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My Philosophy
My name is Mike Savad, I've been doing photography for most of my life, and digital about third of it. I currently specialize in HDR images. Many have compared my work to paintings - some have even asked which medium I use. Many compare it to Norman Rockwell, and a few other artists. The main goal is to create something that resembles an Oil painting when  complete. My focus is nostalgia, antiques, and the Victorians. Memories are often more interesting when created in a painterly manner.  I created this site to teach those who want to learn how I create my HDR images. Many have asked, so this site is for you.

My techniques are always changing, always evolving. So each HDR tutorial I write will differ from one to the other. I dated the guides, You can see how they differ as I add more.

What is HDR?
Why use HDR?
Why a painting?
I only recently learned about HDR about 5 years ago. HDR has been around for a while, there were methods on increasing the range of  visible light long before the term HDR came into style.

The use of HDR creates something new and unique. Each person has their own style and method. Eventually, people will recognize your stuff from sight based on style alone. As a photographer you have to know by now that at a certain stage of a photographer's career, all the photo's will start to look the same - compared from one photographer to the next. I've seen so many mountain-scapes, I can't tell who made the image since they all look alike to me. One photographer will copy the style of the other, use the same equipment, and create an identical picture. However with HDR, you can create an absolutely unique image, and you can say that it was Artistically done, and created by hand.

HDR is a wonderful tool - you can create an image that doesn't suffer from the typical problems other photo's have. Blown out windows for one, it's hard to get detail inside while maintaining the same detail outside. Hidden detail in shadow: you would be amazed just how much detail is hidden in spots your eyes just looked over. By exposing multiple frames to different exposures, you can reveal detail that no one has noticed before; and because that detail is there, it helps create that painting like illusion.

Zazzle Store
Examples of my work

Suburban Scenes by Mike Savad

What does HDR Stand for?
How is is done?
High Dynamic Range

You setup a tripod (or by shoot it by hand like I do),  take 3 or more pictures (-2 0 2 EV) and place them in a program like Photomatix. This will in turn press the colors into one image. Normally when you shoot a room, with a window to the outside, you will either get the window or the room - but not both. Either the room will be too dark, or the window terribly overexposed. HDR allows you to combine the shot with some amazing results. Some programs like Photomatix has micro contrast controls that lights up small details very nicely. HDR allows you to get a clear exposure across the whole image with detail throughout.

There is another method however, and that's to do it by hand. That's how I make them.

Why a painting?
Why not?

Natively after processing and HDR in Photomatix, the image has a sort of sketched, illustrated look, sometimes painting like. Going on this I went further to create a total immersion of the image. However I don't like using programs like Photomatix due to the lack of fine controls that I normally have in Photoshop.

What's wrong with programs designed for HDR?
After processing an HDR - there are inherent problems, if' you've tried creating one in the past you'll understand what I'm talking about. Many problems exist when using a HDR processing program, maybe they will improve over time, however:

  1. They usually have very grainy backgrounds. Due to the micro contrast enhancing small detail, it will also push out the noise.
  2. Pin Cushion, that's what I call it, it sort of forms a white sprite of light that merges out of a black contrasted line. 
  3. Dull gray or noisy black. The program will try to get the make the whites darker (it thinks it's a blown out section that needs to be darker), turning them into a gray color. Blacks will be pushed beyond their braking point, causing increased noise and loss of detail. 
  4. A very flat look. The program will flatten contrast and midtones, and on top of that, it will brighten the shadow - without shadow you lose depth, and without depth, you lose shape, and it all just looks very flat afterwards.
  5. Photomatix at least, has a tendency to screw up RAW images. The sharpness is off, colors dull, and it isn't as full of detail as it would be if it was processed outside the HDR program.
  6. You can't shoot an object that moves or you'll get ghosts, I figured out ways around this, but you have to do it by hand.
  7. It will light everything evenly, you may just want to light certain areas. This is what makes an HDR look like an HDR, you'll never know where the light is coming from because every surface is lit up from all directions. Sometimes this is a good effect, often not.
Based on the things above I got a very grainy, flat image, that wasn't that sharp, had uneven lighting, ghosts, and a lot of other problems. Because of the things listed above I started editing the images that came out to improve on what it looked like. Painting over noisy spots, cloning out ghosts, adding contrasts, etc. Little by little the process formed, it looked more and more painting like. Currently I still use Photomatix, but for texture only. It can achieve detail I can't do by hand. Try it on a Train, it looks very awesome.

My Goal
I hate waste. I hate wasting my time taking many photographs hoping to get a few shots worth keeping. I also hate storing those images of which I don't use.

