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Photo post-processing tips


Robot Monkey
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What are your tips? Do you do it sometimes?

 

I came across this guide for making HDR photos that aren't necessarily cartoony and started experimenting.

 

I tried a variety of HDR shots (using my fancy CHDK bracketing script) and started to get the hang of it.

 

But then I tried using the principles on some older pics (not bracketed) and realized that the "toning" the guide talks about can improve regular pics as well.

 

I know, for example, that rustyjaw and Starhawk can compose a picture a helluva lot better than me. But beyond composition, is post-processing part of the picture sometimes?

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Are you specifically looking for tips on processing HDRs, or more general stuff?

 

I haven't created an HDR in Photoshop (PS) for a long time, I just don't like it's system for creating them. It feels convoluted after using something designed for HDR like Photomatix (PM). The author of the article says that he thinks PS is more conducive to realistic HDR, that may be true, but it's possible to get beautiful results from a combination of PM and PS. And you get the benefit of PMs very powerful "details enhancer" mode, which, if used carefully, can produce amazing results during tonemapping.

 

The trick is not to try and get a final product out of PM, but to rather use it to extract all the information you want out of your set of exposures then process that as you would an image out of the camera. This means you need to know where to stop "enhacing" the image in PM and begin the fine-tuning in PS (or Lightroom, or Aperture).

Edited by rustyjaw
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I'll give PM a whirl one of these days.

 

I was curious how usual processing is for you guys and maybe what you actually do as well. Do curves and call it a day? Or is it more than that? Obviously it depends on what you're doing or what result you want.

 

I guess I'm wondering what processing makes up your go-to or usual tools of the trade.

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I read the Gizmodo HDR article and it's technically Ok but that photo they used for the example is utter crap. I realize it's just an example but the finished product doesn't exactly make me want to try HDR.

 

I highly recommend Photomatix too. Keep it subtle and, as Ed says, use your editor of choice for fine tuning. Also, once you get an idea of what you can do with HDR shoot with HDR specifically in mind. Use it with purpose.

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I'll give PM a whirl one of these days.

 

I can give you some specific tips on PM, it can be a bit daunting at first because the function of the controls isn't very clear.

 

I was curious how usual processing is for you guys and maybe what you actually do as well. Do curves and call it a day? Or is it more than that? Obviously it depends on what you're doing or what result you want.
(most of my comments are going to be Aperture-specific, since that's what I'm using most of the time, but just about anything in Aperture can be done in PS as well, plus many things can be done in PS that Aperture cannot).

 

I actually don't use curves that much, I use levels more. Part of that is convenience as there is no curves tool in Aperture, what it has instead is a levels tool with 5 control points (unlike the 3 points in PS levels). The 2 added points (@ 25% and 75%) make it behave more like curves but without the complexity (essentially, it's as if in curves you were to click to make a point 1/4 the way up the line, another at the center, and a point 3/4 the way up, and use only those points, along with the two end points, to adjust). Curves is still more precise and flexible, but I usually can get what I want from levels.

 

Regardless of whether a shot is HDR or not, my processing is normally about setting 'exposure' 'recovery' 'brightness' 'contrast' and 'highlights and shadows' (which includes a 'mid-contrast' slider). 'exposure' and 'brightness' may sound the same, but they aren't. Exposure is more like the right-most slider in levels whereas 'brightness' is more like the middle one, if that helps. Brightness will affect mid-tones more, leaving the whiter and blacker tones alone. I use "exposure" mainly mainly to dial up the whiter tones. Recovery is a way of pulling down the blowouts that can result.

 

Basically it's a balancing act and what counts as 'balanced' depends on the shot, the composition and of course, my desire for the photo.

 

HDRs normally take longer to adjust (after tonemapping) because they usually need more. The whole process of tonemapping is essentially a way of losing contrast and flattening out the image. So most of my time post-processing a tonemapped image is attempting to re-introduce contrast (creating the balance) while at the same time trying to retain the detail I want. Sometimes it is worth losing detail if it makes the shot more compelling.

 

I usually spend a lot of time experimenting with varying levels of the sliders I mentioned above, all the while keping an eye on various parts of the image. This is why using a program like Lightroom or Aperture is preferable to PS, IMO. Because all of the controls are laid out in a single pane, all available at any time, it allows for more experimentation and a more fluid workflow. This is difficult in PS because most adjusting is done via modal dialogs, isolated from the rest of the adjustments/filters.

 

After I get this balance of white/dark/contrast pretty much how I want it, I will work on color-balance. Again, if it's an HDR, it usually needs much more color work than a single shot out of the camera. Part of this is just the nature of HDR. Because you can retain detail in bright areas that would normally blow out to white, or dark areas that will fill in with black, what you end up with in many tonemapped images is vivid color in those regions. It looks very unnatural to see all that color information in areas where your brain 'expects' to see something closer to pure white or black. I spend a lot of time desaturating colors and regions of color that are, to my eyes, distractingly exaggerated.

 

Sometimes after working on the color I will revisit the previous set of adjustments because the 'balance' will have changed as a result of better color.

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Ed have you tried the PM plugin for Aperture yet?

 

Yeah, I'm using Beta 11 right now, I love the convenience. It seems to have some bugs, sometimes I get huge amounts of noise when I use it. If I run the same shots through the stand-alone version, they are fine. But that's only about 1 in 10 shots, maybe.

 

I've also experimented with Hyrda (another HDR plug-in for Aperture), but wasn't too impressed by it's image quality, although the UI is nice. I believe there is a newer version since I tested it, so I may try it again.

 

There's another promising standalone HDR app called "HDR Max" from Areia, again great interface, it resembles Photoshop, but the version I tested was buggy and didn't seem to offer the control that PM does. One GREAT thing it has is self-contained project files. these contain your exposures and the settings you used, so you can reopen your document if you want to tweak the tonemapping later.

 

The only other HDR app that can compete with PM is "FDR Tools." It has a very clunky UI, but the output can be stellar (hello, detail!). It has more control over exposure merging and tonemapping than any program I've tried. If you can get past the UI, it's a worthy program. I often process my shots in both PM and FDR to see which I prefer, I'd say about 70% of the time PM wins, but FDR is no slouch. FDR has a feature similar to HDR Max, in the form of a project window, a 'project' being a set of exposures and the settings you used. If you don't like something about the way you tonemapped, you can reopen the project and continue tweaking the settings.

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Ed have you tried the PM plugin for Aperture yet?

 

There's an Aperture plugin? I know there is a Lightroom plugin but haven't seen one for Aperture. Do you have a link?

 

I've also experimented with Hyrda (another HDR plug-in for Aperture)

 

The last time I played with Hydra it wasn't really HDR. Hydra lacked any tone mapping tools. Has that changed?

 

On the PC Artizen is pretty good too. I still prefer Photomatix but Artizen offers a nice selection of tweaks and manages to give them more meaning than PM. They have been hinting at an OS X version for quite some time.

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