Which photo software do you use?

Recently, my friend Jennifer asked about some of the software that I use for my photographs. In case you are wondering, here is a bit about what I use and why.

As you probably know, most of the photos that I post here involve what is known as HDR, or High Dynamic Range, photography. For more basic information about HDR, you may want to read my post Why do your pictures look different? from a couple of years ago. Most of the techniques that I mention in that post for actually taking pictures haven’t changed over time. I still take three different exposures of each scene: one that is normal, one that is too dark (-2 EV), and one that is too bright (+2 EV). Most dSLR cameras can be set to do this automatically. You can even vary the range, but I find that 2 EV works well for what I want to do.

So for example, here are the three exposures for the photo that I posted yesterday of Frontierland at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom:

Once I have my three brackets, as they are called, I load them into Photomatix. There are several different programs out there for merging brackets into HDR files, but I have found that Photomatix works the best for me. It does the best job of correcting movements.

Some of those movements come from the camera moving if you don’t use a tripod. For best results, you should use a tripod to keep the camera from moving, but I don’t always do that. Okay, I rarely do that, except for long exposures such as night shots. Photomatix can align the brackets automatically.

The other movements come from people or other objects moving between your brackets. Many of the Disney photos that I take have people in them, although this particular shot doesn’t. And you can’t very well try to get a few hundred people to stand still while you take your shots. Photomatix can try to find the moving people or objects itself, or it also has a selection mode where you can select what you want it to work on. I usually just use the automatic setting, as this often works fine.

Once I have merged my brackets in Photomatix, I next use it for tonemapping. You can make it look more like a normal photograph, or you can make it look pretty far out. I prefer to go somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. And if you want, you can then process your file and save it as a JPG if you want, and then you are done.

However, I like to do a little more with mine. Most HDR shots don’t have quite enough contrast for my tastes. So I use a process called shadowmapping. You can read about it at this excellent tutorial, which is where I learned all about it.

For shadowmapping, I create one file with a bit too much color, and then I create a black and white version, both using the settings in the tutorial above. For the Frontierland photo, here are the two files that I created:

The color version looks just a bit too colorful, doesn’t it? But that’s okay. It will all work out well.

Next, I use a different program. For quite a while, I used GIMP for these next steps, but I recently switched to Corel PaintShop Pro. Why the change? GIMP is a free download, and it was good for learning. But PaintShop Pro has quite a few filters and other effects that I couldn’t quite replicate in GIMP. So to me, it was worth the money.

In PaintShop Pro, I open the colorful file, and then open the black and white file, copying it to a new layer on top of the colorful version, which again is covered in the shadowmapping tutorial above. I set the b&w version to Hard Light and then vary the opacity until I end up with something that I like. Once I get everything set like I want it, I merge those two layers together into one layer

Next, I tweak it a bit to make it look even better. PaintShop Pro includes the Nik Color Efex Pro filters, which can give your photo all sorts of different looks. I usually run a couple of filters, depending on what I want. For this one, I used Pro Contrast to change the contrast even more, and then Colorize to adjust the colors slightly more toward yellow from blue. Not much, but just a little. After that, I usually do some digital noise removal, just for good measure.

After all that, I ended up with this final photo of Frontierland:

If that sounds like a lot of work, it really took me longer to type all of this than it did to actually do it. Part of that comes with doing it over and over, too. And like all learning, some of it is just trial and error to see what I like.

If you are thinking about any of these programs, Photomatix and PaintShop Pro both have trial version downloads that let you see what you are getting into before you purchase them. However, the earlier link for PaintShop Pro was from Amazon.com, which usually has a better price.

So there you have it - the slightly long answer to the question of which software I use for my photos. Hope that helps!

There is a follow-up to this post: More about photo software

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Burnsland is Steve Burns, with generous help from his lovely wife Laura. Steve is a husband, father, photographer, webmaster, writer, podcaster, artist, Christian. Steve enjoys sharing his photography, art, and stories through Burnsland.com, from the Burnsland World Headquarters in Tennessee.