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Welcome one and all to the (someday?) world famous and (hopefully) all inclusive HDR Tutorial according to myself, where to willie.  Glad you made it here and let’s have some fun with HDR photography.  I suppose there is no reason to waste any time, so we’ll get right to it.

Getting Started – What is HDR?

First things first, let’s get a grasp on what exactly HDR photography is.  HDR stands for High Dynamic Range.  Its impact on photography is as a post-processing technique using either one or multiple images, and increasing the DEPTH of light that you are able to capture.  HDR makes shooting into certain lighting situations possible that would never work as effectively using a single setting on your camera.  The way that I’ve had the most luck in describing HDR, is that it’s like taking the best lights and colors from a broader selection than the camera has available during each exposure independently.

We’ve all been there, the perfect sunset, the sky full of color dancing off the clouds, reflections twinkle across the water’s surface, all perfectly visible to you as your eyes move from one feature to the next, taking in all that is visually appealing.  Then you bring the camera up to your eye, and snap away.  Got it.  Well you got some of it, but there is likely something missing, some of that essence gets lost as your camera converts those precious moments that the shutter was open into lights and darks and colors and shapes, and gives you something less than you remember.  This is what I absolutely love about HDR.  It gives us the ability to better create the essence of what a scene had to offer while you were there.  The brilliant colors and details that you take in can get lost in the highlights and shadows of a single snapshot.

Here are some of my favorite HDR’s (click on any of them for a larger view!)

How Does it Work?

Well, without boring you to tears, HDR software can take either a single RAW (we’ll talk more about this later) or multiple exposures and thru some fancy algorithms and equations and all sorts of other behind the scenes activities, combines them into one marvelous image that pulls out the best information on a pixel to pixel level, something that cannot be done with simple (simple is a relative term) layering and masking.  (Technically, during the advanced section, we’ll still do this…)  The software that I use is Photomatix.  I can’t say that I’ve tried all sorts of HDR software, but I can tell you that this one does it with a grace and ease that I cannot complain about.

Required Software

Photomatix – This (or if you already have it, one like it) is the meat and potatoes of HDR.  It will take your photos in and churn out HDR’s all day long.

Photoshop – This is the finesse tool.  It’s a big investment, but if you want to take this art form to the highest level, you need the performer.

Noise Reduction Software – There is a ton out there, and everyone has an opinion about why the one they use is the best.  Try some; Photoshop even has its own. Use what makes you happy inside.

Topaz Plugins – Available here.  The suite of plugins for Photoshop can add that little bit of ‘umph’ to a photo, and I really enjoy many of the effects this software can bring to the table.  I use this on nearly every HDR I do, but it’s by no means required.  It just makes some of the adjustments that you could otherwise do a little easier and faster.

Required Gear

Camera – Well obviously.  If you are just getting into photography, and you want the most basic option, find a camera that shoots in RAW mode and you’ll be good to go.  Beyond that, you’ll want a camera that has an ‘auto-bracketing’ mode, and what this does is allow you to set your exposure for the scene, and the camera will automatically adjust its settings and take the subsequent shots at their required values.  You’ll then end up with 3,5,7 etc photos, all at different exposure values, such as what my ‘standard’ is; -2,0,+2.  (Some cameras have the ability to take more exposures, but this is about all you’ll need, save trying to shoot directly into the sun)

Shoot in RAW mode – If you don’t already, start now.  RAW files have such an EXTREME amount of more information in them than a super compressed JPEG file.  RAW files give you opportunities to pull out information that would otherwise be lost to the abyss of your camera’s processor.

Tripod – (optional, sort of)  Technically, yes, a tripod is optional.  Photomatix has some amazing aligning software built in, which allows you some leeway when taking your multiple exposures.  Also, as I mentioned before, you can create a HDR from a single RAW file.  So, how important could a tripod be?  You may be telling yourself that ‘I don’t want to spend a bunch of money on three sticks that I set my camera on top…’  Well, maybe that’s fine for you.  My tripod is big, heavy, and holds my camera in steadily place in a 15 mile per hour wind.  I didn’t spend a ton of money on it, but it wasn’t cheap.  There are a lot of very expensive tripods out there, but your best bet is to read reviews, decide what factors are most important (lightweight, folds up small, can fit in this bag, etc) to you, and try one out at your local store.  If money is no option, head over to Really Right Stuff and buy their most expensive items. You’ll be good. (Honestly, tho, they make amazing products, but no, I can’t afford one yet 🙂  )

Remote Shutter Release – This can be a nice addition to your arsenal.  As you can imagine, when you shoot multiple photos and are trying to combine them, having them as lined up as possible out of the gate is a good thing.  Every time you touch your camera, you have the potential to bump it in the smallest amount.  Another option here is a timed release that most cameras have these days, then you don’t have to worry about carrying extra gear.

