Tuesday, October 5, 2010

HDR Workshop DVD by Trey Ratcliff / StuckInCustoms.com

If you want to create HDR images
that don’t suck, read this article!

*** NOTE: This product is no longer sold, but you can get similar products here ***

As much as the subject has grabbed my interest, I haven’t fully embraced HDR and tone mapping as I’ve rarely been happy with the results that come out of the various HDR products I’ve tried. They are good products and I’ve seen others use them with great effectiveness, but honestly most of mine have seriously sucked. Of course, there’s tons of horrible HDR images out on the web with grey/black skies on sunny days, oversaturated colors that make me reach for my sunglasses, and some with so much texture and noise that they feel like the apocalypse is near.

I’ll admit with all of this bad stuff other there, I’ve kinda disassociated myself away from HDR as I wanted to avoid being shunned by the growing mass of the population that has a total disdain for HDR and is proud to let he world know about it. However, I recently had the pleasure of watching all four of Trey Ratcliff’s HDR Workshop DVD’s and I was pleasantly surprised, Trey has evolved  (as a post-processor) to create modern day HDR images that some might wonder if they are HDR at all. Put a different way, he’s creating some great stuff that are neither radioactive nor grungy so I believe their appeal will be more broadly accepted. His techniques as to how he creates his images has evolved, but much of the fundamentals he applies today he’s applied in the past, so the real point is that you can use the techniques of these DVD’s to improve your Photoshop skill set even if you absolutely hate HDR images!

So is this a HDR DVD or Photography/Photoshop Fundamentals DVD?

I’d actually argue this DVD is equally both. It is definitely a series that shows you the value of shooting multiple exposures, and if those multiple exposures are bracketed then you can do some really cool composites to create a great image. From this standpoint you can use what Trey shows to remove tourists, and fix hot spots, even if you never fire up an HDR image processor. However, the goal of this series is to show you how to make great HDR shots, so naturally you’ll see plenty of Photomatix in action.

The gist of Trey’s secret sauce really boils down to this:

  1. Collect a bracketed set of JPEG images of your subject (which you can create from Lightroom, Canon DPP, Capture NX2, etc…).
  2. Combine and tone map these once (or sometimes twice) in Photomatix.However, this step could be optional for some and the other steps would still apply.
  3. Use Bridge to load some or all of the images from step 1 into layers along with the output of step 2.
  4. Use layer masks to combine elements from each of the images into one final composite image that is visually closer to the dynamic range of the eye rather than the limitations of the dynamic range of the camera (hence the value of HDR software in step 2).
  5. Apply filters by Nik Software, Topaz Labs or onOne Software as desired to add visual pop (a step that the anti-HDR crowd might frown upon if you aren’t careful).
  6. Reduce the noise (for some this may occur as step 5, others may occur after) using third party solutions instead of Photomatix. See my noise reduction series for why I agree with his decision to use Noiseware.
  7. Sharpen to your favorite output target (i.e., web, print, etc…) using Nik Software’s Sharpener Pro (easy) or Photoshop’s USM filter (complex).

All of this sounds pretty easy, but it’s fun to watch a master at work and see how he accomplishes step 4. Each image offers unique challenges, and Troy handles them very well. This is the real value of this DVD, because even if you have ninja Photoshop skills – you may pick up on some cool tricks that you can apply on your own work either using Trey’s method directly or a derivative that accomplishes the same thing more efficiently.

Is this for Photoshop, Lightroom, Aperture or Elements?

In this series Trey always exports his RAW’s via Lightroom, but he mostly uses Lightroom as a image organizing storage tool. He uses Bridge as a tool to do merge into layers (which theoretically should be doable as a export action in Lightroom). After this its all Photomatix and Photoshop, so the point here is that if you don’t have a tool that can do layer masking and change opacity on those layers, then your aren’t going to be able to apply the techniques shown in the series.

