Anything Photoshop or Photography

Can a Pseudo HDR Image be as Good as the Real Thing? (Part Two)


Last week I used this bike picture to create an HDR image from three bracketed shots. The image above was created from just the 0 exposure to use as a basic single image to try out the other workflows (this one uses only Lightroom adjustments) and to compare with my own single image workflow. See Can a Pseudo HDR Image be as Good as the Real Thing? (Part One). This week I wanted to explore some of the vast number of workflows that give an HDR feel even though all are single exposure images, and try to decide – can a Pseudo HDR image really be as good as the real thing?

The top image used just a simple Lightroom preset (HDR Strong) furnished by Matt Kloskowski, one of the NAPP Photoshop Guys, that gives a pretty good place to start when just using Lightroom for the effect. It is a more realistic look, but still has that detail oriented feel HDR images present. (In this case, three Adjustment Brushes were used on the image: a Sharpen brush painted over just the bikes to bring out the edges cleanly; a Contrast brush to make the white wall in the background appear more gritty; and a Clarity brush painted on the closer posts and the sitting girl.) In Photoshop, a Curves Adjustment Layer was added along with the OnOne PhotoFrame (see my Tidbits Blog sidebar for website link) – that was it. I believe this gives a nice realistic look to what I saw but not exactly the HDR feel I wanted to.

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The image above used Topaz Adjust 5, one of the best and most inexpensive Photoshop plug-ins that can be bought. (See sidebar on my Tidbids Blog for website link.) That being said, I also used Topaz Detail, Topaz Simplify 3 and Nik Viveza 2 on the image. In the image below, you can see a comparison as each filter was brought into the final image. To be honest, I really liked the results even though, once again, the HDR image trumped this one for really sharp detail and color saturation.

You can see that just applying the Spicify preset in Topaz Adjust gives a pretty nice start to the pseudo HDR effect. The other plug-ins each added a little more detail and color toning. It seems logical that by trying different plug-ins together, you should be able to get some fairly good approximations to the real HDR look.

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This image used OnOne’s Perfect Effects where filters are also stacked in a similar manner as Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4. The image was processed as above in Lightroom, and then taken into Photoshop where the Perfect Effects plug-in was opened. (The following filters were stacked: Photo Filter -> Blue using a custom blue color of R16G32B136 using a Strength of 39; Movie Looks -> Faux HDR; Landscapes -> Golden Hour Enhancer using the Mask Bug to target the brickwork in top of image and Opacity set to 45%; Color & Tone -> Tonal Contrast with Shadows at 52, Highlights at 92 and Clarity 13 and Strength to 50%; and Detail -> Texture Booster with Blacks at 4.) Image was sharpened and the OnOne PhotoFrame added. This gives a very strong HDR feel but the bikes do not stand out quite as nicely against the brickwork. With a little effort this image could be adjusted  to bring it more in line with the original HDR from last week.
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This image gives the closest and cleanest approximation to the true realistic HDR look. It was created using three Lightroom virtual copies of the same image with the exposures sliders set for to 0, -2, and +1.37. Other settings were also adjusted to enhance individual areas of the image. (For example, the 0 exposure image was adjusted to bring out the midtones clearly. The -2 exposure was used to bring out the gritty appearance of the gray back wall and tree. The +1.37 exposure was used to lighten up some of the brick that was too dark and to enhance the silver and white on the bikes. They were all selected in Lightroom. By right clicking on one of the images, select Edit In -> Stack as Layers in Photoshop option in the menu. In Photoshop, they all appeared in one document as individual layers. Now Black Layer Masks could be added (ALT+Click on Layer Mask icon) to the top two layers. With a low opacity brush, carefully paint back in the areas you want exposed at the different levels.) It is a really great way to stretch the tones in an individual image without using any HDR software or third party plug-ins. Create a composite on top and do localized sharpening where needed. I learned this great technique from Harold Davis and am finding I use it a lot to really get great detail in my images. He calls this technique “Hand HDR” and it is described in his book The Photoshop Darkroom. He has a new book coming out Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to HDR Photography that I am really forward to getting.