That’s it?!  Yep, now let’s get out and get shooting!

In the Field – Setting up for HDR

Well now we’ve got our fancy cameras, huge tripods, (that’s a joke…) and maybe a few preconceived notions that you can HDR anything.  Well, you can, but, there are certain things that lead to better HDRs than others.  Remember, HDR stands for HIGH dynamic range. If you shoot something that is well and evenly lit, then there isn’t a very high dynamic range, and the HDR process will not do all the fun things that it is capable of.   Once you begin to see the world in HDR, your mind will never be the same.  You’ll see possibilities beyond what others see every day, and when you show off your new photos, your friends will say ‘wow, that looks so cool!’ I promise.

Now, let’s get to it.   I’m a visual guy (as you may have guessed from the photography website), so I learn well visually.  I think it makes sense to see something then be able to remember that better than just words on a page.

What are we looking at here?  Well these are the settings that we’ll need to be focusing on for our HDR shot.  I highlighted the main points that we’ll discuss in this section.  I always shoot in Aperture Priority mode.  This allows me to set my ISO speed and f stop, and the camera will decide what shutter speed will be required.  For me, I find it’s the most intuitive way of shooting, as you’ll know where you want your f stop and ISO to be before you even put your eye up to the viewfinder.

A)     Shutter Speed: In this instance my middle exposure is 2 seconds long.  That means at +2/0/-2 the brightest exposure will be 8 seconds, and the darkest exposure will be 0.5 seconds.  Lucky you, most all cameras will do this automatically!

B)     F Stop: I set my f stop based on how much of the scene I’ll want in focus.  In this instance, I wanted a full depth of focus, and on a wide angle lens anything out past 10 feet or so will be in focus with anything past f6 or so.

C)     Timer Mode:  Since we’re talking long exposures in this particular setup, I’ve found a good way to have the camera go thru all of the exposures automatically is thru the timer setting.  Set your camera on timer mode, press the shutter button once, and 5 seconds later, the camera will go thru all of your auto bracketed exposure.  Convenient isn’t it?

D)     RAW mode: Remember we talked about shooting in RAW before?  Well I’ll shoot in RAW 99% of the time.  the basic reason is that the RAW file holds significantly more light information than a JPEG.  Another benefit, if you are shooting a scene where lots of objects are moving, or maybe there just isn’t that great of a dynamic range, you can use a single RAW file to make a HDR.

E)      ISO:  I keep this at 100 (or as low as possible) for every situation that I can.  This is why I end up using a tripod so often.  The lower your ISO, the lower your noise.  If you don’t have your tripod and need to crank this up to be able to drop your shutter speed, you can, but be ready because the HDR process will add even more noise than the originals.

F)      Auto-Exposure Bracketing:  Finally!  Here’s where most cameras these days shine.  This fancy little setting allows you have all your settings ready to go, then the camera will figure out all by its fancy self what your +2 and -2 EV (exposure values) are!  Now how nice is that of the camera?  Remember, you don’t need your camera to do this, but it sure helps.  If you really want to do HDR and your camera doesn’t have this feature, then make sure you are on a solid tripod, take your first shot, then manually adjust to +2 and -2 (4x shutter speed and 1/4x shutter speed) and take those shots.  Yes it’s tedious, but it can and has been done by many shooters.

As you can see in the photos I took here on my cell phone, there is quite a bit of dynamic in the light source.  I know we’ve all done it, taken a photo and either half of it is completely blown out or half of it is completely black.  How unfortunate is that?  Even here you can tell that the colors and details in the sunset are completely too bright for this shot, and the details of the building and rocks are lost in shadow.  Perfect, let’s HDR it!

Back in the Digital Darkroom

Fire up your photo management software.  For me, it’s Lightroom.  It keeps me organized and handles all my files, meshes seamlessly with Photoshop and Photomatix, and does it all with a nice style.

First things first, find the files that you want to work with.   Here, we have the three photos that I snagged out on the river.   One thing to note, when you import your RAW files into your developing software, there will probably some ‘standard’ development settings that it applies.  Depending on the software you use, this may be different.  I’ve only used Camera RAW and Lightroom, and the settings below apply to both.

