I am going to assume that you have already read my article about HDR Photography. If not, I would suggest reading that first in order to get a better idea on what this process is all about and why it’s being done. Also, I am going to assume that you are aware of the necessary camera settings to capture a bracketed image for HDR. With that being said, lets get started!
Programs that will be used throughout this tutorial:
- Photomatix Pro
- Adobe Photoshop CS5 (Older versions of Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Elements will do just fine) *Note: I do not know how many features are available in Adobe Photoshop Elements
- Adobe Lightroom (optional)
- Noiseware Standard (optional)
*Disclaimer – This is not a perfect representation of how all of my photos are processed. I chose an easier HDR in order to clearly demonstrate the basic process of HDR photography. Every photo is a mystery, waiting to be solved. I carefully look at each photo and determine exactly what needs to be done (and with a lot of trial-and-error). If these steps are followed carefully, it will dramatically improve your work… I promise! Just take the extra time and carefully process each photo.
Here is the photo I will be working with. It is taken from my favorite location in Pittsburgh so I thought it would be appropriate to show how I process it. Below represents the normally exposed photo, straight out of the camera. Below that represents the other two brackets captured in order to create this HDR.
Photomatix – Beginning your HDR
I find it best to close out of all programs except for the one’s necessary for post-processing (and iTunes for music). It leaves an uncluttered canvas for your undivided attention.
*Note, I have already clicked Load Bracketed Photos and selected my three RAW exposures for tone-mapping.
A clean, uncluttered desktop, ready to upload the brackets and begin.
After the Ok button is pressed once all RAW files are uploaded into Photomatix, the first dialog box that will pop up is this one below. Typically, I leave these settings the same for all photos. The only box I change here is the remove ghosting artifacts. I only check that one if there is heavy movement of people or clouds. For this photo, it will remain unchecked.
Now that your computer finished using all of its processing power to render this 16 megapixel preview, we can take a look at the sliders and explain what they do. I am only going to talk about the sliders I use. The rest of them stay the same for all of my HDR’s.
- Strength – This will show how HDR-y your photo will look. I almost always leave at 100%
- Saturation – This one’s self-explanatory. Try not to over do this one… I know it can be tempting. My advice, wait until Photoshop to apply saturation.
- Luminosity – This will have an overall effect on the HDR look of your photo. I typically leave this at 10, but can vary photo to photo.
- Detail Contrast – This slider has an overall effect on the amount of detail and grain. A lot of the time, this stays at 2.0, but can vary anywhere from 0 to 8.0.
- Lighting Adjustments – This is where people go crazy. This is also where it could make or break your HDR. My suggestion, don’t mess with it. Leave this one on Natural!
- White Point – Adjusts the levels of whites in the photograph. This will have an effect on how dark/light it will end up.
- Black Point – Adjusts the levels of blacks in the photograph. This will also have an effect on how dark/light it will end up.
As for the other sliders, they do not change. I keep them the same for every HDR. I would suggest not moving around the other sliders. They will more than likely ruin your HDR.
Once you have finished checking out all of the sliders, go ahead and click Process. Below represents the image once it is completed its run through Photomatix. The HDR can be done, but I recommend a bit of post-processing in Photoshop. If you’ll notice, it requires a lot of clean-up. It has excessive noise in the sky, the water has really bright elements, along with really dark elements, and the sky/water has a surreal effect going on that will need to be toned down a bit in Photoshop. Not to mention, it needs some sharpening done to the overall image.
Now that the easy part is done with, we move to the more difficult part of the post-processing; clean-up. I am going to introduce Layer Masking. Don’t let that word be intimidating, you can beat it! I am going to do my best to explain this in a clear, easy, and concise way. First the original RAW images need to be imported into Photoshop, along with the tone-tapped HDR.
This next step may not be one you have. If you do not have the program Adobe Lightroom, you can skip this paragraph and move down to the next. I use Lightroom to categorize and organize my photos, especially since Finder cannot view NEF or RAW files. Here is a little shortcut on how to import all of your exposures into Photoshop, stacked into layers, ready for masking. Select all exposures used in the scene. In this case, I have three. Right click one of them and select edit in. Arrow over to Open as Layers in Photoshop. You will also need to import the tone-mapped HDR into Photoshop as well. Do this by selecting File > Open and selecting your HDR. Copy that photo so that it is on top of the stacked exposures. You will be able to verify this by viewing the Layers Palette on the left hand corner of Photoshop
*Note, if you are not using Adobe Lightroom, you will need to separately upload all images into Photoshop and stack them on top of one another. To do this, go to File > Open and highlight all RAW images to be imported. Once all are loaded into Photoshop, the photos will need to be “stacked”. This will need to be done by copying each exposure onto the other. Do this by holding down Command (CTRL on a PC) A and then Command (CTRL on a PC) C. Click on one of the other exposures and hold down Command (CTRL on a PC) V. This will past the one exposure on top of the other. Repeat these steps until all exposures (including the tone-mapped HDR) are stacked on each other with the HDR being on top. You will be able to verify this by viewing the Layers Palette on the left hand corner of Photoshop.
