There are a number of ways you can enhance your photographs to realize their full potential but not all of them will render realistic looking results. I’ve heard high dynamic range (HDR) photography described as “clown vomit” and though I don’t fully agree with that statement I do admit that a large percent of the HDR imagery I see does not look realistic, though I do find it impressive (more so because I know what kind of time and effort goes into creating high quality HDR imagery). So for this example I will stick with what I believe to be the best practice when squeezing the full potential out of any image without going overboard. Ultimately, though, you will be able to decide what is and is not overboard depending on your taste.
At the end of the article I will show you the same image enhanced beyond the realistic realm, a Faux-HDR look created in Lightroom 5 in less than 5 minutes.
Shoot in RAW
You don’t always have to shoot in RAW, JPEG is great if you’ve got ideal lighting but you lose a little leeway in post processing when using JPEG format. If you find something interesting then I’d highly recommend shooting in RAW format so you’ll have the flexibility in post processing to really pull all the detail you’d like (color, dynamic range, etc.) out of the file.
Increase Dynamic Range
I guess now is a good time to let you know I will be using Lightroom 5 for this example. The first thing I usually do when working with photographs that have bright areas, like the front window in the photograph above, is reduce the highlights to regain some dynamic range I may have lost. You can certainly leave the highlights alone but I find that they distract the viewer from the rest of the image. The very next thing I’ll do is increase the shadow areas to expose detail that may have been previously lost. It’s important to remember that if you aren’t shooting in RAW when you move these sliders in either direction you may find that you are not able to recoup any detail or if you do it may look like crap (noisy and pixelated).
As you can see in the image above, I reduced the highlights to -90 and increased the shadows to +70. The dynamic range was increased and the highlights/shadow area was recovered without introducing unsightly noise or pixelation.
Shooting in RAW eliminates the processing that would normally happen in camera when shooting in JPEG. JPEG files add contrast, sharpening, saturation, etc. that RAW files do not. If you scroll down to the Details module on the right hand side of your Lightroom window you will find the sharpen controls. I increased the sharpening to +60 as you can see below.
Fun Fact: If you press Option while sliding the Masking bar the screen will go grey and as you slide to the right you’ll see what you are selecting to be sharpened (assuming you don’t want to sharpen everything including digital noise).
I did not have to adjust whites or blacks for this image but normally I’ll check the histogram and if there are no true whites or blacks I will adjust these sliders until there is. You can use the fun fact from above when adjusting the whites and blacks as well, just hold down Option and slide the white slider to the right until you start to see the white areas show up in your image (you can do the same for the blacks but slide to the left). Watch your histogram, its ideal not to clip highlights or shadows.
Making the Image Pop
Finally, it’s time to pull out the subtle colors and make the image really jump out at the viewer. As you can see from the Basic module above I increased Clarity (+38), Saturation (+25), and Contrast (+30) to pull out every last ounce of detail from the image. If you go to far on either of these you’ll turn your image into an over processed HDR looking photograph (you can see what I mean below).
Faux – HDR
Creating a HDR like look without multiple exposures is not difficult so long as the lighting is ideal, just push the Clarity to above 50 or 60, increase Saturation to +70, and finally increase your contrast to about 60. What you end up with is the image below, some will like it and others will cringe.
There are dozens of different ways to squeak out every last ounce of potential from your photographs using programs like Lightroom and Photoshop. What are some of your favorites? Leave them in the comments below.