Category: Techniques
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Often when documenting the comings and goings of a railway such as The Puffing Billy Railway you are in situations where you have little or no control over your surroundings and the best you can do with the poor light is to take an advantageous position in relation to the light sources. In these situations highlights could be too bright, shadows too dark and colours muted. Single image High Dynamic Range (HDR) post processing could be the answer you're looking for. HDR can bring out something special out of a poorly lit situation. I'll cover a few examples in this article to help show you what I mean.

Most people who use HDR use it to capture the enourmous dynamic range of colours and often to over enhance them to the point that it doesn't look representative of the original subject. This is not what I'm going to talk about in this article so if that's your interest you may as well stop reading - unless of course you'd like to see another example use of HDR processes.

Update: I've been asked how I do the HDR. I have three methods that I choose depending on the situation.

a) HDR from a single RAW (DNG) file - this is what I use when I have an image that has lost detail due to the contrasty nature of the light at the time - this is described in this page.

b) HDR from a three copies of a single RAW (DNG) file made by using Camera Raw to generate three different exposures (generally at -2EV, +0, and +2)

c) HDR from three to five RAW (DNG) files of bracketed (auto or manual) exposures made in the field in camera taken from a steady vantage - usually a tripod. I do this when I recognise the need in the field and the subject is not moving. I often do these with landscapes and seascapes.

When I'm working with HDR I try to keep it natural, I do like looking at the super saturated HDR but I generally don't make them unless the moment calls for it. I have made some painting like images of trains that people like.

My HDR tool of choice is Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro. I like this because it is very simple to drive and comes with loads of presets and has the ability to save your own presets.

Example One: The important event on a dull rainy day

On 18th December 1900 the narrow gauge railway between Belgrave and Gembrook opened. On the same day in 2010 the train to Gembrook hauled by locomotive 14A ran from Belgrave to Gembrook commemerating the historic 110th anniversary of the line's opening. As it happened, even though it is in early summer the event fell on a cold wet dull cloudy day. As a photographer I couldn't well just say can you run it on a better day. That would have lost some of the magic. 

Figure one: HDR to counter dull light

I took my images and I deliberately slightly underexposed this one so that I would not clip the bright areas (such as shiny black surfaces and steam). The top image is as it came out of the camera with no processing at all. Of course I could spend time in lightroom or a photo editor and make a better image but time is something I'm acutely short of. Instead I use HDR software (I choose Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro) and spend less than 5 seconds creating an image that I'm happy to use in an article about the event. Note that I'm not out to win a competition - I'm documenting an event.

This first image shows locomotive 14A departing from Emerald. Despite being a dull day the roof vent is clipped. The colours in the image are muted and dull.  The background is dull and uninviting - not at all the image the Dandenongs would have you believe it is like here year round. There is some loss of detail below the running board of the locomotive.


In this second image the colours are much more vibrant - they better represent what my minds eye says they should be. The shine is back in the hand polished copper and brass below the running board. The detail around the pony truck has lifted a little (but not so much that the shadows go purple). This is a very low level of HDR processing from one of the presets in the software. From LR, export to HDR, one click, a scroll around the image and return to LR. Five seconds. Yes, I could have spent hours in LR or PS to repair the image but why bother when one click is enough.

The whole train seems more three dimensional and has lifted out of its background to capture the eye. While it is the railway celebrating the anniversary, most people equate Puffing Billy with these little engines making it important to better show the locomotive in its surroundings.

The building in the background is now the light blue it should be instead of the dull grey. The roof detail has come up. Even though this is not an important part of the event, it is part of the surroundings of the railway. 100 years from now when someone is looking through the archives of the Puffing Billy photographs I submit to them each year they'll know what colour the dunny block was when they are restoring the hideous 70's besser brick construction as "historic".

The only down side with this image is that the processing brought out the rain and made it more visible than the initial capture. Who'd believe it rains in the Dandenongs?


Example Two: High Contrast Back Lit Dark Area

During the Christmas season Puffing Billy run a number of tinsel covered "Santa Specials" - a necessarily commercialism in the otherwise operational museum that is The Puffing Billy Railway.

Figure Two: Preparing to uncouple during shunting

This initial image shows the crew member preparing to uncouple G42 from the carriages it has just hauled into Belgrave Station so it can run around and shunt the set ready for the next run.

