I had a discussion on Twitter last week with a professional photographer who was bemoaning the drudgery of editing large numbers of pictures. During the exchange, we talked about how we go about marking photos that we’ve downloaded but not yet got round to editing. His solution was to import everything into a single folder and, when he had edited them, move them to their final destination. I told him about the method I use which he has since adopted so I reckoned this may be a worthwhile tip to pass on. This is really part of a larger post I need to write on my overall digital workflow but, for now, here’s how I keep track of pictures in various stages of uneditedness in Lightroom.
The “Library” module in Lightroom offers you a great array of ways to mark photos – collections, star ratings, pick flags and colour labels. How you use these is entirely up to you but it’s a good idea to figure out some convention and stick to it so that you can use these markings to make your overall image management strategy a lot easier. Of these methods, I use three extensively – colour labels, star ratings and smart collections – and this post concentrates on my convention for the colour labels.
The first thing to note about the colour labels in Lightroom is that you can actually edit the labels to say anything you want. The default labels names “Red”, “Blue”, “Green”, “Yellow” and so on, are extremely obvious but entirely unhelpful. The first thing I would suggest doing is changing these to indicate what you are using the labels to signify. In my case, I’ve redefined 4 of the labels to allow me to define the following categories of picture:
- “Review Required”
- Images I’ve imported but not yet had a chance to do my usual post-import editing on (adding keywords, culling duds, selecting picks).
- “Rework Required”
- An image that I am partway through working on. This may be a tonemapped HDR that requires some Photoshop work or a Photoshop file that still needs some masking or layering operation completed.
- “Unprocessed Panorama”
- Images that are part of a set taken for a panoramic image but which I have yet to stitch.
- “Unprocessed HDR”
- Images that are part of a bracketed set for an HDR that I have not yet processed.
So how do you edit the label names? I had to go to the Lightroom help to answer this the first time but you can do this from the Metadata menu where you will find “Color Label Set” and, under this, an “Edit…” option. Just type the names you want and press OK. Now, whenever you right click on an image in the Library and select the “Color Label….” option, the list you see will contain your own label strings rather than the basic colour names.
Using these categories along with smart collections, I can easily see all the images in my library that fall into each of these categories. With one click, I can show all my unprocessed HDR brackets and pick one to work on, for example. To create a smart collection that allows you to view everything in one of these categories, click on the “+” next to “Collections” in the left-side panel while in “Library” mode then pick “Create Smart Collection…”. You will be shown a dialog box that lets you enter various conditions used to pick the images that will appear when you view the collection. My “Unprocessed HDRs” smart collection is defined as follows:
Note that I set up two conditions so that a picture is selected if EITHER the label color is green OR the label text is “Unprocessed HDRs”. This may seem like overkill but it’s a good idea since, if you happen to accidentally (or intentionally) edit the label names or reset them to defaults, the smart collection will still show the expected images.
That’s all there is to it. I now have four smart collections that give me single click access to all the images that need work of one kind or another done. After I do basic editing on the “Review Required” shots, I reassign the colour labels as needed, either setting them to one of the other categories or clearing them entirely. This allows me to move the images between states without having to worry about copying files on my disk. Lightroom handles all the searching for me.
Here’s the last of my HDR tips for this week. I’ve been saving this one for a while but, if you shoot in climates where you can rely upon clear blue skies, it’s a killer tip and could save you hours (even if I do say so myself).
Do you often find yourself with a mess like the following after tone-mapping? Frankly, this is an image I really don’t like – the tone mapping is wildy unsubtle but it serves as a great example for this tip.
The foreground looks the way it was intended to look but the sky is a horrible collection of haloes and weird areas of different shades of blue. Wouldn’t it be great if I could just drop in a new sky without having to spend a week masking around all those blasted leaves? Well here’s a tip that will fix your sky in about 2 minutes flat as long as it’s predominantly blue. This will work if there are some clouds but it definitely works best when the sky is clear.
Take a look at the original brackets you used and decide which one has the best sky tone. I typically like the -2EV image since I like nice, dark, saturated skies but it’s entirely up to you. Open the tone mapped image and the original image with the good sky as layers in Photoshop with the tone-mapped image below the original bracket.
Now we’re going to use a bit of magic that very few people seem to know about. Make sure your magnification is set so that you can see the whole sky area of the image then right click on the top layer (with the original image) and select “Blending options…” (in CS5 at any rate. It used to be called “Advanced Blending…” or something similar in some previous versions as far as I can remember and you accessed it from the layer effects list I think). The dialog that you will see allows you to control how this layer blends with the one below it and one of the great features it offers is the ability to blend based on the colours in either this layer or the one below it.
