How I Escaped The HDR Hole To Become A Photographer Again

By YPBlog
nanga parbat summit

The summit of Nanga Parbat

I remember when I was traveling in the Karakoram Highway and visited the Fairy Meadows. I could see the summit of Nanga Parbat directly through my window as I woke up the next morning. It was 5am and the peak of the 9th highest mountain in the world was lit up by the gentlest glow I’ve ever seen in my life. Immediately below the massif was the glacier flowing like a blade cutting through the Karakoram mountain range.

I was holding my camera, had absolutely no idea what to do with this incredibly beautiful scene. Knowing that I couldn’t afford not take a photo, I quickly snap a few shots before the light faded away. By the way, my camera was set to capture JPEG only.

Have you had moments like this before?

Photography has always been a hobby for me. Maybe I was influenced by my dad who owns an Olympus SLR camera. I still remember knocking it off his hands while running around when I was a kid. His camera fell and shattered on the floor. He was obviously upset but he didn’t blame it on me. No doubt, that was a heart attack for every photographer.

Fast forward to many years later, he bought me my very first digital camera. A Canon Ixus 400, which at the time was one of the best digital camera on the market. It had 4 megapixels! (can you believe how much we’ve advanced in technology?)

Moving forward again, I upgraded to a DSLR when I was in my early 20s, after dropping my Ixus 400 at the Eiffel Tower. To my surprise, all it had was a broken screen on the outside. Although it had stopped working completely (RIP, my friend) …

With my DSLR, I began taking photography seriously, carrying my camera with me whenever I go. Then, I discovered high dynamic range (HDR) photography on the internet.

It completely changed my world.

The hyper-detailed and hyper-saturated look mesmerized me, like a moth to a flame. I was in love with HDR and almost all my image were shot for HDR. I would bracket exposures for every shot, on everything and in everywhere. I would go traveling and came home with memory cards full of bracketed exposures only. That’s how addicted I was to HDR. I got so used to setting my camera up for exposure bracketing that I could do it in 2 seconds (true story!).

overdone hdr image

Some of my earlier images...I know.

I relied heavily on Photomatix to create HDR photos. Photomatix back then was pretty basic and didn’t have as many tools in post-processing. Nearly all my photos were only post-processed with contrast and saturation adjustments. Despite that, I was feeling happy about how things were.

I often shared my HDR photos on Facebook and my friends would “like” them. Several publishers have also approached me to donate my photos for their new books. People emailed me on social media wanting to use my photos on their website or for personal use. I really thought I was quite good at doing this.

screenshot flickr mail

A couple of years later, my enthusiasm for photography hit a plateau. I felt everything I did was repetitive. Bracketing exposures had become a routine that my workflow seemed flat and boring.

Looking back, I guessed I knew there was something missing but I just couldn’t figure out what it was. I started to avoid taking photos and even not bringing my camera out anymore. I almost gave up on photography.

Just a while ago, I finally realized what I was going through. I was deep in the HDR hole!

Although this is just a hypothetical phase as you can see in the entertaining chart below, it still did a pretty good job in summing up what a typical photographer goes through.

stages of a photographer

Now the question is, are you still in the HDR hole?

I Had A Vision​

Having been in photography for a few years, I really wanted to produce photos with quality on par with the work of photographers I saw on photo sharing platforms. If you are wondering what the standard of these images are like, go to one of the photo sharing sites like this one and judge it for yourself.

Why do I want to improve my photos?

The answer to that question may seem very obvious from a photographer's point of view. If producing good photos is not one of your primary goals then you probably shouldn’t be doing photography.

After having a deeper thought, I felt I could find a better reason than that. Apart from good image quality, I see photography as a tool to capture mood.

Mood is subjective. It’s perceived differently by different individual because of culture, religion, upbringing, beliefs, etc. What may be regarded as a dramatic landscape by one could be seen as a terrifying vast open space by another.

What a photographer sees or feels that trigger the emotion can often affect the mood of the image. This is commonly reflected by how the photo is post-processed, and to a lesser degree by the composition (in my opinion).

iranian desert

In the Iranian desert

After getting inspired by others through observation, I was motivated to develop my personal style. I wanted to produce photos that have a certain mood to it. Something that is unique and makes a viewer go “I think I can guess who the photographer is”.

My aim was to transform myself from an intermediate level to become a photographer with vision, armed with the skills to create the image that represent the way I see the world.

I have enjoyed both representational and impressionistic landscape (or nature, in general) photos. Besides, I also do the occasion of cityscape and travel photography. Sometimes, I considered myself a fine art photographer but the boundary between that and conventional photography is often blurry.

The Dark Age

Looking for a solution to get a breakthrough in photography was proven to be a failure at the beginning. That was because I didn’t know what I need. I didn’t try to define what was wrong or missing.

