In my last article about bracketing, I explained why photographers bracket images and how I go about actually doing it. This article is going to explain what can be done with those bracketed images. I am going to talk a little bit about some popular HDR programs; and explain how using the same bracketed raw files can give you different results with each program. This article will not give a step by step of how the images were completely processed. A complete step by step of fully processing an HDR image will be coming at another time.
Preparing the images
After loading my images into Lightroom I always make adjustments to my bracketed images BEFORE merging them in any HDR program.
Step 1: Adjust the White Balance, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks and add a little bit of Vibrance. I believe these are essential to getting a good starting point for bracketed images. I make all my adjustments on the base exposure image (0 image in the bracket).
Step 2: In Lens Correction, I click the box for Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Corrections. This is just to try and correct any issues with the lens used for the shot. Just like in step 1, this is only done on the base exposure.
Step 3: While holding the Ctrl key (Windows computers or CMD on Mac) click the other images from the bracket that you will use for the HDR blend and make sure they are all highlighted. Once they are all selected you can go ahead and click the Sync button (make sure all boxes are checked). This will take all the settings that were changed in the base exposure and apply those adjustments to the other exposures.
Now that we are finished with the basic adjustments to the bracketed images we are ready to merge to an HDR image. A simple google search with yield many options for this. I am only focusing on three different options.
- Photomatix – I would say this is one of the most popular HDR programs. It has a lot of built in presets to use for the novice and a lot of manual control for the more experienced user. Many of the HDR images I show are blended using this method.
- Easy to use with many presets for the novice user.
- Does a nice job of blending exposures
- Many manual controls for advanced users
- Very easy to go overboard. Novice users tend to be heavy handed with the strength of adjustments and it’s easy to turn a nice images into clownbarf (oversaturated, noisy garbage)
- Tends to leave halos in the sky. This can be fixed by blending in an original exposure for the sky but that is a time consuming and sometimes difficult process.
- Images tend to have a lot of contrast. Sometimes too much
- Cost- Pro version is $99
- Lightroom Merge to HDR– Included in Lightroom CC is an option to merge to an HDR image. This is really nice because there is no need to purchase additional software to get very nice HDR results.
- No additional cost other then the Creative Cloud membership
- images automatically appear in your LR filmstrip.
- Natural looking HDR
- This method gave me a really nasty halo around the moon.
- Luminosity Masks– Matt Cooper turned me onto these in one of his YouTube videos. I use a panel created by Tony Kuyper Photography. This is not really needed but I find it really speeds up the processes of selecting the lights and darks needed to merge the exposures.
- Most natural looking HDR (in my opinion)
- Allows the most editing freedom
- Must have Photoshop
- Added cost for the Tony Kuyer Panel
- Difficult to learn how to use
- User needs to know Photoshop fairly well because this involves complex masking
The same set of bracketed images blended three different ways and they show three different results in the end. Personally, I like the result that the luminosity masks technique. I think they are the most natural looking and most pleasing to my eye. I would love to see comments about which blending method you think looks best. Also be sure to include which programs you use and what method you would like to see a start to finish complete edit with. Thanks for reading!