I have a preset that I use for my HDR’s that sets a few select settings to a value that I’ve found to be a happy starting point for the HDR process.  These settings come from Photomatix, and are as follows:

A)     Blacks – Set to 0.  Actually here I set mine to 2, I’ve experimented with a lot of different values, and that seems to work best for most situations.  The main point here is that you don’t want to have a lot of black in a scene that you are pulling light out of, so you’ll likely be turning it down from the standard starting value.

B)     Contrast – Contrast is great in a scene, it provides depth and deepens colors, but again, when you are trying to pull as much dynamic range out of multiple photos, you don’t need to start out with a high contrast level in each of your photos.

C)     Tone Curve – This one does pretty much the same thing as contrast, but in a different way.  We don’t need to spend a great deal of time on this one, but I’ve found that setting it to linear is a good starting point.

Alright.  Files selected, check.  Initial settings applied, check.  Now let’s get them over to the fun part! Photomatix!

Lightroom has this really cool export plugin that makes going back and forth between your files and Photomatix super easy.  When you are installing Photomatix, just check the ‘Install Lightroom Plugin’ box and you’re good to go!  For other software, you’ll want to export your RAW files to TIFF’s or JPEG’s, save them off somewhere you’ll find easily.  Then open up Photomatix, and using the import dialog just drag them on in.

After you either export from Lightroom or drag your files into Photomatix, you’ll get one of two dialog boxes.   They are really the same, it’s just the last little bit that changes.  As you see above there are a few different options.

  1. Align images – just like it sounds.  If you think that your camera moved on the tripod, or you were doing these by hand, turn this on.  I was sturdy on my tripod, with no real wind to speak of, so I left it off.
  2. Reduce ghosting artifacts – Ghosting is a HDR term for objects that moved too much from one frame to the next for the software to understand what to do with the pixels.  Say you have a car moving thru the street, someone walking, or water rippling.  I prefer to fix ghosting in later steps, so I nearly always leave this off.  It is getting much, much better in Photomatix, though, and you can try it out to see if it helps you.
  3. Reduce noise – again, just like it sounds.  As I noted before, HDR can bring out noise, but just like above, I like to have control of the noise reduction, so I’ll do it later.
  4. Reduce chromatic aberrations – If your camera tends to produce bad chromatic aberrations (those fuzzy redish or blueish lines on the edges of high contrast areas) this is a good box to check.  Also note, though, that Lightroom has great CA reduction.  Do this before you even get this far, and you’ll come out better on the other end.
  5. Show intermediary 32-bit HDR image – I honestly don’t know much about this.  I don’t use it.
  6. (Optional for the Lightroom Plugin) Automatically re-import – this just brings the processed photo back in to the same folder as your original files.
  7. (Optional for the Lightroom Plugin) Output Format – JPEG is good enough for me.  Use TIFFs if you like bigger files (not bigger as in actual pixel size, but as in file size).
  8. Click on ‘Export’

If you opted to load in the images manually via the ‘Load Bracketted Photos’ button in Photomatix, your last option will be number 4 above.  You’ll then click ‘Preprocess’ or similar (depends on your version) and we’re back on the same page.

Look what we have here!  Details in the sunset!  Details in the buildings and in the rocks and ice!  This is already so much better than any one photo individually, but we can go even a bit further than this.  The settings I have above are a little preset that I set up in Photomatix, kind of my base starting point for all photos.  Every photo will be different, so each time I like to have a spot to go back to for getting started.

So now we’ve played with the settings a little bit, and you can see that I’ve tweaked a few things.  I’ll go down the list.   Keep an eye on that histogram, we’ll try and keep too much of the curve from falling off to the left or right.  If it does, you are losing details in the highlights and shadows.

Strength – Leave it at 100.

Color Saturation – this will vary.  It depends on the photo and the color involved.  I generally hit around 60-75ish.

Luminosity – Controls the compression of the tonal range, which has the effect of adjusting the global luminosity level. This is a technical way of saying that moving the slider to the right boosts shadow details and brightens the image. Moving it to the left has the opposite effect.  More often than not I live in the 2-7 range.

Detail Contrast – This effects the quality of details at a micro level.  Increasing this increases perceived sharpness, but overall darkens the image.

Lighting Adjustments – This is the real ‘HDR feeling’ slider.  Moving it to the left decreases overall contrast in the scene, leveling out the amount of light, and moving it to the right does the opposite.  We’ve all seen the ‘wow that’s a psycadelic HDR’ photos.  Those live to the left of 0 value, and also in the ‘Lighting Effects Mode’.  I suggest staying away from all that.  I hang out pretty often around 0-3.

White & Black Point – These are often left alone, but I light to bring them in.  The white point can brighten an image that has lost some of its brightness.  Black point is important because it gives the photo an anchor point, so I’ll always bring in some level of blacks.

