Fixing a Perfect Morning: Making your Sunrise Image Match Your Eyes

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I can't imagine a more perfect morning than the one we chose to go ballooning over the temples in Bagan, Myanmar on our recent photo safari. There was a soft breeze, only a few clouds, and the temperature was perfect. As the sun rose over the mountains in the east, it lit up the first of the literally thousands of temples and pagodas on our route with a golden light that made their historic brick facades glow.

Between bursts of the burners the balloon was eerily silent, and it was easy to imagine having been here centuries ago when these temples were built and were the center of the Burmese kingdom. The view past the temples included the majestic Irrawaddy River and the mountains of the remote Chin State.

Capturing The Image of a Perfect Sunrise

Snapping myself out of my reverie, I tried to figure out how to capture in an image what I was seeing. I knew right from the start that contrast would be an issue. Despite the mostly blue sky, the low-lying hazy cloud layer was in danger of burning out completely, and despite the warm golden light on the larger temples, the low-level structures and fields were barely lit at all. A simple "point and shoot" with my D700 set to Matrix metering yielded an impressive scene, but certainly didn't reflect any of the great quality I could see in the light or in the sky:


The image as metered by the camera, blowing out the highlights and the details in the sky

As an obvious first "fix" I dialed in -1 stop, changing my exposure from 1/30s at F/16 to 1/60s at F/16. I still wasn't picking up the blue in the sky or the contrasting small white cloud, so I tried -2, giving me an exposure of 1/125s at F/16. You can see both of these shots below. The -2 shot finally got the sky right, but now the ground was so dark, that I was losing the warming effect of the golden light and the detail of the shadowed sides of the temples:


The same scene captured at -2 e.v. to hold the detail in the sky

HDR From a Balloon? Are You Nuts?

So I decided to do something a little odd—I'd try to use HDR. Before you think I was crazy to try to create an HDR image hand-held from a moving hot-air balloon, imagine what you would have thought if I'd have tried to use a neutral-density filter, and fumbled it over the side from 300 feet up!

The key to making the HDR work is the image re-alignment capability of PhotomatixPro 4.0 from HDRSoft. It did a great job of re-aligning the images into a single one that I could work with. Frankly, the blur from the very slow shutter speeds of 1/30s and 1/60s from a moving vehicle with no stabilization were my biggest problems. If I had it to do over again, I probably would have worked with F/11, or even F/8, as a slightly higher shutter speed would have helped me more than the lower depth of field would have hurt.

Assembling the three images with a relatively neutral "Compressor" default in Photomatix yielded a big improvement. Now I had the richness of color I wanted, and my wonderful little puffy cloud was at least somewhat visible:


The initial HDR capture, before any additional post-processing

The Finishing Touches

I was pretty happy with the HDR output, but the image still didn't reflect the magic of what I saw. So I made three other tweaks, which helped make the image really pop. First I used the Crop tool in Photoshop to provide a little bit of perspective change, to help make the image look like it was taken from a little more "above" the temples.

Next, I brushed Nik's Tonal Contrast filter (I set all the sliders to about +20 for this effect—you can do something similar by bumping saturation and sharpening) onto the middle of the image to help draw the viewer's eyes to the primary temples in the center. Finally, I used another Nik filter, the graduated neutral-density, to darken the sky in a very similar way to how a real ND filter would work. If you don't have the Nik filters, you can do that by using a Multiply layer or gradient mask in Photoshop, applied to the sky area.

The resulting image finally looked the way I remembered it. As much as I love my digital cameras, sometimes even the best of them need help capturing what our eyes pull in automatically. If you'd like to explore some of the less traveled corners of Southeast Asia and capture some images like this one yourself, we hope you can join us for our December 2011 photo safari to Cambodia & Myanmar (Burma)!  and we still have a few openings for our deluxe wildlife safari to Botswana in May.


The finished image.

Learning More...

And of course, if you'd like to learn more about digital photography we encourage you to visit our site, Cardinal Photo, and its sister site, Nikon Digital, which are both full of tips, reviews and forums where photographers compare notes and tips. Or you can follow us on Facebook.


We were fortunate enough to be one of two balloons aloft that morning, so we could photograph the other balloon.


A different view of a hot-air balloon-—this one from the basket, straight up into the balloon itself.

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Great post David! It is amazing what can be done with Handheld HDR with the power of Photomatix. Beautiful shot in a beautiful land.

The only thing I would suggest, as you noted in your piece, was there was no need to shoot at f16, since you had no foreground subject and most likely you were focused at infinity.

You could have shot at f4 on your 70mm lens and provided that you were focused at least 134' away (your hyperfocal distance) you would have had infinite DOF. This would have either allowed faster shutter speeds or at least lowering your ISO below 800. Although the D700 has great ISO noise handling

Great post, Great use of HDR

I used to drag my tripod around all the time shooting HDR imagery, until one day I got lazy and left the tripod in the car.

I came across a scene that would really benefit from HDR, although I wasn't in a balloon, but I did shoot the scene hand held and it worked perfectly thanks to Photomatix align features feature.

My secret is to use a 2 second timer and have the camera take 3 shots one right after another without pressing the shutter button. This enables me to hold the camera as still as possible.

I also program a custom setting on my Canon so I can be in HDR shooting **** and back to single shot **** with the touch of a button.

Paul Miller

I can do it in one shot .... I use Velvia.

I like a lot!! I never try HDR maybe it's time to give it a shot!

Good post.  Thanks.  I'm also a fan of handheld HDRs.

Peter--Yes, excellent point about the DOF. It's easy for me to remember that I can sacrifice Aperture in favor of shutter speed when in a plane but the balloon was up and down enough that I worried a little. In some cases we were fairly low but in hindsight on average we were plenty high enough for me to have used a larger aperture without worry.

And to the anonymous comment about Velvia, I've shot plenty and while it does do a good job of not blowing out highlights because of the smooth "shoulder" in the response curve, it would not have captured the details in the shadows that I got using HDR.

@All--Thanks for the comments and feeback!--David

Anecdotally, Neil Groundwater, one of my safari participants was photographing up at our balloon and also tried to use HDR to deal with the massive contrast of the scene. However our balloon was moving too fast in the frame for him to use the same trick I was able to use from the balloon shooting down. And since he was standing on a temple roof there was a limit to how far he could move to change the lighting. But he still managed to get the good looking image below:

Photo by Neil Groundwater. Copyright Neil Groundwater.