I just finished reading and working with RC Concepcion’s newest book titled The HDR Book, and I would highly recommend this book to someone getting started with HDR or if you are finding that you just can’t get what you want out of your HDR images. While I know there are a lot of opinions about HDR, I have always been a fan of HDR processing. The reason is pretty simple. I still shoot film for a large format camera, and HDR gives me access to something that I could easily do with film that was very difficult for me to do before with my digital imagery.
In the zone system, Ansel Adams said that there were ten zones that photographers work with. Those ten zones referred to creating the print. Sometimes an scene will have more than ten zones of light, and film can actually capture those zones. But to get those scenes captured, you have to expose and develop the image such that the range of light captured by the film can be translated onto the print. This process is called compensating development. The result of this process is a negative that is pretty flat with very little contrast, but lots and lots of detail (sounds like a basic tone mapped file). You then do some work in the darkroom (like with Photoshop on a HDR file) and all the sudden you have a print with detail in bright windows and dark corners of a room at the same time. Because of this, the HDR process has always been pretty exciting to me.
I learned about this particular book when I attended a workshop with RC prior to the release of this book. He did several hours of training on HDR, and I learned better ways to work with my HDR files. So once the book was announced, I quickly placed an order. As you would expect from RC, the book is very clear, concise and easy to follow. He quickly covers the tools and techniques you need to capture good source files to start working in HDR. Things like a tripod, bracketing, EV compensation and ISO should not be forgotten as critical to the success of the final image.
There are several other things that RC has done that I really liked as well. The first is that all the exercise images are available for download so that you can do the exercises that are in the book along with RC’s instructions. I dislike hate books that have lots of instructions and examples with the author’s images, and you are expected to have your own images to follow along. In those cases, not only do I not know if I am doing the steps correctly because my screen doesn’t match their screen, but often times I don’t even know what would be a good image to practice with.
RC eliminated this issue by supplying the images. This makes the book even more worthwhile, because as he notes in the first chapter, HDR is not just about the post processing. You have to get some things done in capture that really impact your ability to produce great looking HDR files. If you didn’t have good HDR images to work with, this book could have been a frustrating process trying to match your bad captures to very clear instructions. Luckily, this is not the case.
A second aspect of this book that I really like is the variety of subjects that get looked at with HDR. I have seen a lot of HDR online where it is pretty much the same subjects over and over, and I like how RC is able to show how HDR can be used in everything from landscapes and panoramas to interiors and architecture to portraits and black and white subjects.
I also found it very helpful that RC shows the tone mapping options in a variety of HDR programs. As he points out, all software has strengths and weaknesses. His choice to show every exercise with a tone mapped file from Photoshop CS5, Photomatix and Nik’s HDR EfexPro is a great teaching tool. I also found his analysis of the tone mapping results of each program to be very helpful. In the end, I believe that showing each program rather than a single option allows the reader to see more of the impacts that software choices make in the creation of the HDR file. While I now personally lean more towards HDR EfexPro, I still keep a full copy of Photomaix on my computer because sometimes it is the right choice for an image set.
I do think the best part of this book is the education that you get on how to edit and process your images in Photoshop AFTER they are out of the HDR program of choice. RC does a fantastic job of showing that it is not just tone map and done. Show-ready work requires you to finish your work. Sure you need to understand what things like gamma, smoothing, microcontrast, and strength are, but those are only half the equation. As with my film discussion above, HDR software does nothing but give you a working negative, it is still up to the artist to develop and create the final image. Images still need color correction, spot healing, cropping, masking/merging and lots of other adjustments to be finished. I think the reason that some people don’t like HDR is that the images they see on Flickr only have half the work done. People create the negative then post it and call it good. Just like the capture of a RAW file, HDR files need to be finished to complete the vision of the artist. And no, I don’t think the vision is ever just the default settings of a software program. RC guides you step-by-step in Photoshop with each excise on what he does to finish the various images. If more people took these techniques to heart, I believe that HDR discussions would return to talks about the image rather than the technique.
Finally, I really enjoyed the “Now it’s your turn” exercises in the book. RC still offers some guidance, but these excises are really there for you to tryout various things on your own and create your own interpretations of an image. Anyone can copy setting from a book, but working on new images and generating your own visual stamp based on just completed lessons is a wonderful teaching tool. I also liked the chapter on Black and White image creation. This is one area of HDR that I think gets ignored a lot and shouldn’t. HDR does a great job of giving you lots of tones to work with in an image. And black and white image are about changes and shifts in tones. If you are a black and white shooter, HDR can really make an impact on your work.
Even after sitting in a classroom with RC, I found this book to be very helpful. I even ordered a second copy to give to a friend who wants to try this “HDR thingy.” I can’t imagine a better place to start than with RC’s guidance.
You can read my review of RC’s other book Getting Your Photography on the Web here