Layer Masking: What’s the point?
You may be asking yourself, what is layer masking and why am I stacking all of these exposures on top of each other? Well to start off, layer masking is just a fancy term used to describe the process of blending different photos together using layers. For the purpose of HDR, it fixes the portions of the photo that Photomatix was not able to correct. This includes, but is not limited to halos in the sky, ghosted clouds, blown out portions from lights or the sun, blurry people, or maybe a person ran in front of the camera for one of the exposures but no one was visible for the other two. This process will allow you to remove all of these problems and bring the HDR down to a more realistic/natural looking photo.
What does Layer masking do? Layer masking blends the top layer (in this case, the HDR) with the layer directly below it (in this, the file named DSC_3867). You can refer to the above layer palette to view the order of the exposures. It allows us to manually select the portions we want to replace with the exposure below it by painting over the photo.
So why are all of the exposures stacked in Photoshop. The reason I stack all exposures is because there may be problems that each exposure can correct. For example, since the sky has uneven lighting and has a surreal effect, we will use the darkest exposure to correct the sky. As for the water, it is blown out from the reflections and has that very dark area in the bottom left-hand corner. By masking it back to the original exposure, it will take away that surreal effect, making it more natural.
Preparing to Mask
Now that all of the layers are stacked on top of one another (with the HDR on top), the next step is to align all of these layers. Even though the camera was more than likely on a tripod, this is still an essential step to ensure that the layers line up while masking. To do this, highlight all of the layers on the layer palette by holding in Command (CTRL on a PC) and clicking all layers.
With all the layers selected, go up to the menu and select Edit > Auto-Align Layers. This will prompt the pop-up box below. I always use Auto align. It seems to always work and I have never had a problem in the past using this option. Select OK and Photoshop will work its magic.
Starting the Mask
With the layers properly aligned, it is time to start masking. It does not matter where you begin, but for the purposes of this tutorial, I am going to start with the sky. Since the sky is generally the best at the darkest exposure, I need to flip-flop the two exposures below the HDR on the layer palette (this may be different for your HDR). Do this by simply clicking and dragging the second layer (in this case DSC_3867.NEF) below the darker layer (DSC_3868.NEF). Masking only effects the top layer and the layer directly below it! It took me a really long time to figure this one out. Once the desired order has been achieved, click the top layer (the HDR). To begin the mask, simply click on the little box with the circle inside at the bottom of the layer palette (next to the fx button) and a little white box will appear next to the top layer.
The little white box next to the HDR represents the mask. In order to apply the mask, I am going to paint over the photo with a black brush. Black brush applies the mask while a white brush removes the mask. Another important thing to remember when masking is brush opacity. By selecting an opacity, this will determine how much of the original sky to replace. For example, say I select a 100% opacity on this photo, when I paint over the sky with the brush, it is going to blend the sky with the photo below it at 100%. For this particular photo, I am going to select 18% (it may be different on yours). The opacity varies from photo to photo. I would select a higher opacity if the sky had a lot of halos or ghosting. For this HDR, the sky isn’t that psychedelic.
My brush is selected, the color of the brush is black and at the top of the screen, the opacity is set to 18%
Now simply paint the sky on the actual photo with your brush by holding down your mouse. As long as the mouse button is depressed, you may pass over the same area to ensure it has been painted. It will not increase the opacity. Once the mouse has been released and re-pressed, passing over an area that has been already painted will result in a higher opacity, ultimately revealing more of the layer below it. In this case, if I were to release the mouse button, then re-press and paint over an already painted area, it will result in a mask of 36% opacity instead of 18%. This will continue until the end result hits 100% opacity. In this situation, I am only applying the mask at one pass through (18% opacity). Again, I am going to repeat myself, masking only affects the layer with the white mask and the layer directly below it!
The layer palette demonstrates the mask that has been applied to the sky. It does this by displaying a darkened area on the white mask. The higher the opacity, the darker the mask.
Now that the sky has been completed on this photo, I am going to merge the two layers together. By merging the two layers, this ensures that the mask is completed. Do this by selecting both the HDR layer and the layer directly below it by holding in Command (CTRL on a PC). Right click over top of the layers and select Merge Layers.
For this HDR, I needed to tone down the water as well. This process was done exactly the same as above. The only difference is that I painted over the water instead of the sky and used a 50% opacity instead of 18%. In order to tone down the water, I used the normally exposed photo (DSC_3867.NEF). Below is a screen shot of the mask that was used. You will notice that some areas are darker than others. This is where I painted over more to heighten the opacity and remove the under/over exposed parts of the water.