Typically a good photographer will take 100 pictures to get about 10 images that they will actually use. Then out of that, you only see 1 or 2 of them, this is their best work. The numbers vary per person, but overall there is much waste. Typical photos, unless setup in a studio, will be full of problems.

Problems like too much shadow, too bright, etc. I take almost all of my pictures when I'm out on a trip, vacation etc. In locations where there isn't optimal lighting inside or out, on days that are cloudy, mid day sun, rainy, etc, or any indoor location where flash isn't allowed. My goal was to create something out of nothing. To be able to use nearly 100% of my shots. To be able to shoot in any lighting conditions, from really bright noon day light (very high contrast), to rather dark murky lighting in some corner of a room. To create something unique with a style people can recognize. 

My Style
Everyone has there own photographic style.

Due to the locations I shoot in, I often get nostalgic items, with plenty of details usually in the form of different trades. I like a certain amount of business in an image. I like letting my eye wander, exploring all the details. The real world is full of details, why not capture them? However the downside is,  it takes longer to edit it my work. Every inch of the scene, everything will be carefully edited individually, trying to figure out where light should fall and making that area lighter or darker, while at the same time adding shadow for depth.

Red Bubble
Examples of my work
Suburban Scenes by Mike Savad

My Equipment
  • I use a Canon 5D MKii - I used to use a Canon 20d
  • Tamron 28-300 VC Lens - While not a  fast lens, it is stable, I've been able to hand hold a picture for up to 1 second, Once 3.5 second (though it was blurred, it was pretty good for what it was).
  • Maxpedition - Kodiak, added extra padding, and a place to hold the camera. 
  • A homemade brace that mounts on the bottom of the camera, A foam handle grip on a piece of PVC mounted to a metal ball hinge. It allows me to stabilize better, and I can get it higher when needed.
  • A home made mask to block out the light when shooting against a window.
  • An old glasses lens cloth that lets me clean a window of some dirt and fingerprints to get a clearer picture when shooting through glass. Yeah I do clean it first. 
  • General cleaning stuff
  • Medical Stuff including Sting Kill, Tummy upset stuff, Bandage, Muscle Strain Cream (arnica montanta), etc. I've used every one of these, and while it adds weight I'm glad I have it. I also started carrying ankle tape wrap, and bandage.
  • A hat, emergency rain poncho, garbage bag (emergency shelter I hope I never have to use)
  • Several flashlights, one is solar rechargeable kept outside the bag, the other a small clip on that fits inside the bag.  
  • Bag of Peanuts, plain with a dusting of sea salt powder. These things are great (provided your not allergic, for giving you a boost of energy. I'll also carry a little bit of candy to help with some shock after an injury, and 2 granola bars.
  • Bottle of water. Always carry water, I made that mistake a few times and you really don't want to dehydrate. 
  • Umbrella, A small Totes square umbrella. Currently its blue to match a vest I no longer use. Next chance I get, memory pending I'll get either white or cream. Then it could be used as a reflector or diffuser as well as a high-vis umbrella.
  • Hand Sanitizer, and hand lotion, Tissues
  • 2 Extra batteries
  • Backup device (500gigs)
  • Extra cards as an emergency, I hope I don't have to use. 1-2 gigs, my current one is 32gigs, holds about 999 or a little higher using iso100, full size, raw.
  • Wacom Intous 3
  • Fast computer.

Why I don't use Tripods
To make a good HDR you need 3 images stacked exactly on top of each other. Nothing can be blurred, moving, out of place, out of alignment, and should be noise free (using a low ISO). Tripods were designed for HDR, and serious photographers of any type usually carry one of those things. However, I don't.

There are a number of reasons why I don't.
  1. They are heavy and bulky to carry.
  2. They are clumsy to use and set up. 
  3. They take up a lot of space, where anyone could trip over it.
  4. Many museums & Gardens don't allow them for that reason alone. They do take up space, Quite a bit. I have had people knock into it, myself included.
  5. They limit you on what and where you can shoot. You can only shoot SO high, only at SUCH and angle. I like to be able to hang over the fuzzy velvet rope and really get into the scene. Tripods won't even get close to a door,  which means you may shoot the frame of the doorway.
  6. Once set up, if the floor bounces there is a good chance it will still be soft, since the exposure times could be 30 seconds or more.
For a while I carried a small tripod with me. It was actually pretty lightweight. It was the Velbon PH-237Q for those interested in a small, lightweight tripod. It's not that small though, it's about 14" long closed, about 64" tall. I liked it because it can spread out, each leg locks independent of each other so in theory I could place this on a sill of a window and a stair and still get the shot. It also has the ability to let me place the head upside down for really close shots if I had the need.

