HD-Arrrrrgh

HD-Arrrrrgh

Hokay. So. I'm but a lowly Associate Editor here at Maximum PC, which means a few things: I get the food orders, I barter with Norm The Intern for necessary provisions from the fourth floor, and I don't make any money. Or, rather, California expenses being what they are, I find myself slightly unwilling to sink a ton of cash into one of my lil' dreams -- a shiny new DSLR camera. And with it, a foothold into the exciting, over-stimulated (and overexposed, tee-hee) world of high dynamic range photography.

For the uninitiated, a high dynamic range photograph is a fairly simple concept. When you shoot a normal photograph that has a pretty extreme diversity of high and low light intensities, the camera nails one or the other -- the darkest blacks, or the brightest lights. But not both. For your camera, unlike your eyeball, can only process a certain range of color and light.

An image shot HDR-style is actually a composite of multiple images shot at different exposures. In this sense, you get the best of all worlds -- detail that was washed out becomes clear, the dark parts get darker, the light parts get lighter, et cetera. It's how photographers nail shots like these; which, to note, still look slightly more artistic and unrealistic to me than what one would see just by staring at said object, but are a helluva lot more interesting than what you might from a single-exposure shot.

Now back to my poverty. Since I can't afford a fancy camera, I rock with a Casio Exilim Z750; not a poor choice by any means, just totally worthless when it comes to shooting images at night (ISO 400 = noise central). It can handle multiple exposures, but here's the rub; I don't have a tripod, either. Thus, unless I want to duct-tape the camera to a stationary object every time I want to take a picture, HDR isn't in my future. Remember, an HDR combines multiple images -- the more movement between said images, the blurrier the final result. Yikes.

So it's with passing interest that I noticed an article on almighty Digg today -- How to fake HDR photos in Photoshop. Silly me, here I thought it would be as simple as editing a few exposure settings and blammo! Instant HDR. Well, that's not entirely the case. I won't reproduce the steps here; that would be stealing. But I will show you the results of my descent into fake-HDRdom, so you can judge for yourself whether the journey is worth it. I remain unconvinced.

Unfortunately, since I can't edit this page's header, you don't get fancy javascript rollovers. Uh. These aren't the droids you're looking for. *waves hand*

Mischa Found His Drink


(original | "hdr")

If this is HDR, count me out. The original picture looked just fine, and this... monstrosity... looks like a bunch of Photoshop filters threw up all over the place. The best part of the image is the end of the "Jekyll and Hyde" logo on the shirt; it looks crisp and effective. Other than that, though, I'm quite unimpressed. Maybe it was the shot?

Halfsies


(original | "hdr")

Thinking that perhaps it was the picture itself that was the issue with my first attempt, I decided to try the exact same set of layering techniques for a more traditional "could be HDR" image. While this looks a little bit better than the first image, it still looks a wee cartoony to me, as opposed to maintaining the delicate lush that is a nicely shot HDR image. As Gordon said, you can't really add detail to a picture that isn't there in the first place. I'm starting to believe in the truth of that statement.

At this point, I was surfing through the Digg comments to see if anyone else had as much not-luck with the technique as I did. Lo and behold, I stumbled across another technique to increase the overall highs-and-lows of your pictures -- mimicking the idea of HDR more than the actual effect -- without destroying the "normality" of your shots. Quoth, Elliuotatar:

"If you have an image where you have a really bright sky and/or a really dark foreground, do this in Photoshop

1. Duplicate image to a second layer.

2. Image->Adjustments->Desaturate second layer. (Make it black and white.)

3. Image->Adjustments->Invert second layer. (Make it a negative.)

4. Do a 64 pixel gaussian blur on the second layer. (Low pass filter. Prevents loss of high frequncy contrast on surfaces.)

5. Set the second layer to soft light.

And voila, bright portions of the image become darker, and dark portions of the image become lighter. And it looks a lot more realistic and better than those crappy HDR images most people put out."

Judge for yourself; here are some spruced-up images using his technique:

In White Light


(original | "hdr")

While the accidental overexposure of this shot already lent it a mysterious quality of sorts, the "Elliuotatar effect" adds a little detail to the foreground of the image. Hardly as dramatic as I expected, but every little bit helps, eh?

Nazis Bore Kittens


(original | "hdr")

The effect brings out a little detail around my sleeping cat's face (Colbert, if you were curious as to his name). However, I'm still not convinced that I like the added light. Maybe I'm just a fan of higher-contrast shots, but I feel like this has somewhat muted the original shot a little bit. And it's not like said shot was lacking in detail to begin with.

So what did this little photographic excursion teach me? Well, if you want an HDR shot, shoot an HDR shot to begin with. Trying to trick it out in Photoshop might work to your benefit, but by the time you're done futzing with "fake HDR," you could have just as easily re-shoot the image in the first place. That said, there's something nice about Elliuotatar's technique. When applied to certain pictures, it helps to add a bit of clarity that the shot might have otherwise lacked. Good to file away in your Photoshopper's toolbox, but not necessarily worth doing for every single picture you have.

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