WHAT IS HDR?
HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a post-processing of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed. I would say that about 75% of my images use the technique, and if you are new to it, then you may notice a slightly different “look and feel” to my photographs. You should also probably note that HDR is a very broad categorization, and I really hate categorization. My process starts with using basic HDR techniques, but then there are many more steps to help the photos look more… let’s say… evocative.
I can talk a little bit more about the philosophy behind the photography style here for a quick moment. You might consider that the way the human brain keeps track of imagery is not the same way your computer keeps track of picture files. There is not one aperture, shutter speed, etc. In fact, sometimes when you are in a beautiful place or with special people and you take photos — have you ever noticed when you get back and show them to people you have to say, “Well, you really had to be there.” Even great photographers with amazing cameras can only very rarely grab the scene exactly as they saw it. Cameras, by their basic-machine-nature, are very good at capturing “images”, lines, shadows, shapes — but they are not good at capturing a scene the way the mind remembers and maps it. When you are actually there on the scene, your eye travels back and forth, letting in more light in some areas, less light in others, and you create a “patchwork-quilt” of the scene. Furthermore, you will tie in many emotions and feelings into the imagery as well, and those get associated right there beside the scene. Now, you will find that as you explore the HDR process, that photos can start to evoke those deep memories and emotions in a more tangible way. It’s really a wonderful way of “tricking” your brain into experiencing much more than a normal photograph.
I will post a few interesting HDR photographs that I have taken that people seem to like. This first image below is the first HDR photograph ever to hang in the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. I think this goes to show how mainstream and accepted HDR can be, if the technique is properly applied.
STEP 1: GET YOUR APPLE ON (BUT IT ALSO WORKS IF YOU REFUSE TO WEAR A BLACK TURTLENECK AND USE A PC INSTEAD)
So here is a picture of my desktop before I launch all of these apps. Speaking of which, Macs are great, and my Mac’s CPU does not melt – it handles all this stuff with reckless aplomb. I used to hate Macs and hate Mac people, but I’m a changed man. These things are great! Okay, I digressed way too early in this tutorial.
By the way, all the steps in the tutorial are the same, whether or not you are using a PC or a Mac.
SOFTWARE I USE (IN ORDER OF IMPORTANCE):
- Photomatix Pro (required) – It’s already inexpensive, and you can save more money by using the Photomatix Coupon Code STUCKINCUSTOMS. Go to the Photomatix website and have fun! For more detailed info, see my full Photomatix Review.
- Photoshop (recommended) – You can buy Photoshop or Photoshop Elements right from the Adobe website, and begin the download.
- Noiseware Professional (optional) – I have tried a multitude of “noise reduction” software packages. You’ll notice that the HDR process can create a bit of noise, to say the least. I use Noiseware Professional (forWindows or Mac).
- Note: After you “Proceed to Checkout”, use the Imagenomic Coupon Code “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to save even more money!
- Topaz Adjust (optional and awesome) – You can grab it from the Topaz Website. This product can help bring some contrast and pop into the final product. I have a Topaz Adjust Review here on the site if you want to read more. If you can afford a little more, I suggest the whole Topaz Photoshop Bundle since it comes with a lot of other goodies too!
- What else do I use? - I use many tools and have a blast with them all. If you want other amazing pieces of software that I use, then I suggest you see my Nik Review and my onOne Plugin Review. Both are great!
STEP 2: GET SOME EQUIPMENT ON THE SLY SO YOUR SPOUSE DOES NOT ASK TOO MANY QUESTIONS
To create an HDR image, you need is a camera that can either:
- Shoot in “Auto-bracketing mode” or “Auto-exposure mode”
- or, shoot in RAW (You can also create an HDR image out of a single RAW photo)
I talk about my HDR Camera equipment stuff here on the site, which is much more organized than the following Hawthornesque ramble. That equipment page lists out all kinds of nice recommendations if you are just getting started, or even looking for a little upgrade action.
Although you can make a decent HDR from a single RAW file, I recommend using a camera that has autobracketing. Autobracketing is the ability for your camera to take at least 3 pictures right after one another, each at different exposures. Sometimes it’s called “Exposure Bracketing”. If you are hunting around the menus on your camera now, just look for the words Autobracketing and perhaps some numbers like -2, 0, +2. If you have a DSLR camera, then you probably already have this ability.
