Lightroom 6 HDR Comparison

Lightroom 6 is out and one of the new features is the ability to merge photos to HDR within Lightroom. There’s a bit of controversy about this as many people consider the results to be pretty blah. Blah being the technical term for not the fuzzy, radioactive tone mapped tour de force that other programs employ (at least their presets).

Let’s compare the differences between the middle (correct?) exposure and a few different HDR merge methods and then I’ll tell you how to best use the function in Lightroom 6. These were all merged with what I would consider conservative settings to get a natural HDR look much like what I believe Lightroom is doing. I then applied my common starting point preset in Lightroom for HDR photos. The preset I use is Highlights -100, Shadows +100, Whites +15, Blacks -15, Clarity +15 and Vibrance +15.

Middle Exposure – I did need to bump up the exposure to match the output of the other methods. It was only about 1/3 of an EV bump. Not a bad starting point for a high dynamic range scene.

HDR Comparison, Lightroom 6 HDR

Lightroom 6 HDR – Here we have what people are talking about. If you compare this to the middle exposure above there’s really not much difference.

Lightroom 6 HDR Comparison

Photoshop HDR – Next is Photoshop. I suspect Photoshop and Lightroom are processing the same way and could give you the exact same results. Photoshop has more adjustments which I believe is why it looks a bit different from the Lightroom output. Photoshop has less contrast here and also notice the difference between the sun to that of Lightroom.

Lightroom 6 HDR Comparison, Photoshop HDR vs Lightroom HDR

Photomatix – Contrast Optimizer (Vibrant) – It really flattens out the image and notice the exposure on the broken down dock shows more detail. It does have flaring issues shooting into the sun though.

Lightroom 6 HDR Comparison, Photomatix vs Lightroom, Contrast Optimizer

Photomatix 32-bit HDR – This has been my go to method for awhile. Instead of tone mapping in Photomatix I reimport the 32-bit file to Lightroom and then adjust from there. In this case you see the dock has pretty good shadow detail but it doesn’t suffer from the splotchy sky of the Photomatix Contrast Optimizer version.

Photomatix 32-bit HDR vs Lightroom 6 HDR, Lightroom 6 HDR comparison

Conclusion: I have a more natural style of HDR and I try to avoid the artifacts in the over the top HDR you often see. For me the Photomatix 32-bit HDR is still the best option. It has good shadow detail without introducing a lot of splotchy banding, halos or reverse halos (black smudges). The Lightroom 6 HDR output didn’t seem to be much better than the middle exposure which is probably why people are underwhelmed.

How to use Lightroom 6 HDR (and Photomatix 32-bit HDR): These two methods, and maybe the Photoshop method depending on settings, are really a starting point for expanding the dynamic range. After that you can add more Clarity in Lightroom or export to programs like Topaz Clarity, Color Efex Pro or back to tone map in Photomatix. Hopefully Adobe will add more options to the Lightroom HDR function so we can tweak to our preferences.

Final Tip: If you’re not happy with how Lightroom adjusts the sliders after creating the HDR just turn off Auto Tone when creating the HDR. It will leave the sliders at the default position.

Urban Northern Lights

I think I’m hooked on chasing the Northern Lights now. Getting out of the urban sprawl and bright lights of Minneapolis/St. Paul is a good idea when trying to get a good shot. On a weeknight and with work the next day you can’t always drive an hour or two though. I decided to try to get some shots from the outer ring suburbs and Stillwater which is only 20 minutes from St. Paul.

Minnesota Northern Lights. Urban Northern Lights, Aurora Borealis in Central Minnesota, Lake Elmo

The Northern Lights in the suburbs.

Seen above is the Northern Lights just 2 miles from my house. This is in Lake Elmo which is a short 20 minutes to St. Paul. There’s quite a bit of urban sprawl in the Twin Cities and therefore a lot of light pollution. This site has a bit of a gap in the lights looking north.

Stillwater Northern Lights, Stillwater Aurora, Central Minnesota Northern Lights

Stillwater Aurora Borealis

This location was a lot more difficult. Stillwater, MN is further away from Minneapolis/St. Paul but as you can see has many lights from the city. In order to deal with the city lights and try to gather enough light to get the Northern Lights I had to employ a little on the fly thinking.

As luck would have it I placed a small black cloth in the car for cleaning my car’s nav system earlier in the day. I went and grabbed the cloth and then it was mostly trial and error. I was using 8 second exposures and I held the cloth over the bottom to cover the city lights. I would count the number of seconds and right around .5 to 1 second remaining I’d remove the cloth. There was a clear break at the horizon so this worked nicely.

You could try to bracket exposures and composite later but you might still have flaring issues and probably a loss of contrast. Check out more images in the Northern Lights gallery.

