Brian Matiash’s Real Life HDR

As a native of New York City, Brian Matiash was surrounded by buildings. While growing up, the first profession he ever dreamed of pursuing was to be an architect. It should then come as no surprise Matiash’s photography of choice is urban architectural high dynamic range photography.

©Brian Matiash

Matiash earned a Bachelor’s in Information Management Technology and a Master’s in Information Resources Management from Syracuse University. Although he didn’t study Photography at Syracuse, he credits the “absolutely gorgeous architecture” there with inspiring him to shoot photographs of it. This was the beginning of his career as a photographer.

While surfing Flickr four years ago, he came across an HDR photo which turned his world around. Suddenly, it clicked in his head that HDR photography didn’t have to be grossly unrealistic. “I knew this guy was way ahead of the curve,” he says. Matiash and the photographer responsible for the photo, Edwin Bronckers, began a dialog, and the free flow of gratis information made an impression on his future sharing of knowledge.

©Brian Matiash

Wanting to change his life, Matiash made a bold move. He approached his wife and asked her for one calendar year devoted to “pursuing photography in a commercial sense,” he says. Possessing the hallmark of a fabulous spouse, his wife was fully supportive, and thus began his journey as a pro shooter on January 1, 2010. By the third of that month, he had made his first post on his daily HDR blog.

Matiash’s blog is a fabulous resource of HDR information. With an almost Buddhist-like generosity, he attempts to repay the world for all the good advice he’s received about photography. He’s created a best practices guide for HDR, which is a serious wealth of information on the subject, broken down into three sections. It is a complete documentation of how Matiash gets the impressive shots he does. Other content he gives away is a texture brush he uses in Lightroom to pop textures, and wallpapers for both computers and the iPad. “I do this just to get people inspired,” he explains. “Each cause is very important to me in a commercial sense and in an artistic sense. I want to help people see HDR is not that garish, Harry Potter surreal-look.”

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Feeling strongly about his HDR aesthetic, Matiash is known for his judicious restraint of HDR execution—something rarely seen in the application of this art. “I really want it to be photography, not just HDR,” he says. “I am not going to be unfair to it, though. HDR is a huge component of how I see things—not just see it necessarily for its photographic merit.”

Initially, the novelty of the overblow, cartoony HDR-look impressed him as photographers shoveled tons of overblown, gaudy images onto the Internet. “At that time there weren’t very many photographers putting out really compelling, commercially-viable HDR. No one really had a baseline to compare it to,” Matiash recalls.

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Now with the novelty of high dynamic range photography worn off and a set of aesthetic benchmarks understood, this photographer has little time for critics who dismiss HDR out of hand, although he’s open to intelligent differing opinions with specific observations. “I don’t accept blanket criticism of HDR,” Matiash says. “I can accept criticism like, ‘This HDR is a bit heavy handed in the highlights,’ or ‘You lost some detail here,’ or ‘It’s a bit too saturated.’ Okay. Now, we’re talking. I can work with that, but to say, ‘I am not a fan of HDR,’—that is the same as, in my opinion, ‘I don’t like black and white photography.’”

Currently using PhotoTools from onOne Software, a Photoshop plug-in, Matiash was happy to share his workflow with us. Putting his images into Adobe Lightroom. He then tone maps in Photomatix by HDRsoft. Next, he opens images in Photoshop and begins working with PhotoTools, utilizing the plug-in’s library of effects. “Some of them are corrective in nature, like skin smoothing or add a vignette, cool or warm,” he says. “There are also stylized effects. They can give you a really unique, funky, or very sharp look, depending on what you’re going for.”

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His PhotoTools work so impressed onOne Software, Matiash was invited to do some Webinars for the company. Those went very well, and he recently accepted a position as Curriculum and Education Manager with the company.

Matiash shoots a variety of cameras, including a Canon EOS 5D Mark II. In keeping with his unconventional nature, Matiash applies the same unorthodox attitude toward his camera gear. “I want to start making more people aware—especially Canon users—that you are not tied to Canon lenses. I bought an Olympus Zuiko 85mm f/2.0 lens. I bought it for $200, and another $30 for the adaptor, the Canon EOS, the EF mount to the Olympus mount.”

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Recently, Matiash has also been shooting a Mamiya RZ. He explains the difference in shooting the Mamiya and the Canon for his HDR work. “The Mamiya’s sharpness, the quality, the optics, I mean—oh, my. I was floored. Floored. If you were to go to a particular scene with an extremely high shift in dynamic range, like a bright daylight sky, looking through a window into some shadow—that’s a lot of dynamic range. With my Canon 5D Mark II we’re looking at anywhere from five to nine exposures. I’m able to get it with three with the Mamiya, simply because of that digital back. It just captures the 16-bit RAW with so much more dynamic range. It’s fantastic. I was amazed.” Matiash shoots the 37mm f/4.5 Fisheye and the 110mm f/2.8.

Matiash relies on a Sekonic L-758DR meter to get his midrange exposure, which is where a photographer starts the process of an HDR photograph. When doing flash photography, he uses two PocketWizard Plus II units.

©Brian Matiash

A fair amount of the urban exploration locations Matiash photographs he finds on the Internet. Living in Massachusetts, there’s almost no end of abandoned or derelict warehouses and mills. Through a friend, he has permission to enter some of his favorite locations. For newer ones, he applies his own personal code. “I’ll never force my way into something,” he states as his primary rule. “I’ll never cut a fence, I’ll never break a door open. If it’s not already open or if there’s not a clear way in, I have to give it up.”

Feeling bullish on the future of commercial HDR work, Matiash has already shot for clients such as Chatham Bars Inn, InterContinental Boston, and Le Westin Montreal, among others. “Consumers—the general public—love good HDR because it’s so different. All of a sudden they’re seeing so much more rich detail,” he explains. “It’s supplemental to the reality of photography. It takes the limitations of photography and it supplements it with what wasn’t there before.” Matiash sees good HDR processing of an image as similar to any other artificial processing of a scene, such as a bank of lighting gear used on an architectural shoot.

Careful not to claim HDR as a technique which will save any image, Matiash has strong respect for the fundamentals. “You need to have good compositional style and framing,” he advises. “Know what you can eliminate. Learn the basics of photography. The elements of a good photo is not whether it’s a good HDR. It’s whether it’s compelling, if it’s provocative, if it attracts the eye and doesn’t exhaust it. Before HDR, I was shooting for myself, just casually for years before HDR came out. That kind of developing your style first is necessary. A lot of people are definitely putting the cart in front of the horse by learning HDR before they really understand what a good composition is, or a good frame. HDR should be an alternate to taking a good photo. Take a good photo. Next up, take a good HDR.”

Brian Matiash Blog
Brian Matiash Commercial Photography

Written by Ron Egatz

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