DVD Walkthrough

This series is broken up in to two editions. The three disc Basic Edition and the four disc Premium Edition, so the first three discs of both editions are identical. I’ll start with my thoughts on those below and finish up with disc four which is exclusive to the Premium Edition, and why you should care about that last disc. With that in mind, here’s my thoughts on the series discs:

Disc 1

This disc is comprised of seven chapters, each of which are described below. Of all the discs in the series, I initially felt this was the least useful.However, by the end I saw the value in the first disc – especially when you have the fourth disc from the premium edition. Here’s my chapter by chapter thoughts:

  • Trey’s Welcome Message – I’ll be straight up and admit that I was very disappointed when I watched this because I wasn’t expecting this series to be a fairly unedited video capture of his Austin HDR Workshop (which cost $1495, so by comparison this series is a great deal!) at The Driskill Hotel. However, when I stopped and thought for a few minutes, it dawned on me that is exactly what the series is titled – the HDR Workshop, so I tried to get over my surprise and watch the series based on the most important thing – its content.
  • Class introduction – Here Trey has a neat exercise where he points out how our brain plays games with us by showing how the same exact color can look like two entirely different colors based on them being in the sun and the shade. It was a fun exercise and discussion about the role colors play in our observation of a photo.
  • Slideshow Presentation – This is a good idea, gone wrong for the video format. Here Trey goes over a bunch of his past photos and discusses some. The idea was good, but because this was a video recording of the class environment (with an odd start where the camera is effectively in dead space) it doesn’t come across as strong as if you were there in real life or if it were all a PowerPoint presentation made for video. However, for the most important photos the video feed from the classroom is replaced with a static image which helps for the most important photos. This is a good concept, but a not so good implementation for the video format. 
  • Trey’s Camera Bag – Gear geeks will enjoy seeing what Trey carries around in his bag, but I was bummed that he neglected to mention what was attached to his Nikon D3x. He did have a couple cool little toys that were fun to see.
  • Austin Photo Walk – At first my expectations were low about this, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the disc. Here you get a chance to see how Trey executes the capture of the his images, and more importantly you get to hear what’s in his head when he’s evaluating a scene for a shot. This is golden here because I think this is an area where Trey possesses a lot more natural talent than your average button masher. The best part is that you get to enjoy being on the walk in the warmth of your home/office rather than being in the cold with the crowd – woohoo!
  • Driskill Photo Walk – This is a fun chapter as well because you really get a better idea of what’s in Trey’s head when he composes the two shots in this chapter. It’s funny to see how he really doesn’t worry about people in the shot because he’ll use long exposures to compensate for them (which has the effect of ghosting or removing them all together depending on the length of the exposure and the movement of the people). I felt I learned a lot about composition in this chapter, so I was happy with the info presented here.
  • Now the geeky engineer minds who approach photography as a science will probably flip out at a few of Trey’s comments in this chapter, and may event faint at his lack of concern for diffraction. I know for a fact that Trey’s way of thinking and operating his equipment is consistent with some of the best photographers in the industry that I’ve interviewed. What I mean by this is that Trey’s brain is thinking more about the shot itself and less about the camera settings, so that the camera really just becomes a tool to capture the data he needs to later assemble his vision. Perhaps this is the sign of a real artist because I’ve seen this pattern of behavior occur repeatedly with some of the photographers I admire the most. If you fall into this camp that has stress watching this chapter, then I’d encourage you to keep the big picture in mind and focus on the why behind what Trey is doing and apply your own camera technique to meet the objective that expresses your artistic intent.

    My overall take from this chapter is what a great sense for composition Trey has, which is something I hope to improve upon, so I thought this was one of the more important chapters on this disc.
    The Church in Limelight
    Paris Church - Copyright © Trey Ratcliff
  • Paris Church Tutorial – This is fairly useful – especially for those who are still learning Photoshop because Trey shows practical applications of layer masks, including dialing down the brush opacity to 50% (a simple concept that many forget about). Some other practical things he did that I thought were good tips for me to remember, was his changing his layer order to make masking easier (although that’s not necessary if you fill your mask with black), and his multiple use of the patch tool to get the results he wanted. The patch tool is one that I become frustrated with as it rarely gives me the results I wanted, but I’ve never thought to use it repeatedly to get the desired result so this was a great technique for me to add to my toolkit. The funny thing about this shot is that I think Trey processes it better (i.e., removes more hot spots and has less black mid tones) in the video than he did in the shot above posted in this article.

Overall, I felt like the last three chapters were the real bang for the buck of this first DVD, so if you are wanting to power through the series I’d say those are the mandatory chapters to watch. These chapters made up for some of my initial disappointment and helped me to remember that the value in this material isn’t the presentation, but the content discussed. There were a fair amount of tips and concepts shared that made me really want to go shoot some HDR shots so I could apply what I just learned.

