Using HDR photography to get the perfect sunset
Today’s trip down memory lane takes us to the Shenandoah Valley circa 2008. I didn’t have a lot of technical know-how back then (I hadn’t even heard of HDR) but I didn’t need to be a photography expert to realize that I was seeing an incredible sunset.
I had spent nearly two weeks in Salem, Virginia walking several miles a day, knocking on doors and canvassing voters for the Obama campaign during the 2008 election. I think this was the evening before Election Day and I was finally getting some down time with an old college friend who lived in the area.
I was on my friend Mike’s property in Montvale when I snapped the original photograph used to make the HDR composite at the top of the page.
That’s close to what the sky looked liked in my camera that day. Close but not quite.
I used a Nikon D70s — my first DSLR — to capture the image. Shooting at an aperture of f/3.5 and 1/20th of a second exposure, the barn was underexposed. The image below on the left shows the original photo, where the sky is vibrant but the barn is pretty dark. On the right, with the exposure brought up in Lightroom, the details of the barn come out but a lot of the drama in the sky is lost.
The image on the left is the original image. In the image on the right, the exposure is brought up +1 in Lightroom
These are two of the five images I merged in Photomatix to get an HDR composite. The result below wasn’t bad — the exposure on the barn is much better but I didn’t really like the sky. The yellow was way over-saturated. I preferred the subtler yellow tones in the original. However, I liked the contrast that Photomatix added to the darker band of clouds at the top of the image.
This is the result of merging 5 exposures through HDR processing
But that yellow had to go. I used Photoshop to layer the HDR photo on top of the original image. Using the brush tool, I removed the sky from the HDR version, leaving the sky from the original image. The yellow was definitely more to my liking but the darker clouds were a little flat, lacking the contrast from the HDR version.
This image has the foreground from the HDR version and the sky from the original image
To get the final image at the top of the page, I went back to Photoshop and once again layered the HDR version on top of the original. This time, I blended the skies together so that I kept the contrast in the clouds from the HDR version and the subtler yellow tones from the original image.
None of this is really meant as a tutorial. There may be a much easier way to achieve these results. If you know of a better way to do this or have a critique, please let me know. I’m still a beginner when it comes to this stuff. I just offer this post as some transparency and as notes to other folks who also might be learning HDR processing.