Notice the water has a much more smooth look and more evenly distributed light
Once I finish masking the water, I merge the two layers together, just like previously. As for that last layer (the brightest one), I did not need it. Typically I do not use the brightest exposure, but I upload it just to be sure. Since I didn’t use it, I am going to discard it. Do this by simply right clicking the layer and selecting Delete Layer.
Selecting the Right Exposure for Masking
You may be asking yourself, “How do I know what photo to use for the mask?” This is where trial-and-error come in. It may be very clear on which exposure needs to be blended into the HDR. If not, I will give a general overview on the types of scenarios you might come across when editing your HDR.
- The Sky – This can be one of two exposures. For example, if you are shooting a sunset, or in broad daylight with wispy clouds, the darkest exposure on your bracket might be the best choice. If you are shooting at blue hour or close to complete darkness (or complete darkness) you might want to use the brightest exposure to get the detail in the clouds.
- Moving People/Cars – So you have some people ruining your HDR. Sometimes, no matter how long you wait, it just doesn’t work. So the only way to accept this situation is embrace the people and select the exposure with the least amount of ghosting. The best exposure for this type of scenario might be the middle or normally exposed photo.
- Water – You are setting up for beautiful sunset shot on the beach. The waves are splashing, the tide is roaring in. When you blend the 3 exposures together, you get a mix of them all. Or what I like to call it, a mess. Which one do you use? It depends on what look you are going for. I never use the darkest exposure for this type of scene. I like a smoother looking water. If you use the darkest, you are going to get that choppy water look…We are better than that. I always like to use either the middle or the lightest exposure. This will give you that smooth, silky look on the water.
I hope these three different scenarios help some. Sometimes it is best to try them and see how they turn out when they are blended together.
If you have made it this far into the tutorial, you have completed what I think is one of the most difficult things to grasp in Photoshop. Doing so entitles you to a congratulatory pat on the back. So go ahead, take your sweaty hands off of your keyboard/mouse, pause, think about what you have accomplished and pat yourself on the back. You deserve it!
Now that the hard part is over, it is time to apply some finishing touches on the photo. This next step that I am going to share is fixing the building angles and lining them up with the edge of the photo. I am very fortunate to have had a friend on Flickr show me this tip to improve my wide-angle shots. Notice on this particular HDR that the buildings are pointing inward? Looks a little weird, right? When wide-angle lenses are tilted upward (or downward), it distorts the photo by pinching everything in (or out). This is a VERY easy fix in Photoshop. To correct this, select the crop tool on the left-hand panel. Highlight the entire photo with the crop tool. Once selected, be sure to check the Perspective box at the top pane. Now, on one of the top corners (or bottom – depending on which way your structures are pointing) and drag it inward until the shaded line is parallel with the edge of the building or structure. Do this same thing to the other side. Once the crop is lined up, simply right click over the photo and select Crop. This will pull the buildings outward so that they are lined up with the edge of the photograph – giving it that squared-up look.
Crop tool selected with the edges “pinched” in
Right-Click over the photo and select Crop. This will line the buildings up with the edge
A nicely cropped HDR
Noiseware, Sharpening and other Tips
- Noise-Reduction – I use a Photoshop Plug-in called Imagonemic’s Noiseware Standard… I recommend it. Photomatix and other HDR software tend to create lots of noise. This, unfortunately, is a side effect of HDR. The built-in noise reduction software for Photoshop isn’t that great. Noiseware Standard does the trick… and does it well.
- Sharpening – This is a step, especially with HDR, that should not be forgotten. Always use Unsharp Mask or a High Pass Filter. This tool can be found under Filters > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask. To use the High Pass Filter as a sharpening tool, make a duplicate base layer, navigate to Filters > Other > High Pass. Keep the radius between 2 and 4, depending on the photo. This step will turn your photo silver. With the silver layer selected, navigate to the drop down box next to “normal” on the layer palette. Click that, and scroll down to Overlay. This will mix the two layers together, sharpening the overall image.
- Dodging and Burning – This tool will help in neutralizing dark and light areas by painting over them.
- Adjustment Layers – Saturation and Selective coloring can play an integral part in how the final outcome of your HDR will look. (I increased the blues and cyans on this HDR)
- Curve adjustments – Adding a simple “S” curve will greatly increase the contrast of the HDR, removing that flat look.
- Always save your work as TIFF files. TIFF files will save all adjustment layers and masks so that you can pause and come back later if you please. Never, ever, save as a JPEG until the final save! I have learned this the hard way, now you don’t have to!
If you don’t know what these last few tools are or how they work, I would suggest looking it up on YouTube hehe!
Below represents the tone-mapped image that came straight out of Photomatix and the HDR that went through a bit of post-processing in Photoshop. I hope this tutorial helped. Please feel free to leave a comment or shoot me an email if you have any questions regarding this tutorial or my work in general. I would be happy to respond!
The tone-mapped image, straight out of Photomatix
The completed photo after all Photoshop adjustments