Exploring urban HDR photography

May 09

15 min. to read

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Jim Nix knows how to reveal the hidden sides of any city. Great locations are everywhere around you.

Do you live in a city? So do I - a lot of us do. As photographers, we all probably spend some time dreaming of getting out of the city to photograph stunning landscapes, but it’s not always possible to do so. In fact, there may not be any stunning landscapes nearby. Instead, we may need to think creatively about what we can capture close to home. Any city of size has a lot of photographic opportunities if you look hard enough.

Sure, you may feel like you have shot it all before, but if you keep looking, you can find new things to shoot in your home city - or at least new ways to shoot them. Try a different lens, shoot in portrait mode instead of landscape mode, shoot with a very shallow depth of field, etc - there are a million ways to mix it up. In fact, you might consider using Skylum’s Tonality to convert HDR shots to black and white. Urban images can look especially powerful in monochrome.

Regardless of what you choose to do, cities are rich visual playgrounds with a huge variety of subject matter just waiting to be photographed. Today, we are going to discuss urban photography and street scenes that you can capture in HDR and turn into stunning and dramatic urban masterpieces.

Shooting HDR in cities is actually just about my favorite thing. Of course, I want to shoot sunset on the Amalfi Coast as much as the next guy, but I will have to do that some other time. I can go out TODAY and take photos in my hometown and capture some fabulous and interesting subjects - and then use Aurora HDR to craft my own vision for the final product.

Here are a few examples of urban/streetscape photographs I have captured close to home, and processed with Aurora HDR:

Exploring urban HDR photography Image1Exploring urban HDR photography Image2Exploring urban HDR photography Image3Exploring urban HDR photography Image4Exploring urban HDR photography Image5

As you can see, there is a wide variety of subject matter, and working in varying light conditions can have a huge impact on your final outcome. 

Before we launch into this too deeply, I want to share a few thoughts about shooting urban shots and streetscapes. I have done a lot of this over the years, and while I will be the first to tell you that there are no rules, I definitely have some preferences that I think help create nice photos. I seek out the below items when I am casting about for an interesting photo, and try to include them all if I can (and if they are available).

But again, there are no rules - the most important thing is that you go out and really enjoy it! Capture whatever catches your eye. If it’s interesting to you, it’s likely interesting to others as well. Look for the overlooked and ignored and seek out something that others have just passed by. There are photo opportunities at every step along the way!

Here are thoughts on ensuring your urban shots are eye-catching:

1) Shoot at the edges of the day.

Like everyone else, I just like the soft light at sunrise or sunset. In particular, sunrise can be better for this, because you will have much less “interference” from traffic and people walking in your shots (unless of course you want that in your photos, such as light trails from passing cars).

2) If you have to shoot in the daytime, pick a cloudy or stormy day.

Cloudy and stormy skies are dramatic, and drama is a good thing in photography. You can capture the viewer’s eye and attention with a nicely composed and dramatic image.

3) Look for strong lines

Urban environments are full of lines, so give some consideration to the various lines in your photo when you are setting up your shots. Buildings, streets, signs, walls - lines are everywhere. Use them if you can!

4) Grunge is good

While we often want to create sparkling, pretty photos of places, I find it equally compelling and interesting when I see a gritty, grungy photo of a place. To me, it’s more real. It says “this is what real life is like” and I feel like I am seeing something that hasn’t been “dressed up” for a photo. It can be more relatable for the viewer. It’s familiar.

5) Neon and graffiti are forms of art

Whether I travel in my home city or across the globe, I always look for graffiti and neon signs. I love the stories they tell, and the self-expression of the artist that created them is evident. To me, it’s just another form of art, and I am often inspired when I find it.

Today, we are going to take a blue hour photo from downtown Austin, and convert it into a dramatic urban HDR photograph with Aurora HDR Pro. This photo will be processed to enhance the moodiness and drama, but of course, you can choose to process your own urban photos to your liking. That’s the power of Aurora - so much creativity at your fingertips! If you'd like to follow along using your own image, download a free trial here.

