HDR Tutorial for Churches by Kah Wai Lin

This is a very concise, step-to-step guide of my HDR processing workflow. It’s specially tailored for church interiors in HDR, although you may use it for other subjects by modifying the workflow. Feel free to drop me a note if you have any questions or comments (linkahwai@hotmail.com). Enjoy!

Part 1: Photography

1.    DSLR: most DSLRs allow up to 3 bracketing exposures, some up to 5.
2.    Tripod: when a tripod is not allowed, set your camera to high speed mode and take the bracketing exposure handheld.
3.    Remote switch: to achieve higher stability, use mirror lock-up; if you don’t have a remote switch, you may use 2s timer to avoid shaking.

1.    Photomatix Pro 4.1.4: for tone-mapping to create 32-bit HDR picture
2.    Photoshop CS5: for fine adjustment of color, contrast, highlight & shadow
3.    Topaz Adjust: for enhancing the detail and modifying the color & tone

Taking pictures

1.    Set your DSLR to bracketing exposure mode. You can shoot more manually by adjusting exposure after bracketing exposures. You may also use custom settings to achieve this fast (e.g. Setting 1: -1EV, 0EV, +1EV; Setting 2: -4EV, -2EV, -3EV; Setting 3: 2EV, 4EV, 3EV).
2.    Check the histogram: make sure there’s full coverage of highlights & shadows.
3.    If the conditions allow, take more pictures with smaller EV intervals (e.g. -3, -2 ½, -2, -1 ½,…), these will lead to a smoother tone and less noise HDR photo.

Part 2: Tone mapping using Photomatix

Processing 0EV picture

1.    Open raw file of the 0EV picture in Photoshop – Adobe Camera Raw
2.    Adjust white balance manually (1)
3.    Adjust picture as usual. I usually decrease the “recovery” to recover the highlight (red circle) (and/or increase “fill light” to recover shadow); I also subtly increase “contrast”, “clarity”, “vibrance” and “saturation” (2)
4.    Set to 16 bit and at least 300 ppi (3)
5.    Save picture as 16 bit TIFF file (4)

Processing -3EV picture

1.    Open raw file of the -3EV picture or any picture that may recover the overblown or highlight areas, for example, the glass window (red circle)
2.    Adjust the picture as previous and save as 16 bits TIFF

Loading bracketed pictures

1.    Open Photomatix Pro
2.    Click “Load Bracketed Photos” (1)
3.    Load all the bracketed pictures (2)

Preprocessing options

1.    Check “Aligns Source Images” (1)
2.    If your picture contain moving object, like moving people or car, check “Remove Ghosts” (2)
3.    You may check “reduce noise” or “reduce chromatic aberrations”, or you may correct it in Photoshop later (3)
4.    Choose “custom” for “white balance” and key in the number as you processed the 0EV picture (4)

Tone mapping

1.    Process: Tone Mapping; Method: Detail Enhancer (1)
2.    Strength: 100; Color Saturation: 25 (keep it low, 25-35 is optimum); Luminosity: 10; Detail Contrast: 10 (2)
3.    Lighting Adjustments: Lighting Effect, Medium (or Natural, Natural +, avoid Surreal or Surreal +) (3)
4.    Smooth Highlight: 0 (4)

1.    Adjust White Point and Black Point until a bell shape histogram achieved (1)
2.    Gamma: 1; Temperature: 0 (2)
3.    Micro-smoothing: 0 (for detail preservation: 0; increase for landscape picture when you don’t need too much detail); saturation highlights: 0; saturation shadows: 0; shadow smoothness: 0 (3)

1.    Shadow Clipping: 0; 360o image: uncheck (check if you are processing 360o equirectagular panorama) (1)
2.    Click “Process” (2)
3.    Save picture as *.tif, check “Save Tone Mapping settings (1)

Part 3: Retouch using Photoshop

Merge Pictures

1.    Open Photoshop
2.    File>Automate>Photomerge…
3.    Load 0EV, -3EV, and tone-mapped pictures (1)
4.    Choose “Auto” (if tripod used) or “Reposition” or “Collage” (handheld) (2)
5.    Uncheck all (3)
6.    Click OK


1.    Place the tonemapped picture as 1st (top) layer; 0EV as 2nd (middle) layer; -3EV as 3rd (bottom) layer (1)

1.    Highlight (click once) 1st layer (1)
2.    Adjust opacity to 60% (decrease if you prefer more realistic; increase if you prefer more surreal, usually 50-70% is optimum) (2)
3.    Layer > Merge Down (3)

Modifying Overblown Area

1.    Moved the -3EV picture to 1st (top) layer and highlight (click once) (1)

1.    Add layer mask to the 1st layer (1)

•    Select layer mask (click once) (1)
•    Select “Paint Bucket Tool” (2)
•    Select black color (3)
•    Apply the paint on the picture (you will see black color on layer mask) (4)

1.    Magnify over the overblown/highlight area (red circle in previous step) (1)
2.    Select layer mask (click once) (1)
3.    Select “Brush Tool” (2)
4.    Choose the appropriate size (3)
5.    Brush over the overblown/highlight area (don’t have to be too accurate) (4)

1.    Select layer mask (click once), right click, select “Refine Mask” (1)

1.    Smooth: 10; Feather: 10; Contrast: 10; Shift Edge: -5 (1)
2.    Click OK

1.    Opacity: 30% (15%-30% is optimum) (1)
2.    Layer > Merge Down

Adjust Curve

1.    Image > Adjustments > Curve
2.    Select “Linear Contrast (RGB)” (1)
3.    Click OK

Adjust Shadows/Highlights

1.    Images > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights
2.    Shadows: Amount: 0 (adjust if you want to increase shadow, 10-30 is optimum) (1)
3.    Highlights: Amount: 10 (10-30 is optimum); tonal width: 10; Radius: 30 (to further decrease highlight area) (2)
4.    Midtone Contrast: +12 (3)
5.    Click OK

Adjust Color Saturation

1.    Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation
2.    Subtly decrease color saturation by adjust “Master” to Saturation -5 (1)

1.    Select different color channel and adjust accordingly, to see how each channel affects the picture, scroll to +100% (1)
2.    For this picture: Master: -5; Reds: +20; Yellows: +15; Greens: 0;  Cyans: -35; Blues: -20; Magentas: -35 (increase reds and yellows to preserve golden and wooden object; decrease cyan, blue and magenta to lower the color fringe)

Part 4: Detail Enhancement using Topaz Adjust

Increase Detail

1.    To duplicate layer, drag the layer to “Create New Layer” (1) or right click then select “Duplicate Layer”
2.    Select (click once) top layer (2)

1.    Filter > Topaz Labs > Topaz Adjust 5
2.    Effects: Vibrant Collection (1)
3.    Presets: Clarity (2)
4.    Click OK

1.    Opacity: 35% (30-40% is optimum, too much detail results in over-processed picture)
2.    Layer > Merge Down

Increase Warmth

1.    To duplicate layer, drag the layer to “Create New Layer” (1) or right click then select “Duplicate Layer”
2.    Select (click once) top layer (2)

1.    Filter > Topaz Labs > Topaz Adjust 5
2.    Effects: Classic Collection(1)
3.    Presets: Brilliant Warm (if cold is preferable, choose Brilliant Cold; or use whatever suits the mood of the picture) (2)
4.    Click OK

1.    Opacity: 35% (30-40% is optimum, too much detail result in over-processed picture)
2.    Layer > Merge Down

Part 5: Final Retouch using Photoshop

Adjust Color Saturation

1.    Image > Adjustment > Hue/Saturation
2.    For this picture: Master: -15; Reds: +15; Yellows: +15; Greens: 0;  Cyans: 0; Blues: 0; Magentas: 0 (1)

Adjust Brightness/Contrast

1.    Subtly increase contrast (for this picture 8) and brightness (if necessary, check histogram) (1)

Correcting Perspective

1.    If you want to correct perspective, right click on the picture and select Free Transform

1.    Select Perspective (1)

1.    Change the perspective as desired by clicking and dragging the corner (1)
2.    You may want to remove the unaligned edge by subtly zoom in, right click on the picture and then select Scale
3.    Double click on the picture when you have done
4.    Save picture as 16 bits TIFF file for full preservation of information and detail
5.    Image > Mode > 8 Bits/Channel and save picture as *.JPEG file for web display

Final Result