Jim Nix shares tip how to take great spring photos and how HDR can make them even more impressive

Spring is a great season for photography. The weather starts to warm up, the flowers start to bloom, the rain falls a bit, and everything feels fresh and new. It’s a perfect time to head out with the camera and capture some of the beauty of the Earth renewing itself. After a cold winter, the landscapes really start to come alive.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - landscapeCapturing Spring’s Spirit - flowersCapturing Spring’s Spirit - trees and skyThe two things that I really focus on photographing in the Spring season are the wildflowers and the waterfalls. Thanks to the aforementioned rain, here in Central Texas we get plenty of both, and they are fantastic to photograph. Today I will focus on the wildflowers. Here are a few tips:

1. While a single exposure can at times capture the beauty of a scene, I always fire brackets so that I have the option to create an HDR should I need to do so. I often find that merging the brackets into an HDR gives me a much more pleasing result, and it also lets me better control the final look of the photo.

2. Be sure and bring a tripod, because you will want the stability it offers when firing your brackets. I have done plenty of handheld HDRs, but I am always more confident and satisfied when I take them from a tripod.

3. Also, be sure and scout the weather and location reports online before you go. It’s terrible when you show up somewhere to shoot and it’s closed, or there’s a festival occurring and you can’t get your shots. I always try and avoid crowds, which means I prefer to shoot in the morning. Plus, I just like the morning light and the solitude of being in a place by myself (which is rare at sunset).

The first thing I do while out shooting is to make sure that I get 3 good shots in each bracket set (while you could take more, I find that 3 shots gives me enough to work with). What I mean is that I want one that is fairly dark, one somewhat evenly lit, and one that is a bit brighter. I don’t want one that is too bright or one that is too dark, as that renders them basically useless. This is the same for wildflowers or waterfalls. I definitely don’t want blown out highlights in a waterfall photo, and a long exposure of a scene with wildflowers runs the risk of the wind moving them around too much.

Then I take the 3 photos into Aurora HDR Pro and let the magic begin!

The first thing I do once I get into Aurora is scroll through a few presets before selecting one to begin with. Prior to using Aurora HDR, I never applied presets to my photos. I always wanted to maintain full control of the image and make all the choices myself. But I find that I really like many of these presets, especially in the Realistic HDR category. While I still make edits to the photo after applying a preset, I find they are a fantastic place to start, and they give me some direction and ideas for where I can take the photo.

From there, it’s a little bit of experimentation until I get to the final image. I generally stack a few layers in Aurora, brushing in masks in order to selectively apply targeted adjustments to specific parts of the photo. Aurora makes it quick and easy, and it allows you to really create the look you want with a photo.

Here’s a photo from the Texas hill country. We usually get a lot of bluebonnets springing up (it’s those little blue flowers, and they pop up everywhere in the spring) and photographers go crazy chasing them. I was out in the early morning, so that I could have this area to myself. In this photo, I opted to frame the rising sun behind the tree, so as to diffuse the bright light a bit, especially since I was shooting straight into it. I loved the boot hanging on the fence, and it all just lined up perfectly.

I started with these 3 RAW files and took them into Aurora. Aurora starts off with the screen you see below. I just click “Create HDR” and it takes you into Aurora to get started.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - series of bracketsOnce the 3 files are merged, the opening screen in Aurora has the image there, with the menu panel on the right side and the option for opening up the Presets in the bottom right. Just click that once and you can review the Presets that way.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Aurora HDR Pro screenshotNext, we will dive into the exact steps I took on this image to achieve my vision for the final look of the photo. I wanted to bring a lot of focus onto the boot sitting there on the fence, because I think it’s a unique and interesting element. But I also want the image to appear calm, as though I was all alone on some forgotten country road at sunrise (which I was, in fact!).

So here are my processing steps for the image:

Step 1: The first preset that I applied was Vivid Memories in the Realistic HDR category, adding it to the base layer. It gave the image a nice pop and really brought out some of the details. However, there was more that I wanted to do on this layer. I felt the bottom was a little too dark and the sky was a little too bright. So I went into the Top & Bottom Lighting section of the tools menu and made adjustments there.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Aurora HDR screenshot

Step 2: The next thing I did was add a layer for the boot, since I wanted to make it more prominently visible in the photo. To add a layer, just click on the “+” sign in the upper right next to the word Layer, and give it a name. I chose to call it “Boot” to make it easy to refer back to if needed later in processing.

Then, I clicked on the brush icon above the histogram, adjusted the size and opacity, and painted over the boot and the fence post below it. See that mask selection here:Capturing Spring’s Spirit - masks and layersThen it’s a matter of making adjustments via the tools on the right-hand menu. Because I have created a mask for the boot and fence, that is the only place that these next adjustments will take place.