The time of year is festive. The trouble is that G42 is a huge black square ended behemoth on the narrow gauge railway. It not only blocks light but seems to absorb it. Worse yet it spews steam everywhere making photography around the locomotive difficult. Of course steam is ambient but when you're not in quite the right place and the steam is back lit like it is here the detail is robbed from the image.

The tinsel is dull, the brass on the shiny padlock is dull, there is no warmth to the photo. Would this invite you to volunteer for the railway? Probably not.


This second image has been processed much like the previous example except I spent about three more seconds in there adjusting the warmth to humanify the guy preparing to uncouple.

In this shot the tinsel is shiny and bright, much more Christmassy. The brass padlock glows as though someone cares about it. Even the grubby yellow battery charger cord has come out of the gloom. Most importantly the human figure has come out of the steamy mist a little and is a much warmer colour. Some of the distracting detail from the background has gone away.

Over all the image is more inviting, it is a more interesting situation.

Example Three: Transition From Dark To Bright Landscape

Puffing Billy runs through the forests of the Dandenong Ranges. In this example, taken around 1pm in the afternoon on a bright sunny day shows G42 on the down journey about to come out of the forest near Menzies Creek and cross School Road on its way to the station. 

Figure Three: Transition from Dark To Bright
G42_20101224_0393 The first image shows the forest fairly realisticly with colour and brightness but there is the black blob in the middle that is G42 and the wipe out of the overly bright area in front of the train while trying to compensate for the dark forest. In reality, this was a poorly thought out composure and in this case isn't an important image. What if it was? HDR post processing can help.

This still isn't a great image by any stretch of the imagination but now you can see the detail on the locomotive right down to the dirt on the front.

The blow out of the clipped highlights has lead to a grayish area in front of the loco that is still much too bright and looks horrible but isn't as distracting as it was.

This image should still go back to the drawing board.

In this instance, if I'd thought about it more I wouldn't have even tried it as the contrast is simply too great. It would have been far better to start the composition in the darker area.

Over all the forest seems brighter and more inviting on this sunny warm day.

Example Four: Dark Areas With Bright Surroundings

This single image HDR rescues photographs taken in dark areas with bright surroundings that trick the camera meter into underexposing the important part of the composition to prevent clipping in the unimportant background. The camera is doing its job, its the photographer that should have thought a little more. In this case the problem was recognised after the first one and other images in this series were taken on a different angle that resolved it the way it should be.

Figure Four: Dark Areas With Bright Surroundings

The first image shows our volunteers pulling off the signal to allow the next arrival into Lakeside Station to proceed into the platform.

The background was a very bright sunny garden just beyond the fence line and this tricked the camera meter into grossly underexposing the image.

Of course, this could be "fixed" without leaving LR using a graduated ND of about -4 from the top then lifting the image about +2EV. It would probably work but it takes time. In this instance I was taking some photos destined for a social networking site to be enjoyed by the friends of mine and the particular trainee here. The object was to rescue the image in the minimum amount of time while still having a nice result.


In this case, more work should be done post the HDR because it did some nasty things to the foreground subject's face with a big unnatural bright spot. However it has brought out the rest of the image and is a better representation of what I looked at on the day.

If I had a serious use for this image I'd probably work on it in LR or PS to finalise the processing but in this case I left it as it was.

Example Five: Grey, Grey, Grey oh... and Black

This final example single image HDR is used to lift a gray locomotive from its gray surroudings and bring out the textture and patterns in the steel of the machine and the area immediately around it.

Figure Five: Lifting The Grey
20110122_PBRTP__2356 The final example in this set shows a gray engine in on a grey roadbed in front of a grey shed. Looks more like an image of a battleship. The image was taken early in the morning on a dull day without a lot of light. The camera did what it could... now it's my turn.

The processing I chose for this one is designed to highlight fine structures. It has gotten rid of the foreground wash out of the fine stone and cinder ballast and made its colour much more realistic. The brass work and coloured hoses in the background have come up. An enourmous amount of texture in the steel plate that makes up the locomotive that was not at all visible in the previous image has jumped out. Even the light reflector has taken on a new brighter outlook.

Basically the mediocre and dull image has become one that is interesting, one that gives the viewer a lof of interesting detail to look up as they travel around the picture.

I know which one I'd rather look at.

Again this same result could be been achieved entirely with LR without the HDR software, but it would have taken time. Quite a lot of it. The HDR was only a few seconds.