Lightning Photography

We had a pretty awesome storm about a week ago. One of those thunderstorms with tons of lightning but not a damaging wind storm. There was a brief period of very small hail though which had me panicked a bit since I bought a new car in the last few months. Anything for the shot though right (as long as the car is fine).

See the full gallery here.

Lightning Photography, Minnesota, Lightning Trigger Photo, Thunderstorm

The lightning was dancing all across the sky.

First I’ll just remind you that lightning is always dangerous. Most of the lightning was actually a long ways in the distance. There wasn’t any thunder till the last few shots but that isn’t a guarantee the next strike won’t be at your location. I was actually using a window mount in my car. You should read the National Lightning Safety Institutes comments on what is/isn’t safe related to vehicles being struck by lightning.

Cloud to ground strike.

As mentioned I was using a window mount. If doing so you may want to turn the engine off to minimize vibrations to the camera. I was also using a Lightning Bug Trigger trigger by MK Controls. This senses infrared light an instant before the lightning strike and triggers the camera. Worked pretty well after increasing the sensitivity. I’d also suggest using manual mode on your camera. Underexposing by two stops (-2EV) seemed to work really well. Most of the lightning wasn’t blown out and with the flash from the bolt it exposed the foreground. You’ll need to adjust for time of day and ambient light at your location however.

Lightning Photography, Lightning bolts, Minnesota, Thunderstorm

An epic battle in the sky.

This last photo is a composite of three different strikes. I used Topaz ReStyle and Lightroom to make this hot/cold edit. A little different flare to it anyway.

Again be careful out there and check out the gallery for a few more shots.

Light It Up Blue

Went out to catch some blue lit buildings on World Autism Awareness Day. The Majorie McNeely Conservatory at the Como Zoo in St. Paul was lit as well as some buildings in downtown Minneapolis. See the full gallery here.

Light It Up Blue, World Autism Awareness Day 2015, Blue Majorie McNeely Conservatory

The Dome of the Conservatory Lit in Blue for Autism Awareness.

If you’d like to know more about autism and this cause you can visit Autism Speaks for more information.

A closer shot of the blue dome of the Conservatory.

Minneapolis was in on the act too with the Capella Tower and the IDS Center lit in blue. The Capella Tower rarely changes colors so it was cool to see the blue crown.

Light It Up Blue 2015, Minneapolis Skyline, Capella Tower in blue for Autism Speaks

The Capella Tower with the blue crown from across the Mississippi River.

Go here to see the rest of the gallery Light It Up Blue Twin Cities.

St. Patrick’s Day Northern Lights

Went searching for the Aurora Borealis aka Northern Lights in central Minnesota. Fittingly this event occurred on St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, 2015. A bit of the green glow in the sky and even a green horseshoe…well sort of.

See the St. Patrick’s Day Northern Lights Gallery.

Aurora Borealis, Northern Lights, Sunrise River, Sunrise MN, Central Minnesota Northern Lights, Horseshoe Northern Lights,

The green horseshoe on the Sunrise River in central Minnesota.

The kp index is an indicator of the strength of a geomagnetic storm and it was hovering in the 8-9 range all day and into the hours after sun down. That’s a strong storm and in central Minnesota you need at least a 4 to pick up the aurora. I think 7 or more is ideal but even later in the evening when it dropped to 5 or 6 I was able to get some good shots courtesy of the camera.

You can read more about this storm at

Power Grid Aurora Borealis, Power Lines Northern Lights, Minnesota Aurora Borealis, Green Northern Lights Central Minnesota

The power grid can be disrupted by strong geomagnetic storms.

When photographing the Northern Lights I approached it similar to shooting the Milky Way. Using long exposures at high iso. That way you can collect the faint parts of the aurora and since you’re likely in a dark area you can even get some foreground. If the aurora is really bright in your area it may be hard to get both the sky and ground exposed without light painting or bracketing exposures.

Phantom Lake Northern Lights, Phantom Lake Aurora Borealis, Western Wisconsin Northern Lights, Grantsburg WI, Phantom Lake at Night, Wisconsin Aurora Borealis

Phantom Lake Northern Lights

These were all shot wide open with either a 2.8 or 4.5 aperture. Ideally a 2.8 or faster would be best. ISO was shot between 1600 & 6400m. Most of the one’s I used were ISO 3200 or 6400 so it’s important to have good low light performance from your camera and good noise reduction software. Exposures were between 10 seconds and 30 seconds. The 10 to 15 second exposures were good for catching pillars of light dancing while longer exposures caught more color with less definition. You’ll need to adjust for the intensity of the display and your ambient light conditions if you venture out to catch them.

Here’s a site I like to get the latest aurora forecast from. It also has a concise primer on what you need to see the aurora and links to other sources. That’s one of many resources out there. Good luck!