My goal with this mask was to brighten up the boot and fence as well as to give it a little more detail and “pop”. I want to draw the viewers attention to it. So, here are the adjustments I made to the boot and fence using the various tools on the right-hand menu:

  • Tone: increase Smart Tone, Highlights, Midtones
  • Structure: increase Clarity and HDR Look Amount
  • Color: increase Temperature to warm it up
  • Details: increase Small and Medium Details on the Global Details tab
  • Color Filter: decrease Blue saturation - I saw a little bit of blue in the boot from the shadows

After all those adjustments (which only took a minute or two), I now have the boot looking much more visible in the photo:Capturing Spring’s Spirit - final screenshot

Step 3: Now, it’s time to work on the sky. I have a tendency to really like smooth skies, so I am almost always using brushes to reduce the noise and detail in the sky. So to work on the sky, I just create another layer and call it “Sky”. Then I use a brush to create a mask over the sky, which looks like this:Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Mask for the sky

Once I have the mask applied, it’s time to make some adjustments. So, I go into the HDR DeNoise section on the right-hand tool menu, and here are the adjustments I made, which you can see in the next screenshot:

  • increase Amount
  • increase Smooth 

Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Adjusting in Aurora HDR

That’s one of the killer features of Aurora - you no longer need a separate tool for noise reduction. I used to always have to make another round trip to another program to take out the noise, and it was always a bit of give and take to get it looking the way I wanted it. But with Aurora, you do it right here and just in the section that you painted the mask over - easy, quick and a big time-saver!

Now the sky is finished, and I am getting down to the last few minor adjustments that I want to make to this image.

Step 4: While I like the image thus far, I want to add a little contrast to the big tree and the treeline on either side of it. I feel like a little more contrast there will help the image, so once again, it’s a simple mask that I use.

I name this layer “Center tree” and then brush in a mask over the areas I want to focus on. Notice that over the big center tree that I masked in at 100% opacity, while on the treeline on either side of it, I reduced the opacity in the mask there (you can tell the difference based on the red shade of the mask). I did this on purpose because I wanted a little more contrast on the center tree.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Enhance details in Aurora HDR

After the mask is applied, it’s time to adjust the contrast for that area. So I click on Tone on the right-hand menu panel, and increase the Contrast slider. All done with that!Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Finishing touches

Step 5: Ok, we are almost there! Isn’t this fun? ;-)

Next, I want to make some slight global adjustments (meaning they will affect the entire photo). Essentially, I am adjusting some of the colors and tones to give the image a little extra “oomph”. You know, it’s my last chance to kick it up a notch, so I’m going for it.

Here are the adjustments that I make on this layer:

  • Tone: decrease Highlight and Blacks
  • Image Radiance: increase slightly
  • Color: increase Saturation, Vibrance and Warmth slightly
  • Top & Bottom Lighting: slight decrease to Top Lighting, slight increase to Bottom Lighting
  • Color Filter: slight increase to Blue Saturation

Once all that is done, I feel pretty good about where this image has ended. Here’s what it looks like right now:Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Layers

Step 6: This step is totally optional, but it’s something I just had to mention. If you notice in the previous screenshots, there are three very minor distracting elements in the photo. The first one is a big “thing” (I don’t know what it is, actually - maybe some concrete or a steel tube?) that is on the far right edge of the image, right at the treeline. Whatever it is, I want it gone. You may not have noticed it, but it’s driving me nuts. :-)

The second distracting element is the small bit of the barbed wire fence that is coming across the bottom right edge of the photo. The third is a bright little spot in the center of the bluebonnets, that appears to be a little light sparkle from the sun. None one of these is a really big deal, but since they are bugging me, I am going to remove them.

This is where the beauty of the Skylum Creative Kit comes into play. I am done with Aurora, but from Aurora, I can open up Snapheal and easily remove those two items.

So that’s what I do last. You just have to paint over them and hit “Erase”. It’s very simple and very quick. In the screenshot below, you can see that I have painted over the piece of fence and just need to erase it, while I have already removed the big “thing” at the treeline and still need to paint over and remove the light sparkle.Capturing Spring’s Spirit - Snapheal screenshot

Once that is done, I just save the image and I am all done!

While it may take a few minutes to read this entire tutorial, in real life it only takes me about 15 minutes to do all of this processing. Aurora HDR Pro makes it all very easy and very quick, and I can simply perform multiple steps across multiple layers to exert fine-tuned control over my final image, and take my basic, boring photo and turn it into something I love!

Speaking of which, here is the final image:Capturing Spring’s Spirit - the final photo by Jim Nix

Thanks for following along and let me know if you have any questions!

Jim Nix is a pro photographer and blogger. You can visit Jim's website or his FB page to take a look at other photos of Jim.

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