Giving yourself more options after Photomatix
Article by Darin Rogers
In a recent article I wrote for HDR One, I discussed some of the mistakes I’d made while learning HDR photography. One of the things I mentioned was to not do anything in Photomatix that can be done later in Lightroom or Photoshop. This brought up a question in the comments as to why not. If one happens to like the black and white conversion done by clicking a preset in Photomatix, why not go with it? In this post, I’ll expand a bit on some of the reasons why you may want to leave some of those sliders and presets in Photomatix alone.
For those of you just starting out in HDR processing, all those sliders and controls in Photomatix or whatever HDR software you are using can be rather daunting and confusing. The temptation may be to just pick one of the presets and be done with it, or to try and make all your adjustments and come up with a final image within Photomatix. This is a very limiting way of approaching HDR processing because in part it limits your options for what you can do with that image later.
The conversion of your images to an HDR image in Photomatix should be just a first step. To a large extent, this should be all Photomatix is used for: to obtain your base HDR image. Most of the processing to create the final look you’re going for should be left for Lightroom or Photoshop. These intermediate images can often appear rather flat, but remember this is just a first step. It’s not always easy, but it’s best to avoid the temptation to move that Saturation slider around.
As an example and without getting into too much technical detail, when you increase the saturation in Photomatix and then export out the image, you are tweaking the pixels and then ‘fixing’ the saturation at that new level. If you then adjust the saturation again later, you are taking those already manipulated pixels and bending and twisting them even more. This is true even if you reduce the saturation to something like what you started with. Although minor adjustments may not matter much, all this tweaking and bending of the pixels can introduce noise and artifacts in your images. This is in contrast to adjusting the saturation in Lightroom. Editing in Lightroom is non-destructive, so if you move the saturation to 20 and then later decide you don’t like it and move it back to 0, you are simply putting the pixels back where they started and no damage is done.
Other adjustments that I typically try to avoid or to use minimally in Photomatix are Detail Contrast (similar to Clarity) and Temperature (White Balance). In general, if something can be done in Lightroom/Photoshop, that’s where I prefer to do it.
One of the best examples of how making too many adjustments in Photomatix limits your future options is with converting to black and white. We generally think of color when considering HDR, big vibrant images full of depth and detail. But HDR can also add a lot of depth and detail to your black and white images, too. (If you haven’t considered using HDR for black and white, you should.) But if you just select on of the black and white presets in Photomatix you are limiting your options for future interpretations of that image.
Below are three different interpretations of an image taken at Fogg Dam Nature Reserve in the Northern Territory of Australia. The first is of course the color image from Photomatix with some editing and enhancement done in Lightroom. The second is a black and white conversion done in Silver Efex Pro, and the third was converted in Lightroom. None of these images is right or wrong, but the point is if I had just selected one of the black and white presets in Photomatix, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make these different interpretations. Sure, you could always take your original bracketed images and reprocess them, but that’s just unnecessary work.
But say you like how one of those presets looks? Use that as a guide in learning black and white conversion in Lightroom. Play around and see how close you can come to that preset image using the tools in Lightroom. Use it as an opportunity to learn your software.
HDR processing itself is quite intensive at pixel manipulation and can potentially add a lot of noise and artifacts. By minimizing some of the work you do in Photomatix you can avoid over-working those pixels and limiting your options to create different interpretations of your image.
Darin Rogers is a freelance photographer, writer, and part-time engineer. He is currently based in Darwin, Australia. You can see more of his work at www.darinrogers.net.