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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Steel Eel Sunset Walk-through

Today's post is going to be a fairly lengthy one because it is going to cover, from start to finish, the steps that I used to make this photo (please note that I do not cover all of the steps, in-depth, this is just a general walk through of my process from start to finish). Before we start, here is a list of what I used in making this photo:



- Digital Photo Professional (bundled with the Canon DSLR cameras)

Capturing the photo

The first step that I take is actually capturing the photo (this is obviously the most important step!). For this shot I parked in the parking lot of Vale Middle School which is located directly across the street from Sea World San Antonio. I climbed a small hill next to the parking lot and tried to get the angle and zoom that I was looking for to primarily isolate the first hill of the Steel Eel while being able to capture the clouds as the sun was setting. As always, I prefer shooting in RAW because that allows me the most freedom, if necessary, to tweak the shots in post processing. The focal length for this shot was 46.0mm with an aperture of 8.0 (I shoot most shots at 8.0, it is the setting that I feel produces the highest quality images with all of the lenses that I currently own).

I also use the two second delay for capturing shots after pushing the button, I have a remote for when I absolutely need it, but a two second delay is usually enough time for the vibrations from touching the camera to dissipate. I took a total of 3 series of three shots spaced 1 EV apart ((-4,-3,-2) (-1,0-1) (2,3,4)) to try to capture shots with the histogram that I am looking for to ensure that I have the range of lighting and shadows that is required for producing an HDR photo.

Processing the photo

Once I transfer the photos that I took to my network attached storage device, I open up Digital Photo Professional and begin the process of selecting the shots that I want to process for my image. I look at the histogram for each shot to determine which photos contain the lighting data that I want (I want the histogram to be left biased for the under exposed shot, in the middle for the middle shot, and right biased for the over exposed shot. I try to ensure that the histogram does not actually fall off of either side as that means the photo is missing some light and the resulting image will not be as high quality).

For this photo I ended up using the EV stops -1, 1, 3, and 4 as the shots to create this photo (most HDR shots usually use the "do it all" setting of -2, 0, 2, but that does not always capture the lighting properly. It usually does, but that is why I like to take as many 1 EV spaced brackets as possible, to ensure I am able to capture all of the highlights and shadows). I also used a shot that captured the train of the Steel Eel descending the hill, which I am going to eventually merge with my image to add a little more "excitement" to my final product.

Digital Photo Professional example

Once I have the shots that I want exported, I load them into DxO Optics to do some lens correction. This is a great tool that does an outstanding job of fixing vignetting, light falloff, and barrel distortion from a very wide range of lenses. I highly recommend this tool if you want your images to look as "realistic" possible.

DxO Optics Pro 6 example

Now that "correcting" the images is completed, it is time to "create" the HDR image!

Creating an HDR image

I load the bracketed shots into Photomatix Professional, which does an outstanding job of creating an HDR image from a series (or single) photo. There are some presets that are included with the program (most of which are excellent). You can use the tool to create anything from realistic to surreal images and just about everything in between. I prefer to have the program create the images with no de-ghosting, because I will handle any ghosting later in my processing using the original photos, if need be.

Photomatix example

I will modify different sliders trying to get the histogram just right so it not only retains all of the light, but looks like I want the image to look as well. Once that is done, I save the image and open it for editing in Photoshop CS5 Extended which is where a majority of the "magic" happens

Processing and modifying the shot (My steps)

Once I have the shot open in Photoshop, the first thing that I do is use the Topaz DeNoise 5 plugin to get rid of noise in the image. I just like the result to look as "noiseless" as possible before processing it, it is just a matter of personal preference. Once that is done I open the shot using the Nik Color Efex Pro 3 plugins, and, using the presets as a starting point, manipulate the image to get it looking the way that I want (The preset starting points that I most commonly use are White Neutralizer, Pro Contrast, and Tonal Contrast).

Once I get a result that I like, I apply DeNoise again before advancing to Silver Efex Pro 2. Once again, there are several presets that you can work off of, I usually stick with the neutral setting because all I am using it for is to make the colors look more natural by combining the resulting black and white image with the original.

DeNoise 5 example

Color Efex Pro 3 example

Silver Efex Pro 2 example

Viveza 2 example

Once all of that is done I will play with the curves and lighting using tools within Photoshop and Viveza to get the final result that I am looking for. I also crop the photo, if necessary, to help center the focus on the middle portion of the shot. Finally, I then open up my "logo", put it in the lower right corner, merge it all together, and save it out for the final result. As I stated when starting the walk-through, I also blended a shot of the roller coaster coming down the hill with the final result, so my photo ended up going from the original "middle" shot to the resulting image below:

"Original" photo

Final Steel Eel Sunset

Today's post was fairly lengthy, but hopefully it gives you a little insight to the steps and processes that I personally use to create my shots. I did not cover everything in great detail because every shot is different and requires a different process to create the image. Everyone processes and creates their shots in a different way, this is just how I personally feel that I get the best results.

If you are so inclined, please feel free to leave any comments or feedback. Also remember that clicking on the photo takes you to my online gallery hosted over at smugmug where you can view this (and my other photos) in various sizes. If you enjoyed this post, please take the time to pass my post(s) on to others whom you also feel would enjoy my work. Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Thanks for posting the details on your workflow, VERY informative Brian! I really love this shot, the sky is incredible, as well as the fantastic details you got through the HDR processing. I love the colors, the blue and yellow really jump out at you. Great image!!!

  2. THANK YOU!!! This is Excellent! (agree with what Mr Toad has said!)
    Another question...when you blended in the shot or the roller coaster when did you do that or you must have done something to the roller coaster to make it look like it belongs?
    And Thanks again for explaining what you do-or did for this shot- from start to finish!! Just makes me really realise how much I have to learn about all this editing :o)

  3. To add the coaster in, I waited until the train was almost at the top of the hill and took some bracketed shots. Since the sky was about the same (the clouds did move a little bit) I just used the non-coaster on top of the coaster shot, then punched through it via layering to get just the cars on the track. I made the coaster a bit darker using Viveza, and that's about it. I love the Nik selective area circles (u-point) and use them when retouching just certain areas of a photo.

    Glad you like the walk-through, like I said everyone does it differently, this is just "my" way!

  4. Hey Brian this is great! Very helpful for me while I learn more and more about HDR. Thanks!

  5. Yes--but very nice to see your process from start to finish for this particular me something to look at as far as how I do things-especially seeing the detail you bring out!
    I just started using that Nik software a few weeks ago and like the selective area circles very much also!!