High Dynamic Range – Part 1

Joel Tjintjelaar

HDR, what is it?

First of all: this article isn’t about how to make HDR pictures. I want to give you a better understanding of what HDR is and when you can and should use it.
So, let’s start.
Imagine you are shooting a landscape on a bright and sunny day with some clouds. You fill the frame with 1/3 of landscape and 2/3 of sky.

Normally you have 3 options:
1. Expose the land properly. You’ll have to use a longer shutterspeed and the sky will be blown out.
2. Expose the sky correctly. For this you will use a shorter shutterspeed, which will underexpose the landscape.
3. Compromise. Find a shutterspeed somewhere in between. You won’t get all the detail that you want, but at least the sky isn’t blown out nor the foreground completely dark.

Sunset in Bergen op Zoom

Look at the picture above. There is a very bright sun, a bright sky, some dark parts on the left and there is some foreground. The dynamic range of this picture is huge: there are very bright parts and very dark parts.
This is an example of an HDR image. Without the HDR techniques the image wouldn’t have worked. Either the sky would have been completely white or the foreground would have been completely dark. Compromising wouldn’t have worked in this case, because the contrast between sky and foreground is simply too big.
So, in short, HDR is a technique used to capture the entire range of a scene, when the dynamic range of a particular scene is bigger than the range of your camera.

HDR and Black & White

Why would anyone consider turning an HDR image into a black and white image?
Let’s take a look at an HDR image I took at the Flushing beach.


What is the first thing you notice about this picture? The colors and the level of detail. This picture is screaming for attention “look at me!”. If you remove all the colors of this image, would it still be any good? I did a quick black and white conversion, just to see its potential in black and white.

Flushing BW

I don’t really think that this image works well in black and white. I don’t even think it works that fantastic in color. The main problem is the composition and subject of this image. While I was taking this picture I only saw one thing: colors. I loved the colors of that scene: the bright greens of the moss on the stones and the orange sky. I wanted to capture these fantastic colors, which I did. In a way I succeeded with my photograph, because I wanted to capture the vibrant colors of the scene I witnessed. There still is a lack of composition and subject. Although the composition isn’t that bad, there is a nice leading curve, the foreground is just too empty.

HDR and B&W – Two techniques that shouldn’t be combined?

After reading my previous words, you might think that you shouldn’t use the HDR techniques for your black and white processing. Please, don’t get discouraged. Just keep in mind that colors don’t make a picture; composition and subject do. This is something I ignored in the above pictures.
In part 2 of this tutorial I will discuss how and when you should HDR for your black and white images.


Skies, how to make them special – Part 1

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Joel Tjintjelaar

People often compliment me on the skies I use in my pictures, usually followed by the question “How did you do that?”

Well, first of all, there are basically two ways to capture a sky:

  1. Without the use of a ND filter;
  2. With the use of a ND filter.

To make those skies really pop, you’ll need to use some Photoshop techniques that I’ll explain in this tutorial.

Part 1 of this tutorial is for those who don’t have a ND filter, but still want to get an amazing sky. Part 2 is a bit more advanced and requires that you have a ND filter. Or perhaps you’re planning on buying an ND filter and you want to see what some of the possibilities are.
Dramatic Sky

A plain, blue sky

There are a plenty black and white photographers out there who find a plain, blue sky boring. Mostly because they don’t know what to do with them. When they convert to black and white, the sky becomes a big gray area.

Basilica BW Tool Gray Sky

Creating a black and white image is more than just converting the image to black and white. For this image I used the built in Black & White tool that Photoshop offers (Image à Adjustments à Black & White). I didn’t change any presets and pressed OK. Notice the gray sky.

There is a quick and easy way to make the sky more interesting. Drag the Blues slider to the complete left. Or click on the sky with your left mouse button, hold down and drag to the left. The sky will darken and goes black.

