107 — Photo Realistic HDR — Interview w/Royce Howland

Pho­tog­ra­phy pod­cast #107  fea­tures an Inter­view with Cana­dian Nature pho­tog­ra­pher Royce How­land. In this pod­cast we talk specif­i­cally about how to get real­is­tic colours using the HDR process. HDR (high dynamic range) is a process that allows us to cap­ture details in the high­lighs and the shad­ows of our images by shoot­ing mul­ti­ple frames of the same image at dif­fer­ent expo­sures and then blend­ing them in software.

Many HDR images that we see on the web have really wonky and unre­al­is­tic colours. We pass no judge­ment on these types of images but this pod­cast is ded­i­cated to get­ting real­is­tic colours using the HDR process. We sum­ma­rize the process from why we do this, to cap­ture, to gear,  to using the soft­ware to cre­ate the images. We also dis­cuss the dif­fer­ences between the HDR process and using grad­u­ated neu­tral den­sity filters.

Old Prairie Church & Storm Front, Mundare Alberta Canada © Royce Howland


That Hal­loween Mood, Glen­more Reser­voir Cal­gary Alberta Canada © Royce Howland


Links /resources men­tioned in this podcast:

Royce How­land web­site
Royce Howland’s fea­ture on Photography.ca
Older HDR arti­cle by Royce How­land
HDR­Soft — Mak­ers of Pho­tomatix
Olo­neo — Mak­ers of Pho­to­Engine
Red Giant — Mak­ers of Magic Bul­let Pho­toLooks
HDR Labs — HDR infor­ma­tion resource
Topaz Adjust
HDR Efex Pro

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Thanks to Benny and Del­ben­son­pho­tog­ra­phy who posted  blog com­ments about our last pod­cast. Thanks as always to every­one that sent com­ments by email about our last pod­cast. Although ALL com­ments are appre­ci­ated, com­ment­ing directly in this blog is pre­ferred. Thanks as well to all the new mem­bers of the bul­letin board. Most of the links to actual the prod­ucts are affil­i­ate links that help sup­port this site. Thanks in advance if you pur­chase through those links.

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You can down­load this pho­tog­ra­phy pod­cast directly by click­ing the pre­ced­ing link or lis­ten to it almost imme­di­ately with the embed­ded player below.

Thanks for lis­ten­ing and keep on shooting!


  1. Alister Benn says:

    Down­loaded and going to lis­ten to it on my flight to Ice­land at the week­end. Sure to be great, Royce is a super char­ac­ter and a good friend.

  2. Peter says:

    These are beau­ti­ful images, The ton­ing on Old Prairie Church is breath­tak­ing! HDR just keeps get­ting bet­ter and bet­ter, awe­some work mate!

    Stu­dio Coor­di­na­tor
    Toronto Photo Studio

  3. Great image. What an awe­some job! Awe­some pod­cast! I enjoyed this arti­cle and read­ing the com­ments. Nice discussion.

  4. Excel­lent pod­cast. Like Lucille B., i had been put off this process by over-the-top work that didn’t quite gel with my inter­pre­ta­tions, but this pod­cast has given me the urge to try more HDR and keep it natural.

  5. Thanks for the com­ments, folks! Much appre­ci­ated by Marko and myself. :)

    Part of main­tain­ing a pho­to­re­al­is­tic look is the soft­ware used, but as I noted in the pod­cast I use a vari­ety of soft­ware tools in my work and gen­er­ally go for a pho­to­re­al­is­tic look with all of them. It’s just a ques­tion of how to drive the spe­cific set­tings & con­trols in a par­tic­u­lar tool, based on know­ing what objec­tives you want for your images.