Many times I found myself searching for “advanced photography skills” on the internet, hoping I would simply find a website that tells me what I need to do. I was hoping to find a guide that provides step-by-step instructions for me to follow.

I wasn’t thinking at all. All I wanted was a proven method for me to replicate results. After all, I was desperate and wanting an easy solution for my frustration.

YouTube suddenly became my best friend. All of us know that YouTube has tons of photography tutorials. Some are good, and of all the good ones, most are about the same topic delivered in different style. I did learn some tips and techniques but it didn’t get me out of my misery.

the struggle

I tried to do different things (but didn't go very well!)

Another thing I tried was not doing HDR at all. I would try to get everything right in a single shot, particularly the exposure. That got me thinking about camera settings, techniques and composition. It was good, I learned a lot by thinking through before executing. But that wasn’t enough for me.

"Do You Believe In Fate?"..."No, I Believe In Luck"

It was a normal day at work.

I went through the usual routine in the morning, took my lunch box (I packed my own lunch!) and sat in front of a computer to eat while surfing the internet.

Until today, I still couldn’t remember what was I searching for. I came across the portfolio of a photographer who shoots cityscape photography. His photos were stunning. He combined night HDR with long exposure to create an ultra futuristic look. One thing that surprised me was how natural his images looked.

To cut the long story short, one click led to another, I arrived at Good Light Journal where I read about luminosity mask. For those of you who has never heard of luminosity mask, it’s an editing tool in Adobe Photoshop. Even though it has been around for many years prior to my discovery, I was still fascinated by the endless opportunity it offers.

The discovery of a creative pathway re-ignited my passion in photography.

one of the earliest image i created with luminosity mask

One of the my earliest photographs I post-processed with luminosity mask

I searched and learned everything I could get my hands on luminosity mask - selective tonal and color adjustment, exposure blending, dodging and burning, black and white post-processing and many more. I started experimenting with different techniques to create the effect I want.

The process of learning luminosity mask has given me to opportunity to develop my own system for creativity. I found a way to learn more effectively and find endless inspiration for new ideas. I have learned to develop my personal style and be more consistent in my work.

The System I Have Created

So what has changed? What have I done differently now?

Well…

I have not used HDR software for a few years now. The only time I do that is to have a quick preview of what my images would look before I invest more time to blend them manually.

The majority of my images now are created using exposure blending, and not just one way to blend but seven! I pick the easiest way that delivers the best result. Now, imagine yourself if you could do the same thing, never running out of ideas to blend difficult exposures any more.

Through the renaissance of my photography journey, I’ve also picked up numerous post-processing techniques. After watching so many tutorials and photography courses (and I mean a lot!), I come to realize that photography skills are transferable. For example, retouching skills in portrait photography can be applied in landscape photography. Think about the possibilities!

new idea

More importantly, I’ve come up with a system (which I discovered later on, is actually a proven system) to find endless inspiration, reverse engineer images to learn how other photographers create their work and finally, how to develop my own style in photography.

​What Have I Learned

I can write a lot more about what I’ve learned.

But the ultimate question that you might be interested is: What difference has all these made?

Well, I’m not a man with words but I do have plenty of pictures 🙂 I shall let my photos speak for themselves. I’ve included photos I created before the hiatus and photos I produced in the recent years.

You may have noticed that I use a lot of “creating” rather than “taking” photos. This is intentional and purposeful.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” - Ansel Adams.

I simply cannot emphasize how true that quote is.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” - Ansel Adams.

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Images Before The Dark Age

edinburgh
tour du mont blanc
sheffield

Images After The Renaissance

glasgow river clyde
bluebells
toubkal mountain morocco

How Does This Relate To You

I considered myself to be lucky that I still have great passion in photography. During my journey, I have met people who have given up their camera completely for various reasons - life got in the way, no time to pursue, financial constraint, etc.

There is also a group of people who got stuck and didn’t know what to do. They suffer from the photographer’s block - feeling isolated, depressed and on the verge to quit.

I know that feeling because I’ve been there.

But there is a solution.

What you need is finding your breakthrough. This is the reason why I created this site. To share what I’ve been through in my journey, hoping it will benefit someone some day.

If you happen to enjoy creating HDR photos like me, or resonate with my story in anyway, then I can help you.

You see, to create photos that have the emotional impact on your audience, you need to learn how to post-process the Raw files, not just how to capture it with your camera. There is simply NO WAY you can produce photos that you see on magazines or reputable photo sharing sites without mastering digital image post-processing.

People often claim how they embrace their photos straight-out-of-camera (SOOC) - I don’t. In my opinion, they are just afraid to learn how to use the software.

To help you kickstart, I have written a comprehensive step-by-step guide on everything I know about creating realistic HDR (I call it XDR - Extended Dynamic Range) with exposure blending.

It is called the XDR Blueprint and it’s free for you to download.

Now, I should really travel back to the Karakoram Highway and shoot in Raw this time...