Photographer Harold Davis on HDR Photography

In my last post I promised my readers that my next post would be a review of asn outstanding new photography book. Here it is: Creating HDR Photos: The Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Photography by Harold Davis.

Whether he is writing a book, giving a webinar, or (presumably, though I have no direct experience of this) teaching a workshop, certain things are consistently true about Harold Davis:

  1. He is a skilled, enthusiastic, even passionate teacher.
  2. He communicates very clearly.

In Harold Davis you have a mentor, a friend who loves what he does and is eager to share it with you so that you can enjoy doing it as well. And he does this in a clear, informal writing style that never degenerates into condescension or into annoying humor. Quite simply, he wants you to learn. He demystifies what it’s all about, assuring you that it’s quite easy. Most importantly, in opening up the world of HDR he points out, more than once, that HDR is not an end in itself but a technique to be used in service of your artistic expression. If your first reaction on seeing a photo is awareness of technique, then something is wrong. I find this encouraging, because there are photo websites that pointedly highlight soulless photos that do nothing but show off the photographer’s technical prowess. Davis is one prominent photographer who reacts against this (Rob Sheppard is another who comes to mind), and I’m glad to see this happening. If you’ve dismissed HDR as nothing more than a process of creating unnatural-looking eye-candy images, Davis shows convincingly that this is not true at all—and he has historical evidence to support him as he relates HDR to processing methods used by the great photographers before digital was ever thought of.

As an author, Davis is a publisher’s dream. In his Intro he tells you what he will be teaching (to novices as well as to those with some experience of HDR), dispels myths about HDR, explains how his book differs from others on the subject (and, by implication, why it’s better), and describes what HDR is—and then throughout the book he fulfills what he has promised. Creating HDR Photos is well organized and designed to encourage the reader to press on. The opening chapters offer a survey of the different methods for creating HDR photos—from capture through to postprocessing—along with summaries of how it’s done. The author’s own photos on these pages are accompanied by a description of the process he used, and they act as “teasers” to make you want to go further, to read, in later chapters, the details of how to use these techniques. And if one technique strikes you as so interesting that you want to skip and learn more about that one immediately, those intro chapters helpfully provide the page numbers on which to find that detailed guidance. The book finishes with a list of resources, a very helpful glossary of terms, and a well-organized index.

Davis claims that reading this book is the next best thing to attending one of his workshops. I can well believe that. If you want to learn about HDR from a knowledgeable, nonintimidating teacher, then buy Creating HDR Photos.

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Processing Photos for Black and White

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The original unprocessed jpg

Two weekends in a row I was on field trips with other photographers and both times the light was such that I knew I was going to end up doing a lot of processing in black and white. It happens sometimes, especially on a very bright, contrasty day or on a day with dull, boring light (as distinct from the kind of overcast that, say, makes colors on flowers and trees pop).

The second of the weekends began at Sandy Hook in New Jersey. The historic Sandy Hook Lighthouse is the oldest in the country, and there I was, looking at it in the most boring light conditions imaginable. But this wasn’t going to stop me–I like to photograph lighthouses and I was determined to make something of it. Fortunately there was a pretty decent hint of clouds, not one of those pale, totally blank skies. OK. Let’s go for a composition that’s a bit different and that has the clouds surrounding the tower. After all, I had been to Sandy Hook twice before on bright, sunny, blue-sky days and taken the typical “postcard” compositions.

Another problem was that the lighthouse appeared to have acquired considerably more rust stains than I remembered from my last visit in January 2010. Those would have to go.

Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov, who was also a master orchestrator, said that you can’t orchestrate well what hasn’t been well composed. This observation has more than one application in photo processing. For one thing, you can’t take a poorly lit photo, add a B&W layer (or slide the saturation lever all the way down), and think, presto, problem solved. You need to do some optimizing of your original first, preferably starting in Raw. Increase the contrast, increase clarity, work with Levels. Only then can you begin to work with theB&W.

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The processed image

Sometimes when you decide to process a photo in B&W you may be open to anything, have no particular notion of what you want your end result to be, and so you try the presets in the B&W layer in Photoshop or (for the adventurous) the whole gamut of presets in Nik Silver Efex Pro 2 until you find one that’s a good starting point, then you start tweaking various settings until you get a result you can live with. (I’m currently in a high-structure craze and sometimes deliberately force myself to try something “soft” just to remind myself that there are other ways of making my photo look.) Better yet, though, is when you start with an idea of how you want it to look, then try the presets until you find the one that corresponds to what you envision, then do the necessary tweaking.  That’s what happened with this lighthouse photo. I wanted that dark tone and contrast in the sky–then, as an experiment, decided to see how bright I could make the lighthouse (including giving it a digital “paint job”). The Red Filter did the trick. This was done with a B&W adjustment layer in Photoshop; I wasn’t envisioning anything as adventurous as what you can get with Silver Efex Pro–not just now, anyway.
If you want a great wealth of B&W tips from the really top pros, let me recommend two things. First, Harold Davis’s book Creative Black & White. Harold is a superb teacher. Check out his website too. Also, Rob Sheppard has been getting into a lot of B&W work of late, and he teaches an online course at BetterPhoto. Rob, too, is an excellent teacher, and this course has videos as well. Check it out, and check out Rob’s fine nature and photography blog.