This picture looks far more interesting than the one with the gray sky. h5 contrasts are simply more appealing to the eye and besides that, darker images can be more interesting.
Silver Efex Pro vs the Black & White tool

However, the picture isn’t quite correct yet. As you can see in the left corner, there are many black spots. I could clone this out. In this case it would have been an easy fix. But I’m just not that big a fan of cloning things out. It’s such a precise work and it’s just, unnecessary and time consuming. And I just think that you need to use the digital darkroom that Photoshop is, in the same way as you would use the conventional dark room: to improve your images and not to manipulate your images. The photo is also an example where Photoshop’s built in Black & White plug-in seems to fail. Although I think this tool is perfect for beginners, it has his problems. I won’t go in detail about those problems, but you can see that it sometimes creates this weird noise.

The above problem is one of the reasons why I use Silver Efex Pro. It handles the black and white conversion better.

Don’t worry too much about the noise: these problems happen, but not on regular basis. Besides, the clone tool is your friend.


Select the red filter under “color filters” and your sky will go completely black. You might want to play around with the sliders a bit. In this case I increased the contrast and decrease the brightness. This way the overall contrast gets even bigger.

Although Silver Efex Pro gives better results than the Black & White tool, it isn’t that relevant for this tutorial. Just remember that a blue sky can turn into a great, black sky instead of a boring, gray sky.

Using a gradient in your plain skies

Complete black skies work great in architectural shots. Your landscape shots might not really improve with a completely black sky.

Dunes Color

Converting this image to black and white with a black sky, just doesn’t work for me.

Dunes Black Sky
Dunes Gray Sky

And a gray sky doesn’t work either: the picture is just too gray overall.
There’s a quick fix for this.
1. Create a new layer.
2. Select the Gradient tool.
3. Make sure to select “Foreground to Transparent”
Foreground To Transparent

4. You might need to change the foreground color of the gradient to black.
Click on the gradient and gradient editor will open.

5. Click once on the bottom left triangle and then you can change your color.
Gradient Edit

Now simply add the gradient to your image by clicking and dragging where you want to place the gradient.
You can add the gradient before or after the black and white conversion. Since the gradient is black, it doesn’t really matter.
Since the gradient is on a separate layer, you’re able to change the opacity of the layer to make it blend in better.
Cloudy skies

There are several kinds of cloudy skies, but I’m going to discuss just two kinds:
1. Complete cloudy, no sky visible
2. Clouds and sky both visible
Type 1 skies: just clouds, no sky
Sky Stump

A gray sky like this can look boring because it looks so flat.
To make it look more interesting isn’t that hard.
Step 1: convert the image to black and white.
Step 2: dodge and burn the clouds like crazy. You want to increase the contrast in the clouds, so make the highlights even brighter and make the shadows even darker.
Step 3 (optional): increase the contrast of the image to make the sky even more dramatic.

With some heavy dodging and burning I turned the sky into something spectacular. You can read more about dodging and burning right here.

Type 2 skies: both sky and clouds

Castle smaller

In this image I have both sky and clouds. Making this into a good looking black and white sky isn’t that hard. Simply follow the steps under “A plain, blue sky”.
You can use the Black & White tool and drag down the Blues slider. Or you can use Silver Efex Pro and apply a Red filter.
Castle BW smaller

You also might want to apply some extra dodging and burning in the clouds, to make the sky even pop more.

There are different ways to make your skies look better in black and white, depending on the sky you captured and what you want to achieve.
I hope this tutorial has helped you to make your skies pop.
In part 2 of this series, I’m going to discuss how to make skies like the picture at the bottom. See you there!

Time Lapse II
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Skies, how to make them special – Part 2 – With the use of a ND filter

Joel Tjintjelaar

In part 1 of this series I explained how you can get spectacular black and white skies by using some specific techniques in Photoshop. Part 2 of this series is more about the in-camera possibilities and conditions than about Photoshop.