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I created several other iterations of this image with varying amounts of success. Nik’s Color Efex Pro 4 was used following a very helpful recipe presented in a short Nik blog called My Go-To Recipe for Bringing Out Details with Ellen Anon. The single image was also taken into PhotoMatix Pro and the results were pretty good. Both of these examples had to be readjusted in Camera Raw again before I liked the results. Also processing a single image in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro gives some really interesting results although not all a true HDR effect. Several different Adjustment Layers in Photoshop can help get the color and tone in the image. Experiment to find out which ones work for you.

What an advantage to have a real HDR shot for comparison. Based on this, my conclusions on the pseudo HDR look is as follows:

  • I believe it is possible to get that HDR feel with with just one image, but, and this is a big one, how good the results obtained will be depend on the image you are trying to use. Do not expect a huge landscape with a really large dynamic range to have the detail a true HDR is going to have. If the image does not have a large light to dark range, you will probably have some pretty nice results. The image in this blog has an average range of highlights and shadows, but as seen above there is still some detail missing in all the images.
  • Saturation of the colors can easily get messed up with HDR images, much less with the pseudo imaging look. All of my examples had a real problem getting that nice brick color that my original HDR image contained.  The single images required using Camera Raw processing (sometimes twice) since it is the only filter/program in Photoshop or Lightroom that handles the orange tones. Haloing can occur with the saturation shifts and then other steps need to be taken to reduce the obvious shading.
  • Sharpening is an absolute necessity if doing pseudo HDR – otherwise it just does not have that sharp detail look a real HDR has.
  • Watch the gritty look – it occurs a lot with regular HDR images. With pseudo HDR images, it seems to be even easier to get a totally over the top look if you are not careful.

There are several resources that give some great advice. Ferrell McCollough in his book Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography makes a great statement. “…. the choice to shoot a single image rather than an HDR image set should be based on the contrast of the scene. A low contrast scene is easily captured and tone mapped for a single image, but a medium contrast scene can go either way in terms of quality.” RC Concepcion (one of the NAPP Photoshop Guys) has a great book, The HDR Book, that covers single image HDR processing very well and has some great tips on post-processing to get the look.

After comparing all the results, I believe that my best result was with the Harold Davis workflow – it had the sharpest edges and no halos or noise developed by the stacking of the three exposure copies. It also took the longest time to complete since several layer masks had to be created to get the final look. I still like many of the other processes though – I know I will still use my Lightroom preset from last week’s blog, and both Topaz and OnOne have the potential of creating a very good fake HDR look. But this was not just about how the different workflows create the HDR look.

The real question is – is the final result as good as a true HDR. Based on my experimentation, it is not (and to be honest I am not surprised but my curiosity made me look into this). After doing a lot of research and trying many different methods on the same picture (I am tired of this image!), I don’t think any of the results were quite as good as the original tone-mapped HDR image. You can get close, and if you did not have a true HDR image to compare to, you might think several of the single image results were good enough. But bottom line, the detail, color and tonal range is just not up to true HDR standards. I decided the image I liked best is below because it is not competing at all with the original HDR look. It was created by using the Davis Workflow image and adding Topaz Adjust to it. The Curve was changed to Negative and the Adaptive Exposure, Details, and Color sections were adjusted.  The effect was then brushed off the reading girl. I love the colors – it gives a really fantasy look and the bikes show up great!

Maybe the real question is what is HDR? Is it that over-saturated look or that super-detailed look? Or is it a totally different looking image as above that is definitely an HDR look but way out there! My advice is that if you think you want an HDR look, no matter what kind, you need to bracket and take the shots. If you take 5 images, you should be able to get a nice HDR image, even if all the shots are not great. If you could only get one shot, there are some pretty easy ways to get that HDR appearance. It may take some effort to pull the final look together, but at least you got the shot the way you wanted it! Hope you enjoyed this blog and it helps you with your single image processing…..Digital Lady Syd

Digital Lady Syd Related Blogs:
Pseudo HDR Using NIK Color Efex Pro 4
With One Good Photo – Try the Pseudo HDR Effect
Another Pseudo HDR from Me!
Another Pseudo HDR Image with NIK CEP4 – Got to Love the Effect!
Settings for Vivid Drawing Look ACR/Lightroom Preset and NIK Color Efex Pro 4 Pseudo HDR Recipe

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2 responses

  1. Pingback: Unsharp Mask Filter In LAB Mode « Digital Lady Syd's Fun Photoshop Blog

  2. Pingback: » Where Am I? Digital Lady Syd's Tidbits Blog

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