As you will notice, the bits of the tone-mapped image we want to replace correspond with the blue sky in the original image so let’s tell Photoshop to show the original only where it is predominantly blue. Do this by setting the “Blend If” option to “Blue” then drag the slider under “This Layer” to the right. As you do this, you will see that the underlying layer starts to bleed through and become visible. Move the slider to the right until you start to see chunks of the tone-mapped sky appearing then stop. At this point, you will notice something along the lines of the following:
The original sky is definitely visible but you will also see a lot of really horrid fringes around all the tone-mapped leaves. There’s another secret to get rid of these. Hold the “Alt” key and click on the slider you just dragged. You will notice that it splits in two so now grab the left hand half-slider and pull it back towards the left. As you do this, you should see the fringes get smaller and, eventually disappear leaving you with something like this:
You will likely have to juggle the left and right half slider positions to get the best overall effect. It’s a good idea to zoom to 100% to check out the fringes since it’s tricky to see how the individual leaves (or other edges) look when you are zoomed out.
Once you have marveled at how the sky looks, you may be disappointed to notice that this blending has had a muting effect on other sections of the image too. This can, however, be corrected very easily by adding a layer mask to the top (original image) layer and, using a soft-edged brush, painting in black over the areas that you don’t want to be affected. Doing this, you are effectively allowing the underlying tone-mapped layer to shine through completely unaffected. If you accidentally paint any of the sky, just switch to white and paint the mask with that to erase the effect. Typically, the effect on non-sky sections of the image is reasonably subtle so you don’t have to be enormously careful when you are doing this final masking step. Painting this mask is, of course, enormously easier than trying to figure out how to mask around all the leaves!
Hopefully you’ll find this tip useful. It’s saved me hours here in Texas where blue skies are the norm. If you live up north or across the pond, you may find this less helpful but the basic approach can still be used for many other cases where you want to blend based on the colour of particular regions of an image.
I hope you’ve found this week of HDR tips helpful. Thanks for reading!
Quite often, I find that the tone mapping settings I like for part of my image cause other parts to look bad. In these cases, if I’m going for an artistic look, I will save the .HDR or .EXR file from Photomatix then open it twice and tone map it with settings that look good for each area independently. I then take these images into Photoshop and blend them together to give me the look I want in both areas.
If you are generating a realistic looking image, you can usually get away with not re-tonemapping but just blending in one of the original exposures. This is something I frequently do to get rid of blown highlights, noisy sections or weird contrast inversions in skies while keeping the tone mapped look of the foreground.
Open both of your tone-mapped images (or the original and tonemapped image) as layers in Photoshop with the main image on the bottom. Add a layer mask to the top image then fill the mask with black. Using a soft-edged, white brush, paint into the layer mask in the areas that you want the top image to be visible (the sky, for example). Once you’ve done this, you can change the opacity of the top layer to vary the amount of the original effect you let through.
Before anyone complains, I should admit that the picture at the top of this post is not the final version of this particular image since I’ve not uploaded that one to Flickr (you can see it on ImageKind and SmugMug though if you are interested). The final version fixes all the highlights in the clouds using this method.
I have another tip for fixing sky problems coming up but I think I’ll hang on to that one for a couple more days!
Another of my golden rules for processing HDRs is to do as little as possible to the brackets in Lightroom before I export them to Photomatix for merging. The main reason for this is that I want to ensure that I don’t disturb the pixels in each of the bracketed exposures differently and run the risk of messing up Photomatix ability to merge the picture but it’s also because I think of Photomatix as the first step in the process. There are, however, two operations that I typically do before merging the brackets, one of which is cosmetic and the other of which is, in my opinion, absolutely vital.
The cosmetic operation is to correct the image white balance if I didn’t nail it in the camera. The important thing here is to make sure you apply exactly the same change to every one of the pictures in the bracket. Typically, I will correct the center exposure then use the Develop Setting copy/paste operation in Lightroom to apply the same setting to the other images. I do most of my colour correction or tweaking after Photomatix is done with the image but it’s always easier to start with images that are close to where you want to end up.
The more critical operation for me, however, is correcting chromatic aberration. This is a “feature” of lenses (typically cheaper ones, to be honest) caused by the fact that they focus different colour of light at slightly different distances and, hence, give slightly different magnifications to the red and blue channels in the image. This results in colour fringing along high contrast edges near the sides of the image. If you don’t correct this prior to merging, you will find that (a) you end up with an HDR that is less sharp than it could be and (b) the fringing effect will be magnified an enormous amount by Photomatix.
If you are lucky enough to be using very high quality professional lenses, you may never see this (I really only have to deal with it on my Sigma 15mm fisheye since the Nikon pro lenses I have are amazingly clear of CA problems) but most of the time it will be apparent if you zoom your image to 100% and take a look at the corners. If you are using Lightroom, correcting the problem is very simple. In the Develop module, look under “Lens Corrections”. If Lightroom knows about your particular lens (and it knows about a lot of lenses), you can click “Profile” then select “Enable Profile Corrections” and your CA problems will disappear immediately. Note that this also allows you to correct lens distortion and vignetting but I typically leave these set to 0 since I like the fisheye distortion and the vignette doesn’t worry me.
