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Blame Trey Ratcliff. Or thank him.

I first came across Trey Ratcliff’s website, Stuck In Customs, about a year ago. Given his huge worldwide following and my general predisposition to travel photography, it is quite surprising that I did not discover his work earlier.

I almost instantly became a fan of HDR photography. Scroll through Trey’s blog or look for examples on the first page of his tutorial and you may just join me in that.

It is all a matter of taste and opinion, of course. Your sensibilities may reject vivid colors that stretch the appearance of “natural” or you may lean towards purity of photography as a capture-the-moment art that disdains enhancements that can be achieved in post-processing.

Me, I love vibrancy and sparkle of colorful pictures, especially when it comes to landscapes. Plus, I am just an amateur photographer with a reasonable but not too advanced DSLR kit – I’d be a fool to rely solely on my skills and my equipment if I wanted good pictures; instead, quite often I have to rescue bad photographs from the trash can by extensively post-processing them.

Here is an example from our recent trip to Newport, RI. I liked the way this street looked under rainy skies but despite my best efforts – or, maybe, because of them – the picture came out horribly underexposed and dull.
 

 
I decided to play with it in Lightroom. And yes, I exaggerated some of the colors and had to give the photo a bit of a “painterly” look in order to smooth out the noise that appeared during processing, but I ended up with something that I find rather worthy of not only keeping in my archive but also of putting out there for people to see.
 

Bannisters Wharf, Newport, RI

 
That was not HDR in its most-used form, which involves combining exposure-bracketed images. Capturing images in RAW allows me to work on separate parts of the tonal range without affecting the rest of the photograph – and since I am stretching the tonal range of the original, I am technically creating a more dynamic range which fits the definition of HDR. I found in my experiments that when the scene is lighted evenly, I do not get a significant improvement from combining under- and over-exposed shots into an HDR photograph over what I can accomplish post-processing a single 0EV RAW shot. But when shadows and highlights are prominent (which is most frequently present in expansive landscapes or whenever the clouds or the foliage cast shades on parts of the scene), working with a bracketed set is the shortcut for getting vivid HDR photographs.

Here’s a not so great example. (It is not meant to dazzle, just to illustrate. When I get to the level of being able to dazzle, you will be the first to know.)
 

 
This scene attracted me because of the contrast of the bright sunlight on the far shore and menacing clouds practically above me. My cheapo lenses and middling skills combined to create this fairly flat photo.

Via Lightroom and Photoshop, I managed to give the photo quite a bit of pop.
 

 
Took me not that long, but long enough so that I decided to leave too dark shadows on the rocks on the left and also to not bother with the ripples in the lower right corner that I found a bit distracting. (Do not forget, this is all RAW processing – the tools at my disposal allow for fairly straight-forward ways to correct these things, I just chose not to do them for the purposes of this exercise.)

When I took the original shot, I also bracketed it with -2EV and +2EV variations of exactly the same scene. Combining the three in Photomatix software using one of the presets immediately presented me with the image below. (Okay, I also straightened the horizon in Photoshop afterwards, but no other enhancements.)
 

View from Brenton Point, Newport, RI

 
This is certainly an unfinished product yet. I can think of a couple of things I can improve. It may ultimately get me exactly to where I can arrive via further enhancements of the original 0EV RAW file. But it surely gives me a wider room for experimenting (if I chose to do so with the full tonal range of three different-exposure shots) and also jumps closer to my desired outcome in shorter time. Amazing!

You might be able to guess by now what the title of this post is meant to convey.

In the last few months I’ve recaptured my fascination with photography, and I can even imagine posting to this blog once in a while with some of my photo attempts. If you kept my feed in your aggregator or simply made use of clicking through to my posts in the past via Facebook, you certainly will be overjoyed to hear about this revival. Or not. But regardless of your reaction, Trey Ratcliff deserves a lot of credit for reigniting my interest in photography.

Posted in Tutorials and Tips