Real World HDR

One of the great pleasures I’ve had since moving out of the New York area 13 years ago to southeastern Pennsylvania is getting to know and work with legendary Philly AP photographer George Widman.

George is what we call a “photographer’s photographer.” He is not a jack of all trades, he’s a master of them. Whether it’s photojournalism (a Pulitzer finalist for his work on the homeless), sports (he’s covered more World Series and Olympics than he’d like me to mention), feature, landscape, people, food, interiors….you name it, and George does it well. And then generously shares his techniques with colleagues.

And that includes post production. George and I both shoot for the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, the tourist board of Philly, and I’ve seen him in action doing amazing things both on location and in post; including using HDR to capture otherwise impossible situations.

Now, truthfully, a lot of the HDR we see is that grunge-style, over the top, semi-psychedelic look (Wait! Before you start sharpening your commenting knives, I’m not making a judgement on it. In fact, I kinda like the look and two of the pics on my Spirit of Place 2011 calendar are HDRs).

I’m just saying that, in most cases for editorial or commercial photographers, the hyperreal HDR look just doesn’t fly with clients (unless you’re shooting the stills for the next Harry Potter epic!). I’ve used them in my calendar but can’t think of one paying gig where the obvious HDR look was acceptable to the holder of the checkbook.

That’s why I was delighted to find the master himself using a kinder, gentler style of HDR, let’s call it “real world HDR,” on a few recent commercial assignments.  And I managed to cajole him into sharing some of his techniques with us.  Take the above series of shots at the National Constitution Center, for instance.

It’s the classic indoor/outdoor light level conundrum—if you expose for the outside, you get detail in the windows but the interior is too dark. Expose for the interior, and the windows are blown.

In the past, you had two choices. Just let the windows blow out (hmmn, did someone just look at me?), or drive in a truck load of big AC strobes and throw enough light into the interior to raise it to the same light level as the outdoor scene (no, no, no–that’s definitely not me, that’s my buddy Joe!)

But George goes all HDR on it. Now many of you are familiar with the concept of taking the same photo at several different exposures for HDR, but here’s a few extra Widman tips.

First shoot RAW. You notice that there’s only three exposures in this particular HDR and that’s because George shoots a lot of situations with people (see that guy standing there, the perfect found “scale” element?). If you shoot 7 exposures, chances are that guy is going to move.

So in those situations, George shoots three, and uses the ability to squeeze extra dynamic range out of RAW files if he needs some extra exposure latitude.

He also recommends locking the mirror up and using the “electronic pickle”, aka electronic cable release (what can I say, it’s a Philly thing:-)) and waiting several seconds between exposures to make sure there is no residual vibration from the the previous shot.

George then runs the shots through his current favorite HDR program Photomatix Pro in the exposure fusion mode. This gives a natural looking combination. He resists the temptation to play with those seductive sliders too much. You start that, and before you know it, you’re through the looking glass.

But he doesn’t stop there. He takes his underexposed frame and layers it underneath the fused version, and paints away the windows for even more detail outside (see the difference between the images marked “automatic HDR” and HDR plus layered over/under image?). It’s slight, but that’s the kind of attention to,um, detail that a real craftsman gives you.

Finally, after all the HDR tweaking has been done (George advises that you enable a good number of history palette views in the Preferences of Photoshop so you can go back more than a few moves, but not necessarily to the beginning, if you goof up at a stage), that’s when you do things like perspective correction and the other minor tweaks.

I’ve played with Photomatix Pro and the new Nik HDR Efex Pro program (which has a lot of very cool bells and whistles) and found them both to be superb for all kinds of HDR techniques, including George’s approach. And check out George’s site to see other examples of his real world HDR.

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