In this Photoshop HDR tutorial we’re going to look at the basic requirements needed for a genuine High Dynamic Range (HDR) image. Please note that I’m using Photoshop CS6 for this tutorial.
HDR photography has proved massively popular in the digital photography era. It’s safe to say it can be a contentious subject, with a fair number of photographers disliking the surreal/cartoon style photos that many like to create. I’m not a big fan of these either, as I prefer to create more realistic imagery, but I don’t have any real issue with it, all visual art is subjective after all.
Above is the final image we’re going to work towards, taken at sunset with my tripod preciously placed on the rocks, this final shot definitely has a slight HDR feel to it, but it’s still a relatively realistic and powerful image.
A HDR image is comprised of multiple images of varying exposures, these exposures are then digitally merged into one single image, thus offering more tonal range and detail than is possible via a regular single exposure shot. There are dedicated software packages available for merging and processing HDR images; Photomatix, HDR Efex Pro etc, but in this tutorial we’re going to show you how to do it in Photoshop.
Capturing multiple exposures
Once you’ve found a scene that you want to photograph, you then need to capture the multiple exposures. For a good HDR image you will need at least 3 different exposures, although some use 5 or 7, I find 3 provides more than enough detail for most images.
The best way to capture these is to use the Auto Exposure Bracketing mode, this will be present in virtually all DSLRs. You can set the differences in exposure stops, for a 3 shot HDR you’d usually use one normal exposure, one set at -2 (two stops below), and finally one at +2 (two stops above).
For this tutorial I’m working with a coastal scene I shot at sunset. You can see my three original exposures below.
Remember these images will need to align and merge perfectly, so using a tripod is pretty much essential. Photoshop can work with Raw files or JPGs for HDR, but it’s preferable to use Raw as these will provide us with the most detail.
Moving to Photoshop
When you’ve got the 3 shots on your computer we then need to import them into Photoshop to start the process of merging to a single image. In Photoshop go to top menu and choose File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro. You’ll then be presented with the window below where you can locate and add your three images.
Once the files are imported you’ll see Photoshop’s HDR mode appear as per the screenshot below, all of the controls and settings are to the right of the image. As you can see, by default, the image looks absolutely awful.
There are a number of presets for different effects at the top of the menu, but I’m going to concentrate on manually processing with custom settings. What I’m looking for is a striking image with good localised contrast, dark clouds against the setting sun, and lots of detail and texture on the rocks in the foreground.
It’s worth pointing out that at the top there is a drop-down menu offering 3 editing modes, I usually stay in the default 16-bit mode, primarily as I get good results and have noticed little benefit with 32-bit.
The rest of the settings and sliders are a little abstract and difficult to explain, but I will give you a couple of pointers and show you the exact final settings that I used for this shot. Take a look the screenshot below:
The top Edge Glow controls are key, you can see I’ve really boosted the radius, and reduced the strength down. Reducing the strength down to this low level prevents the white ‘halos’ that you see on some HDR images, I seriously dislike these, so that’s something I always keep a watch out for.
Then in the Tone and Detail section below you can see that I’ve reduced the exposure a little and given the detail a boost. Below this is the tone curve, which essentially works the same way as regular Curves in Photoshop, again you can see that I’ve darkened the image a little further.
I wanted a dark and moody scene that emphasises the setting sun, so these settings work for me in this instance. If you applied the same settings to an image taken in normal daylight they would be a disaster, primarily as it would simply look underexposed. Let’s have another look at the final shot:
Hopefully this tutorial helps to set your on the path of working with HDR imagery in Photoshop. Whilst the controls can seem a little abstract, in practice it’s a quick process to experiment to get the right feel for your image. We will be covering HDR processing in Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro in separate tutorials.