South Mountain Sunset – HDR or not?

With the onset of the Arizona monsoon season, the clouds have finally returned, yielding some amazing sunsets ripe for the camera.  Last evening Andy and I drove up to Dobbins Overlook on South Mountain where we could set up the tripod for some bracketed shots as the sun set over downtown Phoenix and the surrounding suburbs.  Dobbins Overlook is a popular spot for photographers, families, students with their guitars, and those who just want to enjoy a warm summer evening’s light show.

I took 154 frames, most in bracketed series of three (-2.0/0.0/+2.0) as the sun went down.  I’m using a Nikon D5000 with the kit lens (Nikkor 18-55mm 1:3.5-5.6G), mounted on my Sunpak tripod and using a cable release, shooting in aperture-priority mode.  For each, I captured both the raw NEF as well as a JPG file.  And I got a lot of great images, but now the quandry is–what is the best way to process them?  And is there really a “best” way?

For example, here’s the first shot of the evening.  This image is from the single frame JPG file at normal (0.0) exposure, processed in Paintshop Pro X3 where I played with Local Tone Mapping, Levels, sharpness:

Single frame from JPG

This next version is from the raw NEF file, also processed in Paintshop Pro X3:

Single image from NEF

In both these instances the foreground is pretty much darkened out.  I don’t mind because the foreground wasn’t really that interesting to me at this point–I was mostly interested in the colors of the sunset and the drama of the cloud formations.  Also, I liked the way the sun was reflecting off the small lake.

Now, this next image is the HDR version resulting from the combination of the three bracketed exposures.  I used Photomatix to combine the images, and then used Paintshop Pro X3 to do a little cleanup:

HDR image

This version definitely provided a little more detail in the foreground while keeping the drama of the cloud structures.  For the HDR processing, I used the Tone Compression option in Photomatix, rather than the Detail Enhancement option because, once again, the foreground detail wasn’t all that interesting to me.

Finally, here’s the HDR version processed in Phototmatix using the Detail Enhancement option and then post-processed in Paintshop Pro.  It definitely has the advantage of revealing all the detail in the foreground:

HDR using Details Enhancement

So, I’m really torn.  I’m not sure which of these images I’m happiest with, and would love some feedback from readers of this blog.  The hubby just voted for the last one! 🙂




  1. I think all versions are fantastic but my vote is for the last version. 🙂 Also, too bad I wasn’t home last night otherwise I could have met you up there since you were just 5 minutes from my house. 😀

  2. Definitely the last one. I prefer the clouds and the sun of the HDR, but the detail enhancement of the foreground makes the image complete. For the top three I was wondering what the foreground was. Now I know, and the shot feels complete. You say the foreground wasn’t interesting, but I think it gives the shot perspective. Overall, the HDR with detail enhancement is a more complete image and blows the others away. Just mho.

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