The HDR Learning Curve

Smugglers Notch Foliage Boulders HDR Final
Comparing HDR Expose, Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro

This all started with a photo of a house in Cape May, NJ. Due to the lighting conditions, I bracketed the exposure with the intention of rendering a natural looking HDR. “Natural looking” isn’t generally the first thing to come to mind when HDR is involved, granted, but rather than mask in bits of different exposures manually in Photoshop, I wanted to see how close Photomatix would come. It was almost immediate that I noticed the color shift in the resulting images, one processed via tone mapping, the other via the fusion process. After a quick Google search, it became clear that color shifts, as well as halos, are common problems because luminosity and color are not treated separately. I’ve long been removing halos by masking in bits of the original photo and dealing with the color shifts with adjustment layers in Photoshop. My new idea was thus to compare how different HDR tone mapping software would handle an image, so I rendered examples out of HDR Expose 3, Photomatix Pro 4, and HDR Efex Pro 2 to compare to the original RAW file as well as my finished result. On a side note, the white balance was correct. The rollover images below will show the examples against the original base exposure. Larger versions of the final images are at the end of the post.

Cape May House HDR Photomatix Fusion

Photomatix Fusion vs Original – Major colorshift & haloing

Cape May House HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Major colorshift & haloing, artsy feel, not natural

Cape May House HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Halos, less color shift

Cape May House HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Flat, most natural, no halos or shifts

Cape May House HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Based on HDR Expose Image

I decided to repeat the process for a series of foliage images that I shot in Smugglers Notch, VT. It was a beautiful landscape of vibrant leaves, blue skies, bright sun, and deep shadows far beyond what my sensor was able to capture. The 14-stops of dynamic range on the D800 versus my 12 would have been nice (along with the megapixels), as well as an ultra-wide angle lens with some degree of sharpness.

Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, uneven skies, halos & artistic

Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow colorshift, uneven skies, halos, bright but still unnatural

Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Best sky, a little flat, no major colorshift

Smugglers Notch Foliage HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Combined Photomatix & HDR Expose Images

Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, reigned in halos with sliders, not bad

Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Very yellow and flat, unsaturated

Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – A little flat, again no major colorshift, not bad

Smugglers Notch Crooked Tree HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Combined Photomatix & HDR Expose Images, then Color Efex Pro

Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Warm colorshift, uneven skies, halos, artistic, not good

Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow shift, flat, uneven skies, some halos, still unnatural

Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Again, best sky, no major colorshift, probably best overall

Smugglers Notch Boulders HDR Final

Final Image vs Original – Merged Photomatix & HDR Expose Images in Photoshop, etc

At this point I wanted to look at an older image, re-process it, and compare the old version to the new. The gnarly tree on a Cape Cod golf course seemed to fit in with the rest of theses images, and the second I opened it, I saw it had a horrible red cast. This was shot mid-April of 2012 and showed up in my Post Processing post, but this time around I wanted to improve upon it and try for something a lot more natural.

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Photomatix

Photomatix vs Original – Strong, warm colorshift, uneven sky, halos around tree

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Efex Pro

HDR Efex Pro vs Original – Yellow cast, uneven sky, strange tone mapping

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Expose

HDR Expose 3 vs Original – Best by far, tree is maybe a tad yellow

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Old Final

Old Final Image vs Original – Definition of bad HDR emphasized with a glow

Cape Cod Golf Course HDR Revised Final

Revised Final Image vs Original – Worked off of the HDR Expose version


  • HDR Expose consistently created the most natural looking HDR image, and stands out because it handles the luminosity separately from the color information. That is something none of the other applications do.
  • Photomatix adds a warm colorcast that can be dialed back with the temperature slider at the expense of other colors. Photomatix also adds halos around edges and is not great with skies, but is great at enhancing details. I read numerous recommendations to use the default settings which yields a flat unappealing image.
  • HDR Efex Pro doesn’t have enough versatility in the settings and is probably why I rarely use it. It seemed to give a yellow cast to images.
  • Photoshop has the ability to merge and tonemap HDR images, but I much prefer my other options.
  • Any tone mapped image is simply a starting point. The rest of the work is done in Photoshop.
  • The best option is to process an image multiple times and merge the best parts of each, including some of the original exposures. Natural looking HDR isn’t simple. It’s time consuming.

