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HDR (High Dynamic Range) within Photoshop:

Realistic HDR Without 3rd Party Applications

HDR SamplerI am not a big fan of the typical HDR look. The fan base of traditional HDR is relatively large—including numerous web sites and forums dedicated to the look. Many third party filter packages include a variety of HDR options, along with a couple of dedicated HDR programs and filters. Adobe Photoshop is plenty capable of producing HDR images, but the software marches you only so far, then leaves you wondering what to do on the next step.

This page contains a recent “tough” shot of an owl sitting in a tree with a bright white cloud behind him. I waited 45 minutes for the white cloud to pass, but it never did. I shot a few dozen (or hundred) images of the Long-eared owl as single shots. Luckily most owls hold very still for long periods. I set my D800 to do a 3 image bracket of the scene: one under, one on, and one over the normal exposure. With the focus set, I just waited until it held a pose and clicked three times. The camera did the exposure adjustments for me. Oh yes, I was shooting on a sturdy tripod!

Bracketed Set

Bracketed Set: This is a screen grab of the three selected images side by side in Lightroom.

Edit In HDR

Merge to HDR: I usually right mouse click one of the three images to bring up the Edit In option, then pick Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop. You can also use the drop down menu Photo>Edit In>Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.

Merge to HDR

Merge to HDR: You will see this screen after Photoshop works with the image a minute or so following the Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop step above. Don’t get scared off by this flat looking image! The next couple of steps bring the image back to life! This is the important screen grab. You can click it to view it larger. The three images in the lower left appear with no adjustments needed. If I had shot the scene with five, seven or nine images, they’d appear in that group. I make sure “Remove Ghosts” is checked along with “Complete Toning in Adobe Camera Raw”, then click Tone in ACR.

ACR Adjustments

ACR Adjustments: After a few seconds, the image opens up in Adobe Camera Raw. All of the tools are available for adjusting the image, but you’ll quickly discover you have incredible range in the blacks, whites, highlights, and especially shadows. The Merge to HDR step created a huge 32 bit file “packed” with the best information from all three images, and as you can see, the image still looks natural! (Click this image to see it much larger)

Layer with Smart Filter

Layer with Smart Filter: this is a screen grab of the resulting image coming out of ACR. Notice the layer has a Smart Filter!

Adjustments with Smart Filter

Adjustments with Smart Filter: At any time, I can still revisit and adjust any of the commands within ACR by double clicking on the Camera Raw Filter text under Smart Filters. In this case, I double clicked it and made adjustments to the HSL sliders. I increased the saturation of the Oranges and same for the blues. I also added a bit of a vignette in the Effects tab. I can continue to adjust any of the sliders by going back to the Camera Raw Filter by double clicking it. The adjustments are “non-desctructive” to the original base layer.

Save to EXR

Save to EXR: If I think I might want to return to this file and continue working with it later, I can save the file as an OpenEXR file. I can also open that file in other HDR programs like NIK HDR Pro 2 or Photomatix Pro. (Note: for this demonstration, neither are necessary). Also note, the EXR file can be imported back into Lightroom and additional adjustments can be made directly in Lightroom, although the same commands are available in ACR. Don’t let this step confuse you! I included it only because the earlier steps can be used as gateways into the other programs. Adobe Photoshop does a very good job of aligning the layers and removing ghosts from the bracketed images.

Cropped 32 bit EXR

Cropped 32 bit EXR: To reduce long term file size, I went ahead and cropped the EXR file. (I could have cropped this images in Lightroom in one of the earliest steps, but would have need to Sync the crop in all three images. That’s a quick step.) Photoshop reprocesses the image if done at this stage. I could also wait and crop in later steps. In this case, I went ahead and saved the cropped version over the top of the file name of the full image.

Mode Change

Mode Change: Up until this point, the image has been in 32 bit mode. Not many programs can handle the file in this form. Most Photoshop filters will be grayed out, however, NIK HDR Pro 2 will still be available if I wanted to get the traditional “HDR Look”. Normally, I convert to 16 bit at this stage, especially if I plan on working on it with other filters or techniques. JPGs will need to be converted to 8 bit at some point. At this stage, (if the file is not already flattened) I click Layer>Flatten Image. This removes the Smart Filter functionality and allows for additional effects.

