Practicing HDR – Blending Images for a Beautiful Sky

Yesterday was a holiday which gave me an extra opportunity to grab the camera and head out to practice.  I decided to go the Pearl Brewery downtown San Antonio.  I had not been to this area before, so I really didn’t have any expectations of what I would capture or what techniques I wanted to try.

I soon discovered that the complex was a mix of historical buildings and an industrial setting, which provided lots of options.  As it was almost high noon when I arrived, there was bright sunlight and dark shadows everywhere.  But, there was also a wonderful blend of textures to be explored.  Both these observations took me to bracketing and HDR tonemapping as my area for practicing.

Here are a couple of images that involved bracketed shots, 3 images at 2 stops apart.  I rendered them with HDR Efex Pro.  My normal process for this tool is to scroll through the presets and find one I like for the subject.  I seldom accept the preset and generally move over to the sliders to make my own adjustments.  I really have no standards.  Every image can benefit from changes in the various sliders; it just depends on the “look and fell” that I want for that particular image.

I’m not a fan of surreal or grunge HDR.  I try to keep things realistic, keep some shadows and bring up the structure or texture where it makes sense.  I rarely accept the HDR rendered sky, as the ghost and bands are just so HDRish!

So I play with the HDR sliders until the primary subject is rendered as I like and then save the HDR image and return to Lightroom for fine adjustments and lens correction.  I then select the image from the bracketed set with the “best sky”.  This might be the normally exposed image or the darker one.  I use Lightroom HSL sliders to balance the sky; changing luminosity and saturation as needed.

Once I have one image with a sky I like, and the HDR rendered tiff, I move both into Photoshop as layers.  Using the “sky balance image”, I select the sky using the Select->Color Range option.  I use the + eyedropper to select all the hues of blue in the sky.  If I auto-selected any blues other than sky, I use the – selection brush and remove those areas from my selection.  I then refine the selection with a bit of feathering and 2 pixels of edge reduction to ensure I have a clean line where the sky touches anything.

With the selection active, I click on the HDR image, add the mask of the selected sky and invert the mask so that the sky in the HDR image is masked out.  With the “sky balance” image on the layer below the HDR masked image, I get a perfect combination of the HDR subject and a smooth blended blue sky from the single “sky balanced image”.

Here are a couple of examples of using the HDR for the subject with the sky masked out and a single image for the sky showing through.

The third image (featured image) was captured while facing directly into the sun, only the tower blocked the sun and only the glow around the tower was captured.  This is the actual sky from the “normally exposed” image of the bracketed set.

HDR Pearl Brewery - Terri Butler Photography HDR Pearl Brewery - Terri Butler Photography HDR Pearl Brewery - Terri Butler Photography