If Lightroom doesn’t know about your particular lens, click on “Manual” and fiddle with the sliders under “Chromatic Aberration” until the fringes you see in the image disappear (or get as small as you can make them). In both the manual and profile cases, make sure you apply exactly the same setting to all the images in your bracket then go ahead and export them to Photomatix.
I’ve added an example of before and after here so that you can see what I am talking about. The top image shows a 200% view of the top right corner of one of my brackets before CA correction and the bottom one shows the same section after automatic CA correction in Lightroom.
As any dedicated HDR photographer will tell you, you should be carrying a tripod with you at all times. Even if you are carrying your tripod, however, it’s not guaranteed that you will actually be able to use it. Many buildings prohibit tripod use and many security guards get all hot and bothered when anyone walks into their territory carrying one. Despite this (and I won’t get started on how annoying and pointless some of these situations can be in this post) you can often save the day if you are also carrying a small and pretty inexpensive piece of equipment.
I have two Joby Gorillapods – an SLR-Zoom model and the larger, sturdier Gorillapod Focus. Frequently the same people who complain loudly if you even think of setting up a tripod won’t bat an eye if you pull out a Gorillapod and use that instead.
The picture shown here was taken with my D90 on the Gorillapod SLR-Zoom in St. Patrick’s Cathedral, New York, a place where tripods are completely verboten. I had to remove the camera’s battery pack and restrict myself to a smallish lens (this was shot with the Sigma 10-20mm) since the SLR-Zoom model, from my experience at least, really isn’t sturdy enough for anything but the lightest body/lens combination. Regardless of only having this small tripod-replacement, I managed to get some great shots by clamping the bendy legs of the Gorillapod onto the top of one of the cathedral pews. In some places, the fact that you can attach the Gorillapod to posts, furniture, fences, etc. actually gives you better camera-positioning options than you would have with a traditional tripod.
The newer Gorillapod Focus model is intended for larger cameras and can handle the weight of a pro-body with battery pack and a decent sized lens. For even more flexibility, add a small ball head to allow easier adjustment of the camera position. I have Joby’s own ballhead for the Focus and a small, generic ballhead on the SLR-Zoom.
Next time you find yourself having to use your tripod as a walking stick because some officious security guard tells you you can’t use it, save the day by trying to use a “non-tripod” instead and see if you can get away with that. I expect you will be pleasantly surprised.
Continuing the week’s theme of HDR tips, here’s one that can help out in situations where you find yourself wanting to shoot a bracket for an HDR but you don’t have access to a tripod. I don’t shoot many handheld HDR brackets but sometimes I don’t have a choice – either tripods are banned or I don’t have one with me. In this case, here are a few tips that can allow you to get the shot even without your trusty tripod. For reference, the shot above is a 7 exposure, handheld HDR shot at EPCOT in Walt Disney World.
- If your camera allows you to shoot more than 3 shots in automatic bracketing mode, set it to bracket a couple of shots wider than you normally would. If you would normally set up for a bracket of 3 exposures, for example, set it for 5. You won’t get a chance to tweak exposures after shooting your handheld bracket if it’s not wide enough so this helps minimise the chances of you having to reshoot the whole thing if you don’t get it first time. If your camera only allows 3 shots in the sequence, stick with that.
- Set your camera to high speed continuous shooting mode. The idea here is that you want to hold the shutter down and have the camera rip through the whole bracket as quickly as possible. Even if you can’t shoot at 8fps, 3fps is still better than you are likely to do pressing the button once per shot so go with what you have.
- Set your aperture so that the longest shutter speed in your bracket will still be in the safe handholding zone (1/focal length). If you are taking a 5 shot bracket, your slowest shutter speed will be 4 times the center setting (+2EV). If you are taking a 7 shot bracket, the slowest will be 8 times the center (+3EV). Typically, I will shoot 5 or 7 shot brackets and try to get my initial shutter speed in the 1/750 to 1/1000 range with a standard lens. This ensures that you won’t have problems with camera shake at one end of the bracket.
- Put your feet apart, brace your elbows by your sides and hold the camera firmly against your eye. Frame the shot and then squeeze and hold the shutter trying to move as little as possible in the process. In continuous mode, my Nikon cameras will shoot the entire bracket then pause to allow me to take my finger off the shutter.
Once you’ve done all this and have your handheld bracket back in the computer, probably the most important tip is to forget Photomatix for the first part of the process. If you have Photoshop, it does a far better job of realigning brackets that are not perfectly aligned so use the “Merge to HDR” feature in Photoshop and save the file it generates as a .HDR or .EXR file. Take this file and open it in Photomatix for tonemapping.
If you practice these steps, you can usually get a pretty decent HDR even if you don’t have a good way of stabilising your camera.
A couple of months ago, New Jersey-based photographer and HDR aficionado Scott Wyden invited me to write an HDR tip for an ongoing series on his blog. The article was published today and you can find it here. I would love to hear what you think so please leave a comment over there and let me know.