HDR Life Lessons

Between “feeling puny” (as a former relative used to say) and being caught off guard by the early sunset (I somehow failed to notice that the sunset an hour earlier yesterday), I didn’t make it out to do a new shoot today.

But, never fear!  I have new photos to share.  I did a series of 5 exposures each of two compositions from the balcony at the same time I shot the images I posted yesterday.  These were just taken later in the shoot.

I included 3 images for comparison for each composition.  The first is exposed based on what the camera thinks is the correct exposure.  The second is under exposed by 1 stop.  I included the second image because I am particularly drawn to the high contrast of post-sunset skies at this exposure level.  To me, it looks the most like reality.  However, the buildings and landscape features get completely clipped at this exposure and I’d like to have a more detail in the landscape below the sky.

Since I shot 5 exposures, I thought I’d give HDR a try.

Even when I was shooting the 5 exposures, I knew HDR was going to be a long shot.  Literally.  By the time I got to the over-exposed images, the exposure times were multiple seconds.  The wind was blowing at about 15 miles per hour on the ground and who knows how fast higher up.  I could stand there and watch the clouds moving faster than a multi-second exposure.  Rapidly-moving clouds blur in long exposures.  Even the under-exposed image shows some blurring; the over-exposed images turn the clouds into undefined wisps.

But, I’m slightly feverish, so I have a good excuse to think it might create something interesting anyway.  I selected the options to remove ghosts and noise and to align the images when I processed the 5 exposures.  The third image is the result.

Photomatix got confused when it tried to align things and remove ghosts because of the differences in the amount of blurring between the multiple exposures.  So, the really dark clouds turned into floating dark blobs.  It actually did a better job than I predicted, so kudos to Photomatix.

The second series of photos is a different composition, but otherwise the same as the first series.  Same results.

I guess today’s life lesson from photography is that even though a camera can capture many moments in a single image and HDR processing can multiply that effect, sometimes we really are better off just enjoying each moment individually.

As a side note, Nurse Tisen seems to be ready for retirement.  Moving from the couch back to my office chair has him convinced I’m no longer in need of special attention. It was all I could do to keep him at a normal walking pace when I took him outside today.  Tomorrow he’s going to doggie daycare so he can run around.

Balcony Shooting

On weekends like this one, I’m grateful I have a view from the balcony. Although I’m a bit overloaded on shots like these, having been the sickest I’ve been in a lot of years all weekend, I don’t know what I would have had to post today had it not been for this wonderful view.

Granted, I found myself really wanting to move the building across the street (or at least run up to the roof to shoot over it).  But, since I was barely standing up straight and the sun was setting quickly, it seemed improbable that I would make it up to the roof in time.  And, since I am not embodied with any superpowers that might allow me to move a building even on the best of days, there wasn’t much point in contemplating that possibility.

One effect of shooting from the balcony with the building across the street in the foreground is the extreme distortion that occurs, making the building seem like it’s bending towards the center of the frame.  This is a consequence of using a very wide angle lens and being so close to the building.

I used the-built-in level to make sure I was shooting straight (I do try to be a straight shooter), but the distortion was so great that I ended up changing the angle slightly in post-processing to try to make it look a little straighter.

These are also processed using HDR. Each image is actually a combination of 5 images with 5 slightly different exposures.  This allows me to get some of the detail in the buildings in the foreground at the same time I have the detail in the bright parts of the sky.  I’m starting to like HDR for these kinds of images the more I get used to it.

Tisen, it turns out, is a great companion for someone who is sick.  He was quite content to cuddle on the couch with me for endless hours.  He likes the down comforter and the animal print pillow almost as much as he likes me.  On the rare occasions when I made it off the couch, he would just lie there like he was in heaven.  Unfortunately, I was only able to get a blurry shot of him.  I’d blame it on being sick–couldn’t hold the camera steady–but I think most of my iPhone images of Tisen are blurry, too.

If I were guessing, I would say that Tisen feels needed.  He makes a great heating pad and seems to know just where to cuddle up against me to make me feel better.  I had no idea when I brought him home that he would some day be a nurse.  If he could take himself out for walks and feed himself, too, he would be perfect at it.

Off the Wagon

After a long hiatus from shooting the Chattanooga riverfront, I had another relapse.  We’ve gone through this together before.  Usually, it’s amazing clouds that pull me off the wagon and cause a relapse.  This time, it was the chance at a new angle.

As you may have seen in earlier posts, we were dog sitting Twiggy for several weeks.  That included access to Twiggy’s clubhouse which has an amazing view.  So, when the sky started doing interesting things, how could I resist?

I went out on the 7th floor balcony and was immediately reminded I’m afraid of heights.  I can shoot from our 4th floor balcony without so much as a quiver, but our balcony is even with the building.  The clubhouse balcony, in contrast, was not only 3 stories higher, but it also jutted out from the building.  Why do I find overhangs so much scarier?  It makes no sense.  I compensated by staying back from the rail.