Let’s get started!

First things first - I took the 3 exposures and merged them in Aurora HDR. This was shot on a tripod and was timed to capture the light trails of the car turning in front of me as well as the oncoming car. That’s another thing about shooting in cities - light trails can really add to an image, and they are pretty easy to come across.Exploring urban HDR photography Image6Once the three photos come into Aurora, you are presented with this view, which is the base layer with absolutely NO adjustments yet applied to it:Exploring urban HDR photography Image7Because I am processing this photo with the intent of making it a bit more dramatic, I am sticking with presets from only the Dramatic category. While I don’t use presets from the Dramatic category all the time, I sure have fun when I do apply them - there are some really fun choices! For the base layer, I added the Creative Drama preset at 100%, and left it applied across the entire image. Already the image has a lot more.Exploring urban HDR photography Image8Next, I created a new layer and added the Late Fall preset from the Dramatic category. It adds some additional color and punch, but this time I reduced the opacity of the preset to just 39%. I had to take it down a bit because at 100% the colors were just off the charts saturated, and that is not the look that I am going for with this image.Exploring urban HDR photography Image9The next step is to add a new layer and apply the Ethereal preset to it (also from the Dramatic category). I like this preset because it desaturates the image a bit but also adds some drama and details. It fits where I am going with the image. I made some minor adjustments in the Tone menu on this preset layer:Exploring urban HDR photography Image10Then I made some color adjustments, on that same layer, by slightly adjusting the temperature and tint. Those changes help me get the image more in line with how I envisioned it:Exploring urban HDR photography Image11We’re getting there, folks - just two more layers! Next, I create a new layer and apply the Sleepy Forest preset across the entire image, but reduce the opacity of the preset on this layer down to just 22%. At 100% it was just too dark, but adding the preset at a low opacity setting gave it a little something extra that appealed to my eyes.Exploring urban HDR photography Image12Ok, now the image looks how I wanted it to look - moody, a bit dramatic and a bit more interesting. However, all this work on these layers added one thing that I am not a fan of - noise in the sky. So, let’s get rid of that!

This requires us to create a new layer and make adjustments under the HDR DeNoise menu on the right hand panel. When you create the layer and start moving the sliders to reduce noise, note that it will impact the entire image. Since we just want to change the sky, let’s just paint it into the sky with the brush. Here’s the mask we created:Exploring urban HDR photography Image13And hiding the mask, here is what the image looked like with the noise removed from the sky:Exploring urban HDR photography Image14The last thing I did was slightly straighten the image, but after that, I was all done. Here’s the final image:Exploring urban HDR photography Image15

Since I mentioned using Skylum Tonality for black and white conversion at the start of this article, I thought it would be fun to circle back with the final image and run it through Tonality, just to see what we can get. Here are two examples, both run through Tonality with a single preset applied:Exploring urban HDR photography Image16Exploring urban HDR photography Image17As you can see, the sky is the limit with Skylum products, and your imagination (and time to experiment) is the only thing that limits you. Take your time, experiment with presets and slider adjustments, and most of all have fun with the process! 

So what did we do today? Well, we took a fairly basic image captured at blue hour - with some light trails thrown in for fun - and turned it into a dramatic, exciting urban shot. With the generous use of presets (4 in total) we were able to darken the sky and add some structure to it (yet remove the noise), accentuate details in the street and the brick building, and significantly shift the color tones for a moodier and more exciting street scene. We turned a so-so image into something that is more interesting and dynamic.

All together, this was about 10 minutes of work in Aurora HDR. Pretty simple and quick, yet a radical departure from where the image started. Plus, it was a lot of fun, wasn’t it?

Give Aurora HDR Pro a try.

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That’s it for today - let me know if you have any questions, and thanks! If you would like a free trial of Aurora images, just click here to get it.

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