Creating my latest images – Photomatix & Photoshop

Richard Charpentier Photography, Photomatix, Photoshop 5 Comments

The reactions to my experimentation with HDR photography has been beyond interesting. I’ve heard it all. And Ian has heard some of it too in his gallery.

  • These images aren’t real photos!
  • The color is amazing.
  • The contrast is amazing.
  • That image was photoshopped. There’s no way that sky is the original sky.
  • How can I do that?

I’ve heard other things too. Some very nice, some very insulting. Ah well, I’m still experimenting and having fun. And I thought I’d tell readers here more about exactly what goes into these images, and what I’ve done to work out the technique.

How did this all come about?

First, I didn’t wake up one day and say to myself, “I wonder about HDR and what I could do with it?” Instead a person I met randomly got talking about photography and asked me if I’d ever heard of HDR? I hadn’t heard about, had no clue, and I forgot it for a few days.

One night after work I took a look at the little stack of papers that I round up during the week. Whenever I talk to someone about something interesting I usually jot it down and bring the note home. As I went through my little notes I found one about HDR, and I went on to Google to take a look.

The first site I found was Trey Ratcliff’s Stuck In Customs. Trey had a tutorial up about HDR, and what I saw there went beyond “wowing” me. Right after Trey’s work I found Ben Willmore’s work. With a few “Before & After’s” I was hooked. But I didn’t start working on making images with HDR right away.

I knew there’d be a learning process, and most likely a massive one. The stuff produced with HDR is pretty amazing when you look at it, so it can’t just be some easy thing.

One evening, months after first learning about HDR I went out and did some more reading on the subject. Special programs were involved, and programs that quick Internet tutorials weren’t going to fully cover. I also suspected Photoshop was involved, and I knew only the basics with the program.

My first step into HDR

I decided that before I started playing with HDR software I’d better know something more about Photoshop and photo manipulation. Photoshop would be a good starting point.

It’s pretty funny. For years I’d always avoid photo edits. Not real, not right, the wrong thing to do, it takes reality and bends it. I think part of the truth was that Photoshop was a program I didn’t really understand, and those types of statements from me had more to do with sour grapes and less to do with worrying about where an image came from. In the end, a cool image is a cool image.

A few books on Photoshop have traveled the country with me. They’d be opened occasionally when I had a quick question, but they were never read fully. Finally, with HDR on my mind, they were opened and read thoroughly. Unfortunately, they weren’t good.

So, I ran out and rounded up a few more Scott Kelby books. I enjoyed his Digital Photography Book, and I liked his writing style and bad jokes. The combination kept me interested. In the period of a few weeks I read several books, in the following order:

  1. The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Book For Digital Photographers: Before I was going to get anywhere I needed to learn how to manage and deal with my photos in a better, more streamlined way. Tell you what, this book and program did that for me.
  2. Scott Kelby’s 7-Point System for Adobe Photoshop: This book got me on track with Photoshop. I finally “got it.” I hadn’t “gotten it” before because I hadn’t tried.
  3. The Adobe Photoshop CS3 Book For Digital Photographers: I’ve had similar books for previous versions, but they never made sense. In my mind they hopped all over the place, there was no consistent theme. After reading the 7 Point System I knew enough about Photoshop to get into this book. I think if #’s 2 & 3 were swapped I would have struggled more.

With my initial reading in hand, and with my new found knowledge I was ready for the next level. Trying out a few HDR setups and playing with HDR software.

The HDR Experiment

My initial HDRs didn’t look much like HDRs. 3 to 5 photos at different exposure levels. Tossing those photos into Photoshop’s HDR merge. Looking at the final images and scratching my head…..not great. Not even something I shared on the web site.

More internet reading was required.

What I found was a little bit much. Many programs for merging and tone mapping photos. Which one, which one? The final decision was based on a bit of hero worship. Ben Willmore uses Photomatix, and he has a link from his site. So, that’s the one I tried.


I downloaded the Photomatix program a few months ago. It’s a pretty simple program. There’s not a lot to it. You toss a few photos in, and select how they should be aligned. Very simple interface for sure. But that’s the initial look.

Once you get to the point where an HDR is generated you now need to “Tone Map” the image. That’s when stuff gets a little intimidating. Still, the interface remains simple to look at. Nothing like all the options and features in Photoshop, but intimidating nonetheless.

