Disney HDR Photography
HDR Photography is becoming increasingly popular, as are Disney HDR photos. The Disney theme parks lend themselves to the whimsical and vibrant post-processing style often associated with HDR photography, making this no surprise. While faux HDR is easier than ever thanks to iPhone apps and other programs, true HDR is still a challenge for many photographers. In this post I share some of my HDR photos, along with a basic look at my post processing workflow, and how HDR can fit into that. I’ll conclude with a look at Photomatix 5, including how it makes HDR easy for everyone.
I receive a lot of questions about photography (mostly people asking about my equipment recommendations) and while I’ve covered a lot of topics and offered a lot of tips in blog posts here, I haven’t really delved into post processing. People often assume my Disney photos are HDR, and that’s typically not the case.
A single blog post on my editing work flow would be impossible since what I do varies on a case by case basis. Generally, I start by opening photos in Adobe Camera Raw (many people use Lightroom–the two programs use the same processing engine, Lightroom is just a bit more robust) and applying a preset based on the type of photo. These presets vary, but the focus of each is recovering highlights, opening shadows, increasing contrast/blacks, and increasing vibrance. I’d say about 95% of my editing comes in Adobe Camera Raw, usually via minor tweaks on the presets I have saved (this phase of the editing usually takes only a minute or two!)
These steps have the impact of expanding dynamic range, even if they’re not HDR. From there, I open the shot in Photoshop CS6, and do additional tweaking as appropriate, usually with a variety of adjustment layers. These tweaks usually only amount to about 5% of the changes in the photo’s look, but can take significantly longer to complete (it’s definitely a ‘diminishing return’…I might spend 30 minutes or longer adjusting something that most casual observers would never even notice). After this, I save the full size image and a web size. For a while, this had been the extent of my workflow. I periodically tested plugins and other programs from time to time, but that was my go-to combo.
In the past year, I have been doing increasingly more HDR photography editing as I’ve strived to try new things with my photography. I had avoided HDR in the past because of the negative stigma of HDR in the photography community, which was caused by a proliferation in heavily manipulated HDR photography. However, many of my friends in the Disney photography community were creating truly amazing HDR Disney photos that worked really well with the fantasy nature of the parks.
I’ve finally accepted that not everyone is going to like every style of photography (I know plenty of people don’t like my normal style!), and just because some HDR can have halos, grungy skies, or look like “clown barf,” that doesn’t totally invalidate the style. Some people might be dismissive of any work in the HDR style, but HDR can be utilized in so many ways that it makes little sense to lump all applications of HDR together. I’ve accepted that you can’t please everyone, and, quite frankly, the opinion of anyone who dismisses an entire form of art out-of-hand probably isn’t worth worrying about, anyway.
I used Photomatix here and there last year, mostly in situations where I wanted to accentuate textures. It has never been a one-stop editing program for me, as I like to layer an HDR photo with a ‘normal’ photo produced via the above Adobe Camera Raw/Photoshop CS6 editing process and merge the two as a hybrid edit. I think the HDR layer usually brings greater texture, a soft inviting feel, and better-controlled highlights. The degree to which I use the HDR layer in the final merge depends upon the scene. Many scenes in Disney theme parks already have a fantasy-like vibe that works well with HDR. This is how I’ve edited all of the photos in this blog post. Some may barely look different than my normal style, while others are quite clearly HDR. Hopefully they all look “good.”
Last weekend, I finally upgraded to Photomatix 5, and was blown away by the improvements in the program. It’s still not a one-stop program for me, but I’m definitely impressed by its increased versatility and ease of use. Photomatix can be used for expanding the dynamic range without doing much processing (unless someone told you, you’d never know a photo processed in “real estate” mode were HDR), all the way to creating a “painterly” style heavily-edited photo. Photomatix 5’s setup makes it easy for anyone to use, although advanced HDR photo editing still has a steep learning curve. I did a ton of editing over the weekend, and posted a review of the program on my travel photography blog. (By the way, if you’re interested in me writing a blog post with tips for HDR photo editing, leave a comment on that blog post–I’m more than happy to do it, but it has the potential to be looooong and take a lot of work, and I don’t want to put in a ton of effort if no one really cares.)
Travel Photography Blog
Speaking of my travel + photography blog, regular readers of this site (or those who have clicked on the banner to the right out of curiosity) might remember that I launched a companion blog called TravelCaffeine.com to chronicle our non-Disney travels about a year ago. Despite having ambitious ideas for that blog, after about a month it basically went dormant, as I simply didn’t have the time to keep up with it between my job, this blog, and other responsibilities.
I’ve since cleared my plate of some other responsibilities, and have resumed regular posts on that site. While I love Disney, I am also passionate about exploring the world both in person and with my camera, and that blog gives me a great outlet and incentive for that passion. (As crazy as it sounds, when that alarm goes off at 4 a.m. so I can go out for a sunrise shoot when we’re traveling, thinking that “I have to get up to get photos for the blog” is great motivation not to hit snooze!)