The setup

First of all, you’ll need the following:

  1. A camera that has the option “bulb”. Most DSLR’s have that option. This option is necessary to take shots with shutter speeds longer than 30 seconds.
  2. Tripod. Don’t cheapen out on your tripod. You’ll need one that can stand perfectly still for minutes under various weather conditions. I mostly shoot under windy circumstances in order to get the effect I want.
  3. Neutral Density filter (Preferable an ND filter that reduces the light with 10 stops)
  4. Remote Control that locks
  5. (Optional a Circular Polarizer filter, this reduces the light with another 1 or 2 stops and results in deeper colours.)

This is the setup I use:

  1. Canon EOS 400D/Canon EOS Digital Rebel XTI
  2. Tripod
  3. B+W 110 ND (10 stops)
  4. Canon RS-60E3 remote control
  5. (Sometimes I use a Hama CP filter to get even longer shutter speeds.)

f/22, ISO 100, 240s, 10 stops ND filter, CP filter

What to look for

There are different sorts of skies you can capture, each with a different result.
I like to keep it simple, so I’ll just divide it into two groups:

1. All clouds (stratus clouds)
Time Lapse II
Time Lapse II
This is how the sky looked, when I shot “Time Lapse II”.

2. Clouds and sky (cumulus or stratocumulus clouds)

Clouds and Sky Sky and Clouds

A sky like that, can turn into something like this when using a long shutter speed:

Before going out

There are a few things to keep in mind before you go on a shoot and try to capture some amazing skies. First of all, check the weather conditions. You’ll want a nice breeze, a h5 wind causes fast moving clouds. Fast moving clouds shot with a long exposure result in stripes.
Secondly, make sure there are clouds. This one is kind of obvious, but you might want to make sure before going on a 3 hour drive. Believe me, I know.
Finally, shoot at daylight. You could also shoot at night, but you’d have to use some really long exposures (I’m talking multiple hours) to get all the details. And besides, there’s just something magical about daytime long exposures. Maybe because it’s so out of the ordinary.

Stripy clouds

Stripy clouds as shown in “Time Lapse II” can be gorgeous, but how do you capture them? It’s all about timing, luck and patience. Let’s take a closer look at that sky.
Stripy Clouds

The sky in this image consists out of 2 parts.

  1. The blacks. This is the gap between the clouds: the sky. With the use of red filter in Photoshop this part turned black.
  2. The whites. This were the actual clouds moving by.

Stratus clouds are uniform clouds, they are like a big blanket in the sky blocking the sun. That type of clouds have little to no contrast and usually are gray to white. These are the kind of clouds you’ll want to capture. Before taking the shot, you’ll have to wait until there’s a gap in the clouds. That gap is the blue sky, which will be converted to black later on. Or you can add a blue gradient with Photoshop so if you convert it, that part will turn black.

Another important thing to take into account is the direction of the stripes and where the gap is. Placement of those two things are very important. If the clouds in the above image would follow the line of the bridge, the picture would have been somewhat less. The opposite directions between sky and bridge give more contrast. I also wanted the sky to come out of the bridge. This gives a sort of glow to the bridge and accentuates it. When all of these elements come together, you’re ready to take the shot.

Taking the shot

A few more things about taking the shot. In order to get the stripy effect, you’ll need to use a long shutter speed. Depending on how h5 the wind is, you’ll need to use a shutter speed starting at a least 30s. This is where you are going to use the ND filter and a remote control that can lock.

To get a long shutter speed, set your camera to manual and use the following settings:

  1. Lowest ISO possible. Usually 100.
  2. Small diaphragm, I recommend something like f/22 or smaller.
  3. Shutter speed set to “bulb”.
Final words

Clouds can add something special to your images, especially in your long exposures. I recommend a lot of experimenting. Try a shutter speed of 10 minutes, or maybe just 1 minute. Shoot when it’s storming outside. Try any weather condition. For great B&W images I often find that bad weather conditions result in far more interesting B&W images than bright and sunny weather conditions. Rain, snow, heavy winds and clouds and fog often add something really special to your B&W image. Shoot objects you normally wouldn’t care about. The results might surprise you.

CloudsStripy Clouds
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