The great part about HDR is that all these settings are COMPLETELY up to you!  Play with them, try them in different combinations.  There is no ‘magic setting’ that will work for every image, and as you do more and more you will see how they all affect each other in different ways.

Well that’s it!  Your HDR is complete!  See, that was easy.  If you used the Lightroom export plugin, hit the ‘Save and Re-Import button’.  If you imported manually, click on ‘Tonemap Image’ and save the file off to your working folder.

Advanced Techniques

Wow, glad you’re still with me here.  For me, this is where the real fun happens.  This is what will separate the good HDR images from the greats.  The problem with the HDR process, is that you can’t get EVERY thing exactly right in the software.  There may be ghosting, noise issues, and areas of the photo that just aren’t perfect.  That’s okay.  We have a solution for that!

Time to fire up Photoshop

Once again, Lightroom has a nice feature that helps my HDR flow.  It’s the ‘Open as Layers in Photoshop’ option.  It will take my 3 original files, along with the tonemapped file, and bring them all into PS and stack them in layers.  Your other option here is to open up all four files individually in PS, and using copy and paste stack them in to one file.  Either way works.  (Now I don’t want to get you all flustered about how to use PS.  It probably has 3x the controls that I even know about or use.  The main things you’ll need to use here are layers and masking, both of which have some easy to follow videos on youtube)


Identify your problem areas

I’ve roughly identified the main areas that I’m not terribly pleased with in my file.  Yes it seems like a good portion of the whole file I’m not pleased with, but having the HDR file as a base is incredibly helpful.   If you had to check the ‘Align Source Images’ box in Photomatix, now is a good time to do the same in Photoshop, using Edit > Auto Align Layers.

Get to Masking!

Okay.  We’ve got all our photos in layers, lined up nicely on top of one another.  Now we need to decide which of the original files will do the best at fixing our problem areas.

For Area 1, I think the underexposed image will bring back some of the details and colors that we’re missing there.

Area 2 – To bring back the details in the buildings, it’s likely going to be a mix of the middle EV photo and the bright EV photo.

Area 3 – To get rid of the dirty feeling to that ice, we’ll use the brightest EV photo again.  (One thing to note, HDR has a tendency of making nice white things look dirty.  You’ll have to fix this every time)

Area 4 – We’ll use a bit of the middle exposure here, and this will help with the details that have been lost as the grass moved a little while the three photos were going off.

Here you can see a red overlay of what I masked in from my darkest exposure.  Next to the arrow you’ll see a thumbnail of what is going on the screen.  The area that is highlighted red is what I’m pushing thru to the layer below.  This matches what is black on the mask.  A good way to think about masks is as you paint more black color on the mask, you are revealing more of the image underneath.  I’m going to be adding a video of this process as a later follow up to this tutorial, so check back if you need some more help.

Other Adjustments

Another plugin I use often in PS comes from Topaz Labs, and is called Topaz Adjust.  It adds a nice ‘pop’ to my images, and when used in combination with the layer and masking techniques we discussed, you can pull out just the perfect parts for what you are trying to show.

Here I am using Topaz adjust to add some contrast to the ice before I mask it in to my image.

Another adjustment that I like to selectively use is the Curves Adjustment or the Levels Adjustment.  Both will add a bit of brightness and contrast to your scene.  Play around with them a bit to see if you like the effects.  Again, you can mask in certain parts if you don’t like the whole scene.

Sharpening and Noise reduction:  I’ll selectively apply each of these depending on where the image needs.  For this photo, the sky got some noise reduction, and the buildings and ice received some nice sharpening.

Save and Publish!

That’s it folks.  HDR from start to finish.  Below you can see the single exposure on the left, and the completed HDR on the right.

And the final product!

Bonus – HDR from a Single RAW

I have told you that you can do HDRs from a single RAW.  Well the techniques are similar to what we did above, you’ll only be working with one RAW source file rather than 3 (or 4,5,6…).  You’ll bring in the original RAW file to Photomatix, and it will ask you if you would like to create what they call a ‘Pseudo-HDR’ image.  That’s fine.  You’ll crank out your sliders in Photomatix the same way, and open your Tonemapped image and the original file in Photoshop all the same.  A little layers and masking and you’ve got your HDR from a single RAW!

Here’s a few examples of Single RAW HDRs


Hope y’all had a good time and learned a few things.  HDR is great fun, and when you get it in your blood, you’ll start seeing the world in all new ways!  Now go forth!


Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride! – Hunter S. Thompson