Be Different

Shopping Cart Multiplicity Portrait

What do you do when a client wants something quirky in addition to a few simple portraits? Have fun, of course. Conceptual portraiture is the perfect way to stand out and do something completely different!

We started out with a laundry list of ideas and narrowed it down. For this session, we focused on two ideas: Pushing Yourself in a Shopping Cart & Levitation in Downtown Manchester. Both ideas were complicated, however, the first question I had was where do I find a shopping cart? As luck would have it, I found one in an alley near my apartment while out for a walk. Wheeling it to the location on Saturday morning felt odd to say the least. We chose to start in Arms Park for convenience, planned the shot and dove in. Multiple photos and a change of clothes was involved and after we capture the first image, I thought it would be funny to depict what would happen if they crashed while playing with the cart. The result can be seen below.

Before leaving the park for downtown, we spent a few minutes capturing some simple portraits. While there are buildings in the background and an obvious parking lot beside the park, it isn’t hard to keep those aspects out of the photographs and instead focus on the trees or the grass, benches, river, and even the sky.

To finish the session and capture the levitation concept, a walk downtown was required. Hanover Street, Elm Street, and the Citizens Bank Parking Garage proved to be worthy locations, although we had plenty of strange looks related to standing or sitting on a toolbox. I even heard someone say “I don’t get it.” The parking garage worked best, yielding an excellent image to go along with some other portraits taken in a parking garage, and in the end, we wound up with a lot of fun images. Thanks Tyson!

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White Park

Portrait of Female Posing in Red Dress on bench in White Park Concord NH
The Tools

Nikon 50mm f/1.8
Nikon 80-200 f/2.8
I have more lenses in the bag along with two speedlights, but they never come out.

The Park

White Park in Concord is a park I grew up with. I’ve played baseball on the field, jogged and biked through on the paths, even skated on the pond in the middle of winter, however, I haven’t been there in years. I had no idea that the paths were now paved, the road through the park had been removed, or that a paved parking lot had been built. The ball field was revamped as well with brick dugouts and a new backstop. Having arrived to the shoot early, I almost felt lost. I decided to scout around by walking from one end of the park to the other and hoped to find some interesting backdrops. Numerous granite benches lined the path up the hill, and the stone wall of the carriage house seemed attractive. Everyone shoots the bridge over the pond when they have a session in the park and I figured I’d join their ranks by finding some different way to photograph it. I would wind up standing on top of it and trying not to fall in.

The Session

Early evening is overcast and dim. I have roughly an hour and a half to shoot three outfits and attempt to give them each their own feel, which hardly allows enough time to change. We start with the blue and pink dress to get photos for her mother and soon move on to the vibrant red dress. It stands out against the green grass and really pops. As the light began to fade, we finished the shoot with the black dress and tried to stay out in the open to capitalize on as much light as we could get. The sunset was only photogenic in the pond, so I climbed atop the bridge and tried to capture the moment as best I could. Once the light was gone, the session was over.

The Outcome
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Summer Fun

In Bloom

Ok, so I only felt like sharing a few photos with a new logo design on them. I’ve been a little busy, so expect some new photos soon. Here we have a few HDR shots of a garden in Ipswich, MA, a couple of canine portraits, and a little composite of jumping into a swim hole in Pawtuckaway State Park, NH. Everything looks so bright!

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52 Week Photo Project Wrap Up

Week 47 - Feeling Nostalgic

Week 1 – A Self Portrait Without You In It – I set up a lightbox with three lights, set up a few objects that show a bit about me (photographer, climber, writer), and made a few shots.

Week 2 – Your Front Door – At the time, the front door was ugly, so I took a panorama of the hallway and turned it into a twisted stereographic projection.

Week 3 – Your Favorite Thing – The original suggestion was to think of something you’d grab if the house was on fire and I concluded that I’d probably just grab the camera bag. HDR.

Week 4 – Self Portrait – I set up on the third floor of the Waumbec Mill with a tripod and remote shutter and changed clothes between shots to create this composite.

Week 5 – Favorite Place – This is the only image that I shot prior to the project. Eastern Sierra near Bishop, CA. Processed through Color Efex Pro for finishing touches.

