Reader Poll Results-Which Sunrise Photo Is Best

OK, its been a few days since I posted my "Which Photo Is Best" where I asked you to pick your favorite sunrise photo out of three different choices. Thanks to a bunch of you (11 to be exact), we can officially declare a "winner". Drumroll please.....................

The winner (by a large margin) of the competition is Sunrise Photo #3! Here is the image that won:

How I Processed The Images

As I said in the original post, the three images were just variations of the same basic shot. Now let's see what I did to create each image, starting with image #1:

Image #1 is the result of taking 3 bracketed shots (-2EV, 0EV,+2EV) and combining them into one HDR image using Nik's HDR Efex Pro 2. I've been experimenting with HDR techniques and on this trip I took a lot of bracketed shots, especially when the was a wide range of contrast. This sunrise scene was definitely one of those occasions. I figured that processing the image using HDR might allow me to get both the foreground and the sky exposed better than just one image. I ran the 3 images thru HDR Efex using one of the more neutral landscape settings. I then used Nik's Color Efex Pro to tweak the image a bit. The result was what you saw in image #1.

Image #2:

Sunrise photo image #2 is the result of taking just one of the 3 bracketed images, the "properly exposed" one and tweaking it as best I could to get both the foreground and sky to come out. This was the image that got the least number of votes (2) and that's what I expected. When compared to the other two images, this one is just "OK". Nothing really pops in it, despite my best efforts. I think the reason is that having only one image to work with

Image #3 (The winner):

Sunrise image #3 was made using the same bracketed images as I used in #1 but I processed them through the "Lightroom Enfuse Plugin" which is a different way of combining multiple images. Many people seem to think this technique produces the most "natural" looking results. And I guess, based on your feedback, you think the same :-) Compared to image #1 (the HDR) it is a bit brighter and doesn't have as much texture to it. I think this is a function of how the software combines the images.

My Favorite

Out of the three images I prefer image #1 (the HDR) but only by a little to Image #3. I just think that the end result is closest to what my eye actually saw that day. Both #1 and #3 are much better than #2 and I think it is because they are the end results of merging multiple images shot over a wider range of ecposure, which brings out more detail in a scene like this where there's a lot of contrast.

What's The Takeaway

Well, what have we learned by doing this little audience participation experiment?

I think the answer is a few things:

  1. Everybody sees things differently and there is no one "right way" to process an image. In the end, the only thing that matters is if YOU like it.
  2. Merging or combining multiple images shot over a wider range of exposure values can be a great way to bring out more detail in your images, especially if you have a wide range of contrast (dark shadows to bright highlights). There are multiple ways of merging the images and each has its pros and cons.
  3. Photography is supposed to be fun! I try never to forget that. Taking photos and processing them a number of diffeent ways to see what the end result is is one of the things that makes photography fun. As long as you like the end result that's all that should matter.
Thanks again to everyone who participated. I really appreciate your input and feedback!
I will definite be trying a few different post-processing options on a number of the images I still have to go through from our recent trip and I'll post the final results over the next week or two.
Happy Shooting!

HDR Software Review Part One-Enfuse Lightroom Plugin

Welcome to part one of my series of reviews of HDR software. If you want to read more about why (and how) I'll be doing these, you can read My Introductory Post. I'll start my reviews by taking a look at the product closest to the top of the alphabet, the Enfuse Lightroom Plugin. The plugin is based on the open source Enfuse application, which was tweaked to fit into a Lightroom Plugin format. Technically, the Enfuse application isn't a true HDR application (because it doesn't generate a tonemapped image) but it does offer the ability to blend multiple exposures in order to get a wider dynamic range. I decided to add this to my list because I have heard that many people like Enfuse because it yields a very natural looking final product. If you want to "amp" things up a bit you can always do further editing in something like Topaz Adjust or any number of other applications.

Before I dig into the review I want to let you know that I decided to change things up a bit regarding the sample images I'll use to run through the various applications. Instead of my driveway shot, I'm adding a set of shots from my parking lot at work that I took with my little Canon S95. The S95 produces RAW files of around 10mb each, so they are smaller than the files from my T3i. I'm also adding a series of 7 images from RC Conception, a popular photographer/Photoshop expert that you can follow on Google +. He uploaded some RAW files (I'm using seven of the nine) from a nighttime shot of San Francisco(you can view/download them here) and asked people to process them on their own to see what they could get. I think it will be a good test of the various applications, especially in seeing how long it takes to render the image. Also, RC uses a Nikon so this way I can't be accused of bias towards Canon :-) So, here are the two image sets I'll be using (I'll just show the San Francisco image after merging):

Set 1-The Fire Truck

2-Stops Under-Exposed

Properly Exposed

2-Stops Over-Exposed

Set 2-The Parking Lot

2-Stops Under-Exposed

Properly Exposed

2-Stops Over-Exposed

Ok, back to the LR/Enfuse Plugin review:

The LR/Enfuse Plugin will only work with Lightroom. If you use some other image management software you can try and use the regular Enfuse Open Source application.

