Let’s play a game.
What is the first image that comes to your mind when you hear the word HDR?
Is it something like this?
We all went through this phase starting in HDR. With experience, we begin to appreciate natural HDR more instead of the surreal look most HDR software capable of producing.
There is nothing bad about the surreal effect. In fact, I published many surreal HDR at the beginning.
But if you’re more inclined towards creating natural HDR then continue to read on!
Don’t be put off by “32-bit”. It’s not something technical that people throw in to scare you off HDR.
32-bit simply means there is A LOT more colors in each pixel for you to tweak your image.
Creating natural HDR is not difficult at all.
Forget about those overwhelming adjustment slider bars you need to tweak in most HDR software. You don’t need them for this.
All you need is Adobe Lightroom 6 or above. If you have an older version of Lightroom, you can do this in Photoshop first before exporting it to Lightroom which we’ll talk about it below.
Shooting For HDR
I won’t go into the details of how to shoot for HDR.
Essentially, you need to bracket your shots. You can either do it with automatic exposure bracketing or manually. When doing it manually, make sure you keep the ISO and aperture consistent in all your images.
You can read more about how to shoot for HDR in The Ultimate Guide to HDR.
Photo Merge To HDR
Once you have downloaded your images to your computer, open them up in Adobe Lightroom.
Browse through your images in Develop mode, select all that you want to merge by holding down the cmd (Mac) or ctrl (Win) key and click on each of them. You should now see them highlighted.
1. Pre-Flight Check
At this stage, I routinely check the boxes on Enable Profile Correction and Remove Chromatic Aberration in the Lens Correction panel. You can also do this after you have merged into HDR. I just prefer to do it before.
Now, right click > Photo Merge > HDR.
Once it’s done, you should see a preview window. I always leave the Auto Align and Auto Tone checked.
2. Auto Tone and Deghost
Auto tone means Lightroom will tone map the image for you. You can change the adjustments later in the adjustment panel if you don’t like the effect.
You also have the option to choose how much to deghost any movements. You can check the box on Show Deghost Overlay to see the deghosted area highlighted in red (circled in white).
Click Merge once you are happy with the result.
You new HDR image will be saved as “name of the first bracketed image-HDR.dng”. If you kept the Auto Tone box checked earlier then you will see the adjustments Lightroom has made for you.
This is where most of the tutorial stop, leaving some of you feeling a bit lost.
The fun part actually begins here!
So how do you know it’s an HDR image?
If you go to the Exposure adjustment slider and move it left and right, you will notice instead of -5 to +5, you now have -10 to +10.
That’s an addition of 10-stop of brightness!
This means you can recover details in the highlights and the shadows that wouldn’t be possible with a single exposure image.
The question is, what do you do now?
I routinely start off by focusing on these 4 adjustments: Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks.
The highlights and shadows are usually clipped so I move Highlights to the left and Shadows to the right to recover any details.
Whites and Blacks mean how white do you want the whites to be and how black you want to blacks to be. I make adjustments to these selectively depending what the effect I want to create.
In this example, the weather was gloomy and I want to create a dramatic, grayish look so I move the Blacks and the Whites to shift the midtones to the left (darker). I pay attention to the histogram so I don’t clip the shadows.
Next, I want to apply Clarity to the road and the buildings only to bring out details.
To do this without affecting the sky, I use the Adjustment Brush by selecting it on the top right corner of the adjustment panel or simply hit K on your keyboard.
Use Mask Overlay To Visualize The Adjustments
You can check the box for Show Selected Masks Overlay to see where you’re painting and how much you have painted the adjustment. If you want a stronger effect, either paint another pass or increase the adjustments with the slider bar.
You can also use the Tone Curve to change the contrast. It works similarly like the Curves Tool in Photoshop but I often don’t feel the need to use that. I keep my workflow as simple as possible.
There are 4 adjustments tools in Lightroom you can use to do this: Vibrance/Saturation, HSL (Hue/Saturation/Luminance), Color and Split Toning.
Unfortunately, there is no magic formula to follow. Each image is unique and you have to experiment with each to see what works best.
Here are a few tips:
- Use Vibrance to boost the color instead of Saturation for a more natural look.
- Use the target adjustment tool in the HSL to target a group of color (see picture below).
- Use Color to target a specific group to change the hue, saturation and luminance
- Use Split Toning selectively, not all images will look good with this.
I want to show you a little trick that I often use – add subtle light to your image to highlight areas or direct the viewers.
Select the Radial Filter from the top or use shortcut Shift + M. At the bottom of the adjustment panel, check the box Invert Mask and set Feather to 100%.
Now click and drag with your mouse to create a circle or an ellipse over the area you want to add light. You can change the shape, rotate or move it later.
On the adjustment panel, increase the brightness to the effect you like. Sometimes Lightroom will keep the settings from your previous adjustments, simply reset by holding opt (Mac) or alt (Win) and click reset on the top left corner of the adjustment panel.
Don’t go overboard with this, instead, apply subtle light. You can see how I do it below.
I usually leave sharpening as the final stage in post-processing.
In the Detail adjustment panel, increase the Amount of sharpening by zooming into your image or use the detail zoom window. I normally keep Radius and Detail as it is.
In this example, I want to exclude the sky from being sharpened. To do so, I hold down opt (Mac) or alt (Win) and drag Masking to the right until I see the sky becomes black. This works like layer masks in Photoshop.
There are other adjustments you can apply, depending on the kind of image you are working on and the effect you want to create. Here are some ideas for you:
- Filter with Nik Colour Efex Pro
- Filter with Topaz Clarity
- Colour filter to change the mood
Lightroom 5 or older do not have built-in merge HDR. But you can merge to 32-bit HDR in Photoshop, save it as TIFF and open it in Lightroom. The rest are exactly the same as using Lightroom 6 or above.
Once you have opened Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro. Browse and select the images you want to merge and click ok.
Remember to check the box for Remove Ghosts and select the Mode to 32-bit.
Click OK and don’t make any adjustments. Go to File > Save As and make sure the format is TIFF. Import the TIFF file into Lightroom and continue editing as before.
Creating a natural HDR with “merge to HDR” in Lightroom or Photoshop is an easy yet efficient way of producing high-quality 32-bit HDR.
If you’re not using Adobe Lightroom, do consider it because it’s a valuable tool for you to organise and edit your images all in one place.
With the new built-in “merge to HDR” tool, you save time by not having to export your images, merge to HDR and re-import back like how it was done before.
- The ultimate guide to HDR photography
- Create clean and natural HDR with digital blending
- How to create realistic looking HDR photographs
For more tutorials on HDR photography, check out the HDR resource page!