What equipment do I have? People always ask me this, assuming, “Wow you must have a nice camera!” Well, I do have nice cameras (Nikon D3X and D3S as backup), but many of my best pictures were taken earlier with a lesser Nikons. I’m also not what I would consider a hardcore hardware guy – I use equipment to bend nature to my will, and I can do the same sort of work with just about any equipment. I’ve now got much higher-end equipment because I can now see the subtleties… somehow I can justify spending a lot of money for minor improvements in the shots. I justify many sketchy things in my life, but so do you, so why not add camera equipment to the heap of latent guilt?
I started with a Nikon D70. I then went on to the D2X before getting the D3X that now fills my life like a sweet song. In addition, I use four lenses. Again for details on the lenses, visit the HDR Camera section.
As for tripods, I have a giant one with a silky smooth rotating fat head. I used to have a tiny tripod, but it was too shaky. You gotta have a solid tripod. What? You don’t want to carry around a tripod? Comon… if you are going out to shoot beautiful pictures, you better get serious. Also, if you have it over your shoulder or carry it in an aggressive way, it makes an effective weapon. As you can see, I go all over the world, often into sketchy areas, and a big tripod is often an effective deterrent. I carry it so much, I am very good at flipping it around and whipping it around my body like ninja nunchaku.
STEP 3 – LOOK AT THE WORLD IN HDR
It is key to choose good HDR candidates. What I look for are extreme levels in light in a given scene.
SEEING THE WORLD AFRESH
Consider those situations where there is extreme light and extreme dark, and how you are able to see it when you are there in real life, but you just know if you take a photo of it that it won’t come out right. Also, you normally would not dare to take a photo looking directly into the sun, right? Well with HDR you can… It will open up a new world to you… and the more HDR photography you shoot and process, the more you will learn to appreciate light and the world we live in.
In the last several years, I have taken note of how I see the world versus the way others see the world. It’s one of those age-old questions: “Is green to me the same as green to you? Maybe you just use the word green, but you actually see what I call yellow!” Well, this question also applies to HDR. Personally, I see the world in HDR, and that is how I record my memories. I find these photos entirely pleasing to admire. Now, I notice that about 80% of other people also feel the same way. This seems very consistent across audiences when I speak at universities, photo clubs, seminars, and the like. And, if you have read this far, then surely you see the world like me, and you are excited that you have finally found a window into the truth and future of recording imagery for the rest of your life.
Of course, this means 20% of people do not see the world like us. In fact, they absolutely despise HDR photography. Occasionally, you will get some old-school people that think post-processing is the work of the devil. But, most often, I am convinced they simply don’t see the world like this. They see the world exactly how the camera spits out normal images. That’s okay… there is no convincing them… Hey, we can’t make everyone happy, can we?
A GOOD EXAMPLE OF EXTREME LIGHT LEVELS
Let’s work on a photo I did in New York City in Times Square. We’ll go through this guy step by step.
Now, this is a pretty good example of having to re-train your brain about light levels. Remember, when you are there, on the scene, your brain can handle it. You fill in the dark areas with light and there is nothing so bright that you can’t read it. But getting a good shot of Times Square without HDR is next to impossible. Keep this in mind as you are around your house, in your neighborhood, driving around your city — you really are taking for granted how your brain is able to filter the light levels that your camera cannot.
And here is another photographic-philosophical moment. Everyone shoots Times Square in New York. Everyone. Professionals, tourists, teenagers with grainy cell phone cameras, etc. Think about it and name your worldwide location: Paris, New York, Shanghai – these places are filled with thousands of photographers, many of them very very good, with incredible equipment and great training. YET, it is still quite difficult to get an “original” shot. You end up with just about the same shot that everyone or anyone else can get. So this New York picture is a good example. If you look at this one below, you will see it is a “decent” and “serviceable” shot. However, look at the final version right below that, and you can see how much more interesting and engaging it is.
The BEFORE shot, selected in Lightroom. Note that Lightroom is not required — but many clever people use it to organize their photos!
