Sean Bagshaw is an Oregon-based photographer who produces some stunning work. Sean is best known for combining multiple exposures to create natural-looking high dynamic range images. His Photoshop workflow is fined-tuned to make viewers feel like they are looking out of the window.
Infocus Magazine sat down with Sean and talked to him about creating natural-looking high dynamic range images. Here are some simple-to-follow tips from Sean about capturing and processing high dynamic range photos.
How do you define a High Dynamic Range photo?
I’m not sure about the official definition of a high dynamic range photo and the term has been largely co-opted over the years by a certain type of software processing. My definition of a high dynamic range photo is one in which the range of tonal values cannot be recorded in a single camera exposure. If more than one exposure is required to render detail across the entire tonal range, then it is a high dynamic range photo. By this definition, what constitutes high dynamic range is always changing as new cameras become better at recording high contrast light. Additionally, different cameras on the market have different dynamic range capabilities, so this affects what might be considered high dynamic range by my definition. A multiple exposure, high dynamic range situation for one camera may be comfortably within the dynamic range of a single exposure of a different camera.
Do you need any special equipment to capture these photos? If not, what are the minimum equipment requirements for capturing these photos?
I do not use any special equipment to capture high dynamic range light in a scene. My standard outdoor photography equipment consists of a camera, lenses, a tripod, usually a polarizing filter and sometimes a cable release. When I am photographing, the main tool I use to evaluate the dynamic range is the camera’s histogram. By using the histogram, I easily know when to switch between shooting single exposures for standard dynamic range light and multiple exposures for high dynamic range light. Sometimes this requires just two exposures and other times it requires as many as five or seven or even more exposures.
Can you summarize your post-processing workflow?
My exposure-blending post-processing workflow begins in Lightroom (or Camera Raw) where I make basic raw adjustments such as perspective control, chromatic aberration removal, noise reduction (if needed), input sharpening, white balance, and dust spot removal. I synchronize these adjustments across all the exposures and then I open the exposures as layers in Photoshop. In Photoshop, I begin by ensuring that all the layers are aligned and arranged with the lightest exposure on the bottom and darkest exposure on the top. Then I place black layer masks on each layer but the bottom, lightest layer. Using a variety of masking techniques, I begin masking in the properly-exposed pixels from the darker exposures to replace areas of the lightest layer that are over-exposed. While the concept is simple, the skills and techniques can be quite complex. The masking techniques that I use include hand-painted masks, gradient masks, color-range masks, and other types of masks made from selections, including luminosity selections and masks.
Where should a beginner photographer start with Photoshop? In other words, how should I go about learning post-processing if I am just starting out?
It is important to note that exposure blending is an advanced Photoshop skill requiring proficiency with layers, selections, and masks. If you are new to Photoshop, you should begin by becoming familiar with its basic layout, tools, menus, panels, adjustments, and filters. You should also learn to make general photo developing adjustments for exposure, contrast, color, and clarity to single exposure images. There are many good books and e-books on Photoshop available for beginners. Many people find that they learn best visually, so I would highly recommend taking a class or watching instructional videos. I offer a Photoshop Basics video tutorial series, as do some of my colleagues.
Once a photographer has mastered the basic that you mentioned above, what are the next steps?
Once you become comfortable within the Photoshop environment, it’s time to start adding new skills and more advanced techniques to your repertoire. The next step is to begin working with adjustment layers, filter layers, selections, and layer masks to accomplish very targeted and localized adjustments and affects. Don’t rush. Add new skills one at a time. When you feel you are proficient using layers, selections, and masks, you are ready to begin learning exposure-blending techniques. There are books, e-books, videos, and classes available for learning more advanced techniques but they can be harder to find than more basic materials. I offer several video series on Advanced Photoshop Techniques.
Sean is a founding member and one sixth of the Pacific Northwest based photography team known as Photo Cascadia. He frequently teams up with fellow Photo Cascadia members leading workshops.
What is your post processing workflow? Feel free to share it with the viewers in comments below.