Saturday, July 5, 2008

Contrast reduction that doesn't yield sucky images

One of the things that's all the rage on the net is doing contrast reduction using HDR (high Dynamic Range) software. The problem with most of the software meant to do this (Photomatix, Photoshop, etc.) is that it yields terrible images without a lot of tinkering. In redoing some panoramas I discovered that the newer versions of Hugin contain a revolutionary and simple method called enfuse of doing this that yields superb results with no tinkering. There are also some standalone droplet apps that you can use. For other GUIs check out this page. For this tutorial I'll use a program called Xfuse (see link above) that for some reason is no longer downloadable and I'll start at a single RAW image. The image I chose is of the Moses and Zeus formation in Canyonlands National Park, shot from Taylor canyon backlit at sunrise using default development in Lightroom.

As you see, blown-out sky, and underexposed foreground. Pretty boring! SO what I do is develop this file in three different ways and output the result to a jpeg in adobeRGB. This way you can set different white balances for the shadow portions and the sky portion. Here for example is the image developed for the shadows (click link for bigger):

I used shade for the white balance and boosted vibrance and saturation slightly.

Here is the same for the sky:

You can see I used a white balance between daylight and cloudy and I dropped exposure two stops and boosted contrast and brightness. I would recommend correctly exposing it to begin with, but you can see that an amazing amount of structure can be rescued from the RAW.

Now I drop those files into Xfuse (or use any other enfuse frontend):

and let it do its job. The end result is a nice tiff that I reimport into Lightroom and edit just a tad. Here is the final result that could still use a little added contrast:

What I like about this method is that it does not look like HDR at all (no sucky haloes). You can also do this when you have actual multiple exposures and you'll get even better results than this. I have often done similar stuff by just painting exposure masks in Lightroom or Photoshop (adjustment layers) but this seems almost magical in how well it works. I even put the image on my smugmug pages. Check it out! I like the diagonal symmetry of the rock formation with the waterpuddle.


  1. Checkout LR/enfuse for Lightroom. Using this you don't even have to output the JPG's first. You do it all from within Lightroom...

  2. Very good link Sean. Of course I am cheap so I do it with free tools, but LR/enfuse is certainly very handy!