The theme for this endeavor was Parkour meets Gotham City. We wanted to showcase the fluid movement of Parkour with a backdrop of gothic cityscapes. Our goal was to transform common Denver landmarks into a dark and sinister world. I loved the idea of taking Denver and turning it into a dark cinematic backdrop for the renegade sport of Parkour so this was an exciting project.
When Brian approached me with the project he had some technical problems that had to be figured out. Namely, the backdrops were so large his strobes would not be able to light the parkour athlete and the building at the same time. As you can see in this image the parkour athlete is caught in action with two Profoto 7B's but the light falls off the building towards the top even at ƒ 2.8.
I told him about the HDR (High Dynamic Range) technique of utilizing multiple brackets and assembling them in an HDR program like Nik's HDR Efex Pro. Unfamiliar with HDR, Brian did some research and found the typical over processed look of HDR and was not impressed. I assured him I would be creating natural looking back drops and it would not look like the over processed images he saw.
To capture the building, Brian photographed it in eight different exposures at approximately one stop intervals with no strobes. These backgrounds were shot at ƒ11 and ISO 100 on a Canon 5D MII with a Ef 17-35mm 2.8L USM lens. Mounting your camera to a tripod is critical to make the HDR process work well.
I then had to prepare the frames for the HDR process. When working with multiple brackets for HDR I like to get the raw images ready for processing. This includes making sure they are all in sync with white balance settings, which can differ when shooting with auto white balance set on your camera. If they are not all the same white balance you can get some weird looking color in your final HDR image. I also like to use the Lens Correction tab in Camera Raw or Lightroom to straighten out the lines and fix any vignetting before processing.
Now that the raw images are prepped for processing I open them up in Nik's HDR Efex Pro. I've been using this program for HDR images since it first came out and I really love the simplicity and power it provides me in one place. With Nik's U Point technology, it also allows me to make quick adjustments to enhance details of the image or change large areas like the sky with ease.
One of the tricks to producing realistic looking HDR images is to not go overboard on the controls. Just because you can take a slider real far doesn't mean it looks good on your photo. You can, of course, start with one of the many presets HDR Efex Pro has built in if it fits your final vision but I usually like to start from scratch to insure I have just the look I want.
One of the controls that make a big difference in creating a natural look is the Tone Compression slider. This adjusts the dynamic range between the light and dark areas. If you increase this too much your highlights will flatten out and end up the same brightness as your dark areas. This you have to adjust for each image and make sure you don't go too far with it. Remember, we want it to look natural. For this image I want to open it up so I can see the detail in the architecture but I'll adjust parts of this later in Photoshop for a more dramatic effect.
The Method Strength enhances the detail of the image and you can easily go overboard with this. For this type of architectural image I may go high on this slider but in a landscapes I may back off of it.
The HDR Method allows you to control some specific
attributes of the HDR image like Depth, Detail, and Drama and can be another big player in the look of the HDR image. You'll see some descriptions for these sliders at each notch that tells you if its going to end up with more of a natural look or be very dramatic.
You can of course control a lot of aspects of your photo with HDR Efex Pro but in this case I'm really trying to get the HDR constructed naturally and planning on changing color and tone in Photoshop to match the frame of the parkour athlete jumping. With the finished frame above processed a bit bright to allow for the details in the building I start tweaking color.
I first neutralize the color with a Curves adjustment layer and got rid of the orange street light color. I then balanced out the light area on the bottom pillars and cleaned up the light flare from the telephone booth in the area at bottom right.
Now comes the mood and drama. Using a mask to create a path of light across the building I applied a curve that darkened the highlights on the outside but leaving the middle untouched thus creating the shaft of light across the building. You can see in the screen shot of the mask and curve adjustment above where it is being applied. Remember when working with masks, white reveals and black conceals.
After a bit more darkening and adding a High Pass filter to crunch up the texture in the building, the background is close to finished. I also shifted the color of the lights in the window to fall more in the color palette.
Now were ready to drop in the parkour athlete. I used onOne's Perfect Mask software to outline the athlete so I could drop him in the frame. The Perfect Mask software has some really cool tools to select colors and shapes and get things outlined in no time. I had to also adjust his tone to match him up to the building and set him in the background. Clipping the adjustment layers to the athlete's layer allows me to adjust him separately without affecting the building underneath him. This is a great way to adjust layers when compositing two together.
Now that I have the athlete composited in and adjusted to the background I decided to add in a sky above the building to help define the top of the building which was getting lost in the darkness. Once again using onOne's Perfect Mask software, it was an easy cut out and was quickly ready to drop one of my cloud plates in. I also added in a flare created in Red Giant's Knoll Light Factory. I love the Light Factory software because you have so much control over all the light creation and can get it just the way you want.
Now comes the last color tweaks to polish the image. I started out adding a lot of blue to the image, really pushing the Red channel up in the curve adjustment. Then I wanted to bring in some warmth to the highlights. I added bit of yellow to broaden the color palette and give it more depth by pushing up the blue channel in the highlights. The final Curves adjustment also flattened out the blacks to give it a softer feel. You can try downloading and using this Curves Adjustment on your own image but be sure to use it in the Adobe RGB color space.