Learning HDR Photography

I first heard about HDR when I read about an iPhone app that took multiple photos and combined them into one for increased tonal range. When I started looking into HDR I found that there is a LOT more to it, and a lot of ways to do it. Some people have the patience to combine 9 separate exposures in Photoshop and mask each one to get the best exposed areas of each image. I really wanted to try it, but I don’t have that kind of patience.

Then I discovered software programs like Photomatix, which combine the multiple exposures for you. Then you can make adjustments for the look you want. After studying HDR technique and trying a few of these software packages, I settled on NIK HDR efex Pro. I think it is the most flexible and it is very easy to use. It has a nice big preview window so you can easily see the results when you experiment with the sliders and adjustments.

The basic idea behind HDR (High Dynamic Range) is to get a broader range of tones into your picture than would be possible with a single exposure. Digital camera sensors are more like slide film than negative film, in that they are more contrasty and less forgiving of exposure variances. Digital sensors have a limited dynamic range, from dark to light. At some point the shadows and highlights lose their detail. So the trick is to take multiple photos of the same scene, underexposing some, overexposing others, and then combine them in software to get the detail in shadows and highlights back.

Here is what a typical HDR photo looks like. The Washington State Capitol is not far from my house and I took this the other night.

WA State Capitol HDR

WA State Capitol HDR

I don’t particularly care for this look, but I’ve seen a lot of HDR images that have this highly stylized appearance. I prefer my photos to look more like what I saw when I was there – more realistic. But I value HDR for being able to keep the light parts of the image from blowing out and the shadows from blocking up. So this is my version of the same photo.

EOS 7D - 2.5, 8, & 25 seconds @ f/8.0

EOS 7D – 2.5, 8, & 25 seconds @ f/8.0

I used the EF 17-40mm f/4.0L lens at 17mm and set the ISO to 100. Because of the extreme wide angle, there is some distortion, like the flag poles curving inward. But I like this smoother and more natural look. I prefer shadows to be darker but still have detail.

Just for comparison, here is the n0n-compensated, non-HDR, single exposure.

Non-HDR, 8 secs

Non-HDR, 8 secs

This single exposure (a RAW file adjusted in Apple Aperture) is also a good picture.  In fact, I’d say that it’s highly subjective at this point. Do you like the smoother, more neutral non-HDR, or the more saturated and coarsely detailed HDR?  The color saturation could be adjusted after creating the HDR from the three exposures, but I like it the way it is.

If you look at the darker parts, like the lawn and fence on the right, you can see the HDR has detail that the single exposure does not. Those came from the over-exposed shot.

Here is another HDR shot of the lake down the hill from the Capitol. The longest exposure was a full 30 seconds.

Capitol Lake HDR

Capitol Lake HDR

I’ve read that combining more exposures with less variation between can give better results. I’ll have to try that and report in a future post. Because I have a Canon instead of a Nikon, my auto-bracketing is limited to 3 exposures at a time. So I could do (-2, -1, 0) and then shift to (0, +1, +2) and delete the extra “0” exposure to get 5 shots.

Off topic, but I have to say, compared to my old EOS 10D, the 7D is MUCH better with noise reduction on long exposures at night like this. And it has three times as many pixels on the same sized sensor, which means they must be around 1/3 the size of those on the older camera. It has an APS-C sized sensor, after all, not a full-frame sensor like the 5D or the new 6D.  A larger sensor with similar resolution means that the individual “photo sites” on the sensor can be bigger and better at gathering light, but as you can see, the smaller APS-C sensor still does a great job.

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Singapore in December

My wife and I visited her parents in Jakarta, Indonesia, and we took the short flight to Singapore for about four days.

Singapore Sidewalk

Singapore Sidewalk

Since it was my first time visiting Asia (other than movies and Google image searches), I noticed the differences between Jakarta and Singapore right away. Singapore was somewhat cooler, though still very warm, and less humid. There was MUCH less pollution. Everything about the city was neat, clean, and organized. Jakarta, by contrast was dirty, hot, and very humid. Maybe that’s why people like the malls so much (see my previous post).