This made taking advantage of the level built into my camera to keep my shots straight more challenging.  I love that feature–especially when shooting a scene with as many hills and angles as the riverfront.  Imagine a tripod with a camera setup so the camera lens is hanging over the edge of the railing.  Then imagine the photographer trying to stay 3 feet back from the tripod at all times.  I was never so grateful for my freakishly long arms.

Each time I struggled, got frustrated, and took a step forward, I would suddenly see the ground out of the corner of my eye and get dizzy.  I still managed to get the camera positioned before the sun set.

I was tempted to try the in-camera HDR capabilities for the first time.  There were two things that stopped me.  First, I didn’t have the manual with me.  Second, I really would have had to get close to the camera to try to figure it out from the menus.  I decided today wasn’t the day.

Instead, I took a series of 5 exposures so I could play with my HDR post-processing software again.  Something I haven’t done in a long time.  I don’t know if my eye is changing or if I’m getting better at using the software, but I am starting to like the HDR processed images more.  Not ready to say I want to use HDR post-processing all the time, but it is nice to be able to see both the sky and the ground closer to how I saw them in reality.

That said, I really like the first two shots in the gallery, which are not HDR processed.  They were taken when it was still pretty light out and the camera did pretty well with the dynamic range all on its own.  Also, I do not like the HDR processed shots from later in the series–something funky happens with the oranges.  But some of the HDR processed shots in between are interesting to me.

Valley View and Difficult Decisions

Decision making is something I do all day.  In fact, I get paid for it.  I’m not claiming the decisions I make are important or life changing or even interesting.  I’m only claiming that I make decisions.  And I do it all day long.

The thing is, I’m pretty quick at deciding.  In fact, I’ve spent a couple of decades learning how to slow down and not jump to conclusions.  I don’t need to know every possible piece of information; only a reasonable amount to feel confident that I can make a choice between options.

So, I ask, why is it that once I put my work away, I can’t seem to make even the simplest decision?

Is decision making a non-renewable resource?  Do you only have so many decisions you’re allowed to make during the day and then all decision-making brain cells are drained until they are recharged over night?

I don’t know why, but deciding things like “what do I feel like eating?” often feels like I’m trying to decide whether to wage war on a neighboring country.

Similarly, tonight as I looked through the remaining shots from Signal Point trying to decide which ones to include in today’s post, I look at the first shot and think it’s not bad.  Buth then I look at the second shot and prefer the framing.  In the first example, the bank of clouds is entirely visible.  There is no view of Venus in either shot, but the temptation to keep both images overwhelms.  Instead of choosing the one I like the best, I now have doubled the storage required.

Oh, and wait, what about the vertical version?  Or the wider angle view of the valley at 18mm?  Or what about the slightly less wide angle view at 28mm?

I know that there should ultimately be only one best image but whose best am I shooting for?

Then, there’s the HDR processed images.  After all, given that i went through near heart failure to get multiple exposures of several images, shouldn’t I keep the processed versions of these negatives, combining the many exposures and trying to output a combined photo that exposes all parts at the same time.  I’m pretty sure the entire collection of exposures should be kept just in case I want to recombine them all differently in the future.

I would also share the in-camera HDR settings, but I haven’t actually figured out how to do that yet.  Figuring out how to do brackets of 7 exposures was challenging enough and then that failed.  It makes it a little difficult to get motivated to figure out how to use the more advanced features like in-camera multi-exposure processing.

Maybe next post . . .


I am on a quest to get the exposure I want.  The scene is one I enjoy daily, but this particular day there was a stunning cloud display in the background.

The problem is a classic one.  A camera cannot correctly handle the same range of light that our eyes can.  Especially not when I’m looking at the world through polarized sunglasses. 🙂  It’s an issue that photographers have struggled with since the beginnings of photography.  You see a stunning sky and a lovely foreground view.  The camera can only properly expose one or the other.

I took shots of the scene with multiple exposures, hoping I could combine them successfully into one image.  High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography has been both rejected and embraced by the “serious” photographers of our time.  I believe it’s not the combination of exposures that troubles more traditional photographers but the special effects that can make an image hover on a line between a drawing and a photo.  I get this impression because many traditionalists extol the value of having a camera that will combine multiple exposures into a single image but have no interest in “HDR” post processing software like Photomatix.

Not that anyone is looking to me for guidance on the subject, but I continue to be on the fence.  I don’t care for photos that make you wonder if it’s a photo or a drawing. but I don’t mind an image that looks clearly like one or the other.

I also don’t like spending hours editing a photo I could have captured in the camera in by making better decisions.  However, when it comes to the age old problem of limited range of proper exposure when I really want to see the sky and still see the details in the foreground, I feel a little more fond of HDR processing.

For today’s exercise, I made an attempt to get a photo that combined the dramatic sky with enough detail in the foreground to keep it interesting.  Unfortunately, I forgot I’d changed my camera setting to JPEG, so I’m afraid I have limited resolution to work with and each edit step diminishes the resolution further.  But, I’ve given up on ending up with something I want to print and hang on the wall at this point.

Attempt 1:  Underexposed image with the shadows lifted a lot, the highlights pulled down a little, and a few other minor adjustments.