My idea at the time of starting that blog–and still today–is that most of my photography-related posts would fit better over there. We know a lot of people come here because of the photography, but we’ve noticed that the technical posts are skipped over by the vast majority of readers, most of whom are looking for Disney trip planning advice.
While I maintain that learning photography techniques is an important part of planning for any Disney trip, it seems many of you don’t think so. (I guess we’ll have to agree to disagree!) So, I want to encourage those of you with wanderlust or interested in photography to read our travel photography blog, TravelCaffeine.com! Besides photography, one of my main categories of posts over there will be tips for the U.S. National Parks. Those of you who follow me on Twitter probably know that I am a strong advocate for our National Parks (truly, America’s Best Idea). If you’re an American, these parks are your birthright, and there is no good reason for not visiting them.
Anyway, if you’re interested in learning more about Photomatix or want to see sample photos, check out my full Photomatix Review on TravelCaffeine.
Disney HDR Photos
If you want other photography advice and equipment recommendations, I suggest checking out my Photography Guide. Here are a few of my other top photography blog posts:
What’s In My Camera Bag
Best Books for Improving Your Photography
5 Indispensable Tips for Better Vacation Photos
Choosing the Best Travel Tripod
Choosing the Best Camera Bag for Travel
For trip planning tips and comprehensive advice, make sure to read our Walt Disney World Trip Planning Guide and Disneyland Trip Planning Guide.
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Are you a fan of Disney HDR photos? How do you prefer to process your photos? Leave any questions or comments you have below in the comments!
Very helpful blogs as we’re traveling to disney in the new year. I’ve been debating getting something lighter to use that has dslr similar quality with a point and shoot feel… or haul my d7000 and lens/camera bag…much to consider now.
Hi Tom, I like the composition of your HDR shots! Similar to another question already asked, but best way to get shots without hordes of people or are you editing them out somehow?
Keep up the good work, I am a regular on your website since I stumbled upon it looking for a review on 8mm Fisheye. I would love to read your “tips for HDR photo editing blog” so please when you have time please go for it!! I would really appreciate it.
I feel weird commenting so long after the initial post, but this seemed as good a time as any. I came across your blogs a couple weeks ago and am making my way through all of the posts as fast as I can! Your work is amazing, and you are my number one source of photography inspiration right now! Thanks for being amazing, and keep up the posts!
How do you get so many shots without crowds of people?
You take fantastic photos!
Tom, since this post, have you provided any further detail as to your HDR process / work flow, or some before / after pictures, or even the thought of selling your presets – I love your Disney photos, and since we will be there in April, I would love to take some HDR-worthy photos. Side question – some of your photos must be very long exposures – is there any issue with using tripods anywhere in WDW? Thank you!
Excuse my ignorance but I have no idea what HDR photography is other than it appears to have a cartoon saturated color feel to it that’s interesting. Does it stand for something? is it a technique while shooting? Strickly editing manipulation? perhaps you could add a paragraph on what it is you’re actually talking about for those of us who are clueless.
Have you tried Enfuse, available for Lightroom as a plugin? It blends exposures, providing increased dynamic range, without the HDR tone mapping that some object to. It is also very easy to use, compared to Photomatix (which I also have). I find that it provides a nice base for editing in LR or the OnOne Perfect Photo Suite.
In any case, I will be visiting WDW twice and Disneyland Resort once in the next three years, and am anxious to try many of your tips.
Have you tried out the free trial version of Topaz Adjust? I started with Photomatix last year as well and tend to stick with the fusion options. You mention using layers and that is what led me to try Adjust. I only wanted to tone map a portion of the image and Photomatix is too early in the workflow (unless I run it through w/ two sets of options). I’ve started using Photomatix for fusion only and then I tonemap with a selection as needed in a smart layer in CS6. I don’t do HDR and tonemapping all the time but use it as needed. Thought I’d mention it since you seem to be aiming for a similar style.
Heading to DL/DCA later this summer and I’m scouting with your blogs / photos. Thanks!
I haven’t tried that–at least not with a more recent version of Topaz–I will have to give that a try. Thanks for the heads up!
Hi Tom –
Count me as someone that enjoys all of your Disney posts along with the technical ones. Great stuff all around.
Question – For your Disney HDR photos, generally how many exposures are you taking to create your finished image?
For HDR, I typically do 2-3 exposures. Some people do way more than that, but I think it’s overkill.
I always wondered how you two got such amazing effects on some of your pictures…I’m definitely going to have to play around with some of those programs sometime soon. Question though, do you have some before and after edit pictures you could share?
Your photography is simply stunning!! On your recommendation I am working my way through Understanding Exposure and the Scott Kelby series. Do you have any recommendations for learning photoshop?? Thanks so much!!
I think hdr photos are absolutely beautiful. I hope to win so i can take my own hdr disney pictures!!!!