Charles Bank Gallery - HDR Breakdown

Charles Bank Gallery by Thomas Gehrke
Charles Bank Gallery, a photo by Thomas Gehrke on Flickr.
This building caught my eye on a recent trip to New York City. Both the architecture and the graffiti made it stand out. It was only last night while looking up its location in order to geotag the photo that I found out that this is an art gallery.

In the "canyons of New York City" you will find architecture that lives both in bright sunlight and deep shadow. To me that seems to be a great opportunity to bring some HDR photography into play.

Time and again you will hear me say (or read me write) that High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is more than just that trippy style that results in noisy, super-saturated, haloed images that most people think of. I much prefer to see the style used in a more realistic way. In a way that more closely represents what the eye saw at the time. For instance...

Walking up the street, my eye saw nearly all of the graffiti regardless of sunlight or shadow. I won't get into the discussion regarding whether the eye sees a greater range or if it merely adjusts for light and dark areas and then the brain puts all of the pieces together for the full range. The point is that by the time I'm seeing it, I'm pretty much seeing it all.

Cameras "see" differently and it takes something to put the exposures together into something that more closely resembles what we perceive as reality. That something is typically a piece of software and in my case the software was HDRSoft's Photomatix Pro.

Here's the breakdown....


In the "0ev" image, which is closest to a proper exposure, there are some details lost. There is some high-end clipping (overexposed) areas in the windows and the headlights of the taxi cab. That's really not too bad. But on the low end (underexposed) we're really missing quite a bit of graffiti in the shadows. Fortunately in the "+2ev" photo, we see those dark areas a bit more clearly even if the rest of the building ends up being overexposed.

The next step is to bring Photomatix into play to combine those three exposures and give us something that contains the most detailed areas of each. That's easier said than done. Search for HDR images online and you will find examples of beginners who just pick a Photomatix preset and call it a day. Some of the results are terrible, some are interesting and some might be pretty good. But to get the best, most realistic results, you need to learn what each of the controls do. There are plenty of tutorials and books out there to help people figure that out.

(For the record, I consider myself somewhat middling when it comes to my HDR processing skills. It's something I continue to work on.)

Most of the time I find what comes out of Photomatix to be a little "flat" and I move on into Photoshop for the final touches. This typically involves adjusting composition (cropping/rotating), noise reduction, contrast, localized exposure, saturation and so on. The goal being to come up with a final product that doesn't scream "I'm an HDR photograph!" while still giving us the benefits of having used those techniques.

Join the conversation here on Google+ and let me know what you think!