Disc 2

This is the disc you bought this series for, so I really got a kick out of the content on this. Here Trey walks through start to finish post-processing on four photos and common problems with two more. I loved this because I felt like I was a fly on the wall looking over Trey’s shoulder to see how he deals with problems we face all the time. When he had certain problems that many of us would just say screw it and discard the picture, he came up with a nice solution to save the shot. This was a very good disc and a lot of fun. Here’s my thoughts on the chapters:

    Click to see Trey's Version - Image Copyright (c) Trey Ratcliff 
    Venetian - Copyright © Trey Ratcliff  (posted with special permission)
    Post-processing by Ron Martinsen
  • Venetian in Vegas – This was a cool shot even without HDR, so honestly I probably would have just taken the best frame and ran from there. However, Trey does a good job of addressing some common problems and making a good shot look great. I love the final output from this exercise. I especially enjoyed how he dealt with a little misalignment issue he had with his tone mapped image (something you’ve never seen before right? ha, ha). I loved the output here and thought this was a great final product. The shot above is my crack at it, but I didn’t quite solve the alignment problem as well as he did so I need to watch the chapter again. I’ve linked this shot to his version though so you can see how cool his final version really is!

    Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
    Kyoto Alley - Copyright © Trey Ratcliff  (posted with special permission)
    Post-processing by Ron Martinsen

    Trey’s edit (beyond what he does in the video)
    Copyright ® 2009 - Trey Ratcliff (original article)
  • Japanese Alley – One of my favorite places on Earth is Kyoto, Japan so this photo has special meaning to me. With that disclaimer, I’d have to say this was one of my favorite photos to watch Trey work on because I felt the transformation from neat photo to awesome photo was complete. What’s even more fun is that since I had the premium version I actually had access to his original files and could apply what I learned myself on Trey’s photo. Thanks to special permission from Trey, I can show you the before and after results above. Below my version, I have also included Trey’s original version from December 2009 where’s put a bit more time in it than what you see on the DVD (my image is closer to the DVD edit), but both are great versions with different results due to personal taste. I like them both, and this is what you should take away from this – even if you hate HDR – you can apply HDR and tone mapping as a tool and choose to use or abuse it to your taste.
  • Driskill Lion Statue – This was neat because you get to see Trey post-process the shot he took on the Driskill Photo Walk on Disc 1. I felt this chapter could have used a little more editing because Trey spends a lot of time searching through Nik Software filters when a simple Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer probably could have done the trick. What you do see clearly in this chapter though is that Trey doesn’t really have a formula, but rather a mental database of techniques that he’s mastered and he experiments heavily to get the results for the vision in his mind of how the shot should look.
  • Oasis Sunset – I found his tip of drawing different opacity brushes around the horizon useful, but I also remember Scott Kelby doing a Radial Gradient with additional markers in his 7 Point System book that was more efficient (once you get the hang of it). I agree with Trey’s decision not to show that technique though as it is a little complex to grasp at first. Another useful thing about this chapter is that I thought his tone mapped version looked pretty nasty, but it shows very well how Trey only looks at the parts of the tone mapped image that he wishes to re-use and ignores the rest when working in Photomatix. This was a breakthrough idea for me as I tend to look at the entire image, so I have been a major technique in Trey’s toolbox! In this example he also shows off onOne Software’s Drizzle and Wow Landscape filters. He also used Viveza to desaturate the nasty purple color cast in the water, which is something I use quite often as well.

    My only gripe about this chapter was that Trey spends a lot of time removing dust spots by circling using the patch tool, when the healing brush’s default behavior would have been just as effective (and efficient for video purposes).
  • Image Straightening – This was an ‘ah, ha” moment for me because Trey demonstrates a problem we all face when cropping – when you can straighten your vertical plane but not the horizontal at the same time. He solves this classic problem by checking off the perspective checkbox and moves the four corners independently to get his desired result. I use that technique later in this article for my Ireland Castle Tower shot, and was pleased to be reminded about something I had long forgotten about.
  • California Sunrise – Here’s another case where Viveza saves part of the day and onOne Software Plug-in Tools Graduated Cool Warm filter (under Photo Filters) really helps to do serious magic on this shot that most of us would have deleted for fear that the photo couldn’t be saved.

I loved this disc because you get to sit and enjoy Trey from the best seat in the house to watch what he’s doing and listen to him discuss what’s in his head for a given shot. I know this disc has helped me a lot already, so this is one where you can’t miss a thing.