Singapore Street

Singapore Street

For those of you who don’t know the history (I’m no expert myself), Jakarta was ruled by the Dutch for 300 years until World War II. Singapore was controlled by the British for 140 years ending in 1963. While the Singapore government seems to have built on the British model and become even more rigid and strict, the Indonesians seem to have gone the opposite direction in some respects. Indonesia is a very rich country in resources, but poorly developed. I could clearly see where the Dutch developed areas of Jakarta ended and the wild, urban tangle of narrow streets began. There seems to be no rhyme or reason, and no city planning at all, in the placement of buildings and streets.

But back to Singapore…

Sentosa Island

Sentosa Island

I’m going to include a few shots I took through the glass of our hotel room window. I did use a tripod to compensate for slow shutter speeds, but the window glass degrades the image quality somewhat. Also, I took these pictures before I understood the true value of shooting in RAW format, so there was only so much adjusting I could do with them.

Singapore Night

Singapore Night

Singapore Night 2

Singapore Night 2

Singapore Harbor Morning

Singapore Harbor Morning

One afternoon while my wife and her parents were napping, I decided to take a walk alone to explore a nearby park that I saw on the map.

Singapore Park

Singapore Park

I believe the place I explored was the Fort Canning Service Reservoir. I was just looking on Google Maps, trying to figure out where this was. Using the “street view” I can see the hotel where we stayed and the skywalk I used to cross the busy Hill St.

Fort Canning Gate

Fort Canning Gate

As I was walking near the reservoir itself I came across this sign. Just in case you don’t understand any of the seven or so languages on the sign, there is a picture to tell what will happen if you trespass!

Reservoir Sign

Reservoir Sign

I never saw the guys with guns because I stayed on the tourist walking path, and so I never became the guy with his hands in the air.

This is a snapshot I grabbed on Orchard Road. It felt really weird to me to see Christmas decorations all over the street when the temperature was in the high 80’s.

Orchard Road

Orchard Road

These aren’t real huts. It’s a stage they use for a really cool light show where they reflect lights on giant sprays of water.

Stilt Huts

Stilt Huts

I like this shot because it combines the traditional and the modern: huts and the cargo ships in the background.

Stilt Huts 2

Stilt Huts 2

I enjoyed our time in Singapore and I wouldn’t mind going back someday.  I’ll leave you with this last photo. I took this from a tower on Sentosa Island. I was amazed how many ships were waiting to enter the harbor!  Those approaching dark clouds made it that much more dramatic. It reminds me of that scene from the movie Troy when all the ships were showing up from the horizon.

Singapore Ships

Singapore Ships

My trips to Indonesia

Mall Koi Pond

Mall Koi Pond – Samsung NX100, 20-50mm 3.5-5.6, 1/100, f/3.5

I’ve been to Indonesia twice. Once to see where my wife grew up, and a couple years later to attend my brother-in-law’s wedding. Having grown up in an upper middle class family in the United States, I saw some things I wasn’t used to seeing.  The best example is probably the extravagant shopping malls that put most of ours to shame, right down the street from slums where people live in glorified wood sheds.

I changed my approach to photography a bit on this trip.  Instead of looking for scenes that made good art, I took more of a photojournalist mindset. I wanted to take pictures in a way that would let me remember what it was like years down the road.

Jakarta Rooftops - Canon EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4.0L, 1/125, f/8

Jakarta Rooftops – Canon EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4.0L, 1/125, f/8

This is my father-in-law’s backyard. As you can see, in his neighborhood, not all houses were created equal. If you look closely near the center of the photo, you might be able to see the single pole with electrical wires spreading from it in a spiderweb tangle. It would definitely fail US code!

The building with the triple roof on the left is a neighborhood mosque. Indonesia is nearly 90% Muslim. Every morning at around 4 A.M. we heard the call to prayer wailing over the loudspeaker you can see on the building.  Calls to prayer from other mosques spread slowly all around us throughout the city until we were surrounded by the unreal cacophony of wailing loudspeakers.

