My Decision to shoot for a HDR Image

Ghost Ship

My decision to produce a HDR or High Dynamic Range Image has to happens long before I pick up the camera. It’s a conscience decision. One that I don’t take lightly. But let’s start at the beginning.

What is HDR?

High Dynamic Range is a term coined to describe an image that captures a larger range of tones than would normally be captured in a single photo. This is achieved by combining more than 1 image to produce a  range of tones. This is simply achieved by altering the exposure on the camera between photos to produce the “range” required. So how do I go about achieving this?

I firstly have to have a subject. You can do HDR on anything but it has to be an image that you want to work on for more than the usual time you would spend editing an image. So the image must have character. I’ve read many articles on producing HDR images and the common theme that comes across is something dark, poorly lit, plenty of shadows AND OLD.

I first read about the wreck by accident. I was just checking out a new App for my iPad that allows you to check out images from around the area you live in or any location around the world. I happened to see several images of the wreck and started doing some research. I found out that the Redcliffe Council had purchased the ship after it was decommissioned to form a breakwater in 1958. What was left was a rusty skeleton of a formerly glorious ship.

My next free day from work and I was off to scout the location. After 30 minutes of driving the area I found the location. At the time I had a severely sprained ankle and I couldn’t climb down to the beach for a closer look. It only took one look for the ideas to start formulating.

The first thing I checked was the tides. Low tide happens once or twice every day but it had to co-ordinate with dawn. The beach faced due east. What I did notice was that the hull faced north so one side would be in deep shadow. That’s when I decided to HDR an image.

The low tide and Dawn coincided this morning and also the next 2 days if needed. I set the alarm for a 4:00am start and got my camera gear ready. Batteries charged and tripod found, I was set.

By 4:20am I was standing in front of the last resting place of the wreck, 40 minutes until dawn. I had to try out the angles and see what composition I liked. To achieve the range I required and as a safety margin, I decided to shoot the sequence at 1 stop intervals. This means 1 full shutter speed difference for each shot in the sequence.

I set the camera up on the tripod, went back to my back to get the shutter release and WTF, no release. So much for getting my gear together. Never mind we will go on. I set my camera to Av mode ( Aperture Priority ) at f8. I focused and then immediately turned the camera’s AF to off. This is to stop the camera wanting to refocus for every shot. My ISO was set to 100 ISO and I went to the exposure compensation mode dial on my Canon 7D. I set my camera to capture 3 shots at 1 stop apart and moved the 3 shot sequence to begin at -5 stops, with the motor drive set to continuous shooting all I had left to do was wait for the sun to poke over the horizon.

Without the cable release I knew that when I started to get towards the end of my sequence of shots, I would probably get camera shake. When the time was right I set off the first three exposures. Once done I reset the sequence to begin another but this time at -2 Stops and blasted away. Reset another starting at +1 and then another at +4. I ended up with a series of shots that went from -5 stops to +5 stops.

The shots were -5 stops, -4 stops, -3 stops, -2 stops, – 1 stop, zero,

The Sequence

+1 stop, +2 stops, +3 stops, +4 stops & finally +5 stops. Resulting in 11 images ranging from an almost black image right through to a very over exposed image. Why would I need this? I wanted to capture as much detail as possible. From the whitest cloud to the blackest shadow. Without missing a thing. My method of using a semi auto mode and exposure compensation was chosen for its speed. I could have set my camera to manual and taken a reading to underexpose by 5 stops and then reset each shutter speed after each shot, BUT that meant a greater possibility of moving the camera and not getting the sequence exact. With practice the method I used is faster and less likely to produce an error.

If you look at the frame grab to the right you’ll see the sequence as it appears in Lightroom 3. But Dave why is there only 9 images and not the 11 you shot? I’m glad you asked. This sequence does stop after only 9 shots because I forgot my cable release right? Because I didn’t have the release it meant I was actually holding the camera while it was on the tripod. The 10th image in the sequence came out blurry. With a shutter speed around 1.2 seconds and me still touching the camera it was inevitable that this was going to happen. If you look at the last image in the sequence  The dark side of the wreck contains no black at all. Some dark greys , yes, but no black. So it will have to do.

Once I had sorted out the sequence of shots and eliminated the bad ones, I then went to my Nik Software HDR Pro. Once imported into HDR Pro I remembered I had bought R C Concepcion’s HDR Book. I quickly re read one of the chapters and made more sense of the adjustment sliders available to use and applied similar settings to the suggestions made in the book. I monkeyed around a little with the settings until I got something that was equal to the image I had in my mind’s eye.

Once done, I saved the image. As I had exported the images directly from LR3 into HDR Pro when I saved the image it gets automatically loaded back into Lightroom, where I can tweak the image a little further. Saturation, contrast a little colour tweak and I had an image I was happy to post to the web. Not happy to just stop there,  with an image  “finished”, I want to go and play some more. What would it look like cropped? I made a virtual copy of the image, something Lightroom can do with creating another file. Cropped and converted to B&W using a preset. Some dodging and burning and a quick export to Photoshop CS5 to try some High Pass sharpening and I flicked it back to LR3 for a comparison to the other image.

As you can see by the comparison screen shot I had two very distinct images from the one series of images.  I have to admit I didn’t go down there to take one sequence of 11 shots. I did take several HDR sequences, all using the same pattern. All up I took 160 images in just under an hour. Did they all work? No. Are there some more images I can work with? Absolutely. Problem is some of the images have generated other ideas, for future projects. Did I say that the low tide at dawn would be around for two more days? Hmmmmm…..the possibilities.

Happy Shooting.

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