Disc 3

This disc is much of the same of what you get in disc 2, but every photo has its own unique challenge so it’s more about learning from repetition which is how I learn most effectively. Here’s the chapters you’ll find on this disc along with my thoughts on them:

    Crossing the Bridge into Old Lyon
    Red Bridge – Copyright © Trey Ratcliff
  • Red Bridge – This image has monster noise but Trey handles it in stride (without resorting to using Photomatix noise reduction, which I agree can be too aggressive). He uses a really cool radial blur (with zoom) to create a very cool sky effect that makes noise reduction software unnecessary for this photo.Hey calls this technique the “Trey Burst”, and I quite like it. See the story where this image first appeared here.

    Bullet Train – Copyright © Trey Ratcliff
  • Bullet Train – This was a pretty challenging image to process, so you can learn a lot of techniques by watching this edit. For this one he uses the Topaz Adjust “Dramatic” filter and does an “onion style” (or radial gradient) to blend the man from one image into the tone mapped layer. He tops it off with the onOne Software “Wow Landscape” filter again for the final touch.
  • Black & White HDR – Say the word Black & White or Split Toning to anyone using Photoshop these days and you’ll find that nearly all use Nik Software’s Silver Efex Pro as their weapon of choice to get great results. This chapter is no different and is actually more of a short demo to show you how Trey uses this tool which I think is one of the most fun products on the market today (and remember, I used to hate Black & White!). (NOTE: If you decide to print your B&W on an Epson printer, then be sure to check out my Advanced Black & White article for some helpful tips).
  • Double Tone Map – This is a funny tip/trick because after you do your first tone mapping the button to tone map again is disabled, but you can use the menu or shortcut keys in Photomatix to get it to tone map your already tone mapped image a second time. For the right subject the results are very neat, and Trey shows out to do it without going totally overboard.
  • Process Single Raw – This is actually two techniques in one – the first is using a single RAW for an HDR image and the second is understanding how to properly tone map with people (i.e., ignore the exposed body parts and focus on properly tone mapping the rest of the image). Even though I would have never used HDR for this photo, I appreciated seeing how Trey executed both of these techniques to create a very pleasing result.
  • Halo Removal – How many times have you had someone tell you that your final shot has halos? Have you fought with the transition from the twilight sky to the tree or city line? Well this chapter is very useful to see how to address this problem in a technique that is more simple and effective than what I’ve done in the past.

If you can only get the Basic Edition, this is the end of the road of what you’ll learn. However, there’s a lot to learn up to this point so you shouldn’t go away disappointed. I found a lot of value in watching Trey do his magic and then trying to do it myself on some of the sample images included in the Premium Edition, so if you don’t go for that edition then be sure to practice on your own images with similar challenges to apply what you’ve learned.

Disc 4 – Premium Edition Only

This disc is the one you should insert into your computer first before starting the series so you can download all of the images. I didn’t discover this until I was on disc 4, so I was disappointed I didn’t have the files handy for all of the chapters until the end. With that said, I was able to go back and try to apply what I saw and when necessary revisit some chapters, so I was thrilled to have this content.

All of the chapters on this disc are images captured during the photo walks on the first disc, so you can see more end to end results by watching these chapters. I honestly thought all three of them were fantastic examples of how to deal with common challenges to make the mundane look great. Here’s my thoughts on the chapters of this disc:

  • Shakespeare’s Pub – This is one of the first things from the photo walk you see on disc 1, and this processing offers many challenges. It was neat to see how he deals with a moving flag, a way overblown light, and a little bit of a blur on the sign introduced by a little camera shake movement. Topaz Adjust is used on this one to give it that colorful look that so many people enjoy with Trey’s images, so it is neat to see him do his magic on this seemingly boring street shot.
  • Old Warehouse – In this chapter Trey shows a technique for removing Chromatic Aberrations that I hadn’t seen before, so it made this chapter extraordinarily useful to me! I loved this technique and look forward to going back to a couple of photos that seemed hopeless and now fix them with this new trick. I also enjoyed seeing him double tone map a what turned out to be a cool shot of something that even one of the students on the walk wondered what he saw in the location.  This was a good example of turning ugly daily life into art – fun stuff!