Once you have downloaded and installed the plugin into Lightroom, you use it just like you would any plugin. Select the images you want to "Enfuse", then go under File-Plugin Extras-Blend Exposures Using LR/Enfuse:

After you click that selection you will be presented with a window that has four tabs on it. The first tab is "Configuration":

This tab is where you select the configuration of Enfuse's processing and preview options. I pretty much have left them in their default state. Next,you click on tab two, the "Auto Align" tab:

This tab is pretty self-explanatory. The plugin has an auto-align feature. I don't think I'll be using the feature much as I plan on shooting as many bracketed shots as possible on a tripod. For the reviews though I will test the speed of the application with the "auto-align" box checked and un-checked. Onto the third tab. Tab 3 is the "Enfuse" tab, click it:

This is where you assign the relative importance of three components, Exposure, Saturation and Contrast. As the text in this tab says, Exposure should get the most weight for exposure blending while Contrast should get the highest weight for focus blending. I left everything here on their default settings. Click the 4th tab, which is where you will tell Enfuse where/how to output you files:

As you can see, I chose to add the enfused image (as a TIFF) to the same folder as the originals but with "_Enfuse" appended to the file name. I also reimport the image into lightroom with all of the metadata.

After you have gone through the tabs once, they stay the same for future uses, or you can change options if you want.

Now, all you need to do is click the "Enfuse Images"  button (on the lower right), and wait... Here's how long it took:

  • fire truck set w/align images checked- 3 minutes
  • fire truck set w/align images unchecked- 52 seconds (MUCH,MUCH faster, which proves you should use a tripod whenever possible!)
  • parking lot w/align checked- 2 minutes, 10 seconds
  • parking lot w/align images unchecked-26 seconds (once again much faster)
  • San Francisco (7 images) w/align checked- A LONG Time (over 4 minutes)
  • San Francisco (7 images) w/align unchecked- 53 seconds

The Results

Let's see how the "Enfused" images turned out. In all cases I'll be comparing the "properly exposed" image (shown 1st-the one without any exposure compensation) to the initial output image from the software.

Fire truck:

Analysis:The image produced by the LR/Enfuse plugin has picked up more detail just about everywhere. The roof of the shed shows more detail, the grill of the truck reveals more of the engine and the bottom of the truck shows more detail in the front suspension. Color reproduction compared to the original seems very good and nothing seems washed out.

Parking Lot:

Analysis: The biggest difference I see is that the sky has more detail. The clouds are more distinct and the sky has quite a bit more blue to it. The shadows are still there but you can see deeper into them. The "sunstar" on the black truck still sparkles although the color of the flowers seems a little less saturated. Overall though, it is a nice improvement.

San Francisco:

Analysis: Enfuse did a good job with the city at night. The detail on the roofs of the buildings is much more visible. The sky lightened up a bit, revealing some of the sky-glow that was missing. All in all, the city looks more alive in the Enfused image and I think a better representation of what you would really see if you were standing on this rooftop.

Conclusion

As I said in the beginning of this, the LR/Enfuse Plugin isn't true HDR software. Rather, it blends multiple exposures together, taking the "best pixels" from each exposure (based on the weightings you assign to exposure, saturation and contrast). There is no HDR tone-mapped image created but the end result is often just as, sometimes more, pleasing than an HDR application produces, especially if you are looking for a more natural result.

Based on the test images I used here as well as some other bracketed photos I've played around with, I am very happy with LR/Enfuse. It does what it's supposed to do very well, without a lot of fuss or excess complication. True there aren't many options for additional editing in the plugin. For that you'll have to use an outside Post-Processing software like Photoshop, Topaz Adjust (which I use) or any of a number of others. Here's a quick image I made in Topaz Adjust from the Enfused image:

 

All I did was increase the detail and saturation a bit using one of the many presets that Topaz Adjust has. It's nothing spectacular but it is definitely different than the Enfused image.

In short, the LR/Enfuse plugin positives are:

  1. Is a great way to blend multiple image quickly and easily without having to fiddle around with a bunch of presets.
  2. Provides a well-balanced, natural looking output.
  3. Blends fairly seamlessly into the Lightroom workflow.
  4. Is very affordable. Since It's "donationware" you can purchase the full, unlocked version for a reasonable price.
Some possible negatives are:
  1. It isn't a true HDR/tone-mapping application.
  2. You will need to do additional post-processing in another application if you want to tweak the Enfused image to anything beyond a natural looking result.
  3. The speed of the plugin is reduced considerably when the "align images" box is checked so use your tripod!
  4. There is no ability to reduce any ghosting (people moving, etc.)
I can tell you right now that I will definitely continue to use the LR/Enfuse plugin as part of my workflow. The ease of use, natural looking results, and low price is hard to beat and the results are very good.

The LR/Enfuse Plugin is a keeper!