STEP 4 – TAKE YOUR AUTOBRACKETED PICTURES AND PREPARE FOR THE HDR
Set up your camera in Aperture Priority mode. This is important because you don’t want the multiple photos to have different areas of blur.
Turn on Autobracketing. If you have 3 pics in the autobracket, set it up at -2, 0, +2. On my Nikon D3x, I usually take 5 pics at -2, -1, 0, 1, +2. I’d prefer just to take 3 pics at -2, 0, and +2, but this camera only steps by 1. I think you will find this +2 to -2 range satisfactory for 95% of situations. An exception, for example, would be shooting the interior of a house that is extremely dark and there are windows where the outside is extremely bright.
Other best practices:
- For 95% of situations, going from +2 to -2 is enough light range.
- Shoot in RAW, if you can. JPG is okay, but RAW gives your more flexibility later in the processing. RAW photos contain a lot more light information than a JPEG. Please note that when processing in Photomatix later, the RAWs are no better than JPEGs.
- Use a tripod, unless you have the steady arms of a late-model Terminator robot.
Below, you can see that I have selected 5 pictures from Times Square. You can also easily see that they are all taken at different shutter speeds.
STEP 5 – PHOTOMATIX PRO
Now it is time to fire up Photomatix and get crunk in the HDR house. Okay that was stupid.
Photomatix will take your 3+ shots and convert them into an HDR image. You can then tonemap the image and save it as a JPEG. I’ll take you through this process.
You can run Photomatix in a few ways:
- To generate an single HDR from some autobraketed shots (most common for beginners and the bulk of this tutorial)
- To do a huge batch of HDRs after you come back from a shoot
- To convert a single RAW photo into an HDR
Let’s go over the first one in detail. I’ll mention the others later, but they are not too hard to figure out after you understand how the first one works.
When Photomatix is loaded up, you just see a menu. Note that I am using Photomatix 3.2 here and new versions come out all the time, but later iterations should still work within the margin of error of the following screenshots.
Note: You will see that I have 5 JPGs here. I used Lightroom to convert the 5 RAWS to 5 JPG. You can use Photomatix to open up the RAW photos as well, but Photomatix itself will do the conversion on its own. After speaking with the engineers at Photomatix, they tell me it is a little better to do the conversion on your own.
Choose the images you like then click OK. You will then see a second dialog. I have selected the most common choices that I make. In this case, I feared there might have been a tiny amount of camera shake even on the tripod, so I asked Photomatix to try to align.
Normally, I use a tripod and a wired shutter release, so I have no camera shake. If you are doing hand-held, then, of course, always choose “Align source images”. I get mixed results with the other choices. I have a better program for reducing noise and a better method in Photoshop for fixing “ghosting artifacts”. You can play with those options, if you wish, however. There are not many wrong choices you can make on this dialog, so don’t panic.
Click Preprocess and now your computer will churn like a farm of computers generating a single frame from a Pixar movie. Note that if you checked any of the boxes above, this processing steps even longer.
You will soon see a strange looking image on the screen. You are not done yet – not even close. That is an HDR image and you can’t really do anything with it until it is tonemapped. So, now click on “Tone Mapping” (note this is also available via the menu system)/ Now you will get a nice little dialog with all these fun gizmos and Willy Wonka-like controls.
Every picture is different. There is no “right way” to set these sliders. There is certainly a “wrong” way to do it, though. I am sure you have seen lots of crappy HDR images. Below, I paste an example of how you can really make your image look too funkadelic. Funkadelic is cool if that is what you want or you have a lot of druggie friends that like laser light shows and your mind-bending HDRs, but most people don’t like them. Actually, please don’t look at my old work. It’s a little over-the-top too… I cringe when I think about it. Just look at the newer stuff. Thank you kindly.
Actually, I keep my older stuff up there to illustrate how much progress you can make in such a short time. I hope this is as inspirational for you as it is embarrassing to me.
Above, you can see the options I selected. It’s way overdone. The key setting is that “Light Smoothing”. Don’t move it too far to the left. Please! For the sake of humanity.
Below, you can see better selections. Here are a few things I do… although none of these are cast in stone:
- Strength – Keep it at 100%. We can dial it back later when we re-mix it with one of the originals in Photoshop.
