Autumn Backlight and HDR Photomerge

A beautiful forest of colourful, autumn foliage on a body of water with a backdrop of hills and sky presented a tricky lighting situation. The problem was the sky and the position of the sun.

This photograph displays a colourful stand of autumn forest on the ocean, boldly accented by backlighting.
A colourful stand of autumn forest on the ocean is accented by strong backlighting (click the image to view in a lightbox and for more detail).

Backlighting through autumn leaves is one of my favourite subjects. The visual impact of color and vibrance in a backlit autumn landscape is hard to beat. The problem is, sometimes the number of stops of light are so great that the camera’s sensor (or film if you still shoot with it) can’t handle the latitude of dark to bright scenes in the image – not with one shot, anyway.

Bracketing and Lightroom (or another software program) to the rescue! Ideally, I would love to have this stand of colourful forest against the hills in the background, without any sky at all. Under that circumstance, one shot would have captured this image. As it is, the sun drenched sky – the sun is just out of the picture and over the hill in the top left of the image – was a total washout when I exposed for the shadow detail.  Conversely, trying to hold detail in the sky caused a loss of shadow detail. Therefore,  I took three images:

  • One for the midtones, while keeping the highlight of the backlit leaves from blowing out
  • A second exposure for the shadow areas, providing detail for the canoe and other items along the shoreline
  • And, a third to retain detail in the sky.

When I got back to my trusty digital darkroom I imported the three images into Lightroom and applied the command Photo > Photomerge > HDR

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and that’s what I was explaining earlier when I said your camera’s sensor or film could not capture the full range of tones in the image without clipping the highlights or losing shadow detail on a single shot.

In the pop-up dialogue box I checked Auto Align (because I didn’t use a tripod), and I unchecked Auto Tone, after the first attempt turned out quite muddy.

The final merged image required Tone Curve adjustment and a small push on the Vibrance  and Saturation sliders, and Voila!

I would liked to have gotten rid of the sky altogether, but my vantage point on the side of the road made it impossible. This being my first go at HDR, in retrospect I would have taken another image, holding back more detail in the sky to add more drama to the image. But, I can live with this colourful scene of autumn tranquility in Swift Current.

It’s a great day for photography. Shoot ’til it feels good!

The yellow autumn leaves of birch trees were photographed using backlighting to make the leaves radiate.
Backlight through the yellow autumn leaves of birch trees. By eliminating the bright sky, one shot captured the full range of tones in this image.

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