Following a discussion on Google+ related to the monthly Toy Photographers community challenge, I decided to write this blog post. Here I compare the result of different digital techniques to cope with high contrast scenes such as shooting directly against the sun. My goal is to manage to get details both in the highlights, such as the sky, and the shadows, such as my toy subject or its surrounding landscape. I want the result to be as realistic as possible and avoid the cheesy kitsch look that is often associated with HDR.
HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is a digital technique used to combine multiple images with a lower dynamic range in order to better deal with important differences in luminance levels (i.e. differences between the highlights and shadows). A digital camera sensor cannot capture those differences as well as the human eye and HDR can be used to recreate what an eye can see. HDR is also known for highly contrasted and saturated unnatural scenes. (Although it’s not technically HDR that is responsible for that but the tone mapping algorithm used to compress the HDR image to a lower dynamic range so it can be printed on a compute screen. Wikipedia has some nice examples of the impact of different tone mapping algorithms.)
I won’t go into more details of what is HDR. Also I won’t go into the details of how I created the different HDR photos because plenty of other people on the Internet have already done it far better than I can, just use
the Force Google. I will start by editing a single under-exposed photo that will serve as a reference of what should be. Then I will use Lightroom HDR photo merge to create a RAW dng file from five exposure bracketed photos. Finally I will use Photoshop HDR photo merge and compare it to the result from Lightroom. (Still if you’re looking for more details about how to use these functionalities you might want to check this.)
[Spoiler alert] In this blog post my opinion is highly biased towards Lightroom. It’s the only software I know with HDR capabilities which can create a dng file that can be manipulated like any other RAW file. Moreover it’s extremely simple to use and integrates very well in a Lightroom workflow. The result really looks like a regular photo except it can get more details in the highlights, and getting details back in the shadows (almost) doesn’t create any noise. However I never used Photoshop’s HDR merge before and was curious to see how different would the result be from Lightroom.
Here are the five original bracketed shots directly exported from Lightroom without any adjustments other than lens profile correction. I shoot against the sun and used a reflector to get some details on the minifig. However it wasn’t enough and I knew I had to work to get the result I wanted. By using auto bracketing for this kind of situations, I don’t have to worry about whether I used the right exposure compensation parameters. Moreover it gives me the possibility to go for HDR in case nothing works as I want.
Single shot editing
Because I want to keep as much as possible details in the sky, I will use the most under-exposed photo (the third one). Here’s the list of edits I applied to it:
- Slightly warmer white balance than what the auto WB the camera used
- Exposure boosted by 1.6 stopsHighlights at -100 and shadows at +100
- Whites and blacks slightly boosted to increase contrast
- A little bit of clarity, dehaze and vignetting
- Radial filter with strong feather on the minifig with a little boost in the shadows and the whites to make him pop out.
Lightroom HDR photo merge
Here is the image as it is just after having applied Lightroom’s merge with auto align, auto exposure and no deghosting.
Here is the result after adding a few other adjustments.
It is noteworthy that both the adjustments and the result are very similar to the edited single shot. The major difference is that the single shot has a significant amount of noise when zoomed in, while the HDR version is (almost) noise free.
Photoshop HDR photo merge
I created the photo by using “Edit In -> Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop” and then followed the instructions from this video:
This is the result with edits in Camera Raw similar to the ones Lightroom use for the auto exposed HDR photo.
This is the result with edits in Camera Raw similar to my reference/final image.
To be honest I was afraid I would get something that looked too much for me, mostly because of the (too kitsch) examples I saw here while Googling for me a comparison between Photoshop and Lightroom HDR capabilities. While it’s not that bad it’s certainly more contrasted (and thus saturated) than what I want my photo to be. Also the result seems to me more greenish than the one from Lightroom, even though I used the same white balance parameters. These can probably be fixed into Photoshop but I personally think Lightroom is much simpler to use.
Another interesting point is the difference in size between the files created by Lightroom and Photoshop. Although it combines five 20+ Mo raw files, Lightroom dng is only 57 Mo. On the other hand Photoshop TIFF file is 1.14 Go. That said, according to what I’ve read Photoshop is better at handling deghosting, something I acknowledge can sometimes be a problem in Lightroom. However for toy photography the subject is not moving, and most of the deghosting problems I had with Lightroom were caused by me not standing still while taking the bracketed shots.