Review: The HDR Book by Rafael “RC” Concepcion

David Salahi Books, HDR 5 Comments

a review of The HDR Book by Rafael "RC" Concepcion

Sadly, this is not the review I wanted to write. I heard RC Concepcion on the Typical Shutterbug podcast recently talking about HDR photography and his new book and got all excited and ran right out and bought the book. However, after spending some time with it I found it lacking and I will explain why below. But, first I have to say that I hesitated in writing a negative review of a book by RC because I’ve been reading his articles in Photoshop User for years and I know he’s a major contributor in the world of digital photography. Still, I have to call ’em the way I see ’em. That said, here’s how I see this book.

I was disappointed by this book since I bought it, assuming from its title, that it would be all about HDR techniques. But I found it to be lacking in this regard. Now, there is certainly some good HDR info here. The book starts with tips on some of the kinds of subjects that lend themselves to HDR processing. It also features advice on how to shoot for HDR.

“I never give "em hell. I just tell the truth and they think it is hell.”
   —Harry S. Truman

Another thing I like is that throughout the book Concepcion illustrates each sample project using Photoshop’s built-in Merge to HDR Pro feature, HDRSoft’s Photomatix Pro, and Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro. Since you can download trial versions of the two HDR processing solutions you can try out all three approaches and determine which you prefer without spending any money on software.

The area where I found the book lacking is in the area of solid explanations of why and when to use which specific HDR processing techniques.  What I was looking for are some principles I could apply to any image or, at least, certain principles for certain kinds of images.  Instead, what I found was, for each of the book’s projects, a single paragraph (one for each of the three software packages) highlighting the author’s choice of settings for that image. What was missing is the reasoning that led to those decisions—and a good deal more information on how those settings might have compared to other combinations of settings.

So, you may be wondering how it’s possible to write a book on HDR when there are only three paragraphs and three pairs of photos on HDR for each project (with about a dozen projects total). The answer is that much of the rest of the book is given over to step-by-step instructions for "post-processing in Photoshop." So, in chapter 4, for example, three pages are devoted to HDR processing (one each for Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro, Photomatix Pro, and HDR Efex Pro) and another seven pages to post-processing. In chapter 5 again it’s three pages (one paragraph each) for HDR processing and 11 pages for post-processing.

Now, it would be fair to argue that this post-processing is part of the HDR workflow and, therefore, valid for inclusion in an HDR book. But I would argue that this material is no different from the normal processing that photographers do in Photoshop after any shoot. For example, in chapter 7 the post-processing is concerned with removing dust specks, punching up the color with a Pixel Bender filter, and applying Color Balance & Curves adjustment layers. I don’t see what this has to do with HDR. In chapter 5 two pages are devoted to using puppet warp to correct lens distortion in an architectural photo. What’s that got to do with HDR? There was some useful information in these post-processing sections and I learned some interesting things. But this post-processing material taught me little, if anything, about HDR-specific techniques.

Another problem I had with the book is that the interface of the current version of Photomatix Pro (4.1.2) is different from that shown in the book. A couple of the key controls described in the book have apparently been either renamed or recently introduced. This made comparing the book’s settings with my own settings problematic. Of course, this is not the author’s fault. But it is a hazard of buying and writing (printed) technology books.

One last problem was with the project photos I downloaded from the book’s site. In a couple of the projects two or three of the photos all had the same exposure value. This was not a serious problem as I was still able to do those projects but, of course, it meant that my experience with the software was different than what was described in the book.

In fairness, I should mention that there is some additional information in the book which is directly related to HDR. Chapter 3 provides a more detailed initial walk-through of each of the three HDR apps.  But this was just a quick overview. I was looking for specific information on how to choose a tone-mapping process or how to decide which of the many sliders to adjust in a given situation. That kind of info is in short supply.

Also sprinkled throughout the book are examples of work by and interviews with notable HDR photographers. These showcases can help give the newcomer to HDR a better idea of what the technique can achieve along with some guidance. In addition, the links to these photographers’ websites can provide somewhere to go for those looking for additional info. And, there’s a cool example of using Photomatix to process a panorama (something which HDR Efex Pro apparently cannot do).

Ironically, this is the first book I’ve bought at my local Barnes & Noble in months. So, it would have been easy for me to peruse the book in the store and, if I had, I might have decided not to purchase it. But, as I said, I know RC’s reputation and just assumed it would be a good book. In fact, it is a good book—it’s just not a great book about HDR processing.

To some extent, this may be a reflection of the current state of the art in HDR processing. Each of these three apps is very different from the others. For example, the names and functions of the various sliders, buttons and drop-downs differ greatly from one product to the next so there’s not a lot of information that is transferable among them. The results you get with the various products and the processing methods also vary a lot and are hard to predict. Perhaps when HDR processing becomes a more mature technology there will be some convergence among the various solutions and then maybe we’ll have some clear-cut principles. Right now, I find it to require a lot of trial and error (but still worth the effort!).

One last thing—I’m an amateur photographer. Is it safe for me to use all this “Pro” software? 🙂