Attempt 2:  Overexposed image with the highlights pulled down a lot, the shadows lifted a little, and a few other minor adjustments.

Attempt 3:  3 images 2 stops of light apart combined in Photomatix with no other post processing.

Attempt 4:  2 images 2 stops of light apart combined manually in Photoshop Elements (and looking very weird).

Attempt 5:  3 images 2 stops of light apart combined in Photomatix (with different settings than attempt 3) and then adjusted further in Aperture.

In the end, let’s just say I wish I had a camera that could combine two exposures.  🙂

It’s All About Tone

What exactly is “tone” anyway?  I look it up on dictionary.com.  There are 15 definitions.  The first 9 have to do with sound.  None of them include ring tones, in case you were wondering.

When I hear the word “tone,” I think first of “tone of voice.”  Like when Tisen ignores me and I say, “Neh, eh, eh” in a tone of voice that let’s him know he needs to pay attention now.  I’m convinced it’s the tone and not the “words” that makes him actually listen.

The second thing that comes up  (or, really, down) for me is “skin tone.”  To me, skin tone refers to a state of tautness, firmness, lack of sag.  Gravity and skin tone are waging a constant battle.  I hope this doesn’t ruin the ending for you, but gravity wins eventually.

Then there is muscle tone.  This is probably more closely related to skin tone than I would like to admit.  People often say things like “lift less weight and more reps to tone.”  I don’t really know what that means, but I guess they think they can build sleek but firm muscles instead of bulky ones.  Bigger muscles probably help more with skin tone than small, skinny muscles.  I don’t really know–I prefer to try to tone skin by keeping a nice layer of fat.

But what on earth is tone when it comes to color?

Apparently “tone” refers to how much gray you add to a pure “hue.”  Hue seems to boil down to the colors of the rainbow.  So, if you take blue and add white, you get a tint of blue.  If you take blue and add black, you get a shade of blue.  And, if you take blue and add gray, you get a tone of blue.  So, a tone visually refers to how much gray is mixed with a given hue.


So, sadly, when I am performing tone mapping, I am not working any muscles or tightening any skin.  I think what I’m doing is telling my computer to re-render an image with a whole bunch of tones mapped to a single tone of that color because not all tones can be displayed.

What I don’t get (besides why I can’t tone map my aging skin), is why taking many tones and mapping them to a single tone results in the images I get when I perform this function.  I also don’t get the relationship between tone mapping and the effects that are possible when performing this function.

I’ve selected several tone mapped images to share.  All have appeared in non-tone mapped form on my blog before, but I’ve re-processed them as an experiment as I continue to try to understand High Dynamic Range photography.  I’m starting to like the black and white renderings.  Can you have a tone of black and white?

As a side note, an unintended consequence of tone mapping is that I’m spending more time sitting at the big computer and less time on the couch, which does not make Tisen a happy dog.

Blurring Lines

Tisen cuddles on the couch with Mr. Beaver while I’m on a conference call.  I’ve downloaded a new app on my iPhone and this is the perfect opportunity to give it a try.  It’s an HDR photo app.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and refers to a process where you take multiple photos and combine them into one.  That’s about all I know about it so far.

The iPhone app takes two photos, the first exposed for the darkest part of the picture and the second exposed for the lightest part of the photo.  Then, it magically combines them into one photo that is exposed properly for both extremes.  Getting Tisen exposed properly is difficult to do with a single shot.

The iPhoto app has some disadvantages.  First, it only uses two photos.  More sophisticated software allows you to use many images, getting the optimal exposure for many different levels of light.  Second, it’s very difficult to hold the iPhone still enough to not cause fuzz because you can’t move between the two shots for them to combine properly.  Finally, the app takes a long time, so if you have a subject that doesn’t hold perfectly still (like Tisen), more fuzz will be introduced.  In the photo gallery, the first image is underexposed, the second is overexposed, and the third is the fuzzy combination of the two.  It’s fun.

This little experiment motivated me to take my camera and tripod on my evening walk with Tisen, finally getting down to the river to shoot the sunset.  Tisen is amazingly patient while I take groups of 3 photos, using the bracketing feature on my camera so there is 4x more light in each successive shot.  We hang out on a pier over the river for 45 minutes watching the light fade, Tisen occasionally barking at other dogs, but mostly just hanging out.

I try a software program called Photomatix to create the HDR photos.  Some people say that HDR photos look more like what we see with our eyes.  While I like a lot of HDR photos, I don’t agree they look like what we see with our eyes.  It’s more like what you see when you look through your sunglasses at the sky and then take them off to look at the ground, but all in the same view.

As I look at the images, I can’t help but pick the darkest ones.  The ones that leave the black clipped and the land in silhouette–I’m pretty sure I’m missing the point of HDR.

Except for one.  The final photo I like in black and white.  But it’s right on the verge of “fake.”  I don’t know what that means, really.  But where is the line between being a photographer and being someone who knows how to use a software program?    And is one better than the other?  For me, it’s not just the combined photo that gets a little blurry.  Perhaps I am just getting old and clinging to out-dated thinking.