Week 6 – Song/Movie Title – I was listening to Small World by RCPM and thought it would be fun to create a panorama to show off an actual small world. Taken beneath the Amoskeag Bridge in Manchester, NH.

Week 7 – Light – The light is real, not something I did in Photoshop, it was just a matter of being creative.

Week 8 – Laughter – I figured laughter could include something that makes people laugh, so on a whim I set up this shot to take a bath in a washing machine.

Week 9 – Abstract – It’s actually intertwined plastic tubing, but it kind of looks like the Firefox logo.

Week 10 – Looking Up – Standing outside the SEE Science center in Manchester, NH.

Week 11 – Luck – I wanted something goofy, so I ran to the store and picked up a Lucky Shirt and some Lucky Charms, then topped it off with a Lucky lottery ticket.

Week 12 – On a Shelf – My first idea was riding Battlecat from the He-Man cartoons, but I wasn’t completely satisfied with the shot, so I opted instead to use my head as the base of a lamp.

Week 13 – Spring – One of the more mundane photos of the year and another case where I should have used the alternate photo that I took. As is, this is a flower just outside city hall in Manchester, NH.

Week 14 – Think Small – A little disturbing maybe, but setting up the ritual sacrifice of gummy bears was a lot of work. It was my first attempt at stacking focus and came out very colorful. I used jelly for gummy bear blood.

Week 15 – Paper Airplanes – This was the first time I wore the gas mask in public. I set up the shot, stood in for a few frames, and then spent a good chunk of time throwing paper airplanes around. In the end, everything was composited together and processed into one of my favorites of this past year.

Week 16 – Ways To Get From Point A to Point B – I had wanted to stick myself in a pet carrier on top of a car, or even just strap myself to the top of a car, but with a lack of time, I just made do with a pet carrier. Yes, I get carried around in a pet carrier.

Week 17 – Coffee – I don’t drink coffee, so I didn’t know what to do. I settled on the idea of a Jedi making a mess while pouring coffee.

Week 18 – Shadows – Not one of my favorite photos, but it was interesting to make. I cowered in the corner for one shot, then tried to position myself and the flash just right to create an imposing shadow on the wall. A headband with horns on it did the trick.

Week 19 – Shoes – This is about the time that my photos were getting darker and darker, but I was still trying to inject some humor into things. Whatever you do, don’t taste the shoes.

Week 20 – Jump! – I wanted something colorful, so I put on bright clothes, pointed the fisheye straight up at the blue sky and set the interval timer so that I could jump over the camera. In post, I actually removed an entire house.

Week 21 – In The Fridge – I saved the chia kombucha for this photo because of the interesting texture. I also upgraded to Photoshop CS6 at this point and started playing with the new oil paint filter.

Week 22 – Memorial Day – With my new 80-200mm in tow, I took a walk to Arms Park in Manchester, NH to have a look at the Blackhawk helicopter that they flew in for the holiday. As I was walking away, I turned around to catch the National Guard in front of the chopper.

Week 23 – Blue – Another series of embarrassing photos came out of this week. I found bubble bath that turned the water blue, grabbed a blue Powerade, and climbed in.

Week 24 – Monster – This was done last minute, so I ran to the store and grabbed two cans of Monster energy drink, took a handful of shots with and without flash and then composited everything together in Photoshop. It was meant to look more like I’m levitating than falling.

Week 25 – Looking Down – My HDR breakfast scene. I set up the tripod looking straight down at the meal, used window light to keep everything natural, and then tried not to process it much.

Week 26 – Yellow – I was inspired by the Office Space movie poster and covered myself in Post-It notes. It actually involved a lot of tape because they don’t really stick to anything very well.

Week 27 – Reflections – My first shot was an infrared reflection in the river and I lost a lot of blood to mosquitoes to get it, however, I found it pretty boring. On a whim, I gave the insane dentist thing a try and used the original shot as texture in the final.

Week 28 – Texture – This is actually the bottom of my shoe. I set it up in a lightbox and blended exposures to capture all of the detail.

Week 29 – Summer – I had no idea what to shoot for this week, so I took a walk in the heat and came across the sign on Valley Street in Manchester, NH. I shot brackets and processed it to keep it on the natural side.