- Color Saturation – Keep it reasonable. Don’t over-saturate your photo. Again, each photo is different. There is a difference between color that pops and color that bleeds too electric. Remember, HDR is about light, not about over-saturation!
- Luminosity – This is used for the “painterly effect”, let us say. The further to the right, the less contrast will be in the photo. If you find yourself with “Halo” problems in daylight shots, moving this to the far right will help. The other way to get rid of that problem is described later.
- Microcontrast – A mysterious slider that helps the details and fluctuations in colors on the very small scale. Like the others, play with this until it looks and feels right.
- Smoothing – This is an important slider that effects the “HDRness” of the shot. The more to the left, the more psychedelic.
- White Point & Black Point – Move these right and left until that bell curve in the histogram rests inside the area. If that histogram at the bottom bleeds off the left or right side, then you are losing light, and that is no good.
- All the other sliders? They are interesting, but I honestly don’t use them much. The Micro-smoothing can help with noise, although I use a special noise reduction program we will discuss soon.
Once you have set everything up with the sliders, click Process and save the result. You’ll be bringing it into Photoshop next for final cleanup.
STEP 6 – PHOTOSHOP FUN
What? You are not good at Photoshop? First you tell me you don’t like carrying tripods, and then you tell me you don’t like using Photoshop. How about this… Let’s get you a little bit out of your comfort zone, eh? That’s what good friends do right… push you to make yourself better. If you keep doing things you are comfortable with, then you are never going to improve and experience new things, right? So comon… get with it.. Photoshop is great fun.
First, if you are horrible at Photoshop, then I recommend you spend a little time watching Photoshop User TV. They have a free weekly podcast and a bunch of old episodes you can catch up on. They go through about three examples per week – mini-tutorials. Over time you will get to know all the tools and how to use them. 95% of the tutorials you see on Photoshop TV will have nothing to do with HDR, but they will get you familiar with the tools. I use many many many tools in Photoshop to clean up and perfect my final images… you will get there too… just be patient and try to learn a few new things per week in Photoshop. If you learn 3 things a week, that’s over 150 things a year.
As you might have seen, Photomatix is great, but it probably messed up parts of the image that you now need to repair.
This, briefly, is what we are gonna do:
- Import all of the original images plus the .JPG we just made in Photomatix
- Please note that this is kind of overkill to import all of them – over time, you will probably only import just the ones you need, as you will see. Also, most likely you will have 4 images — the 3 originals plus your Photomatix result.
- Repair the areas that are blown-out with the DARKEST of the original images by using “Masking”.
- Repair the ghosted pedestrian and cars by selecting the best RAW, which we will have adjusted to have nice coloring in the RAW importer
First, did you know the RAW importer for Photoshop can also work with JPEGs? It’s true! Go set that up in your preferences under File Handling.
Now, go ahead and open the original images plus the Photomatix result JPG in Photoshop. The dialog you see below is the RAW importer for Photoshop. It is very nice because it has these wonderful sliders that you can use to pull out additional light information. This is the wonderful secret of the RAW photo! As opposed to the JPEG, the RAW contains extra light information you can access using the RAW importer.
What I am going to do is select my favorite of the Original shots, and adjust the sliders so that it looks as close as possible to the Photomatix result. You see, what we are going to do here is re-mix THIS photo with the Photomatix one to both a) make it look more realistic and b) repair the ghosting.
How many of the original images should you bring into Photoshop? It depends on which of them you want to remix. In this case, I will import three of them – the three I want to remix. There are elements from each of these three exposures that I will remix into the tonemapped version. Please note this is the “Master’s Touch”. You do not have to go through all of this careful remixing if you just want to use the result of the Photomatix tonemapping.
You can see my settings – how I increased the Fill Light, increased the Blacks, and adjusted the Vibrance, Saturation, and Clarity. You can adjust yours as need be.
Trey’s Undeniable Truth of HDR Photography #34: If you shoot during the daytime and there is a nice blue sky, your HDR processing will make your sky look gray, mottled, and possibly give it a halo that will make viewers curl in a ball and cry. If you do not fix this in Photoshop by masking in the original sky before you upload to show your friends, then they may no longer be your friends.
Okay, moving on. Maybe you should go get another coffee or a glass of red… things are about to get juicy.
