamic rangethe difference between light and shadow is very great. This is the reason we have HDR tools for photography. Let me show you how I used HDR techniques to make a picture at nighttime.

Bracket

While photowalking with a terrific group in Austin, Texas, I wanted to make a picture of the state capitol building. I used Live View in my camera so I could see the composition, and used the sidewalk as a leading line up to the building while trying to balance the building on the right with the lights on the left. Since this is an HDR situation, and since its so easy to do, I shot a bracket of images to capture the whole range of light and dark. In your camera, this is usually listed under Auto Bracket, or Exposure Bracketing (don’t go for the HDR settingsthat usually produces a picture with the highlights and shadows combined from a few pictures, but its all done in the camera and lacks the control we have when done manually).

Your camera will let you choose how many pictures to make, and how big the exposure is between them. The max my camera offers is 7 frames and 1 stop apart each. I may not need that much range every time, but I may as well use it. I also set the camera to record images in order from darkest to brightest so that when I have them in Lightroom they show up as an obvious and cohesive group in the filmstrip. I leave my camera at these settings and then Im good to go whenever I want to shoot a bracket for HDR. Shooting this way is called bracketing. Here are the seven pictures I made.

Combine

Next, I exported them to Photomatix Pro, which compiles all the pictures into a single photo with the lighting information of the whole range of images. This way, I get the good exposure from the building combined with the good exposure of the shadow areas.

Photomatix is simple to use. I like to start with a preset, and then use the sliders to adjust it to my tastes. In this case, I chose the Tone Mapping from the Process options on the top left, then the default preset from the thumbnail images on the right, and moved sliders around until I liked the result. Photomatix is capable of making natural looking HDR images, but it can also give us a lot of grunge or glow and make surreal looking pictures. In this case, I went for a more natural look. I saved my settings as a new preset (bottom left) so I can use them again on other nighttime pictures to give me a starting place. Save and Re-Import brings us back to Lightroom. (Photomatix Pro works with Lightroom well, but it also works as a stand-alone application if you don’t use Lightroom).

Levi_Sim_HDR_Basic
By the way, the Texas State Capitol is not gray stone, like many other state’s; it’s a warm toned stone, and that’s why i’ve got such a warm color on the building here.

Finish

A mistake many photographers make is considering this a finished photograph. The thing is, dodging and burning and using some of the other tools available will help this photo make a greater impact. I used Dehaze in Lightroom to give more contrast and impact, and I also used the adjustment brush to gently brighten the pathway to the capitol (play with the flow settings the brush to gradually build up changes). I also darkened a few select areas on the edges. Brightness is a picture guides the viewers eye, so dodging things brighter and burning them darker helps me direct my viewers to the important parts of the picture.

Lastly, I also made a black and white version. Just as with bracketing while shooting, I can do it, so I might as well do it and see if I like the results. I do.

Conclusion

Using HDR techniques opens a whole world in photography. Many of us don’t have much opportunity to shoot during the daytime because we work a day job, and at this time of year its already quite dark by the time we punch out. But if you use auto bracketing in the camera to capture multiple exposures, and use software like Photomatix to combine those pictures, then youve got all evening and night to go shoot. Just remember to use all the tools available and finish the picture off to guide your viewers to the important things.

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