HDR Work-Flow for Single-Exposure Photographs

By and large, single-exposure high dynamic range follows the same workflow as bracketed HDR photography. There may be minor differences, so here is a run-through of the work-flow:

  1. Configure your camera for single-shot HDR.

    The thing you’re after is the single best shot you can get. Pay attention to the lighting conditions, subject, movement, and any artistic effect (depth of field, motion blur, and so on) you’re after.

    If you’re shooting in manual exposure mode, pay special attention to exposure control side effects. If you use auto, a priority mode, or programmed auto mode, you have fewer decisions to make.

  2. Compose the scene.

    For single-exposure HDR, this step can take anywhere from 1/4000 second to several minutes, depending on the scene and situation. With most casual shots, you simply point and shoot — you have very little time to compose the shot. For arranged shots, you can often position your subject or take your time and analyze different angles. This is where your composition skills shine.

  3. Take the photos.

    Even if you can’t bracket, you can still set your camera to shoot individual exposures at high speeds (continuous high-speed shooting). In fact, it's best to take several bursts of shots, if possible, so you’ll have a range of single exposures to choose from.

  4. Choose your single-exposure method in software.

    Choose from two approaches when using single Raw exposures for HDR:

    1. Single-exposure (Raw): Throw the Raw photo into your HDR application and create pseudo-HDR from a single source image. As bizarre as it sounds, using a single image can work — and it produces excellent results much of the time. It’s not truly HDR, but it has something to do with HDR.

      This photo shows a flowering tree in HDR. The Raw exposure was dropped into Photomatix and processed directly as pseudo-HDR. The colors are simply marvelous.

      image0.jpg
    2. Single-exposure (brackets): Process the single Raw exposure into brackets by opening it up in a Raw editor and saving versions of the file with different exposures. Three brackets at –2/0/+2 EV is generally accepted as the best method. You might wish to experiment with five brackets at –2/– 1/0/+1/2 EV or other combinations.

      You’re still working with a single Raw image, no matter how many brackets you create. You can’t increase the dynamic range of squat with single-exposure HDR. What you’re doing is trying to squeeze all the dynamic range you can from the single image.

      When finished, you’ll have two or more bracketed images that you can treat the same as any other bracketed set. Load them into your HDR application to generate the HDR image.

      This figure shows the collection of images surrounding this method. Start with an original Raw photo, which you then transform into brackets (three, in this case). The brackets form the source for the HDR image, which is tone mapped and finalized.

      image1.jpg
  5. Generate HDR.

    If you’re using a single Raw exposure, you can drop it on Photomatix Pro, which will automatically generate the pseudo-HDR image and start the tone mapping process.

    If you’re working with manually generated brackets, generate the HDR image as you would normally. You don’t need to align the images or worry about ghosting, so you can turn off those options (if available). You might need to identify the relative EV difference between the images.

  6. Tone map the single Raw exposure or brackets.

    As with HDR in general, it’s hard to predict whether an image will look good, or how much you can push the settings to accentuate details and drama.

    This is a photo being tone mapped in Photomatix Pro. The settings produce a fairly realistic look.

    image2.jpg
  7. Edit and publish the tone mapped image.

    As with multi-exposure HDR, finish your project by editing it in your favorite image editor. Single-exposure HDR tends to be noisier, but on the other hand, you don’t have to worry about ghosting or movement. You might need to perform tasks such as noise reduction, sharpening, adjusting brightness and contrast, color, cropping, and publishing.

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