Lightroom-based HDR fun from the past!

Article by Garry George

As all of us know we can have great fun revisiting ‘old’ images and applying our new post-processing tools and techniques. In this short note, I wish to share with you the work flow that I have arrived at, that allows me to quickly (re)explore single RAW or JPEG images using the new 32-bit HDR tools we now have at our keyboard fingertips. Yes, you can expect to see increased noise in the images, but this can be ‘fixed’ to a reasonable level by using some of the excellent noise reduction tools now available.

The ‘basic’ software suite that I use for all my HDR work is based around: Lightroom 4.2, Photoshop CS6, Photomatix, and all the Nik Plugins, including, of course, HDR Efex Pro II. However, in order to ‘slicken up’ my single image ‘HDR’ workflow I have added Excessor (http://www.capturemonkey.com/excessor) and ‘Merge to 32-bit HDR’ (http://www.hdrsoft.com/download/merge_lrplugin.html) plugins to Ligthroom.

So why use Excessor and Merge to 32-bit HDR? Basically so I can carry out all my workflow while efficiently remaining in Lightroom. Excessor is simply a better way of generating a set of virtual brackets in Lightroom; and Merge to 32-bit HDR creates a 32-bit TIFF file that allows me to ‘push’ image data around in Lightroom, ie 32-bit files can take more processing abuse than 16-bit ones, and certainly more than 8-bit files.

Once you have the Excessor plug-in running in Lightroom, choose any image and create three, say, virtual copies. Change the exposure on the second and third to, say, -2EV and +2EV. You now have a virtual three-bracket set of the random image. Next, in the develop module, create a preset folder in the location of your choice and call this, say, ‘3-Brackets’. Go to the first virtual bracket (the 0EV one) and make sure it is selected, ie highlighted. In the preset area click on the ‘+’ to add a new preset, select the ‘3-Brackets’ folder, choose a preset name, eg 0EV, deselect all settings and reselect Exposure under Basic Tone. Press create to add this 0EV preset. Repeat for the -2EV and +2EV images.

You now have a preset folder called ‘3-Brackets’ with a -2EV, 0EV and +2EV presets in it. Having created this set, it is a good idea to create a ‘5-Brackets’ preset as well, ie at -2EV, -1EV, 0EV, 1EV, 2EV. This set up only needs to be done once.

To virtually create your brackets in Lightroom, it is now a simple matter of selecting (highlighting) your single image (RAW, TIFF or JPEG), under the File menu go to Plug-in Extras and select Excessor. Select the bracket option you want (3 or 5) and choose the virtual copy name option you wish, ie leave empty (which is what I do) or select the additional suffix option, eg the preset name. Press OK and Excessor will create your virtual brackets, which will instantly appear next to your ‘base’ image. At this stage it is good practice to set a color label to have to virtual brackets standout from the rest of your Lightroom images.

Next, as the virtual brackets are already highlighted, simple export to ‘Merge to 32-bit HDR’, deselect ghosting and alignment, as they are not required, and press merge. The ‘Merge to 32-bit HDR’ plug-in will return a 32-bit TIFF image next to your brackets. You can confirm the 32-bit content by simply moving the Exposure slider back and forth between -10EV and +10EV !!

As you now have more data to play around with, it is usually best to initially get the exposure balanced by using the Lightroom Exposure slider (or press Ctrl-U for an auto-tone initialization). I usually then take the Highlights slider to -100 and the Shadows slider to +100. From here you can go wherever you wish. You can stay in Lightroom and get the look you want, or export to another toolset. I tend to export to CS6, where I ‘play around’ with my Nik software and do some dodging and burning.

Here is a simple example where I generated a virtual five bracket from the original RAW (Image 1) and stayed in Lightroom to ‘finish off’ the image and generate the look I wanted, ie a little bit of a pop (image 2).

 

Image 1: RAW, unprocessed

 

Image 2: Processed using this article’s workflow

Of course, not many things in life are free: so what is the cost of this new Lightroom-based workflow? Well if you already have Photomatix, then Merge to 32-bit HDR is free to you: if not it’s $29. As for Excessor, it is a donationware plug-in and the author asks for a $10 donation (which I encourage you to give) to remove a delay in running the plug-in. So for the ‘huge’ sum of anything from 0$ to $39 you get hours of 32-bit HDR fun (virtually) playing with your old images and seeing what Lightroom-based magic you can create.

Garry George – I am a British professional engineer living in New Mexico. I am relatively new to digital photography and, like many technical types, I love to ‘dabble in the PC’. I love to ‘play around’ with HDR processing and some of my early and evolving experiments, good and bad (!), may be found at: http://grayheron.smugmug.com/

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