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HDR in the palm of your hands

Taking landscape HDR images can be quite cumbersome. I say, leave the equipment behind, turn up the fun meter, and shoot some handheld!

I normally set my big DSLR camera on a tripod and carefully determine the highlight exposure, then open up by two stops until I have taken as many exposures as it takes to capture all the detail in the shadows. Processing quality HDR images is normally a lengthy process for me. I teach the manual method during workshops in the same way a music instructor would teach music theory. However, this does not always have to be the case. With a few tips, automatic methods can yield fun and interesting results.

This post is about making the HDR process work in situations where you either don’t have the time or the opportunity to bring out all the bells and whistles.

What I have begun doing lately is grabbing my point and shoot Canon S90 and leaving the tripod back in the office. Using the Auto Exposure Bracketing feature, the camera is capable of taking three images in a row, at one stop apart. I hold the camera as steady as possible and fire away.

The key to processing these files is to use Photomatix Pro to blend the brightest and darkest exposures in what is called Foto Fusion. This method can be used with many exposures but works best with only two. That means I don’t even need the middle exposure, which as it turns out on my camera is the first exposure of the three. I also check the box “Align source images” and choose “by correcting horizontal and vertical shifts” in the opening screen while processing the files.

Even though the results may look pleasing, I attempt to make my saved files from Photomatix a bit flat and optimize them in Photoshop next. The file created by Photomatix is just the RAW exposure in my opinion. I then proceed to give it all the photoshop I might normally use. However, in some cases, not much is needed.

I also have the option of blending the exposures manually if I want to take the time. The good news is I am able to create two exposures, two stops apart without much hassle or tripod. Of course, it is a bit easier to align the images if a wider focal length is used. I would not recommend this handheld method at focal lengths over 90mm.

Keep in mind: You may need to trick the meter while using a point and shoot. By this, I am referring to depressing the trigger halfway to capture an accurate first exposure, usually in the highlight area, and then recomposing to begin the burst of the three exposures.

Also, remember to bump up your ISO if need be to keep the exposure times above 1/60 of a sec while hand-holding. That means the first exposure needs to be at least 125/sec.

For this last example, I utilized the first normal exposure. Because the surfer was best in this one, I masked him out of the file in photoshop and overlaid him onto the composite of the Fused file from Photomatix.

This third example shows the beauty of this process. I normally would not shoot multiple auto bracketed sequences of moving subject matter, especially sports. However, since the first exposure is the normal one it makes it simpler to time that as best as possible for the action and then don’t worry about the movement of the person in the other two frames. Just remember, the larger the moving subject the more difficult the blending in Photoshop will become.

Life is so very short. Take pictures of it.

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