Going beyond the ordinary with HDR Portraits

Eight and Fets in an Alleyway

Eight and Fets in an Alleyway – Austin, Texas


Readers of this blog will probably know that I use HDR to bring a level of reality or hyper-realty to some of my photographs. Most of the time, I tend to keep the HDR on the subtle side, opting to slightly enhance color, dynamic range or textures. Depending on the subject, I strengthen the HDR effect to enhance certain objects for effect. Usually these objects are shinny which HDR tends to make shinier or old, rusted items which HDR tends to age even more. However, recently, some of my friends and I have thought of using HDR with portraits to create a new and different look.

I can’t claim that combining HDR with portraits is something new. While it’s not common, I know other people have created similar images. Nevertheless, it is something that I have not done before and I thought it would be interesting to try. I’ve done many wide-angle, urban landscape HDRs. Why not combines these gritty urban images with models for different kind of look. My friend, Mike, who I’ve practiced portraits with lately, also seem to be interested in this experiment. Model Eight, as she prefers to be called was also on board. In fact, she was thrilled enough with the idea that she enlisted help from another model and a makeup artist, Allie.

After running some preliminary tests, I realized that there were certainly challenges to achieve the look I wanted. Creating the HDRs were easy since I’ve done this for a while now, but what would be the best way to add the people into the scene. I wanted an evening shot to catch the nice natural light as well as the man-made urban lighting. Unfortunately, exposures in these conditions are long enough that people tend to come out blurred from movement. Even if the people tried to stay perfectly still, I’ve noticed that shutter speeds longer than about 1/2 second will introduce motion blur. I wanted the models to be crisply shot with the HDR goodness surrounding them. This meant that I would have to shoot my HDR exposures without the models and then blend a separate photo with the models into the scene. Also, with only a few rare exceptions, HDRs of people tend not to look good. HDR tends to give a coal miner look to its subjects, a look most people, especially women I suspect would not appreciate. To make post-processing easier, its preferable to have the exposure of the photograph with the model, look about the same as the middle exposure of a multi-shot HDR. In the photograph above, I shot 3 photographs at -2, 0 and +2 exposure compensation for the HDR. That means, I want to shoot my model at an exposure similar to my 0 exposure compensation HDR image. My HDR photos are usually shot at ISO 100, which made my 0 EV shot 30 seconds long. Of course this is much too long for the models to stay still. I ended up shooting the model shot at ISO 1600 at 1/2 second to roughly approximate my target image. Of course all of this was shot on tripod to keep everything steady and aligned. The HDR processing is more over the top than usual for me, but its was done on purpose. It’s part of creating that wacky hyper-real urban scene that I was looking for.

The other challenge was using a super wide-angle lens. These lens create a lot of distortion, especially around the edges. While it’s one thing to distort buildings, it’s entirely different with people. I’ve generally try to keep the people in the center of the frame, particularly their faces. Distorting limbs, sometimes adds an interesting effect and is definitely preferable (for most people, I imagine) than distorting their face. In the image above, Model Eight’s long arms and legs look even longer than normal. However, because of this type of fun image with her playful makeup, I figured that the distortion adds to the feel of the entire image.

So there you have it. A run down and a quick behind the scenes of my first public HDR portrait. I think there is a real interesting quality to the image and it’s certainly far from the ordinary. The combination of the model’s makeup, the super wide-angle framing, the urban location and the HDR all combine to create a different look. Although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea, I had fun creating the photograph and I think it’s essential to break out of the ordinary at times. I will still shoot conventional portraits but for some people, imagery like this maybe something they prefer. What do you think?

Note: Please click on the image above to see a larger version.

11 thoughts on “Going beyond the ordinary with HDR Portraits

  1. Looks like a fun shoot! I know you have a light touch with your HDR. I especially like that about your work. As you said, you went heavier on this image than you normally do. However, I’d be curious how this image would look if you amped up the HDR even more. šŸ™‚

    1. That is a good question, Alex. Believe it or not, the Photomatix settings I used were quite aggressive and I didn’t even brush back much into the image. I might have to play with other settings in the future.

  2. Cool stuff! I’ve had this page in a tab opened for a while trying to get down and read it šŸ™‚

    So now that I finally did – I’m curious: to get the people in the scene, did you just layer them on top of the processed HDR image, then brush away the original background?

    1. Jake, thanks for your visit and comment. Yes, you are correct. The images were shot on tripod. I created my normal 3 exposure HDR and then I had the people step in and pose. Sometimes, I’ve done it the other way around. Either way, I created my HDR with my normal process and then brush in the people into the HDR via layers.

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