STEP 6, CONTINUED
STACKING AND ALIGNING THE PHOTOS
In the screenshot below, look down in the lower right at the layers. You can see the four layers there. I put the Photomatix result on the top layer, and stacked the other three below. The order does not matter. Note that as you become more advanced, you will not need to bring in all of these originals. Maybe just one or two will do the trick.
To import the photos, there are a variety of ways, as there is with everything in Photoshop! If you read the following bullet point list, I will assume you are a beginner, so I will try tell you the easiest way!
- After you open all 4 (or your number) into Photoshop, you should have 4 windows or tabs open in Photoshop.
- Bonus Tip: If you have Adobe Bridge, you can select all the photos, then go to Tools>Photoshop…>Load Files into Photoshop Layers… and voila, all are in one Photoshop window!
- Go to your Tonemapped photo that was the result of the Photomatix process. Remember this is your “Base Layer”. We will copy and paste all the other photos into this image.
- Go to one of the original photos.
- On the Menu, choose Select > All. Then Edit > Copy. Then go back to your Base Layer and do a Edit > Paste. Then you will have 2 layers.
- Continue to repeat this with all of the other photos.
- Once you have all the layers in one photo, you can re-arrange them as you see fit. I usually put the HDR result on the top.
I have also made sure to align all the images so they are neatly stacked:
- Select all the layers with CTRL or SHIFT-clicking them, then use Auto-Align under the Edit Menu – default options are fine.
- …Or you can press V to get into move mode and use the arrow keys at 300% to nudge them around. This is usually what I have to do with the HDR layer, turning it on and off to make sure it’s lined up just right.
Photoshop – Here we have the HDR image on top with some of the original photos on layers beneath.
If you look closely at the layers on the right in the screenshot below, you can see that I have created a LAYER MASK for the TOP LAYER. If you see those little black and gray marks there, that is where I have painted black to see the layer beneath. I used the Brush, adjusted the opacity to about 30%, and kept painting until enough of the lower layer shined through.
To create a mask and start revealing the layer underneath:
- Click on the top layer (the one you want to punch through)
- On the Menu, go to Layer > Create Layer Mask > Reveal All.
- Choose the brush tool (or hit B).
- At the top, there are two areas to adjust:
- “Opacity” – Set that to 30%. This means how hard you will be pushing down the brush to punch through to the bottom layer. Multiple brush strokes will make that percentage go up… For example, if you brush over the same spot ten times or so, you’ll be at 100% see-through!
- Brush – Click that dropdown and make the brush size 100. You will keep adjusting this size throughout, depending on what you want!
- Quick Tip – to change the size of the brush quickly use the bracket keys ( [ and ] )
- Now that you created the mask, you will see a little white box on that layer down in the lower right. See it? Click on that little white box it because THAT represents the mask.
- Make sure your chosen color over on the right is BLACK.
- Start using the brush on the photo. Each stroke will make that layer 30% more transparent. If you stroke the same area over and over again, you will get to 100%, which allows you to see the layer underneath.
- After you are done masking the two layers together, Merge Layers in the menu or by pressing Command (Ctrl on PC) E.
- Bonus Tip: Are you still MASSIVELY confused by Masking? This happens often because of my lousy description. I suggest you visit this nice YouTube Video on Masking (note that I did not make that video).
You will notice the areas in which I painted. Those areas were blown out and unreadable. So, I chose the DARKEST layer, in which the signs were very readable. I masked those through so we can read, for example, the ticker on the right at the ABC Studios.
Photoshop – Stacking the Layers and Starting to Mask. The gray areas in the white box represent where we have “punched through” to the lower level.
I hope that was easy for you to understand, at least in concept. People sometimes have trouble with Masking, so I hope I explained it okay.
The next thing I do is combine the top two layers by selecting both of them by selecting Layer > Merge Layers. Below, you can see how I have combined the layers top two. Now I only have three layers.
Photoshop – I have combined the top two layers after masking. Now just three remain.
This process of masking and combining should repeated until you are happy with the results.