    We didn’t have the time (nor is it really the right for­mat) to go into tech­ni­cal details of using any given soft­ware pack­age dur­ing the pod­cast. I do cover a spe­cific work­flow for Olo­neo Pho­to­Engine in my arti­cle for the Fall 2011 issue of Out­door Pho­tog­ra­phy Canada, “6 Tips for Pho­to­re­al­is­tic HDR”. Back issues may still be avail­able, if you’re inter­ested in read­ing that arti­cle. I haven’t pub­lished any­thing equiv­a­lent to it online yet.

    Causes for unre­al­is­tic look­ing HDR results usu­ally fall in two broad areas. First, not hav­ing a clean mas­ter image at the start — too much noise, frames that don’t align because the cam­era was mov­ing too much, sub­jects mov­ing around cre­at­ing ghost images, dig­i­tal arti­facts that creep into the process and get mag­ni­fied by the HDR soft­ware, etc. In my view these things all are pri­mar­ily tech­ni­cal flaws in the cap­ture process, lead­ing up through the HDR merg­ing, result­ing in a 32-bit mas­ter file that doesn’t have the high fidelity we’d want from it.

    The sec­ond group of things that con­tribute to unre­al­is­tic look­ing HDR results comes from choices over how 32-bit high fidelity mas­ter image will be toned. These are not tech­ni­cal flaws, rather they are cre­ative choices. Peo­ple can delib­er­ately go more real­is­tic, or more sur­re­al­is­tic, what­ever they wish it’s under their control.

    To stick more with a real­is­tic look, here are a few quick HDR ton­ing tips, all of which typ­i­cally fol­low the golden rule of “every­thing in mod­er­a­tion”. :)

    1. Use mod­er­ate ton­ing strength. Pho­tomatix calls it “Strength” or a com­bi­na­tion of “Tonal Range Com­pres­sion” & “Con­trast Adap­ta­tion”, depend­ing on which ton­ing func­tion you use. Pho­to­Engine calls this “TM Strength”. In Pho­to­Engine, I often use val­ues between 30 – 60, about as high as I can go before the image starts to look over-done. Watch­ing the his­togram as I adjust TM Strength, I can see roughly where to stop. Usu­ally it’s the point where the his­togram stops expand­ing and begins con­tract­ing again.

    2. Apply mod­er­ate detail. HDR can really kick up micro­con­trast, which is often used for that gritty “grunge” look. If you don’t want grunge but do want good micro­con­trast, pay atten­tion to the “Micro­con­trast” and “Micro-smoothing” set­tings in Pho­tomatix, or the “Detail Strength” in Pho­to­Engine. For the lat­ter, I typ­i­cally go to 20 +/- 10. It’s very easy to overdo this set­ting, so keep it con­ser­v­a­tive. I typ­i­cally dial it up to where I can see the effect clearly, then back off from that point.

    3. Bal­ance local vs. global con­trast. HDR soft­ware is often forced to make com­pro­mises in the con­trast of the image as it tries to fit a large & fine-grained con­trast range in the high fidelity mas­ter image, down into what a nor­mal 8-bit or 16-bit file can rep­re­sent. Some­times a loss of global con­trast results, mak­ing the image look flat & over-all washed out; or a loss of local con­trast can sap away the “snap” and feel­ing of dimen­sion that you want.

    In Pho­tomatix, the pre­vi­ously men­tioned “Strength”, “Micro­con­trast”, “Tonal Range Com­pres­sion” and “Con­trast Adap­ta­tion” set­tings apply here, as do “Lumi­nos­ity” and “Gamma”. The 2 main HDR ton­ing func­tions in Pho­tomatix are often at odds with each other — the “Details Enhancer” func­tion empha­sizes local con­trast at the expense of global con­trast, and the “Tone Com­pres­sor” func­tion does the reverse. I often run both func­tions against the same HDR source file, to pro­duce a pair of toned ver­sions which I then layer & blend together in Pho­to­shop to get the best of both.

