Using HDR to Craft a Waterfall

By Dan Burkholder Back to


No camera technique or Photoshop trick is ever as good as having a subject that is beautifully illuminated in the first place. But just because the light is beautiful doesn’t mean that our sensor will translate that quality to the final print without some—ahem—creative intervention on our part. I was reminded of these challenges recently when photographing a waterfall set deep in the woods. The overhead light, while giving a wonderful glow to the flowing water, also made for extremely dark shadows that detracted from the gentle, peaceful feeling of the setting.

Film shooters have the Zone System; digital camera shooters have high dynamic range (HDR) imaging techniques. Figure 1 is a straight, single exposure of the falls. Besides getting a feel for the charm of the grotto, it illustrates that the contrast of the light in the dark woods was loads more than today’s sensors could handle.

Though I can’t turn this article into an HDR how-to, it is important to know that I exposed this waterfall scene (about 20 minutes from our home in the Catskill Mountains of New York) as a bracketed series (Figure 2). By melding the exposures together with Photoshop and special third-party soft- ware, I had an enormously thick image that I could bend and tonally sculpt to my heart’s content. In short, the blended Raw files provided image flexibility that no single Raw or—heaven forbid— JPEG file, can have.

Overall contrast first

It makes sense to start with the broad changes in our image and then work our way to the more specific. With that in mind, one of the first things I do is create a Curves adjustment layer (Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Curves) that creates a good black and a good white in the print while trying to massage midtones as much as possible. (The “as much as possible” amendment will make more sense shortly.) One of my deepest convictions is that, from CS3 and beyond, there is zero reason to ever use Levels on your images. Curves can (with CS3) do everything Levels can do—plus a lot more. Popular rumor has it that I’ve become something of a Curves tyrant, actually forbidding workshop students from using Levels. If these rumors are true, it’s only because I’m trying to instill the best workflow rituals in my students: learn Curves and there are a whole lot of other things in Photoshop that you won’t have to learn! Now how can that be a bad thing?

Local contrast second

It’s a natural thing to go through phases in our lives. Right now I’m going through a phase in which I’m obsessed with tonal control, and especially with local contrast. Let’s look at a couple simple ways to achieve that enhanced local contrast.

One of my favorite—and coincidentally one of the easiest—methods to lighten and darken areas of the image is with a Soft Light Burn-and Dodge Layer. This is not an adjustment layer. Simply create a new layer (Layer > New > Layer) and then make the very important settings for this new layer as shown in Figure 3.

The mode should be changed from Normal to Soft Light. Then the layer option, Fill with Soft-Light-neutral color (50% gray), should be checked. Note: this option is grayed-out until you change to Soft Light mode.

It’s sinfully easy to use this newly created layer of gray pixels to selectively lighten and darken areas of your image. If you paint on this gray layer with black, you will darken (or burn-in) the image, and if you paint with white you will lighten (or dodge) the image. Of course, the devil is in the details. Two things will make your Soft Light burn-and-dodge experience a rewarding one: use a soft- edged brush of appropriate size, and set your brush’s flow to a low value around 20%. You can see my own Soft Light Burn-and-Dodge layer in Figure 4 below.

Old dog learns new trick

One of the many great things I enjoy about teaching workshops is that it keeps me on the ball. During the 14 years that I’ve been teaching digital imaging classes, I’ve witnessed a constant rising of the Photoshop knowledge bar. Things that would elicit a “wow” from students just a couple years ago are now status quo. If you don’t like constantly rewriting lesson plans, digital imaging is not what you should be teaching.

In 2007, UK student Mark Setchell showed me a neat method for enhancing local detail in digital images. My initial skepticism evaporated as he demonstrated this simple technique that is the digital image equivalent of having cataracts removed from your eyes.

There is a catch to employing this technique. You must first combine all your visible layers into a new layer. “Why not just flatten your image?” you ask. Well, because I love the flexibility that layers give me, and flattening would be terminal when it comes to having those “oh drat, I’ve changed my mind about the contrast in that region” moments. Repeat to yourself: A fear of commitment in Photoshop is a good thing. (Note: advanced practitioners using Smart Objects have alternate, nifty ways to do this.)

To combine all your visible layers into a new layer, you must hold down three keys and then press a fourth. It sounds more complicated than it is. Here are the keyboard commands for Mac and Windows. Note that the “+” indicates you then hit “E.” Don’t type a “+” as part of the keyboard command.

Remember, whenever you create any sort of new layer, it is created above the selected layer. Because it’s best to build our images from the bottom up, select the top layer in your layer stack before executing the secret keyboard hand- shake. This way your combined layer will appear at the top of your layer stack.

After I did this in my waterfall shot, my Layer palette looked like Figure 4. Sharp-eyed readers will notice that I have named the layers. This is a good idea (rather obviously, though I’m constantly shocked at how many digital workers don’t honor the practice) because if you reopen the image a day or a year later, you will have the layer names to remind you what job each layer performs.

Did you notice the name I gave to that combined, top layer? It’s a give- away as to what was done to the layer to enhance local contrast. I applied the Unsharp Mask filter to it, using the absurdly wacky settings of 20 for the Amount, 50 for the Radius, and 0 for the Threshold (Figure 5). Don’t believe it’ll work? Just give it a try and see how it affects your image. You’ll probably agree that, for many images, it enhances local contrast, making detail more inviting than ever. Remember, this is not sharpening for printing. Here we are creatively exploiting the Unsharp Mask filter as a way to accentuate local detail.

If this detail-enhancing layer makes the darkest tones in your image too black or cooks your highlights, you can mask those areas or use Layer Styles to clip out the problem in the darks. Figure 4 also shows that I’ve added a mask to protect the waterfall in that combined layer.

For the actual print (I do like to make prints after all) I use papers from both Museo and Inkpress. Museo Max is a stunning matte paper, while Inkpress’s Baryta Warm Tone has one of the prettiest semi-gloss surfaces to be found. Epson printers work happily with Imageprint software to smooth the bumps in the digital road. For final sharpening for the print I’ve come to rely on Nik Sharpener Pro. This software takes much of the guesswork out of that last, critical step that makes the print look sharp but not oversharpened.

And in conclusion

As photographers, the one thing we are always doing is taking the three-dimensional world around us and putting it in a rectangle on a piece of paper. That’s a really huge departure from reality, isn’t it? Beyond that, we strive to guide the viewers’ eyes, trying to get them to linger in some areas and move around to others; I think of it as orchestrating eye movements. We do this visual conducting with careful attention to subject placement but in the print we also rely upon color and contrast to guide those viewers.

The final image is shown in Figure 6. I like to think that it more honestly and faithfully captures the whispered magic of the Catskill Mountains. After all, this is the land of Rip Van Winkle.

About the Author

Dan Burkholder
Dan Burkholder has been teaching digital imaging workshops for 15 years at venues including The School of the Art Institute, Chicago; The Royal Photographic Society, Madrid, Spain; The International Center of Photography, New York; Mesilla Digital Imaging Workshops, Mesilla, NM and many others. Dan’s latest book, The Color of Loss (University of Texas Press, 2008), documents the flooded interiors of post-Katrina New Orleans and is the first coffee table book done entirely using HDR methods. His award-winning book, Making Digital Negatives for Contact Printing, has become a standard resource in the fineart photography community. Dan’s iPhone images can be seen at: