Walking Through my HDR Workflow by Justin Brown

As a photographer, I am constantly studying the work of others.  My favorite source of inspiration comes from all the images posted to the internet every day.  I am constantly looking to improve my knowledge and my ability as a photographer.  Over time I have studied images, read books, watched videos, and read articles like this.  Through my learning process, a few things have become clear.  First, there is no right or wrong answer when it comes to processing an image.  The best workflow is the one that works for you, and the best way to learn, is keep doing it a lot.  I’ve found there are no two photographers that follow the same process, and I regularly find myself changing my workflow from image to image.  There are not any magic formulas, or any perfect presets that will give you an amazing result every time.  As wedding bouncy castle you read through this, or any HDR tutorial, I hope you are able to learn something, but I also want to point out that what works for me, may not always work for you.  If you are new to HDR, there is nothing wrong with following along closely, but as you spend more time, try new things, and learn what works for you.

Setting Up An HDR Shot

When it comes to HDR, the most important piece of hardware (other than the camera), is a good sturdy tripod.  Nothing will improve your HDR more than shooting at low ISO from a fixed position.  Image alignment in HDR software is not too bad, but there is no substitute to having the images aligned from the start.  Also, shooting at low ISO will help limit the noise created during the tone mapping process.  The HDR process adds to any existing noise, so starting out with the least noise possible will result in a better finished image.  I almost always shoot brackets in aperture priority mode, and I use the lowest possible ISO.

Shooting the Bracket

When I shoot an HDR bracket, I most often use 5 exposures from -3EV to +3EV.  If your camera only shoots 3 exposure brackets, there is a good chance a +2/0/-2 will give you all that you need to create an HDR.  If not, you can shoot 3 exposures below 0EV, then using exposure compensation in your camera shift the exposure above 0EV and shoot three more exposures.  I’ve found -3EV to +3EV works for me.  It consistently covers the full tonal range of the scene and I rarely worry that I’ve missed anything.  The only time I might go beyond +/-3EV is if I shoot straight into the sun.  The goal of an HDR bracket is to get image data that covers the full tonal range of the scene, from the darkest shadow, to the brightest highlight.  The darkest exposure should not have any clipped highlights, and the brightest exposure should not have any black shadows.  The histogram on the back of the camera is a great tool to make sure you have achieved this in your images.  Here are the 5 sources files I will be working through in this tutorial.  The exposure value for each image is -3EV, -1.5EV, 0EV, +1.5EV, and +3EV.

Exporting to Photomatix

Before exporting, verify the color temperature and tint is the same for all of the bracketed images.  If the images were all shot in one auto exposure bracket, this should not be a problem.  I use Adobe Lightroom, so the first step is to select the files I want to export.  The easiest way to do this is click the first image in the sequence, then hold shift and click the last image in the sequence.  With all the bracketed images selected, right click and choose Export -> Photomatix Pro.  This will open the Photomatix Export window.

If the camera was on a tripod, the align images check box does not need to be marked.  If the bracket was shot handheld, check the align images box, and use the by matching features option.  I never select reduce ghosting artifacts, even if subjects are moving in the scene.  I don’t think the ghost reduction in Photomatix does a very good job, and it tends to add a lot of noise.  This bracket was shot at ISO 400 so I decided to check the reduce noise button.  Sometimes I use Lightroom to reduce noise, and sometimes I wait until after the tone mapping is finished to reduce noise, in this case, I checked the box.  If the ISO had been any lower I would not have used this feature.  I never check the reduce chromatic aberrations box or the show 32-bit box, now I am ready to Export.  Press the Export button to open Photomatix.

Tone Mapping in Photomatix

Once the export finishes, the image will open in Photomatix.  If this is your first time in Photomatix, it will open with the default settings applied.  If you have used Photomatix before, it will open your last used settings.  I always like to start from the default, so each time I open Photomatix I click the default button near the bottom.


Now it’s time to start playing with the sliders.  The tone mapped image generated by Photomatix is almost never perfect, so I just try to get as much of the image looking good as possible.  I usually start with the Strength slider and set it to 100, then go to the Detail Contrast and move it up to between 3 and 4.  Next I move the black point up from zero.  The image should be starting to get pretty dark at this point.  I use a combination of Gamma, Luminosity and White Point to bring the brightness back up.  Once the light is pretty well balanced, I go to the Lighting Adjustments slider.  I always stick with the slider and never the Lighting Effects Mode.  I usually try the slider on both sides of zero before I settle on a position, anything to the left is going to have a more “HDR” type look, and anything to the right will give a bit more realistic look.  My position with this slider varies from image to image, but I usually try to keep it relatively close to the center.  It is very rare I will ever exceed +3 or -3.  After Lighting Adjustments I check Color Saturation, and adjust it as need for the image.  Next, I revisit Detail Contrast, Luminosity, and Gamma to make sure I am happy with everything so far.  I do not usually touch any of the other sliders with the exception of micro-smoothing.  If I want an image to look gritty or have a lot of texture, sometimes I will decrease this slider a few notches.  As usual, the image is not perfect at this point, but it looks good enough for now.  I noticed some haloing around the bridge’s support cables, and there is ghosting of a car driving past the stadium, but these are issues that can be addressed later in Photoshop.  When I’m done in Photomatix I click Save and Re-import to send the finished file back to Lightroom.  Here are the settings I ended up using for this image; I would say these values are pretty typical for most of my HDRs.

Back in Lightroom

Once the tone mapped file arrives back in Lightroom I do some basic cleanup before I send it out to Photoshop to be masked with the source files.  I like to add some contrast and clarity, and correct clipped shadows, highlights, whites and blacks.  An easy way to see if any of these settings are clipped is to alt-click (option-click on a mac) the slider.


The clipped areas are highlighted, and they disappear as the slider moves.  Once the basic adjustments are finished, it’s on to masking.  In my opinion, masking is the most important part of any HDR workflow.  To export the files to Photoshop, select the 5 source files and the tone mapped output from Photomatix.  Right click one of the images and select Edit In -> Open as Layers in Photoshop.

Working in Photoshop

The files should each open in their own layer in Photoshop.


If the brackets were shot with a tripod, they should already be aligned, but if they were shot hand held, do not forget to align each layer.  Auto-align in Photoshop usually works pretty well, but sometimes it needs a little help to get everything straight.  Once alignment is finished, I’m ready to start masking source files.  I like to move the tone mapped image to the top of the layer stack, and open a new layer mask.  To open a layer mask, click the rectangular icon with a circle in the middle at the bottom right of the screen, or just go to the menu at the top of the window and click Layer -> Layer Mask -> Reveal All.  Once the layer mask is created select the brush tool. I set my brush to a soft (hardness <10%) round brush, and set a low opacity (10-20%).  Set the color to black and start to paint, the image directly below the top layer will begin to show through.  I like to start by blending the 0EV exposure.  The 0EV exposure usually helps where contrast is low, or where the image is tonally flat after the tone mapping process.  In this image I masked in a little bit of the bridge, the bright lights were a little flat after tone mapping, and I wanted to show some of the brightness from the lights and give the bridge a little more contrast.  I did the same in the lit part of the stadium.  The layer mask ended up looking like this.

After I finished with the 0EV layer I merged the tone mapped layer and the 0EV layer, and then created another layer mask to start masking the +1.5EV exposure.  When I was in Photomatix I noticed some haloing around the bridge’s support cables.  The +1.5EV exposure has a sky that is close to the same tone as the sky from the tone mapped image.  This is the best source file to mask in the sky and eliminate the halos around the support cables.  Again I used a soft round brush, this time at a little higher opacity, and painted in all the sky in the image.  I also used the +1.5EV image to mask away the ghosted cars driving past the stadium.  The layer mask for this layer looked like this.

Once I finished I merged the layers and opened a new layer mask to use with the -1.5EV image.  For this bracket the -1.5EV exposure is pretty dark.  It will be useful for any areas that are very bright in the tone mapped image.  In this case, I only used it to mask part of the Petco Park sign.  Masking the sign at low opacity made it pop just a little more.  I didn’t find any other areas that I thought would benefit from the dark exposure.  I merged these two layers, and next examined the +3EV and the -3EV images.  The +3EV ended up being too bright, and the -3EV was too dark, for masking so I just deleted those layers.


Noise Reduction

With source masking complete, I am ready to move on to noise reduction.  There are many options when it comes to noise reduction, but the one that works for me is Topaz Denoise.  From Photoshop, duplicate the existing layer by pressing Control-J (Command-J on a Mac).  Select the top layer and go to Filter -> Topaz Labs -> Topaz Denoise.  Denoise will open in a new window on top of Photoshop.  I usually just stick with one of the presets since they seem to work pretty well.  I like to start with RAW – light, and work my way up until the visible noise is gone.  Usually noise is most visible in the sky, but since this sky was masked from one of the source files, it may not have as much noise as other areas of the frame.  The RAW-moderate preset looked pretty good so I selected it and clicked the OK button.


This brings the image back to Photoshop.  Since noise reduction can reduce detail I created a layer mask and masked out the areas of the image with the most detail.  This ended up being primarily the stadium and some parts of the bridge.  Here is the layer mask I created.

