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The Americana Diner in Hightstown, NJ.

Gleaming stainless steel, bright neon lights – cases full of goodies…

5 shot HDR handheld.

Making the photo

Saying “HDR” in a note on Flickr might be called “trolling for pixel-peepers”. But this shot begged for HDR. The contrast ratios were extreme – we’ve got direct line-of-sight to both the neon signs and the fluorescent bulbs in the goodies case, and bright reflective shiny areas from a multitude of highlight spots and floods. But we’ve also got areas of important detail in dark shadow. Furthermore, the “spread spectrum” effect – the smear of light that can be had with HDR is effective in portraying an “old time” look, appropriate for the subject.

The problem of course is that I’m in a public place, with no tripod or lights, and although this was before the dinner crush, there were people scurrying about. So, there are two photographic problems to solve; how get that shot – adequately sharp – without a tripod, and how to control the scene – at least enough to get the shot I visualized.

As for steadying the camera, I  was able to lean against a half-wall to help steady my body, but above the hips it was “photographer as tripod”. Now, there are a multitude of sites that describe proper camera holding, and everything applied here; elbows close in, camera held firmly, shoot on the exhale…and of course my camera/lens combo has built in anti-shake – without which getting a sharp single shot, let alone a HDR series, would have been pretty well impossible for this old photographer. But here’s the tip of the day: HDR software, the software that assembles individual images into the HDR master, is pretty good at aligning images which are displaced laterally and horizontally. Got that? it can automatically align left/right or up/down shifts. The anti-shake in most cameras does exactly the same thing. Together, they really push the odds of success with hand-held work  But neither the software nor the hardware anti-shake can do much if anything about pivots and twists. i.e. HDR software can help with shake. But it doesn’t help much if at all with camera twist or pivot because those things alter convergence – creating apparent changes in size; different parts of the image will be zoomed relative to each other. Displacement the software can deal with; differential zoom it cannot.

So, let the software and the built-in anti-shake deal with the displacements, and you concentrate on minimizing rotations. Combine the two and with a touch of luck you can get a good HDR shot (and by "good" I always mean; satisfactory for your purpose).

Of course it’s better to use a tripod; but even if you have one with you, you can’t always use one, so knowing how to make the most of what you’ve got will enable you to make shots you’d otherwise miss.

Scene control can be much more difficult to manage in an ad-hoc shooting environment. If you’ve recruited people to be in the scene you can give some direction, but in a totally candid scene such as this one must pick the critical moments as carefully as one picks the timing of a wave crashing to the shore. But for all of that, getting people to stand still for most scenes is challenging. But there is a solution.

Trey Ratcliff, arguably one of the modern masters of HDR, wrote an excellent tutorial on the subject which you can find on his blog here. In essence, you take the best single shot, process it to match the HDR tonally, then layer it and the HDR in Photoshop and mask the HDR over the single shot, allowing various pieces of the single shot(s) to be visible. The result is that certain elements, in this case the head of the waitress in the shot, can be rendered as sharp as your single shot allows.

You have a choice of what elements to emphasize in the final image. You can combine as many layers as you like, highlighting blur in one part of the final image, emphasizing tack-sharpness in another, until you arrive at the result which best satisfies your intentions.

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