Mall levels 1 - NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

Mall levels 1 – NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

I was surprised to actually find car dealerships in the mall. I know we have cars on display in malls in the US, but I’m talking a full Mercedes line-up with a sales crew!  I guess space is at a premium in Jakarta because the new malls are being built up higher in levels.

Mall Levels 2 - NX100, 1/40, f/3.5, ISO 640

Mall Levels 2 – NX100, 1/40, f/3.5, ISO 640

I couldn’t get all the levels in the above shot. Seven levels, plus two more for the underground parking.

I had the Samsung NX100 mirrorless camera with an APS-C sized sensor for about a year. I really liked the image quality and small size, but the white balance was very inconsistent – sometimes spot on, sometimes horrible. This shot (above) took a lot of correcting (probably all the different kinds of lights) and it still doesn’t look that great.

Mall Levels 3 - NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

Mall Levels 3 – NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

This photo looks straight down on the seemingly random architecture. Notice the escalators running at different angles and the glass railings with different curves on every floor.

The malls, evidently are where the more wealthy hang out. It seems to be the major pastime.

Sushi Bar - NX100, 1/15, f/3.5, ISO 800

Sushi Bar – NX100, 1/15, f/3.5, ISO 800

Boat Restaurant - NX100, 1/25, f/3.5, ISO 800

Boat Restaurant – NX100, 1/25, f/3.5, ISO 800

This is a real boat, connected to a restaurant, six stories up in Pacific Place Mall in Jakarta. I was so amazed the first time I saw it that I made sure to get a photo the second time I visited Jakarta.

Grand Indonesia Circle - NX100, 1/13, f5.6

Grand Indonesia Circle – NX100, 1/13, f5.6

This is the traffic circle and fountain outside the Grand Indonesia mall. It made an appearance in the 1982 Mel Gibson movie, “A Year of Living Dangerously”. It’s probably one of the better known landmarks.

Traffic was another thing that absolutely floored me. Having lived near Los Angeles for three years, I thought I had seen the craziest driving and the heaviest pollution. Wrong on both accounts.

Jakarta Traffic 1 - EOS 10D, 17-40 f4L, 1/60, f/5.6, 29mm

Jakarta Traffic 1 – EOS 10D, 17-40 f4L, 1/60, f/5.6, 29mm

Motorcycles are smaller in Jakarta than most in the US, but the riders seem to think they are invincible. They dodge between cars through the tinniest openings. I’d say they make up about 70% of the traffic in the city. Once two motorcycles tried to squeeze between us and the car in the next lane at a traffic signal. When our driver took off, the cycle closest to us got his handle bar caught on our rear view mirror. He was yelling as our driver stepped on the gas, dragging him a few feet before he broke loose. Our driver never even glanced at him. It was almost like, “If you’re stupid enough to get your handle bar in my mirror, then you’re coming with me!”

Jakarta Traffic 2 - EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4L, 1/90, f/6.7, 31mm

Jakarta Traffic 2 – EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4L, 1/90, f/6.7, 31mm

Our vehicle was about the size of the gold Toyota ahead, but you can see that we have to follow that motorcyclist with the black jacket. Pretty tight. The streets developed during Dutch occupation are wide and organized. Everywhere else seems random in design and planning, and sometimes as narrow as our bicycle trails! If you look closely, you can see the motorcyclist in the yellow shirt peeking around from behind the car ahead. He is trying to decide if he should gamble zipping around before we pass. He made it by a hair.

Jakarta Traffic 3 - EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4L, 1/90, f/5.6, 40mm

Jakarta Traffic 3 – EOS 10D, 17-40 f/4L, 1/90, f/5.6, 40mm

Once again notice that we have to pass between the dark blue parked car and the silver Honda.  And notice the motorcyclists risking head-on collisions with us, the orange bajaj, and each other, to get around us and the the other car. All that blue smoke is from the 2-cycle engine exhaust of the orange bajaj. I was amazed that one of the smallest motors on the road could put out the most smoke!