But it was an extra 2 pounds, I had it in a bag for a while, then hanging off my belt for a while. It was just clumsy. While I could engage the different features, The aluminum pole that made it shorter, gets stuck easily. In the field, it may have been impossible to remove, as the threads crossed or something. I liked the leg design at first, one quick twist and all legs are unlocked, then relocked at another twist. But this made it hard to adjust the height if I wanted it to be lower down. And worse, they would sometimes unlock in the middle of a shot catching the thing as it started to tip. Also as the head is a quick release, it was necessary to keep a quick release on the camera at all times, which dug into my fingers. What was worse is that it wasn't all that stable, it moved a bit.

So that's why I don't use it, and stopped bringing it with me. I found that when I relied on it, I wasn't able to shoot what I wanted. I didn't want to bring it out in the city as it attracts attention. Many places inside frowned at it. And due to the restrictions it had, such as limtied angles, I missed out on a lot.

As I learned how to use the camera for HDR use, and the technologies improved, a new stable lens and so forth, I started shooting by hand. Mostly because I had to. I think it started on a vacation where I didn't want to bring it with me. It took a while to get the hang of it, but it is possible to shoot by hand. All you really have to do is stabilize yourself.

How to stabilize yourself:

  • Learn to control your breathing, breathe in slowly, I use my mouth, try to concentrate on breathing slower, and in turn it lowers your heartbeat as well. Calm yourself over all, due to walking to your target your pulse rate can increase leading to softer images.
  • Squeeze the trigger, don't pound on it. And on that note, don't push the camera down when hitting the button.
  • Try to slow yourself down and don't get excited, trying to shoot as fast as you can, as if it won't be there in the next few minutes. I do this, and I don't know why either, it's like candy for me, click, click, click, and before you know it, blur.
  • Take each picture seriously. I know I can shoot 1/6th of a second and get a very sharp image. I can do this because I hold VERY STILL, because I know this is a +2EV shot, and it will blur if I move it. On that same note, when it's 1/100th, it's blurry, because in my head, I know that it's a faster shutter speed so I tend to shoot it faster.
  • Between exposures hold your breath a little bit, breathe in, feel your chest expand. Release a little bit of the air hold your breathe, but not all the way, let a little escape through your nose. Very, very slowly you'll do that, as you push the button, keep in mind the exposure and just how long you'll hold your breath for. Keep in mind just how long you can hold your breath without moving,  I've been able to do about 4 seconds, before losing my vision. 
  • After that shot, breathe in, re-compose yourself, check the amount of time it wants. If you see that it's way longer than you can actually hold it for, say - 1 second, adjust the ISO so it is something you can hold onto. It's better to have more noise, than to have a soft image. Just be sure to line it back up as close as possible (use a target in the image to aim at again). Be sure to keep the focal plane the same, as it will never line up right if that angle changes.
  • If possible lean on a wall or something. Some find it useful to use a string pod (attach string to the bottom of the camera via a 1/4-20 screw, weight it, and step on it. Other's attach their strap to something and pull on it. Other's use a monopod.
  • I have a piece of PVC on the bottom of the camera with a rubber ball wedged into the opening. I can grab onto it for portrait shots (it gives my arm something to do.) Or wedge it in a door frame (that's what the ball is for). Or wedge it into my elbow. Each position is designed to keep my arm tensed or keep my pulse down. If your arm is relaxed, it moves.
  • My stance, I keep one leg after the other, and squat a tiny bit. I found that if I lock my knees a little bit, I'm more stable. But this is an uncomfortable position to be and quite tiring. The pose is like a lightweight version of what a runner would do (if you can image an old man racing - that kind of stance). Like your about to jump.
  • You want to keep your camera close to your face. 

The Basic Setup
To get a good HDR, you'll need a wide variety of exposures, take as many frames as you need, you may have to bump the iso to it's maximum to get what you need. The size of the image and how many you take may be an issue for some. My camera shoots at 21mp, Full frame, 14bit RAW (ALWAYS shoot in RAW by the way). My images are 25megs a piece. Raise the iso, and it's more, the 25000 ISO - 40megs a piece or more depending on light and texture.

3 images on average are needed for an HDR, averaging 33megs a piece (indoor high iso's), that's about 100 megs per HDR scene. Backing up just one simple day trip of about 700 images, takes  an average of 2 - Dual Layer  DVD's. Until blueray goes down in price I have to use that.

My camera has the ability to save settings that I use frequently. This is what I used:(keep in mind that this camera has an auto ISO mode to 3200.)

C1 - +2 ISO 12800 or higher - to get shadow detail when the other modes just don't cut it.
C2 - HDR - bracketing - ISO 6400 - for those desperately dark rooms.
C3 - HDR - bracketing - Auto ISO - what I use for everything

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Copyright - Suburban Scenes by Mike Savad 2012

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