More Gateway Trailhead and Less HDR Nirvana

I finished up the HDR processing on the remaining 63 photos (21 series of 3 bracketed shots each), and I came away with 17 more photos that were usable.  As the sun set while I was shooting yesterday, I evidently was pushing the camera to the max of its capabilities to capture what I was imagining in my head.  The low angle of the sun created some deep shadows, but at the same time the areas that were sunlit were extremely bright.  So I ran into some real challenges when trying to get some decent HDR’s tonight.

This first shot didn’t turn out that badly, I don’t think.  I was trying to capture the way the sunlight lit up the dense needles of the cholla almost like a halo.  I didn’t want the sun itself to be in the picture because it would have overexposed it, so I think it works well with the light source just barely appearing on the right.

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After this shot, I got a little greedy and started trying to actually capture the setting sun between the arms of the cholla.  And sure enough, when I started trying to process those shots in Photomatix, they were almost impossible to tone-map in a way that satisfied me.  And then I happened to set the Saturation slider to zero (primarily out of frustration), and I came up with this shot:

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It almost looks like it was taken at night by moonlight.  While it wasn’t the shot that I had set out to capture, I decided that I kind of liked this treatment, so I kept this one.  Not everything has to have 100% color saturation, right?

The shots after this were a hodge-podge of hits and misses.  Many of them had such intense contrasts between the highlight and shadow areas that they were unusable–the amount of noise in the HDR version was tremendous.  At some point I may invest in some noise-reduction software and go back and see if I can get something usable out of those files, but for now they go to the archive.

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The shot above, for instance, was taken inside the visitor’s center where the setting sun was shining through an opening in the wall.  I loved the way it made the wall glow in the deep cedar tones, and the saguaro growing through the opening in the roof was a great touch as well.  After I took this shot, I repositioned my camera so that I could actually see the sun going down….and that turned out to be a mistake.  I took about three bracketed series looking straight at the sun, and when I processed them in HDR, they turned out miserably.  They were just excessively noisy.  But like I said, I may go back to them at some point and see what I can do with them.  Also, I haven’t done anything with any of these photos beyond tone-mapping them in Photomatix.  I may go back to some of them in Paintshop Pro to see what improvments, if any, might be made.

So, what did I get from this hour of shooting, followed by about five hours of processing? I got some good lessons in late afternoon shooting:

  • Be conscious of where your shadow is–several of my photos show my shadow very distinctly.  Several times I remembered and tried to either duck down or move out of the way, but a wired cable release will only let you step away so far.
  • Remember to use a lower ISO setting.  I have my camera set to ISO 200 by default and didn’t even think about changing it.  But as one of my blog readers pointed out (thanks, Martin!), I should use a lower ISO when I’m using a tripod…why not?
  • HDR is good at capturing details in highlights and shadows, but it’s not a miracle worker.  Shots that have very intense, colorful sunlight can be tough to work with when they also contain very dark shadow or silouette.

So I came away with a total of 27 shots that I actually liked, some more than others, and they can all be seen on my Flickr page.  Take a look at the portfolio and let me know what you think!




  1. Looks like you got some great photos! As you pointed out, always shoot as low of an ISO as you can when using a tripod. I almost always shoot ISO 100 when using the tripod unless it absolutely just won’t work.

    I took about 100 photos while out at the Gateway Trailhead tonight but I haven’t even put them on iMac yet so I don’t even know what I came away with yet! We’ll see in the next day or so I guess. 🙂

    • Thanks, Adam! I’m anxious to see what kind of shots you got. It’s always cool to see how two different people can go to the same place and see it in totally different ways. 🙂

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