From time to time, I like to bring guest bloggers on here so that regulars can see other interesting artists. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him in person, and he’s a great guy… so I’m happy to have him do this!
BTW, each of the four photos below is from Brian. You can click through them to visit his blog and see more!
The Eye Before HDR
by Brian Matiash
Hey there, everyone! I’d like to start by thanking Trey for letting me chat it up here with all of you. Trey was one of my first inspirations when I started getting my feet wet with HDR years ago. His tutorials helped me break through some impasses that I had reached a while back and I wholly attribute a lot of my own sensibilities around HDR to him. And it was around this reflection that provided the inspiration and direction for this article. It’s all about paying it forward and sharing the knowledge when we can.
At the time of writing this article, I am midway through a two-week photo assignment, sailing across the coast of Italy on the world’s largest sailing vessel, the Royal Clipper. At the moment, we are en route to Capri. I am assisting in the production of a training video for travel photography to be debuted on Kelby Training and a large portion of what I need to do is scout. I am constantly looking around for scenes that will lend themselves to HDR processing. It is through years of bracketing, processing, failing, and eventually squeaking out some successful shots that I began to develop my eye for HDR. What I am thankful for is that I already had years of practicing to develop my eye for composition and style before ever seeing my first HDR image and that is a point that I’d like to reinforce shortly.
While scouting for new and compelling shots, I noticed something that, at face value, was not very surprising but after digging a little deeper, yielded some interesting results. What I saw was that everyone aboard – everyone – had a camera and most of them were dSLRs. The same held true for those travelers that I met on land. Upon realizing this, I decided to conduct my own little ad-hoc survey. Thus far, I had asked 23 people what they intended to do with their images after they returned home. Seven people said that they weren’t going to do anything other than print them. The remaining 16 gave answers that indicated a range of applying basic post processing to more advanced stylizing. Of those 16 people, seven of them said that they were going to attempt to process in HDR. That figure gave me a very warm feeling inside, realizing that 30% of the people polled were familiar with, and experimenting in, HDR processing.
But let’s go back to the concept of seeing for a moment. After all, seeing is probably the most elemental requisite of photography. We all develop our own style and sense of composition by seeing. It is a skill that can come naturally to some, but often times requires years of training, experimenting, failing, persevering and then, eventually, succeeding. And there are different ways of seeing within the universe of photography that is usually in line with what piques your interest. A lifestyle photographer will pick up on certain elements that perhaps an architectural photographer may miss. A photographer with a penchant for black and white may see a scene totally differently than someone who shoots predominantly in color.
Across the gamut, every one of us strives to create compelling images that are visually striking, pleasing, and rewarding. While we do have certain staples of photographic composition principles (ie. The Rule of Thirds, The Zone System, etc), it is how well we synthesize these concepts with our own sensibilities that allows our true branding to be developed, as it were. It is less a reliance on post processing and more of a resolution to get the image captured properly at the time of exposure that is the hallmark of finding your own style.
As an example, take a look at the images that Trey shares on this website. I know that the first thing I notice is not the HDR processing that he applies, but rather the strong compositional style that he has clearly defined for himself. I appreciate how he uses his ultra-wide 14mm lens and incorporates distorting lines to his benefit. It all lends to a style that has been built through consistency and refinement. You know you’ve reached success when someone says, “Ahh, that’s a Trey HDR.”
The mindset should be that HDR would not be used as a substitute or filler for a mediocre image, but rather as an organic supplement to a great one. It’s the cherry atop the whipped cream atop the banana split. If you take a shot that you aren’t crazy about and tell yourself, ‘Eh, I’ll just process it in HDR to salvage it,” you are doing yourself a disservice. Rather, spend some more time at the scene and find a way to own it. Change your lens, alter your perspective, fill the frame, break your own convention. Do something to get your eye and your mind engaged. Don’t rely on HDR or any other post processing to make your shot better later on. Rely on yourself and your camera right there and then at the scene.
Now, with that said, I know that most of you are here because you have an appreciation for HDR. That’s why I’m here, too. So, does any of what you’ve read so far apply to making you a better HDR photographer? Absolutely! HDR requires you to understand and audit your scene in a few new dimensions. First, you need to be aware of your scene and all of its dynamic range. You have to take care to cover your bases, to see and expose for the highlights, mid-tones, and shadows respectively. Review your brackets after you’ve shot them. Don’t assume that you got what you need just because your camera is set to AEB. Three brackets are not always enough. Sometimes, five brackets won’t cut it either. If you want to succeed as an HDR photographer, you must train your eye to know what exposures you need to get and to also know when you’ve gotten them.
The final step is to process the brackets. This can be very fun but it can also be very daunting. My best advice to you is simple: treat each image uniquely as you begin to tone-map it. Click on the ‘Default’ button to reset all of your sliders (if you’re using Photomatix). Don’t blindly apply the same settings to every image that you tone-map. Experiment with the sliders. Drag one all the way to the left. See what happens. Then drag it all the way to the right. Do this a few times and you’ll eventually get a grasp of what it does. And know that that same slider may have different results from image to image so never start assuming and never stop experimenting.
With practice, you’ll reach a point where your sense of style will harmonize with your eye for HDR and that is when you will see magic start to happen.