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.