HDR the lazy girl way

One of more controversial debates going on right now in the world of photography is HDR photography, short for High Dynamic Range photography. Please don’t ask me for an accurate explanation of the terms or even how it works. The first time I even heard of the term was during the MPIX New York photo tour last year. During the opening question-and-answer session, Rick Sammon explained that while the human eye sees about an 11-f-stop range, a single photo can only capture maybe 4 f-stops. Combining multiple exposures of the same photo can hopefully replicate the same amount of detail that ours eyes can see, from the details that are hiding in the shadows to what appears blown out in the highlights. You therefore expand the range visible in a photo, hence the HDR acronym.

I happen to like HDR, but I prefer it applied with a light touch—enough to remain realistic without going overboard and looking almost cartoon-like. (Although there are definitely artistic applications for that, too.) For example, I’ve always loved the photography of Ansel Adams, and found it interesting that he is often referred to as the first HDR photographer. It makes sense, because when you examine his photographs closely, you can see how much detail there is in the deep shadows and in the bright skies and reflections. His darkroom technique involved meticulously manipulating the contrast in the negative in order to display a wider range of visual information. In other words, HDR.

I liked the concept of HDR, but when I first researched it and and saw all the instructions that involved tripods and bracketing exposures, I wondered if it was for me. I’m too lazy to bracket. I almost never lug around a tripod. The phrase “tone mapping” sounded too complicated to me. So I kept putting off learning about it. I baked a lot of cookies instead.

I stay interested in things much longer when they’re kept simple. And I didn’t realize it then, but as I continued just figuring my way around Photoshop, I was also learning some simple and basic techniques that I could use to achieve that HDR effect. Like manipulating the shadows and highlights, recovery, clarity, or subtle curve adjustments. One of these days, I’ll sit down and explain it in more detail so I can actually be more helpful than that. But for now, I just want to share a quick before-and-after shot with you to show you what you can do even with just a few simple adjustments. It’s not a bracketed shot, so this is single shot post processed in Photoshop. I didn’t take this shot either. It’s a photo that Rafael “RC” Concepcion made available online to the general public (and he gave me permission to post it here), with the command, “Have fun and take a stab at this.” Or something to that effect. He said he found the photo while cleaning up his drive, and I love what the little bit of HDR treatment did to it. (Click on the image to view it in its original size.)

RC sunset HDR

I hope that encourages you to play around with your photos, even the ones that may look uninteresting to you. (That said, don’t let HDR spoil you into being content with uninteresting shots.) You don’t have to spend all day working on Photoshop. RC’s photo above? I spent all of 5 minutes on it, if that much. I literally just slapped on a few small adjustments on it, and was quite pleased with the result.

Here’s one more before-and-after (and after-again) shot. The original photo is on the left. Notice how much additional detail there is in the middle photo, especially around the rear of the truck, and the man’s legs. The photo on the left is a straight tritone conversion of the center photo. Many HDR photos I’ve seen posted around have heavily saturated colors, but I’m taking a cue from Ansel Adams and resolving to explore more of the world of black and white HDR photography. (A larger-sized version can be seen by clicking on the image.)

beach fisherman HDR

I was quite happy with the result. Not that bad for a lazy girl, eh?


14 thoughts on “HDR the lazy girl way”

  1. I agree, I prefer a more subtle HDR- unless I’m trying to create a wallpaper background or something. I have been having a lot of fun trying to see how much I can pull out of just one photograph. It might mean that I’m horribly addicted to photography- but it’s worth it!! :) I’d love to know what you did to the first photograph in just five minutes, though.

    1. It was mostly curves adjustments, shadows/highlights sliders, and a slight two-layer Orton effect that produced the deeper, richer colors.

    1. Hi Lacey! I’ve used CS3 almost exclusively, and so that’s what I’m most comfortable with. Haven’t had the chance to play around with CS4 yet. The CS3 version or later lets you use Camera Raw for jpg files, in case that’s something that matters to you.

      Lately though, I’ve been using a lot more of Lightroom and only head to Photoshop for minor, specific tweaks or adjustments like the ones in the post.

  2. Wow, I think your going over my head. I only have time to use photoshop occasionally. I find myself always using the fill light in Picasa to see the details in the shadows. The afters look great – I love what it did to the sky in that first one! Can’t wait for your tutorials. :)

    1. Hello Dcan! I started with Picasa, too! Camera Raw has the same Fill Light slider, and it does help open up shadows in otherwise dark photos.

  3. Wow! What incredible results. I purchased photoshop right before Christmas and have barely had a chance to play around with it yet. Your photo’s have me wanting to spend the day playing with some of my pictures.

  4. Hi Ivoryhut!
    I love your photos and your beautiful prose. Thank you!
    I fool around with Photoshop a bit too. I MUST know how you altered that beach scene photo. Are you kidding me?!?! It looks incredible. Can you please send me a tutorial? I’ll do your laundry for a week! : )
    Thanks a bunch,

  5. As an amateur photographer and even more amateur Photoshopper, but a lover of both, thanks for the lazy-girl explanation of a super-cool topic. It’s enough to have stuck with me for the last month since I first read it, but not so much that it overwhelmed me… now I want to know more! Can’t wait for those tutorials.

  6. I third and fourth the request for more detailed tutorials! I love your photos, but I go a bit cross-eyed reading manuals and such online. I love the way you walk us through things. If you can dumb down the process, maybe I wouldn’t stare blankly at the Photoshop screen when I’m trying to do it myself! I haven’t been able to crack that nut yet. But you keep inspiring me to try.

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