Making an HDR portrait isn’t easy and takes a lot of time, but I think it’s worth the effort. To make an HDR background portrait you will actually need two images: an HDR processed background and a portrait from the studio. In this tutorial I’ll show you step-by-step how to make your first HDR portrait.
Shooting the background is probably the easiest part technically, but you have to find the right type of images that work well as a background. Usually something gritty, edgy and desaturated subject, like an interesting piece of wall, a part of a warehouse, a sports field, etc. will work well, but you’ll have to experiment, until you find your style. This is a very important part of the image, which can make or break a picture, so it must not be overlooked.
I’d advise you to use a tripod, set your camera to a large aperture, highest image quality (shoot RAW!!!) and use auto bracketing, make an image 2 stops underexposed, a normally exposed one and one that is 2 stops overexposed. Don’t use a very wide lens and try setting your camera eye-level, because distortions in a background would look weird with a non-distorted portrait. After selecting your image, use an HDR processing software, like Dynamic-Photo HDR 5, Photomatix Pro or the built in feature of Photoshop.
I won’t go into the HDR processing part of the image, because honestly I don’t have a clue about it. I just import the three images and play around with the controls until it feels right. Just make sure it isn’t overly saturated, since that can draw the attention of the viewer away from our main subject.
I usually want to make my portraits look a bit gritty too, so I use a three light setup: Two rimlights and an octobox boomed up above the camera, plus I use a simple white background.
Both rimlights should be flagged to avoid lens flare, or maybe use light modifiers (a lot of people use gridded softboxes). It isn’t necessary to use an octobox above the camera, a beauty dish, a softbox or a simple umbrella will do the job. The finished image doesn’t look like much yet:
Post-processing this project requires at least medium Photoshop skills (I’m using GIMP by the way), you’ll have to work with several layers, but don’t be scared, it isn’t that hard technically, but it challenges your patience.
First open your background in GIMP (or Photoshop, or whatever program you are using), then open the portrait in a separate window. Roughly crop around the person on the portrait and drop it onto the background as a separate layer.
Add a layer mask, select a large brush paint the most of the unnecessary parts of the portrait off.
Select a smaller brush and slowly paint around the image and make the edges perfect. Doing the hair is the hardest part, but don’t worry: you don’t have to go and paint around every single hair, just crop most of the hair that’s sticking out.
The image looks pretty good now, but something is missing: add a new transparent layer and roughly select the subject and fill out the selection with white paint. Apply a Gaussian blur to the whole layer (I usually set it to around 500).
Move the new layer between the portrait and the background layer, this way the subject will stand out from the background and have a nice glow behind it.
Another interesting element can be vignetting. It doesn’t work with all the images, but usually it adds to the gritty feel. I’m sure there are better ways to make a vignette, than the Stone Age way I do it, but this technique gives my full control over the shape and the transparency of the vignette. I add a new full black layer and cut the middle part of it out.
I give it a Gaussian blur (set again to around 500), then turn the opacity down do 50 percent.
I select the portrait layer and give it some final touches. I play around with saturation, curves, unsharp masks etc. until I like the image.
This is how the finished image looks like:
I hope you’ve learned something today, if you have any questions, you need help with your HDR portrait just hit me up on Twitter at @MartonGorka. Thanks for reading!
This is my entry to the awesome How I Took It Contest from DIYP.