Week 30 – Water – I dropped by Pine Grove Cemetery one afternoon and started shooting the little bridge over the water. I liked the wide angle distortion and the extremely saturated colors. The clouds and pond are water after all, so despite being a lot of green, it’s all about water.

Week 31 – Friendship – Why is it so difficult to find a seesaw? I wanted something a little crazy and envisioned myself alone because sometimes all we have is ourselves as friends, but once at the park, there was a family watching and I couldn’t do anything insane without being self conscious about it.

Week 32 – Motion – This one was easy. Just set up the tripod in the back of the car and turn on the remote trigger. A long exposure in the dark yielded the light trails. I’m not sure which lights caused which colors though.

Week 33 – Red – Oil and water as seen in the Playing With Pyrex post.

Week 34 – Vegetables – I was trying for something very clean and fancy albeit cliche. Each plate was shot separately in a lightbox and then put side by side in post. There was an alternate image involving corn, however, it’s not technically a vegetable.

Week 35 – Looking Out – The return of the gas mask. I had the idea of looking out from inside the oven, so I set up the camera inside with a wide angle lens and triggered it remotely. Once I found the right composition, I started playing with bursts of flash, then incorporated myself into things.

Week 36 – Sunset – It was cloudy for most of the week and this was the best sunset I found in the limited amount of time I had. Not terrible, considering.

Week 37 – Football – I don’t play or watch football, but I went out with a ball to a nearby field that I hoped was secluded enough and tried a bunch of things. For this one, I made sure nobody was looking.

Week 38 – Pink – When I bought the wig and feather boa, I got strange looks from the cashier. I’m sure they’d give me a far stranger look now. A high powered fan would have been more fun, but the hair dryer helped make things a bit more crazy.

Week 39 – Funny – A bit of my twisted sense of humor, although this image apparently offended someone. I set everything up in the bathroom and wore the tie to hide body parts.

Week 40 – Round – I’m not sure how this one started, but once I was shooting the round jar full of roundish olives, it just made sense to add the eyeball. This wound up being one of my favorites.

Week 41 – Fall – This one was more of an inside joke related to a story I wrote years ago. A person was attacked by vicious gourds, so for this, I bought some gourds and set them up outside the door. The leaves and colors help illustrate the fall theme, but I wished the gourds could have had teeth.

Week 42 – Antique – I didn’t have anything antique, so I took a walk through the mills in Manchester, NH and found a couple of complimentary shots.

Week 43 – Brown – Brown rug, brown chest, brown stuffed animal. I thought it would be fun to add a splash of color and added in an ominous hand as well.

Week 44 – Spooky – I was kind of going for the Psycho inspired image, so I just stood behind the shower curtain with a knife. Creepy enough, I guess.

Week 45 – Black & White Portrait – If it came down to it, I was going to shoot myself yet again, however I went out with some friends and brought the camera. Little did they know that they’d become part of my project.

Week 46 – Symmetry – I’d spent most of the week getting ready for vacation and didn’t have a clue what to shoot, but after sitting at my desk and staring at a motherboard, I figured it was worth a try.

Week 47 – Feeling Nostalgic – A campfire in front of the tent beneath the stars. It made me think of past trips, old friends, and good times. I got lucky with the long exposure by setting the camera on the ground.

Week 48 – Winter – I wanted something simple and clean with a hint of color, so I scrapped my original complicated idea as soon as I saw that it had snowed and put a Christmas ornament outside.

Week 49 – Family – With no family in the area and not enough time to photograph another, I played with an alternate definition by using lead type to show part of a font family.

Week 50 – Flash – The recliner hadn’t been in a photo before, so I set up the shot with a softbox camera left and played with exposure until I was happy. Then I strapped a flash to my forehead, put on a lampshade, and blinded myself.

Week 51 – Fire – I had wanted to light my hands on fire, but settled on burning ice cubes. The melt water carried the gas away and caught the bookshelf on fire. Fun times.

Week 52 – Choose Your Own Adventure – The finale. I scrolled through all 51 other photos and wanted something that fit in and summed it up all at once. Unsure of whether or not it would work, I photographed all of the characters I’d come up with in bed together. The result was this deranged and kind of funny shot.

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