HDR/Tonemapping for Black & White Photos

Tokyo International Forum interior

Despite the meltdown of the global economy and a general slowing of business everywhere, 2009 has been a busy one for tokyololas so far (which may or may not explain why I have left a photo of a weird looking poodle at the top of this blog FOREVER).

Anyway, the other day, I was having a very brief email exchange about processing black & white digital photos and I was explaining why I really like to use HDR/tonemapping for black and white photos, particularly black and white photos of sky/clouds.

Two caveats up front: I don’t really care whether or not the process is called “HDR” or “Tonemapping”, so I will refer to it as HDR going forward; AND I don’t really care whether or not people like or don’t like “HDR”. I will agree that there is A LOT of very badly done “HDR” floating around the internet, but, beyond that, whether or not one likes the more extreme, cartoonish-looking HDR is a matter of personal preference or if you are not a fan of the Stuck in Customs style, again, that is a matter of personal preference.

I have certainly dabbled in a range of “HDR” styles just to get a feel for the process and see what can/cannot be done; and I have certainly produced a few HDR shots that I now abhor, but I am glad I did do them as a kind of experimentation because I now have a very strong sense of what I like and don’t like. As I said above, it is all a matter of personal taste and even when I find myself not particularly liking someone else’s vision, I do understand the time and effort that went into producing the end result.

These days, I tend to only do HDR for sky shots or architecture, and I MUCH prefer a more “True Tone HDR” style. In other words, I want the HDR element of the processing to be very subtle or even indiscernible. I have also found that a lot of digital black and white photos I see online are quite flat and lack the range of blacks that can be found in a nice black and white film photo.

This observation and dissatisfaction led me to start experimenting with HDR for black and white shooting and processing. I say “shooting” here because I almost always know before I take the shot that I am going for a black and white end product and, of course, if you are going to do decent HDR, you need to decide up front so you can do the multi-exposures (yes, of course, I know it is possible to do HDR from 1 shot, but I never do, so it is always a decision I make at the point of shooting).

This is not really a tutorial, so if you have no idea what any of this means, and, more important, you want to know, you might want to do some additional reading: stuck in customs HDR tutorial, Naturescapes.net HDR Landscapes Tutorial Naturescapes.net HDR Landscapes Tutorial (link updated 2013), Wikipedia HDR page, and Photomatix (the software I use to process/tonemap the images).

Personally, I like to keep things simple, so my approach to HDR is simple: no tripod – just a fast lens (I own two tripods, including a very handsome carbon fibre model, but I rarely carry it out and about with me and most often use it on my balcony or out back at night), 3 exposures using the AEB feature of my camera (-2/0/+2), upload to Lightroom, process in Photomatix, final adjustments in Lightroom (usually minor or none), export the final image. The whole thing from selecting AEB to exporting the final image can be done in less than 10 minutes. I know doing more than 3 exposures can yield even better results, but that would then require a tripod 100% of the time and would involve more fiddling with exposures on the spot (fine on a nice summer day, but not something I’d want to spend time doing when it is below zero outside). Two things I have not included above: shoot in RAW (I assume that anyone who owns a half-decent DSLR is shooting RAW – if you’re not, you should be and you’ll need to in order to do HDR), shoot on ISO 100 if possible or 200 if you must (any higher and you’ll most likely end up with noise in your final image).

Now, the results. The first shot below shows the base image (the “correct” exposure of the scene) converted to black and white – pretty flat, no?

Here is the HDR/tonemapped version:

Much better range of light and, what’s incredible, is that you can actually see a patch of what seems to be precipitation under the cloud (which is not at all visible in the base image). Now, if you want to have more fun, you can do other things with the image. For example, here is the actual final image that I ended up posting to Flickr – it was desaturated in Lightroom and there was some adjustment in terms of blue/green tones (again, clicking on the image will give you a better view):

Back to black and white – here are a few other examples of how I use the above process to get a final image I am happy with:

Notre Dame de Paris (Notre Dame Cathedral) interior

intense sky over Harumi

intense sky over Harumi

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  • Adonica

    Great shots girlie! Although I’m just a click and shoot kind of gal it was nice to learn something new. 🙂

  • tokyololas

    Hey Adonica – Thanks for enduring the tech talk then! At the very least, you got to see the view from my balcony. ;-))

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  • Hi blog, Sorry Laura!!!

    Year, I knew that it was you from the contents of your comment:)

    Thank you for visiting my blog and commenting. Since I did not visit archives in your blog, I haven’t seen your B&W HDR. Yes, that’s what I am interested in recently! And you already had the same interest over a year ago! Notre Dame photo is terrific and I like the fact that you included the man’s face at the right bottom. Great composition.
    I tend to have tripod and use autoblacketing (+/- 2.7 and 0 EV) with Sigma DP1s or Nikon D200. I am huge fan of FOVEON sensor, BTW.
    I can’t wait for your HDR blog to be launched. Yes, please keep me informed:)

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  • Jasmin Schöni

    Dear blogger, my agency is interested in one of your photos for a client of us. Please contact me through E-Mail (jasmin.schoeni@whybrand.ch) so we can discuss all the legal stuff. Thanks Jasmin ps. GREAT PICTURES