Yosemite in HDR

A few weeks ago I asked my girlfriend to marry me, and then, two days later, we left for a photo trip to Yosemite. I had been once before and the first time was so overwhelmed with the magnitude of it, I came away disappointed in some of my shots. This time I decided to try a couple of new things. First, I wanted to see if using my cell phone camera could do the parks natural beauty any kind of justice. And second, I wanted to shoot single RAW files, with the purpose of creating HDR images when I got back.

HDR (High Dynamic Range) – just in case you are unfamiliar- are pictures are made by compositing three or more images with different shutter exposures. These three shutter speeds allow the photographer to take the details from the shadows, midtones, and highlights and make them all appear at once during editing. Even if the result is only mediocre, it still manages to turn heads. It’s startling, bright, and so clear it resembles a painting more than a photograph. The photo below is just one example.

Yosemite in HDR 1

Overlooking the Valley

There are many programs one can use to achieve this look. But after trying several, I decided to stick with the stand alone Photomatix Pro from HDR Soft application and it’s Lightroom exporting plug-in. I picked this combo because it was the easiest, fastest and best looking way to create HDR images from a single RAW file. I tried using the new HDR Toning Adjustment option in Photoshop CS5, but it took much longer to process and the results were not as good.

I know the most common technique says results are “better” when shooting 3 or more different exposures, but when I did a side by side comparison of the resulting HDR images – one from 3 dif exposures, and one from a single file – I had a hard time telling them apart. Only in a few extreme situations did the multiple exposures help. Look how no details could ever be brought back from over exposed skies, even from a RAW:

Can't save overexposed skies with a single RAW

I shot all the images in Yosemite in RAW format on my Canon 5D. I chose RAW because it keeps a lot more exposure information in the file than a JPG. Kinda like shooting negatives vs slides. So I figured, since the shadow and highlights are both in that single image, I can totally just export 3 different exposures off that file and work with those. With Lightroom, this proved to be really easy. I simply created 2 virtual copies of an image. Then decreased the exposure on one, increased it on the other, and left the original as-is. Then I highlighted the 3 and selected the “export to Photomatix Pro” option to create the HDRs.

I did this to most of the images I took in Yosemite and learned a few things along the way.

1. Photos taken on cloudy or foggy days ended up looking way more dramatic than those shot on bright, sunny days. You can see the difference between the two in the Yosemite in HDR gallery (image 2 vs image 8). But look at how dramatic this image looks after processing and tweaking. Notice that the clouds, fog near the mountains, the waterfall, the river and all the trees are perfectly exposed and highly detailed.

Yosemite in HDR 2

Yosemite Valley

2. Creating HDR photos taken in snow is really, really tough! I tried working with most of the snow shots, but only a tiny handful ended up looking decent. Snow, I believe, is one of the rare extreme condition pics that might benefit more from actually exposing 3 or more shots. I’ll try to verify that next time I shoot in the snow. In the end, when I did manage to get a decent look out of the snow set, I simply saved the settings and began applying them to the rest of the shots. I was really happy with the final results that made it into the gallery, but I really would love to go back and try re-shooting these parts.

3. There is no “correct way” for how HDR images should look. This is what I love the most about the entire process. As both photographer and editor, you have the ability to create something entirely new. You can either make something super surreal looking, or you can use the technique to simply make pictures that properly show what your naked eye saw as you were shooting. I think the set I ended up with lands somewhere in the middle. But really, anything goes!

If you like photo books, I recommend you take a look at Trey Ratcliff’s “A World in HDR” it’s a perfect example of how it’s possibly make these images look any way you want, even if they look “fake” they still make the viewer stop and go “wow!”.

If you’d like to take a look at the rest of the shots, just click on the image below (or any of the other two final shots above) and it will take you to the new addition to the Experimental sets called Yosemite in HDR.

Yosemite in HDR 9

Click to enter the "Yosemite in HDR" gallery

I wouldn’t be surprised if you saw more posts about HDR. I think this is just the tip of the iceberg.

This entry was posted in HDR, Photography and tagged , , .


  1. Claire June 8, 2010 at 2:51 pm #

    Ahhh SO COOL KAMEL!!

  2. Mathieu Martin June 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm #

    Very cool. I’m still a bit miffed that CS3 doesn’t support the MarkII Raw format. I’m tempted to get photomatrix, but I just cant justify spending any money on it right now considering I don’t do HDR very often

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