Welcome one and all to the all-inclusive Tonemapping HDR Tutorial according to myself, William Woodward, aka 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 and how does it work?

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.

Lets think about our eyes for a moment.  Depending on where you get your information, the human eye can see an average of 2-3x the stops of light as a camera.  What that means for us is that when you snap a photo, inherently it’s not going to look the same as your eye will see it.  Taking multiple exposures will allow you to capture a larger range of light, and using the techniques described on the next pages, we’ll learn how to expand what your camera can ‘see.’

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 where HDR comes in.  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!) for you to enjoy.

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 images at different exposure values 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 most is Photomatix.  I’ve tried all sorts of HDR software, but I can tell you that this one does it with a grace and ease.

Part 2: The Gear – Hardware and Software to get you started

Gear and Gadgetry

Well here we are.  Many people’s favorite spot, the toys!  Yes, HDR requires a bit of investment in gear, but realistically 90% of this stuff is what you would likely get setting yourself up for any sort of photography.

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.

Optional Software

Lightroom – Lightroom will allow you too keep all of your files organized and pretty.  It’s develop module is one of the best out there, and it integrates with Photomatix and Photoshop.

Photoshop – This is the finesse tool.  Technically it’s not required, and it’s a big investment, but if you want to take this art form to the highest level, you need the top 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, I’m currently using Topaz DeNoise (part of the suite described next).

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.

OnOne Suite Similar to Topaz, it’s software can help you give your photos that finishing touch.  Just about every B&W photo I develop goes thru Silver Efex Pro

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.

Optional Gear

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?  Well, the short answer is VERY.  A solid tripod will hold your camera perfectly steady even in a strong wind, and allow you to do those awesome longer exposure shots needed for low light shooting.  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 object, head over to Really Right Stuff and buy their most expensive items. You’ll be good. (Honestly tho, they make amazing products)

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

Part 3: In the Field – Common setups and tips for making your shots easier

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 mode 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.

road tripping utah (4)

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 foreground are lost in shadow.  Perfect, let’s HDR it!

Part 4: The Digital Darkroom - Creating your HDR

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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 1

First things first, find the files that you want to work with.   Here, we have the three photos that I snagged out on Badwater Basin.   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.  What you’re trying to avoid here is having the software that you’re using adding any develop settings to your photo at this stage of the game.  As close to zero for all your values is best.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 2

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 directly from Photomatix’s website, and are as follows for Lightroom 3.

  • Blacks – Set to 0.  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.
  • 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, drop it down to 0.
  • 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.

For Lightroom 4 and newer, the import settings have changed to be zeroed out to start, and the only thing I’ll do on occasion is turn the contrast down a little more from 0.  Above, you can see I applied a -20 contrast value.  You’ll also want to turn on Chromatic Abberation correction.  If you’ve got even the slightest bit of CA in your photo, HDR will find it and make it look 100% worse.

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

LR4 HDR Tutorial 3

Lightroom has this really cool export plugin that makes going back and forth between Lightroom and Photomatix super easy.  When you are installing Photomatix, just check the ‘Install Lightroom Plugin’ box and you’re good to go (and if you’ve already installed it, just re-install it and click that checkbox)!  For other software, you’ll want to export your RAW files to TIFF’s, save them off somewhere you’ll find easily.  Then open up Photomatix, and using the ‘Load Bracketed Photos” button, just drag the TIFF’s on in to the window.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 4

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 reddish or blueish lines on the edges of high contrast areas) this is a good box to check.  Remember, though, that it’s better to do this before you even get this far, in your develop software.
  5. Show intermediary 32-bit HDR image – 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 TIFF’s 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 Bracketed 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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 5a

Look what we have here!  If this is your first time in Photomatix, don’t be intimidated by all the sliders.  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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 6

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 psychedelic 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.

Smooth Highlights – Adjust this slider if you’re getting a ‘dirty’ feel to your brighter white areas.  It tends to help with that.

White & Black Point – These are often left alone, but I like to bring them in a bit.  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.  And don’t forget to share it with the world!

LR4 HDR Tutorial 7

You can see a significant difference between the tonemapped HDR file on the left, and the single image on the right.  Now if you’re feeling really ambitious (I hope you are), I fully suggest taking it just a little further, and continue reading the Advanced Techniques section.

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!


Part 5: Advanced Techniques - Photoshop Blending

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)

LR4 HDR Tutorial 8

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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 9

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 +2 image will work well, using the bright light area to really accentuate the foreground detail.  v\(One thing to note, HDR has a tendency of making nice white things look dirty.  You’ll have to fix this every time)

Area 2 – To bring back the details in the mid-ground, it’s likely going to be a mix of the 0 EV photo and the +2 EV photo.

Area 3 – In this shot the sun did a little weird number, so I’ll use the -2EV for this spot.

Area 4 – We’ll use a bit of the middle exposure here, and this will help with the details that have been lost and those beautiful sunrays.

Here you can see the mask that I’ve painted on the HDR image.  Next to the arrow you’ll see a thumbnail of what is going on the screen.  The area that is different shades of grey is what I’m pushing thru to the layer below.  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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 10

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.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 11

Here I am using Topaz adjust to add some contrast to the sky and mountains.

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.

Curves are a VERY powerful tool if you know how to use them correctly. I don’t, so generally I just put a little ‘s’ in it, or drag the middle slightly down.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 12

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 salt flats received some nice sharpening.

Save and Publish!

That’s it folks.  My HDR process from start to finish.  Below I’ve compared different stages of the development.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 13

On the left, the final image with Photoshop edits compared to a single exposure, on the right.

LR4 HDR Tutorial 14

On the left you’ll see the plain tonemapped image, while the final image with the settings we discussed on this page on the right.

And the final product!

The Flats of Badwater Basin