HDR Tutorial – Danny Xeero

Check out The Art of HDR for more advanced HDR training!

HDR is always about Dynamic Range but not saturation.

There is 1 thing I feel very unfortunately about: people tend to think that HDRi is about over saturated images. But this is never the case. HDR (tonemapping) has always been, just a tool to produce a better Dynamic Range than our camera is able to capture but unable to produce.

James Bond Island, Phang-nga Bay

The saturation level of a picture really depends on that person`s taste and preference. A normal straight out of camera image can be super saturated as well if you drag the saturation slider all the way up. From my experience and understanding, when we have a properly exposed photograph, the colour in our photograph is already good.  So sometimes we just need to tweak the curves and levels a little bit in PS to make it right and leave the saturation slider alone.

Step by step guide to HDR and Digital Blending
So the question is how do I create my photographs? I use the word create because I`m a strong believer of post –processing – photographs that come straight out of the camera will never do me any favours.

I never attend any photography school or courses, so the tools I use to create my photographs are really simple. And oh…I am not a perfectionist in photography, I love taking photos (a lot of them) and I just hope to produce better photography each day.

1st step : Load bracketed photographs into Adobe Camera Raw or Lightroom 4 to “Enable Lens Profile Correction and Remove Chromatic Aberration”. To do this, simply click on the select all button on the top left of ACR to make sure all the files are selected, go over to the Lens Correction panel and tick Enable Lens Profile Correction and tick the Remove Chromatic Aberration.

 2nd step : save files in “.TIF” format

 3rd step :

“This step is really personal, I love creating a more realistic image while the dynamic range has to be preserved.”

Load the files into Photomatix 4.2 (you can get a 15% discount by using the StrangeLands code). Perhaps this might be 1 of the most interesting steps. Here is a simple trick I wanted to share with you guys, every slider in Photomatix has their default value, and I think there must be a reason why the default value of the Strength is at 70 and Colour Saturation at 46.  To create a lighter HDR or “more realistic” HDRi, I always start with the default pre-set in Photomatix, and through my experience, as long as you have the `correct exposures` bracketed, the result from default value of Photomatix is always satisfying with some little refinement.

The only “8” Sliders I use in Photomatix :

  1. Strength: Ranging from 30-80 is my favourite zone. I always start from the default value which is 70. What I wanted to make sure when I`m moving this slider around is I want to have a “balanced” exposure throughout the image.
  2. Colour Saturation: Ranging from 35-80 is my favourite zone. Same as the Strength slider, start with default value 46. Then I will try to increase the adjustment by less than 5% each time to see if it does better job.
  3. Luminosity: I see this filter as the “Fill Light” adjustment in ACR or Lightroom.  I will boost this adjustment to fill in some light in the shadow area. If there is already enough detail on the shadow area, I will try not to mess with this adjustment.
  4. Detail Contrast: The trick to “realistic HDR” is avoiding the Detail Contrast setting in Photomatix. Try to make a flatter image here and do the contrast adjustment in Viveza2 or Color Efex Pro4.
  5. Lighting Adjustment: I don`t really know how to explain this adjustment. I see it as I move to the left, the more HDR my image is; more to the right, more natural my image became.
  6. White Point : Watch out ! this is not the setting you want to use to make your photograph brighter. This adjustment is about the brightness level of your “highlight” area ! (use this with the histogram to avoid white clipping)
  7. Black Point : Opposite of white point, this adjustment controls the shadow area of our image.
  8. Micro-smoothing: I always leave it at default value 2.0. Sometimes if I wanted to bring out details on some architecture or texture, I will reduce it to 0%; on the other hand, for landscapes photograph I will even sometimes increase it to 10-15% to smooth out those micro-details.

4th step : after every adjustment in Photomatix, hit Process and Save the file as “TIFF 16-bit” THIS IS Important because we still need to do some final refinement and stylizing in NIK.


 Now we have our tonemapped image opened in PS. But I don`t really like the ghosting look on the sea behind the temple. So I decided to bring back the original raw files to `blend the original exposure` back in my HDR.


5th step:  Now this part is getting a little bit more trickier & confusing but you will eventually get used to it 😉 Everytime before I do the digital blending step, I will have to have pre-visualized my final image and which original exposure should be blend back in what part of my HDR image.

In this case, I selected the 0ev for blending the “water part” & +3ev for the “temple”


 6th Step: “This is the reason why we shoot RAW”

Now we can do the adjustment on the “water” part and the “temple” part accordingly on ACR. Note that in this step you just have to care about the exposure of the part you wanted to blend back in. For example this photograph, I just wanted to make sure my “water” looks good, the blown out sky does not matter since I won`t be using it anyway. I love to boost “Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation” here.


7th Step:

Now as the two original exposures are opened in Photoshop. What you have to do is go back to your HDR file to select the entire image by “Ctrl+A” > “Ctrl+C” to copy it > Go to your 0ev photo “Ctrl+V” to paste it. So now your Layers palette should be same as the picture above.


8th Step : The fun of Digital Blending

Now it is time to bring back the water to life! What you have to do here is to open the layer mask, so you will see a “white box” pop-out beside your layer 1 > Select Brush tool (make sure always select a soft brush edge for this blending method. You will notice 4 hard edge circles on the image above, this is because I used a hard edge brush to give you an idea of the blending work). You can right click on your photograph and lower the hardness of the brush > Select the opacity and flow which suits your blending task. I always start with 50%, and give a few strokes to complete the blending.

Notice that I only painted the water part so the mask looks like this.


 With Tonemapped HDR + some original exposures image, we already have some very beautiful photography. Now let`s move on to Viveza2 & CEP4 to complete the masterpiece shall we 😉

9th Step : I LOVE VIVEZA!!!

Frankly, the only things I love the most in this plug—in is the structure slider. Remember I told you not to mess with Detail Contrast in Photomatix? because we will boost contrast and details in Viveza2 with increasing the “Structure” slider here. And I think it looks much better.


This plug-in is basically filled in with all the awesome effect filters; just like those camera apps you have in your smartphones. The different here is these are professional graded filters with some very fine adjustment which can be done to your photograph. Here, I used `Pro Contrast`, `Graduated Neutral Density` and `Darken/ Lighten Center` to spice up my photograph just a bit. And here goes the final production…

Click to enlarge

Article by Danny Xeero. Subscribe to his HDR photos on facebook.