    The Driskill at Night – Copyright © Trey Ratcliff
  • Driskill Exterior – Once again  you get to see how Trey deals with distractions that would normally trip most of us up. He doesn’t wait for the cars to get out of the way, but rather takes his shots and then during imaging takes the best of the blurred cars from different images to create the final composite (show above). He also throws a “Trey Burst” on the orange lamp on the right side to give the image more dramatic flare, which I thought was a nice creative touch.

    This was a very good demo that was finished off with onOne Software’s “Wow Landscape” filter again.

Over 220 full-size JPEG files totaling 1.5GB await you on disc 4 so that you can follow along with Trey on the same exact images he’s working on. In addition, their is his eBook Top 10 Mistakes in HDR Processing and How to Fix Them, so if everything you’ve learned wasn’t enough there’s more goodness in this eBook to help you to address the challenges you face with your own photos more effectively.  

Can the information on these discs really help your HDR images?

Did anything that I watch on these discs really help? Well perhaps you should be the judge. Take a look at the image below which was done using the techniques described by Trey and then hover your mouse over it (it may take a few seconds for the image to load) to see the way that I did HDR for my Photomatix 3.1 review. My verdict? Uh, yeah I’ve improved and I want to vomit at that crap I had before!

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after 
My HDR work before and after what I learned in this series
Copyright © Ron Martinsen – All Rights Reserved

One of the big factors that helped this image was that I knew how to use Photomatix better, but another was that I had a better command of my post-processing options and tools by Topaz Labs, Nik Software, and onOne Software – all of which were used here to create this final result. Below is a shot of the tone-mapped file I created this time using Photomatix versus what I created before watching Trey’s video (i.e., before I knew what the hell I was doing):

Mouse over to see before, mouse out to see after
My Photomatix tonemapping results before and after this series


I’m very happy with what I learned, and I felt that it helped me A LOT. Even if I never do another HDR image, I have skills that will help me with all of my work so that alone was worth the price of the basic edition. Personally, I got a lot of satisfaction out of working with Trey’s image and seeing the amazing results he posts day in and day out, and that added confidence made me look at my own photos that have been sitting on my drives forever and say “hey, I can save that”. I think the practice, repetition and confidence boost I got from having those files and a few more examples in the Premium Edition make it worth the extra money.

I highly recommend this series, and if you have the cash, I think it is worth it to get the Premium Edition. If you don’t, then it’s still worth getting the Basic Edition, but just be prepared to go shoot some new HDR images now so you have something you can use to apply what  you’ve learned from the series.

In addition to the passion I already had for my Nik Software tools, I find myself using Topaz Labs Adjust a lot more often now. I also find that I’m happy with Photomatix 4.2 way more than the 3.x version. Click here for my HDR Comparison article too. I therefore would encourage you to download trial versions of these tools as well as onOne Software’s Plug-in Suite (which I’ve used for ages) to see how fun it can be and how much time you can save by using all these tools together.

Special Offers from Trey, onOne, HDRSoft, Nik and Topaz (UPDATED)

Now Trey is offering three versions with the base downloadable version as low as $99, the Basic for only $219 and the Premium for only $379. Click here to learn more about each version and save while this offer lasts! The other good news is that the $99 version is downloadable for instant gratification!

I also have a special offer where you can save an additional 15% ALL StuckInCustoms products when you use my discount coupon code RONMART15 which can be applied on top of the savings listed above for the lowest prices ever!

    Be sure to check out my interview of Trey Ratcliff which also includes info on his textures, as well as my review of his eBook “Top 10 Mistakes in HDR Processing and How to Fix Them”.

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    Anonymous said...

    Nice review Ron, I always appreciate your honest assessment (good or bad) in your reviews. Helpful to hear your opinion on disk #4 as that single DVD doubles the price. I'd be interested in seeing an intermediate image showing what things look like photoshop + photomatix alone before the Nik & Topaz adjustments. Also, I would highly recommend photomatix 4 to anyone who has 3. ver4 is a lot easier to use.

    ronmartblog.com said...

    Yeah, the closest I have is the image above the Conclusion which is just Photomatix - nothing else. In fact it is Photomatix 3.x and then 4.0 AFTER I watched Trey's discs and learned how to use it more effectively.

    digitalkid56 said...

    Thanks for the review.. Was definately picking up the basic DVD, now probably getting the Premium based on your review!!

    ronmartblog.com said...

    digitalkid56 - cool, well hopefully you'll enjoy them as much as I have!