Realistic HDR


Derwent Water, Keswick. Canon 5D MKII. 4 Image sequence merged to HDR with Nik HDR Efex Pro 2.
Derwent Water, Keswick. Canon 5D MKII. 4 Image sequence merged to HDR with Nik HDR Efex Pro 2.

If you read my newsletter on Lenscraft you will know that I’m working on a new book about HDR. You might find this odd if you know me well; following a brief fling with HDR back in 2007 I decided I didn’t like the technique and have been quite vocal about it. As a Landscape Photographer, I find unrealistic techniques make me cringe.

So what’s changed? In short, my understanding and skill with some of the software tools.

The image above which is from one of the worked examples in the book is a case in point. These images were shot on a Canon 5D and at the time I couldn’t tame the dynamic range with filters. I shot the sequence in the hope that one day I would be able to produce a realistic looking HDR image from them.

Well I think that time may be getting closer. The image isn’t yet quite as I would like it but it’s certainly appealing and doesn’t suffer from some of the obvious HDR signs that make me cringe.

And the software used for this? Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 – best of all it’s free.

The trick to making this approach work is to keep the Detail setting to “Realistic” when Tone Mapping. Also set the Depth to “Normal” and Drama to “Deep”. As you process the image be sure to increase contrast selectively as well as darken shadows. Once you have completed the Tone Mapping step it’s worth the image into Viveza where you close the shadows down and apply additional contrast if necessary.

It takes a little practice and feels as though you are engineering the HDR look out of the image. It’s time consuming but I think it’s worth the effort.

16 thoughts on “Realistic HDR

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  1. I get the impression that you are evolving a process which takes the image down from HDR. How is this better than an approach which works up to the effect you want?

    1. Well, what I am actually trying to do is create HDR images of natural subjects that I feel are appealing and don’t hurt my sensibilities. They don’t need to be better just different and appealing. In reality, they probably have more shadow detail and less noise in the shadows and a single image. In this instance they also saved the highlights which weren’t recoverable.

  2. Hi Robin, I like this image, it does look much more realistic. I have found that the Lightroom ‘Merge to HDR’ also does a very good job too. I quite like the results is produces.

    1. Thank you. I think your right. When I first started with HDR many years ago I liked the more extreme images. To be honest, I still do but only for manmade subjects. I don’t feel the look is very appealing with Landscapes.

  3. Robin, I fully understand the natural desire of us all to capture the maximum amount of detail in our image which would be commensurate with our “vision” at the time. To that end we usually utilise filters/ bracketing etc and then some work in a software package. I don’t usually like what is commonly nominated as HDR images although some love the drama inherent in the genre.
    I’m really interested in why you would want to experiment with it which seems at odds with the images on this site and in the books you have produced?
    The image you have used here is excellent and, perhaps, is losing some of its naturalness in the processing?
    I am aware that you could politely tell me it’s none of my business!

    1. Hi Allister, this is a very good question and there are a number of reasons.
      There are times when using HDR techniques is all that’s available to us and I want to be sure that I know how to create images that are attractive in such circumstances.
      I am committed to writing a book for each of the Nik filters and I want to ensure I can do a good job.
      I find it a challenge to be able to create HDR images that look natural and I’m always up for a challenge.
      I lover experimenting and trying to stretch the boundaries of what can be done (at least stretch my skills set) as this is how I improve. It’s only when I push myself and experiment that I find out new things that I can incorporate into my work in the future.
      As for the image, yes there are still hints of HDR signs in there but much less than often seen. I’m sure I will improve with practice.

  4. I think you’ve done quite a good job of maintaining the realism here, so mission accomplished!

    Whenever I try and cram a lot of dynamic range in one scene, I feel like my primary purpose is simply to avoid that abrupt clipping (predominantly in the highlights) that is so characteristic of digital sensors. So in the process of pulling highlights, pushing shadows, and deepening blacks, you always need to make sure that you’re retaining the overall balance of tones in the image and that you aren’t just full of midtones with nowhere to go…

    I usually find that process I need to intentionally reduce saturation to avoid that neon glow effect that can sometimes creep out of the image if we aren’t careful.

    I’ve only done this in Lightroom, really, but I wonder if I’d have a lot more granular control in a different HDR program. To be honest, when I’ve tried tone-mapping in the past I never liked the results, but I’ve been be quite happy with how natural Lightroom’s HDR-merge seems to work…

    1. Thanks Andrew.
      I agree with your comments about saturation in general but having been working with Nik HDR Efex for a little while now I am finding it very well behaved. The Tone Mapping options are quite varied and it doesn’t seem to oversaturate when you use the natural options. Worth a look just as an alternative to Lightroom and to experiment.

  5. Thanks for taking the time to answer Robin. A comprehensive response and, having read several of your publications, an excellently reasoned one, as expected!

  6. Very nice! 🙂 I had always used Photomatix for my HDR photos but i must admit that since Lightroom introduced the Merge to HDR feature, i do most of the work in there, creating a flat image with the whole dynamic range and then use Color Efex Pro, mostly the detail extractor and pro contrast to make everything pop out more.. I haven’t used HDR Efex for a long time as well, might as well give it a try again. It wasn’t that good when it first came out, couldn’t get any realistic effect with it, so i used Photomatix, since it had more options for fine control but your photo is really well done! 😉

    1. Thanks. I’m pleased you like the image. I also agree with your comments about the Lightroom HDR producing flat images. You need to process them afterwards to return the mid tone contrast. If you haven’t used it for a while, it is worth experimenting with Nik HDR Efex. Thanks again for adding the tips.

  7. I like your HDR image very much. I have the Nik filters but have never tried the HDR filter for the simple reason, I have never really liked any images that I have seen that people have produced. But after seeing yours which I think is marvellous, it’s made me think I will have to try this filter myself. I will look forward to your new book on HDR

    1. Thanks. Don’t write off HDR just because the majority of proponents haven’t worked out how to create a pleasing look for nature subjects. I for one am very impressed by the control you have over the process in Nik HDR Efex. I expect to publish the book by the end of August (all being well).

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