HDR Toning

HDR Toning: Immediately after clicking on either 8 bit or 16 bit, this screen pops up. For my purposes, I click on “Method” and choose Exposure and Gamma. If I did my adjustments already in ACR, I don’t need to touch either slider and simply hit the OK button. Note: If you like some of the traditional “HDR” looks, check out the other options in the “Method” box.

Final TIF

Final Image: This is a screen grab of the adjusted HDR image without the HDR look.

Save TIF

Final Save: At this point, I save the final image in the folder of my choice, usually next to the EXR file if I saved one in the earlier steps. I prefer TIF, but other file formats are available from this list. After the save, I have full editing ability, including the option of doing additional ACR adjustments on the 8 bit or 16 bit file buy clicking Filter>Adobe Camera Raw (this option takes Photoshop CC or CC 2014).

The Wrap Up: Sometimes, these kind of “How-To” posts make a process seem much more complicated than it really is. I have to include all the screen grabs to help out, but really the steps are fairly easy and intuitive once you’ve done it a couple of times. The results look much more natural than most images I’ve ever seen using the third party programs. The built in Smart Filters make it easy to adjust the image if you don’t like the last adjustments. I’ve tried this same set of steps on a lot of images and it works very well on most of them. I bumped into one Schwabacher Landing image that gave me problems…it worked, but at least for that image, I didn’t like the colors. The bottom line…on tough shots like this one, it only takes a few seconds to dial in Bracket on the camera and get a few shots just to be safe. 


NIK HDR Efex Pro 2: I didn’t want to confuse readers by including this earlier, but this is the first screen I might have seen if I had opened my image in NIK. I’d need quite a bit of adjusting to try to bring it to the spot I was already at while in Photoshop using the steps I described above. (Click the image to view it much larger)

Lightroom AND Photoshop or ALL Photoshop: I typically start my images in Lightroom. It seems most people have it now. To do these steps, you’d need Photoshop, but you wouldn’t need Lightroom. Also, I started with RAW files. You can create an HDR image with JPGS. To create these steps using only Photoshop, open three images and copy one of them to the clipboard and paste it into one of the others. Do the same for the third image, until you have all images in a single document containing three layers. Shift-Select all three layers in the layers tab, then go to File>Automate>Merge to HDR Pro… The rest of the steps should be essentially the same.

Faux HDR: For a “true” HDR image, you are supposed to combine three, five, or more bracketed images. The HDR software merges all of them into one image as explained above. Especially if shooting RAW images, you normally have at least a full stop of exposure in each direction of a well captured image. It is normally possible to create three or more images from that one image, then go through the HDR steps. I’ve done this many times and it can save an image. The big advantage, of course, is you are only working with ONE file. If there is movement, such as an animal crossing a stream or a windmill spinning, you will not have to worry about differences between frames. Some of the third party software create the various versions behind the scenes. There are “actions” to help automate or speed up the process if you prefer to build the individual parts directly from the original RAW files.


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Comments (3)

  1. Good post Mike. I’ve been using Photomatix Pro but I’m going to give this a try.

  2. Tony Boicelli

    Blake Rudis at HDR Insider offers a lot of photoshop actions, my favorite is pseudo TIFF exposure where you take a single RAW file through ACR and when you get it to where you like you hit play on his action and it saves either three or five different exposures of that picture. This way you can get an HDR effect if you have moving subjects because all 3 or 5 images are exactly the same. No ghosting.

  3. Hi Tony,
    Thanks for commenting. I was considering adding in a section called “Faux HDR”. Same concept…use ACR to create the one over, one on, and one under from the same photo. I guess it makes sense someone has an action for speeding that up. I spoke with a tech at NIK one time. They said NIK HDR Efex does the same thing when using a single image. I work off the original raw file to do the various exposures. When you try to process one of these images in Photomatix, it pops up a notification you are not creating a “true HDR image” (at least it used to say it when I tried it). Still, this (Faux HDR) is a great way of helping a single action shot where it would have been impossible to get three to five bracketed images or to salvage an image in which you didn’t create the bracketed set at the time.

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