    With Pho­to­Engine, I find it’s eas­ier, with some­what dif­fer­ent look­ing results too. (Anal­o­gous to the way dif­fer­ent film stocks don’t look exactly like each other.) The “TM Strength” and “Detail Strength” set­tings both directly influ­ence con­trast, global & local respec­tively for the most part. Plus there’s old school “Con­trast” and “Brightness/Brightness” curve set­tings that work like the con­trast & curves tools in Pho­to­shop for fur­ther tweak­ing image con­trast in a sin­gle ton­ing run.

    4. Con­trol the sat­u­ra­tion. All the above set­tings work on image expo­sure, tone & con­trast, and should be done first. After that, assess what has hap­pened to color hue & espe­cially sat­u­ra­tion. Don’t do it the other way around, because dial­ing in hue & sat­u­ra­tion first and then adjust­ing con­trast will upset the bal­ance in color. In Pho­tomatix, there’s a global “Color Sat­u­ra­tion” (or “Sat­u­ra­tion”) set­ting which I rarely adjust upwards, cer­tainly not by much; more often I tweak it slightly down­wards from the defaults. In Pho­to­Engine, color con­trols are more flex­i­ble. There’s the global “Sat­u­ra­tion” set­ting which again I never adjust, and then a series of color curves called “Saturation/Saturation”, “Hue/Saturation”, “Hue/Luminance”, and “Hue/Hue”. I like these con­trols and use them to dial in adjust­ments to color with con­trol over the bright­ness or hue ranges affected.

    HDR ton­ing can boost cer­tain hues, for exam­ple the blues in an evening win­ter scene, or the reds in a scene with strong direct sun­light. With color adjust­ments, I make sure to keep to a more real­is­tic color palette.

    5. Do a ref­er­ence check. When pro­cess­ing, it’s really easy to step onto a slip­pery slope and grad­u­ally keep push­ing adjust­ments past the point where they will look real­is­tic any more, but with­out real­iz­ing things have gone too far. So I often take the best sin­gle orig­i­nal expo­sure and do a quick nor­mal pro­cess­ing of it in my RAW con­verter of choice. This sets a base­line for con­trast and color, and I check the progress of my work against the base­line from time to time. I will devi­ate from the base­line because I’m cre­atively inter­pret­ing the light, not being a slave to the lim­i­ta­tions of a sin­gle cam­era expo­sure. But if I do devi­ate, I want to under­stand and con­sciously be okay with the effect it cre­ates, rel­a­tive to what a more “nor­mal” expo­sure of the scene might look like. If I’ve gone off the path some­how, I can choose to bring things back in the HDR ton­ing con­trols, before doing all my other fin­ish­ing work in Photoshop.

    Enjoy your HDR’ing… :)

  6. Rob S says:

    Great tim­ing! My col­league and I were try­ing to pro­duce HDR yes­ter­day at lunch. I popped on the pod­cast on the way home and to my sur­prise, all about HDR. We have yet to have great suc­cess, but will try the soft­ware Royce sug­gested. Also the tech­nique as a replace­ment to ND fil­ters was a good piece of knowl­edge, have to try that.

  7. chris f says:

    I lis­tened to pod­cast 107 today, and would like to say that this is the most infor­ma­tive inter­view I have ever heard on HDR.
    Your ques­tions and your guests responses were superb.
    I have been tak­ing pho­tos for nearly 50 years of which the last 10 in dig­i­tal for­mat.
    I have never heard the bit depth so well explained and the rea­son for using HDR soft­ware due to the tone vari­a­tions. Well done and please keep get­ting guests like this, it was a superb podcast.

  8. Lucille B says:

    Fan­tas­tic pod­cast!! I have been put off by the weird HDR images I have seen but now i see i can get more neu­tral look­ing col­ors with great range in the tones. Thanks Royce and Marco

  9. John Starmer says:

    Great pod­cast. I’ve long won­dered about HDR and had pri­mar­ily seen the over-saturated approach of HDR imagery, which can pro­duce some inter­est­ing imagery, but the appli­ca­tion described– espe­cially as a replace­ment for ND fil­ters– was a real eye opener.


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