Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow


Custer State Park, SD. 5-shot HDR processed in HDR Efex Pro and Capture NX 2 (Click to enlarge).

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!

9 thoughts on “Don’t Stop Thinking About Tomorrow”

  1. This is quite true. I have been reprocessing some of my older photos in Aperture 3. They were originally processed in version 1.5. I definitely found some new gems that I am busily working on to add to my website hopefully by late February. This is one of the hidden advantages of using Raw for your images, the ability to revisit and possible reinvent a lost “goodie”.

  2. Jason…thank you for sharing. Thanks to you I love working in Capture NX2 and the Nik software applications.

  3. Interesting. I am considering purchasing HDR Effex Pro but wondering what concrete advanatages there might be versus Photomatix (which I own). Also, Jason – is it a “must” to convert to TIFF first and then process the HDR or can one process the NEF’s directly into Effex Pro, Photomatix etc? If TIFF’s first do you then convert the TIFF back to a NEF before final tweaking in NX2? And yes…..I need to sign up for your online course (this will happen at some point).

    Thanks for the ongoing manuals, videos and discussion.

  4. Gary-
    You can operate directly from NEFs if you use ACR/Bridge, Lightroom, or Aperture as the host application, as these programs will convert to TIFF for you. HDR Efex Pro only works on TIFFs (or JPEGs) directly. I use CNX2 to export TIFFs, because I’m most comfortable with the controls for RAW conversion.

    There are several distinct advantages with HDR Efex Pro.
    1) Universal controls. Photomatix has different control sliders in different applications and different modes.
    2) Cleaner “natural” HDRs. Skies tend to come out more uniform with HDR Efex Pro.
    3) Internal Control Points for selective adjustments. This is HUGE. You can vary the tone-mapping strength locally, as well as perform other local adjustments.

    To sum up, when I work in HDR Efex Pro, I output an image that is 99% done, other than sharpening and dust-spot cloning. When I work in Photomatix, I have to rely on other programs to complete the editing workflow. I get a good “starting point,” but that is all.

    -Jason

  5. Thanks Jason – it does look a lot more “NX2-esque” and user friendly than Photomatix. I am all about saving time so I will click through and order this (through your site of course).

    My last question above was whether or not you converted the Effex PRo processed file back to a NEF when back inside in NX2 as the last step BEFORE you sharpen, etc. I guess the theory would be that you then have a non-destructuve edit and smaller file size. If so would you then DELETE the converted, processed TIFF as well from your systsm? Thanks again.

  6. I save my converted TIFFs back to NEF format to preserve the edit list. It doesn’t matter where this happens in the process, as long as you save the file in NEF format before exiting CNX2. If you just hit “Save” instead of “Save As” the changes are saved in the TIFF file (destructively), but you can still save the master file as a NEF and get back to the original TIFF version using the Versions drop-down.

    -Jason

  7. Jason
    Thank you for your wonderful blog!!! I just bought the new HDR ebook written with Tony Sweet. How do I access it? I can’t wait to read it.
    Keep up your beautiful work. It is an inspiration to us all!!!
    Carol

  8. Carol-
    When you purchase any of my ebooks (thanks!), you’ll get a download link. Once you’ve downloaded the files, you simply unzip them and then you can open the PDF file in your computer or on an e-Reader.
    -Jason

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