Moving on, the next step in this particular photo is masking in the pedestrians so that they do not look “ghosted”. When they are moving around between the frames, Photomatix gets confused. I prefer to find my favorite of the original shots where the people are in the most interesting formation. I then use that photo to remix with the original. Below, you can see I have zoomed in on the pedestrians and created a mask on the top layer. I have used the Brush on the top layer to reveal the clean pedestrian layer beneath. Note that the pedestrians are not crystal clear, and I did not mind a bit of “motion” here, since it is Times Square after all.
De-ghosting the image by masking through to the layer where the people look best
STEP 6 – NOISE REDUCTION AND OTHER TOOLS
You will notice that you probably have a lot of noise in the finished result. The HDR Process does this… it is an unfortunate side effect, but easily cleaned up.
I will not go into the full description of Noiseware here, but you are welcome to go read my Noiseware Review.
The only thing I really have to do is to show you the following screenshot. I mean, are you kidding me? The only tip I can add beyond this, for a full master’s touch, is to create a duplicate layer of your finished product before doing the noise reduction. It may get rid of some details you quite like, in which case you can use the masking tricks above to just keep the details and noise how you best see fit for your own work of art.
As you can see below, this can help make your final product look a lot more silky-smooth.
This is the best software I have used for Noise reduction – better than Noise Ninja!
Below, we can see the final image once again! All the hard work has paid off! Behold!
Now that you are done with that, here are some other tools that I recommend. These are part of my workflow, and I recommend you get these and play with them all!
- Lucis Pro – I’ve also started using Lucis Pro more and more. It’s a lot like LucisArt, but it’s even better. I’ve written a Lucis Pro Review and a Lucis Tutorial here on the site, which maybe you can save for later. The same coupon code for LucisArt applies here of “TREYRATCLIFF”. She tells me it’s the best one available.
- Nik Software – Nik makes a great suite of tools I recommend. Use the Coupon Code of “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to save the most amount of money. You can get it from the Nik Software website. I have a full Nik Review here on the site for more info.
- OnOne Software – This is another great suite of powerful tools that I use a lot. Use the Coupon Code “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to save the most amount of money when ordering from the onOne Software website. I have a full review of the OnOne Plugin here on the site for you.
BONUS STEP – SHARPENING AND ADDING POP WITH LUCIS PRO OR LUCISART
Many of my images get a visit from the sweet lady Lucis.
The LucisArt Plugin is awesome. I suggest you download the trial and give it a run! The trial is nice because you get a preview window that shows what all the cool sliders do. If you buy it, be sure to use this Lucis Coupon Code of TREYRATCLIFF. If I ever meet you in person, you can buy me a cappuccino or something… You can get the trial or order it at the LucisArt Website.
Note that sometimes I use an even better program, and you can find out more about that at the Lucis Pro Review. I really don’t mean to overwhelm you with options, just to let you know that there are good, better, and best paths to sharpening.
When you use LucisArt, I suggest the SCULPTURE setting with the top slider less than 12 and the bottom slider above 70 or so. Now, the screenshot below has the bottom slider at 55 original just to show you how it makes the lines “pop”. It’s a bit like UNSHARP MASK, but quite a bit better, in my judgment.
BONUS STEP – PROCESSING A SINGLE RAW FILE
In Photomatix, go you can simply open a RAW file and then go right to Tone Mapping! If you are on a Mac, you can just drag your RAW file and drop it right on the Photomatix application. This is a new feature, and a welcome time saver… You will get a little warning that it is not a true HDR image (a pseudo-HDR image), but just ignore that.
People ask me all the time if it is better to use just One RAW or multiple. Well, sometimes you have no choice if the subject is moving… but the result can be quite nice in both conditions. For the record, I always take multiple exposures whenever possible.
To show you how good images can look from just a single RAW file, here are a few examples. A great one is that shot of Chicago. I was hanging out of a helicopter at sunset. There was certainly no easy way to get multiple exposures there! I believe the following examples will show you how amazing HDR can be with a single RAW!
That is an hour of your life you will never get back, but let’s hope you formed some good memories and skills to create more. Best of luck and I thank you for all your comments and feedback. I currently have over 30,000 emails unread in my photography inbox, so I apologize if I do not get back to you… just don’t have enough time I am afraid. But thanks for all your comments and support! I hope you all have as much fun with HDR as I am – again, best of luck to you!