Landscape Photography: Sometimes It Just Takes Two

Landscape photography may seem tough when there's a wide range of light, and a lot of photographers turn to HDR software. But, in most cases, HDR doesn't work for landscape photography because of artifacts caused by the wind. Here, this springtime image of a Will County woodland would not have been possible without merging two consecutive shots taken at different exposures: one for the land and the other for the sky. But, HDR was not required.

PHOTO A: This springtime image of a Will County woodland would not have been possible without merging two consecutive shots taken at different exposures: one for the land and the other for the sky. But, I didn’t use HDR. As with most landscape shots that feature plants, wind is an HDR killer, resulting in artifacts that are impossible to fix.
(See picture below for how HDR performed with this shot.)

Landscape photography sometimes requires two shots to capture the drama of a single scene.

Here in the woodlands of Will County, this afternoon landscape of bluebells along the stream would have been impossible to convey with just one photograph.

Those who are familiar with HDR (High Dynamic Range) will take several shots, separated by one stop (maybe two), then blend them using their favorite HDR software.

Photomatix is the most popular product, but it’s very hard to achieve a realistic look without a lot of time and experimenting with the various sliders. Instead, I’ve moved to Photoshop’s HDR Pro and their 32-bit workflow, which allows for two powerful passes of Adobe Camera Raw. Because Photoshop is a photography program, it defaults to producing a realistic look, plus I’m already familiar with the intuitive functions and sliders of ACR. Still, even the best software cannot account for motion—those small positional shifts that happen between shots as subjects blow in the wind. But, do not fear. There’s a much easier approach that gives near perfect results!

This is a crop of the previous photograph resulting from merging two shots with Photoshop HDR Pro. Movement in the wind-blown trees cause artifacts are impossible to fix. Therefore, HDR isn't the best approach for landscape photography.

PHOTO B: I attempted to use Photoshop HDR Pro to merge just two exposures of Photo A, but movement in the wind-blown trees caused artifacts all over the sky. I originally tried it with five exposures, which, as you can imagine, also turned out badly. Unless the air is perfectly still, multiple images of a landscape that contains plant life is almost impossible to align with HDR software.

Most landscape photographs only require two pictures: one exposed for the dark land and a second exposed for the bright sky. Simply open up those two those images in Photoshop (or Photoshop Elements), drag one picture onto the other, then blend the layers using selections and masks. There are no alignment issues with this method and no need for HDR software.

Digitally captured photographs can provide a truer experience than film, but it takes more work. Just be smart about it. It’s all about choosing the best methods and tools. And it all begins with taking the picture. Plan your shot by evaluating the light and determining if you need one shot or two. Carefully take your shot(s) and check the histogram. That’s it.

Now you can enjoy yourself knowing that you won’t have a lot of work or disappointment later on. After all, landscape photography should be fun.

So, get out into the great outdoors and shoot those landscapes. And remember, two shots are probably all you’re ever going to need to communicate nature’s majesty.

Learn more from Creative Eye Workshops.

© 2014 – 2017, Mike MacDonald. All Rights Reserved.

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