Periodically, I like to go through my old images and re-process them; it’s one of the great benefits of shooting in RAW. Being able to work with my old images in new software really opens up some options that I didn’t even consider at the time I made the shot. I captured this image in 2005 while on a photo safari in South Dakota. At the time, I was shooting a new Nikon D2x camera and I had just gotten my 17-55mm f/2.8 AFS DX zoom Nikkor lens. I also had just upgraded to Photoshop CS2, which had a new feature: “Merge to HDR.” I thought HDR could be a cool thing to learn, so I shot a lot of bracketed exposure sequences during this 5-day trip. Many of them were uninspiring. Others, I found difficult if not impossible to process, and so I just processed the best exposure in the sequence with traditional techniques (that’s the nice thing about bracketing– you’ll always have at least one “normal” exposure).
The one thing I didn’t do, however, was delete the other exposures from the bracketed sequence. They’ve just been sitting on one of my 1TB hard drives, waiting for me to give them a second chance. Fast forward to 2011, and now HDR tools have progressed to the point where you can get great results quickly and easily. So, yesterday I went back and re-processed the HDR sequence in HDR Efex Pro and Capture NX 2, and I was quite pleased! Here’s what was in the new technology that I couldn’t get in 2005.
First, I batched out TIFFs with Capture NX 2.2.6. Unlike in 2005, I was able to apply automatic lens distortion correction. It also turned out that with this image, there was some significant axial CA in the out-of focus pine needles in the foreground. This color fringing was exacerbated by the HDR merge. I was able to zap it almost entirely with Capture NX 2.2.6.
My next step was to use Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro to create the HDR merge. Unlike other HDR programs, HDR Efex Pro lets you vary the strength of the tone-mapping algorithm locally in the image. That means I could dial up a stronger micro-contrast setting in the trees and rocks while leaving the sky nice and smooth. When the image left HDR Efex Pro, all that was left for me to do was some final sharpening in Capture NX 2 and I had an image that made me happy.
The moral of this story comes down to this. Memory cards are cheap, and so are hard drives. Techniques that seem gimmicky or crude today may be refined in a few years. Shoot RAW. Take lots of shots. Don’t be afraid to shoot a bracketed sequence even if it seems like a single shot would be fine. And don’t send your images to the dumpster unless you’re really sure you never want to see them again. You can never predict what the future will bring, so be prepared!