Bandung 1 - NX100, 1/60, f/6.3

Bandung 1 – NX100, 1/60, f/6.3

This photo was taken up in the hills above Bandung. Bandung streets are similar to the ones in Jakarta and I wouldn’t bore you with more photos of them. This town is actually Lembang. Jakarta has stifling humidity and it’s 94 or 95 degrees fahrenheit all year long. The combination of heat, humidity, and pollution was tough to take. But up here, about 4000 feet above sea level, the air was cooler and the pollution almost non-existant. I was only there for a day, but I’d say it was the most perfect weather I have ever been in. I’ve been in weather like that in the US, but it doesn’t usually last long. Too far north of the equator.

Bandung 2 - NX100, 1/40, f/10

Bandung 2 – NX100, 1/40, f/10

Bandung 3 - NX100, 1/60, f/5.6

Bandung 3 – NX100, 1/60, f/5.6

Lembang has a lot of agriculture, with it’s year-round growing season. Even the hilly parts are cultivated.

Lembang Outdoor Restaurant - NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

Lembang Outdoor Restaurant – NX100, 1/40, f/3.5

An outdoor restaurant near Lembang. This central path leads down the middle of the small  valley, with trails branching off to individual covered platforms with tables and benches for eating. The atmosphere is like you’re eating fine cuisine in a jungle hut. (see below)

Lembang Outdoor Restaurant 2 - NX100, 1/15, f/3.5

Lembang Outdoor Restaurant 2 – NX100, 1/15, f/3.5

Well, I guess that’s all for now. In my next post, I’ll put up some photos from our weekend trip to Singapore. It’s only about a 1.5 hour flight from Jakarta. Just a hop, compared to the 18 hours of flying to get back to Seattle.

Writing fiction: Action versus Detail

This was one of the first things I got advice on when I started writing fiction. Some readers like richly painted environments and detailed descriptions. Others prefer the plot to move forward at a brisk pace and want to see more action. I was still finding my style and I actually hadn’t read that many books before I decided to write one.  I thought I was doing something wrong by not having enough long, detailed descriptions.  Then I read several novels in the genre I was writing and some New York Times bestsellers, and I discovered that writers have different styles.

Some writers don’t spend a lot of time on details, but they are very good about keeping the plot moving and keeping the reader wondering what’s going to happen next. I think I fall into this category. That is, I try to lead the reader in the right direction with brief descriptive details, then let their imagination take over while I get on with what’s actually happening. Some authors spend paragraphs and even pages filling in background story and painting vivid surroundings with their words.  If this is done a certain way, I enjoy it, but I am one of those readers who is tempted to skip paragraphs if descriptions carry on too long. I can imagine what the surroundings look like – I want to know what’s happening.

If the author finds a way to get the reader to care about the main character, then flashbacks and childhood history become more interesting.  Also, if these flashbacks or backstory are done in the form of conversations and details that are actually fascinating or interesting, it holds my interest better. Once again, it helps if things are moving and something is happening.  I am always aware when writing and ask myself the question: “If I were reading this story, would it keep me interested and hold my attention?”

Being a good writer is like being a good conversationalist. You have to filter out those thoughts that nobody cares about. You might think it’s interesting to you personally, but you can’t spout every thought that enters your brain, or people will quickly tire of listening. It has to be something your audience will find intriguing and makes them curious.  Certain books aren’t for me, so I assume that, as a writer, I won’t reach every audience.  But I do know the kind of books that hold my attention, so I try to write in a similar fashion.

Modern media, especially TV shows and movies, are full of big explosions and fight scenes. Many of us have shorter attention spans than our parents or grandparents. It would take an incredible amount of patience for me to read Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice. They were masterpieces of fiction, but I have simply seen too many kung fu and spy action flicks to truly enjoy them. Sad, in a way.

On the other hand, I noticed that when I started reading more, I was able to enjoy more styles of writing – not only books for action junkies. Reading is like listening. It’s a skill built with practice and it does get better the more you use it. I noticed my ability to conjure up the world of the story got better and I moved more easily through the pages.

But back to my original point, I think modern readers in general want to see more action and get bored with long, descriptive passages because of the influence of movies and other modern media.  So I write with this theory in mind, along with the idea that if I like it, someone else out there probably will too. There are many balances to find in writing, and description versus action is just one of them.  You need the right mix of both.