HDR and Panorama Combination with Moving Waves

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Today is a new day. You will get out of it just what you put into it. If you have made mistakes, there is always another chance for you. And supposing you have tried and failed again and again, you may have a fresh start any moment you choose, for this thing we call ‘failure’ is not the falling down, but the staying down. -Mary Pickford

Today’s recommended site is of time lapse flower photography set to music. http://player.vimeo.com/video/27920977?title=0&%3bbyline=0&%3bportrait=0href=

For a long time I have wondered whether it was practical to do an HDR (high dynamic range) composite of an ocean/beach panorama which has (moving) waves. The primary challenge would be whether the software could deal effectively with the movement of the waves as they would not align automatically from one frame to the next (producing “ghosting”). This week I actually got around to trying it. I used images of the above sunset with a couple sitting on the beach. Exposing properly for the sky caused the sand and couple in chairs to be way underexposed. Alternatively, exposing for the couple overexposed the sky. This is a perfect situation for HDR; subtle HDR, not the exaggerated, cartoonish variety. I used Photomatix Pro 4.2.6 for the HDR processing. This is the version referred to when “Photomatix” is mentioned below.

Capture technique:

  • Shot in manual mode, auto bracketing 3 exposures each with a one stop increment and using continuous shooting drive mode. (Typically two stop increments are used, but the lighting here was not extreme.)
  • I shot just as I do any panorama (tripod and shutter release cable) except each frame of the panorama got the rapid auto bracketing.

Processing workflow:

  • Files were first processed in Adobe Camera Raw to uniformly remove noise (both luminance and color), add “clarity” and slightly (preprocessing) sharpen. Because Photomatix Pro 4.2.6 does not recognize edits made to raw files, these changes were saved in tiff file format. This conversion to tiff format is necessary because Photomatix Pro 4 does not recognize any edits/enhancements that are kept in the raw format. (A better method is to utilize Photomatix Pro 4’s ability to accept unedited raw format images as noted below under “What I will do differently next time”.)
  • In Photoshop Elements, a separate panorama was created for each of the three exposures (still in tiff file format).
  • In Photomatix, “Exposure Fusion/Natural” mode was used for the HDR processing (This results in a more natural/realistic image than given by the “tone mapping Details Enhancer” mode.) As expected, the waves went soft due to “ghosting” caused by the wave movement. But I found these results to be acceptable in this case, since the waves are incidental to the image. (If sharp waves are needed, Photomatix allows the waves from any single image to replace the HDR processed waves in order to prevent ghosting).
  • In Photoshop Elements, contrast was increased with “Color Curves”. This effect was masked out from the sand, particularly the bright middle portion of the beach as it became distracting. (Alternatively, I could have used Photomatix “finishing touches” function to increase the contrast and color.)
  • The expected wave misalignment between the side-by-side panorama frames (as previously stitched by Photoshop Elements) was easily remedied by horizontal strokes of the (Photoshop Elements) smudge tool.
  • Using Nik Sharpener Pro 4.2.6, moderate sharpening was done for “display” output (this sharpening was masked out over the sand as it looked rough and distracting).

What I will do differently next time:

  • Skip the initial processing with Adobe Raw Converter and put the raw files directly into Photomatix.
  • Since I used Photomatix “exposure fusion/natural mode, no initial noise removal was needed. This mode inherently reduces noise.
  • (However, when planning to use Photomatix “tone mapping detail enhancer” mode for HDR processing, initial noise reduction is necessary as this mode otherwise creates noise.) Conveniently, Photomatix has an automated noise detection/removal function that does a better job than my eye ball method with Adobe raw converter. To utilize this automated noise reduction, raw files are entered directly into Photomatix without any prior raw converter or Photoshop edits. This is a better workflow because it prevents the need to change the files to tiff format prior to using Photomatix. (When using this method, each side-to-side panorama frame is processed into an HDR tiff image. Then these are stitched into a panorama in Photoshop Elements.
  • I’ll use Photomatix’ selection replacement tool to replace the bright middle portion of the beach with the darker portion of the beach that was in my “middle exposure” image.

Suggestions for sharp waves:

  • Shoot with a tripod and either shutter release cable or remote shutter release
  • Use a shutter speed 1/15 sec or faster (the faster the better). If necessary to achieve adequet shutter speed, increase ISO 1-2 notches above the lowest that your camera offers (particularly if you have processing software with noise removal capability).
  • Use auto exposure bracketing with continuous shooting drive mode
  • In your HDR processing program use the de-ghosting tool to replace the entire water/wave area with that same section of one of the original images. (The waves will not show the effects of HDR processing, but will be sharper than if HDR processed.)

I welcome comments and suggestions.

My personal website is NaturePhotoRehab.com. Here, I help people to transform their average nature images into photographic art that they are proud to give as gifts or to hang on their own wall for inspiration.

J. Michael Harroun©2013

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3 comments on “HDR and Panorama Combination with Moving Waves

  1. Heather says:

    It’s like you’re reading my mind. We have lots of gorgeous bodies of water nearby, and I was wonder exactly how you’d handle an HDR/panorama with waves kind of shot. Now I know 🙂
    Also, I’m glad to hear you’re not a fan of the over-done HDR images. I realize this is confirmation bias, but it makes me happy all the same.

    • It is amazing that you were also thinking about this situation.
      Your comment reminded me that I had not included a summary of my suggestions for achieving sharp waves. So I added it at the end of my post.
      Photoshop Elements 9 and higher has a pseudo-HDR tool called Photomerge Exposure that works pretty well.
      I do not know whether Photoshop Elements 8 has this or not. However, you would get to it from the “File” drop down menu, then click “New”, then click “Photomerge Exposure”. (Scott Kelby has a nice explanation of its use in his Photoshop Elements books.)
      The initially published photo for this post came out much dark than my monitor had shown (embarrassingly poor).
      I’ve replaced it with a better one (brighter foreground).
      Hope you are having fun learning your Photoshop Elements program.

      • Heather says:

        I see that it is brighter. Monitors can be a tricky thing to deal with. I ended up with a mac this time with the retina display, and I am shocked at how much nicer things look on it than on my husband’s dell.
        I expect the Photoshop Elements CD will arrive tomorrow. I took a few photos to play around with, but didn’t bracket them. I figure I’ll start slowly and add things as my skill level/comfort level with the program progresses. I’ll be sure to check in and let you know how things are going.
        Thanks again for the info and for the program!

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