St. Patrick’s Day Northern Lights Gallery

Ice Castles 2015

The 2015 Ice Castles gallery.

Ice Castles, Ice Castles Eden Prairie MN

Ice Castles in the late day sun.

Two years ago I went to Ice Castles at the Mall of America. It was a cool display and I was fortunate to have an unbelievable sky and even have one of my photos published from there.

This time the venue was a more natural setting at a park in Eden Prairie, MN. Miller Park to be exact. Had some great late day sunshine this time although I would have preferred a few clouds too.

2015 Ice Castles

As night approaches the castles light up.

The ice castles really do look cool. This time they had a few slides for the kids, a waterfall, a maze and even heaters to warm up next to. It wasn’t too busy on a Thursday evening. I’m sure weekends are packed full but I believe they limit how many can view at one time.

Ice Castles at night!

The best part really is at night when they light up. There’s some music and a bit of choreography with the lights.

Check out the Ice Castles 2015 gallery.

Minneapolis Under Construction

Minneapolis is literally bursting at the seems with construction. Look at all the cranes in this shot. Most of them are for the new stadium that will be the home of the Vikings. You can see the skin is starting to be placed on it. It still has at least another year of construction.

Minneapolis Skyline, New Minneapolis Stadium. New Minnesota Vikings Stadium

The Viking Ship (Stadium) and Minneapolis skyline take shape.

Check out the Minneapolis Winter Gallery here for more skyline pics.

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015

It’s back and bigger than ever! The Red Bull Crashed Ice season kickoff in St. Paul. Check out the gallery for a bunch of pics of the action and the venue!

Saint Paul Crashed Ice, City Spotlights, Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015

St. Paul lit up for Crashed Ice.

I don’t think I’ve seen this many spotlights in St. Paul or Minneapolis for any event. The MLB All-Star Game in Minneapolis last year was the only thing comparable in recent memory.

Cathedral of Saint Paul Crashed Ice, Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015

The Cathedral of Saint Paul lit for Crashed Ice.

The venue is the Cathedral of Saint Paul. An amazing cathedral both inside and out. JFK once visited the Cathedral and it sits on a hill above St. Paul.

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015, Cathedral of Saint Paul Crashed Ice, Ice Cross Skater

Crashed Ice Starting Gate

The action starts right in front of the stained glass Rose Window into the first step down. I call it a jump myself.

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015, Ice Cross, Cathedral of Saint Paul Crashed Ice

The First Drop

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015, Ice Cross, Cathedral of Saint Paul Crashed Ice

Crashed Ice living up to it’s name!

The action is fast and furious and it only slows down when there’s a crash. Even after a crash like this the skaters are back on their feet and racing again.

Red Bull Crashed Ice 2015, Cathedral of Saint Paul Crashed Ice, Ice Cross Skater

The look of determination.

The participants really gave it their all. Fun to watch and this year’s spectacle grew even larger. The event in mild for January temperatures drew an estimated 140,000 people into an area smaller than most professional team stadiums.

Can’t wait for 2016! Check out more from 2015 in the gallery.

Happy New Year 2015

Welcome to 2015 and here’s a few photos I took around St. Paul the past few days. I’ve been under the weather (basically like everyone else around here) for the last week or two. Was nice to get out and get a few photos.

Covington Inn, Mississippi River, St. Paul Photography, Saint Paul, Cityscape

The Covington Inn on Ice.

It’s turned very cold here now and will be for the next week. Very glad I got out before the below zero temps. Although if you dress with the right materials and enough layers you can stay pretty warm even in these temps.

Mounds Park, St Paul, Saint Paul, Mississippi River, River Ice

Mounds Park In the Winter.

Christmas Lights 2014 Part 2

Was able to get out and get a few moreChristmas/Holiday lights this time in Minneapolis by the Lake of the Isles area. It’s been a challenge as the snow has melted several times.

The gallery Christmas Lights 2014.

Holiday Lights, Inviting Home, Christmas Lights, Minneapolis Holiday Home

Holiday Glow

The Lake of the Isles area has many wonderfully decorated homes. This next one I just loved the snow on the roof. It wasn’t real dark yet but the snow is the real star here.

Holiday Home, Holiday Lights, Snow on roof, Christmas Lights

Not your typical looking Minneapolis home.

Here was a nice find with this modestly decorated home with Minneapolis in the background. I like to make sure the snow in these types of photos looks white. Sometimes it might look blue or even purple at night depending on the lighting present. I play around with the white balance in Lightroom or even the Hue, Saturation and Luminance to get the snow to look white.

Holiday Lights, Minneapolis House, Christmas Lights, Minneapolis home with Skyline

The gallery Christmas Lights 2014.


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