Blending Images, from blah to Not Bad!

I have an example of blending images, sometimes referred to as HDR, or High Dynamic Range.  This is a process of taking several images starting with the original metered exposure and bracketing it with additional images but + and – anywhere from 1/3 stop to 1 full stop.  You can read more about it at Trey Ratcliff’s site – http://www.stuckincustoms.com/  This is where I started to learn about HDR.

HDR can be a touchy subject with some folks, especially if you go really grungy with your image.  To each his own I say.  Personally, I can go grungy or realistic depending on the scene and my mood.  Experimenting in the digital darkroom is something I enjoy and sometimes you never really know what you may end up with (kind of like the darkrooms of old, you could have happy accidents then too).

HDR has opened up some photo possibilities for me and caused me to look at some things differently.  My usual routine was to get up early (like the title of blog says), shoot at the golden hour, and then pack it up until sunset.  Midday photography was a hit and miss proposition for me, with too much contrast in most scenes or flat uninteresting light.  With HDR, I am able to shoot though out the day and tame the contrast.  The other thing is that I’m looking at old junky things more (cars, buildings, etc…) and thinking – “what if”?

There are several ways one can go about making HDR images.  The one I like using presently is to use the HDR function in my Sony NEX3, and blend that image with the original exposure.  I use Photoshop for this, and a little plug-in called HDR Efex by Nik.  Some may call this process pseudo HDR and that’s ok.  It’s the result that I’m concerned with.

Here’s the original image:

It’s just ok, kind of a snapshot without much pop.  The other thing that bothers me about this is that the actual scene was more vibrant than this.
Next, this is the in camera HDR image that my trusty little NEX3 processed:
This one is a little better.  The in camera HDR function opened up the shadows without blowing out the hightlights.  There is much better detail in the sand and the big rock.  For some, this would be good enough.  For me, there seemed like there could be a little more pop to get out of this shot without making it too grungy.
So, after blending the 2 images together, and turning up the color just a bit, here is the result:

In my mind, this is more like what I experienced that morning just after sunrise.  Like I said in the beginning, HDR is a touchy subject for some.  I like it.  You be the judge!

** By the way – comments are welcome!