Photomatix is kind enough to offer a simple tutorial, so I gave that a whirl as well. Understanding the “basics” is one thing. Getting beyond the basic is another. More reading was clearly in order. Why? Too many sliders, too many options, and the uncertainty that goes with not having a clue about what you’re doing.

If you’ve followed along over at the original Airstream Chronicles you know what comes next. More books. Good grief, for a guy who lives in a limited space you’d think I’d come up with a better way. Books are everywhere here. Why not an “e-book” you ask? Hey, if I could have found these books in e-book format I would have gotten them! Believe me.

More books

My next round of books was specific to HDR. No more learning extra stuff. Just get right to the heart of the matter. I want to understand HDR, so get an HDR book. Or two. Yes, two would work nicely!

For my book selection I didn’t have much to go on. A random trip to the local Barnes & Nobel left me scratching my head. Several books on HDR, and not a familiar author name to go with any of them. I browsed each book, and found one that seemed to do some in depth work with Photomatix. Ah, there’s a starting point!

“Complete Guide to High Dynamic Range Digital Photography,” was my first pick, and I did good with it. Ferrell McCollough really explained HDR well, and the nuts and bolts of Photomatix was covered to my satisfaction. Actually, there was a lot of technical information in the book that I personally enjoyed. If you’re not a tech geek you might find yourself skipping around just a bit!

The second pick will be left out of this conversation. It was ok, but not as useful to me at all. The author seemed to favor another program for generating HDR images, and it wasn’t one I selected. So, word to the wise. If you’re getting into HDR, and you’ve picked a program, really investigate the books out there. Find one that caters to what you’re working with!

Getting into HDR

After all my reading and learning I finally got started into playing with HDR. Regular readers have seen the results. Keep in mind, I’m still learning.

Some shots I take to extremes, others nearly match a 0EV shot with minor enhancements. You’ve seen both, and some folks like over the top while others like a “standard image” look. Personally, I’m having fun playing with all of them.

The nice part for me is finding out that it is in fact ok to experiment with images. Some folks out there think it’s not ok, and hey, they can feel that way. I’m no longer in that club. Playing with an image to relay something interesting in your own mind is ok. More than that, it’s actually fun!

My latest learning experience was through Ben Willmore’s DVD on creating HDR images. The DVD is entitled, “High Dynamic Range Mastery.” It was great. Most of the DVD was easy to follow along with after all of the “basics” under my belt. The part that wowed me was enhancing the images after you’ve worked through the HDR process.

The DVD covered a lot in Photoshop. It also showed some of Ben’s well known images in their “construction” phase. The original shots that led to his amazing images. I’ll tell you, after the HDR process is done there’s a lot of room for toying in Photoshop as well. Glad that’s where I started!

So far, my experimentation has stuck to HDR 95% of the time. The work afterward in Photoshop is in its infancy for me. But I now know that there’s a whole lot more I can do.

Photoshop is next

Now that I’ve worked out the overall HDR process the next big step will be taking images to another level. Photoshop will be the tool for that. Take pictures, generate an HDR that I like, play with that HDR in Photoshop to see what comes next. That’s the next process in this journey!

Who knew so much could go into generating an interesting image? Sure, you can take a good shot and be done with it. I still do that too. My recent portraits, senior pics, and wedding photos are just normal photos taken with good technique and lighting in mind. But this totally experimental stuff is a blast too, and I am after all a tech junkie. While the title of this blog is no longer started with the name “Gadget,” I am still a gadget junkie after all! 😉

Comments 5

  1. Hey… that looks like a gas station I want to go back and shoot from route 66. Is that Cool Springs Cabins in AZ? I have it on my list to return to when I get back to Route 66.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed my Mastering HDR DVD… I also have two free movies on my blog at that I recorded with Bert Monroy that should help people get started with HDR.


  2. That is the correct gas station. We’d read about it weeks ago, but the information we read had it in Kingman. Glad it was on the way to Oatman! What an interesting stop. The antique shop inside was very nice as well. Haven’t finished with the photos of the station that I like yet. Just posted a few teasers.

    Thanks for the DVD! It really finished off a few questions in my mind regarding some of your images.

    Welcome to my blog, and thanks for stopping by!

  3. Like you I was blown away when I started generating HDR images using Photomatix Pro 3.0. I was photographing a sunset from my deck and accidentally moved the tripod. The resulting “error” produced a rather interesting set of ghost images. I’d send the pic along; however, I don’t think I can paste it into this reply window so if your interested reply to this email and I’ll share the picture with you.


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