Color Correcting in Photoshop

With noise reduction finished, I am ready to move on to color correction.  I don’t like how yellow the street lights are around the base of the stadium, they cast a harsh yellow glow on everything that I do not find pleasing.  I cannot correct the color by simply cooling the entire image because the white light from the bridge will turn blue.  Instead, I will add a cooling photo filter, and mask it in the areas I find too yellow.  First create the filter by clicking on the photo filter adjustment layer.  Then select which filter works best from the filter drop down menu.


At this point the filter is affecting the entire image, but that is easy to fix by inverting the mask.  Click on the layer mask in the adjustment layer and then click control-i (command-i on a Mac).  This will invert the layer mask turning it all black and removing its effect from the image.  Now select the layer mask and choose a soft white adjustment brush.  (A quick tip about brush colors, if the foreground and background colors in Photoshop are set to white and black, simply pressing the ‘X’ button will toggle between the two.  This makes quickly switching between masking in or out a breeze.) Now start painting with a white adjustment brush in the areas of the image that are too yellow.  The finished adjustment layer looks like this.


The stadium still looks a little yellower than I would like it to be, but if I keep adding photo filters it will turn the neutral colors blue.  In order to keep reducing the yellow in the stadium I chose to use a saturation adjustment layer.  Within the adjustment window I selected Yellows from the drop down list (which is set to master by default, master includes all colors).  Then I reduced the saturation slider until I liked the level of yellow in the stadium.  I didn’t want to pull yellow out of the entire image, so again I inverted the mask by pressing control-i and opened a soft white adjustment brush.  I painted the effect on the stadium until I ended up with this.


Stylizing with Photoshop Plug-Ins

I’m pretty happy with the colors at this point, and I’m ready to add some stylistic effects to the image.  When I’m ready to finish an image I open up Nik Color Efex Pro 4, Topaz Adjust, or OnOne Perfect Effects.  My favorite of the three is Nik Color Efex because they have the cleanest user interface, the most stable software, and they have some of my favorite effects.  Select the image layer and browse to Filter -> Nik Software -> Color Efex Pro 4 and the Color Efex window will open on top of Photoshop.


The Color Efex interface allows multiple effects to be stacked together, and has a feature called control points that intelligently adds or removes a filter in the region you select.  I prefer to mask individual effects in Photoshop, but on occasion the control points and filter stacking can be useful. My favorite filters from Color Efex are Tonal Contrast, Detail Extractor, Bleach Bypass, and Glamor Glow.  In this image, I added Detail Extractor and Tonal Contrast.  Both filters help add texture and local contrast.  I used the default settings for each, but reduced the opacity for both filters to around 50%.  I applied each filter separately, and below are the layer masks I used for each.

The screen shots above are a little misleading, the layer labeled “Photo Filter” is the original image file before the Color Efex Filter was added, and the layer below is the output from Color Efex with the filter applied.  The dark sections of the masks are where the filter will be visible, in both cases I focused on the stadium and the bridge to bring out texture and add contrast.

Sharpening with Photoshop

The final step in the process is to sharpen the image.  There are many ways to perform sharpening; I like to use the high pass filter method in Photoshop.  Tone mapping has a tendency to soften edges, so sharpening is an important tool in the HDR workflow.  I start with the image selected in Photoshop and click Control-J to duplicate the layer.  Select the top layer and go to Filter -> Other -> High Pass.


This turns everything gray and opens a dialog box with a Radius slider.  I usually select a radius between 3 and 4 pixels, depending on what looks good, and then click ok.  Next, in the blend mode (pull-down located in the layers tab on the right), select soft light.  This will apply sharpening to the entire image.  I like to apply sharpening selectively to avoid creating extra noise.  Again I create a layer mask for the high pass layer, invert the layer, and paint with a white brush where I want to add detail sharpness.  The images below show a before and after comparison of the sharpening at 105% crop.



Finishing Up

After masking the high pass layer I merge it with the original and save the file.  Once the save is complete, close Photoshop and go back to Lightroom.  I use Lightroom for any final adjustments, crop, and add a vignette, if needed. For this image I cropped out some of the street at the bottom of the frame and added a slight vignette of -14 in Lightroom.  Here is the final image after export from Lightroom.

My initial journey into the world of photography was a high school black and white film class where I learned to use a camera and to develop and print in the darkroom. However, it wasn’t until years later, and after the purchase of my first DSLR, that I became truly passionate about photography. Based in Southern California I enjoy shooting landscapes and architecture, but I also enjoy traveling and searching for new places to photograph. My focus is HDR photography where I am constantly searching for new processes and techniques to create the best images possible. You can find me on flickr as Justin in SD, or on Google+.