Painting with HDR

Article by Chris Smith

Often you’ll encounter a situation where part of the scene looks great in HDR, but the HDR process turns the rest of the image into something out-of-this-world. The grass becomes neon-yellow, the clouds become black, and halos outline your subject against the sky.  One way to handle this is to combine the HDR image with one or more of the original exposures as layers in Photoshop. Your first instinct may be to select the sky in the HDR image and replace it with one from an original exposure. This is essentially what we want to do, but a slightly different approach may work better. Rather than trying to start with the HDR image and putting parts of original images back in, start with an original image and add the HDR layer only where it’s needed. By brushing the HDR layer onto an original exposure, you’re effectively “painting” the HDR effect into your image.

Caption: Burning a Path to Chicago

In this image of Chicago, I chose one of my darker images to emphasize the contrast between the buildings and the orange sky. But the buildings had no detail in them. They were completely black. So I created an HDR image using multiple exposures. Then I added this HDR image into Photoshop as a layer above the original, non-HDR, image. I created a black layer mask on the HDR layer effectively canceling the effect. By brushing with white onto the mask, I am essentially painting the HDR layer onto the original image. To see how I do this in Photoshop, watch the video at the end of this post from my series on mastering color. This video shows how I paint contrast into a scene, but it’s the same technique that I use to paint saturation, color balance, or HDR into an image.

Caption: Escape from Chicago

Running a photography site named Out of Chicago means that I often deal with buildings. This HDR technique works extremely well for painting HDR onto the buildings while avoiding the sky. If you try to paint the original image into the sky of the HDR image, you must be extremely careful with how you paint it in, being sure to paint right along the building edges to avoid halos. But if you paint the effect onto the buildings, you don’t need to go right up to the edge of the buildings. This means that you won’t need to worry about halos in the sky.

Caption: Spring Night at Rockefeller Chapel

This also means that you can make HDR images unlike any you may have tried before. The essence of HDR photography is to bring out the details in the shadows and highlights. But that doesn’t mean that you need to do this in all of your HDR images. If you have a night shot, you may want the night sky completely black. If you run this through HDR software it will force detail into the black sky. If you want it black, choose one of your original images where the sky looks good and paint the HDR version into only the places where the HDR effect makes sense. In this image of Rockefeller Chapel on the campus of the University of Chicago, I used an original exposure that had no detail in the shadows. Then I painted the HDR image to reveal the detail in select areas..

Caption: In to Chicago

I strongly believe that your eye goes to the brightest part of an image with the most contrast. HDR software inherently tries to make every area of the image have similar tones. By painting the HDR effect into select areas, you can direct your viewers eyes through the image to the parts you want them to see. Applying the HDR effect to the sky may make it the first thing that the viewer sees. When painting with HDR be aware of how your choices will change the way a viewer’s eyes move through the image.

Steps for Painting with HDR

  1. Choose the original exposure that is closest to your vision for the final image
  2. Combine your brackets in your HDR software
  3. Add both of the images from steps 1 and 2 as layers in Photoshop with the HDR layer on top
  4. Create a layer mask for the HDR layer
  5. Invert the layer mask (command or ctrl I) to turn the mask black, hiding the effect
  6. Reveal the HDR image by brushing with white onto the black mask

When choosing your brush for painting the HDR effect back in, choose a low opacity and flow. This way, you can make small changes and continue to brush over the same area to intensify the effect. Also choose a brush with a large feather so that you never have any harsh lines between the HDR and non-HDR part of the image. They should blend together seamlessly.

Caption: Calatrava Wing Sunrise

When you start using this technique, the details of how to make the layer mask and what color you need to make it appear will slow you down. But once you’ve done it a few times it will become second nature. Add a Wacom tablet and pen to your workflow and there will be no doubt that you are “painting” with HDR.

I love to shoot the city of Chicago, teach photography, and help other photographers shoot HDR and the city at my site, You can also follow me at Google+, Flickr, and Facebook.

  • fiLigor

    Indeed blending one of original exposures with an HDR tonemapped image can give an outstanding freedom in developing naturally looking pictures. I tried this technic some time ago but was not smart enough to paint INSIDE objects. So thanks for the tip!

    • Chris Smith

      Thanks! It was a bit of an epiphany for me when I started thinking about it this way. Good luck with it.

  • Ryan Jones

    Great post per usual, Chris! Really enjoyed this one!

    • Chris Smith

      Thanks, Ryan. I enjoyed writing it!

  • epaper

    I just stumbled
    upon this site. Thanks for sharing such a valuable discussion here.

  • Stephen

    Many thanks for the tutorial really useful, I do have a question if you can possibly answer it. When I use photomatix to produce my HDR image the dimensions of the image are different from the original, they are several pixels larger in width and height so using the HDR image as a layer over the top of the original wouldn’t match up. Are there any settings that you can change to get round this issue ? Resizing to the same dimensions doesn’t work either as the HDR image has actually captured more of the image than the original thus the extra pixels

    • Chris Smith

      This will happen if you choose to have Photomatix align images. If some images are off of the others they overlap and the resulting image is larger. Don’t try to resize it. Once you have them in Photoshop, use the move tool and move one of the layers around until they are lined up. To check if they are aligned, use the difference blending mode. When they are lined up, the screen will go black. It helps to move the layer with the arrow keys for precision rather than your mouse.

      I think this is your issue. If not, let me know. Chris

      • Mike Hardisty

        I had a similar problem, using Photoshop Elements, and couldn’t see a way round it. In the end I created two HDR’s in PhotoMatix, one at the default settings which became my base layer and one with the tone mapped settings I really wanted, which became my HDR layer.

        Great tutorial and thanks for sharing it.

        But I still have a question, If PhotoMatix doesn’t do the aligning of the brackets aren’t you going to have problems, or am I missing something here?

        • Chris Smith

          My recommendation is that if you’re using a tripod and don’t need to align them, then don’t. If you do need to align them then don’t have it crop the image, but you’ll need to move the layer around in Photoshop to line it up. You may also be able to run a script where Photoshop lines them up. You do “Load Files Into Stack” from the scripts under the file menu. Then you select your files which should already be open in Photoshop. Make sure you select the option to have Photoshop automatically align the images.

      • Lois Bryan

        more cool info … thank you again, Chris

  • Steve Uhlman

    another great article Chris, thanks!

  • Lois Bryan

    I like your idea of inverting the layer mask and hiding it, then painting it to bring it back visually … i can’t wait to give it a try!! Thank you!!

  • opal

    What does HDR mean