HDR Tips

I thought I would write down, for my own benefit at the very least, my steps to creating HDR images using Photomatix Pro. Lately I’ve been using the beta of version 3.1, because it supports correction of chromatic aberrations and has noise reduction, as well as a slightly better tone mapping interface. My steps will be different from others because I rarely use Photoshop for anything and I prefer HDR images to still look like photos rather than painted abstract art.

First, let me say that Photomatix is great at creating HDR from a single RAW image. To do that, follow these steps.

  1. With Photomatix open, choose “Single File Conversion …” from the “Automate” menu. 
  2. Choose the “Convert RAW files …” option (won’t work on JPEG or TIFF images) and save the resulting .hdr file.
  3. Close the Batch Conversion window and choose “Open …” from the “File” menu to open the file.
  4. Continue tone mapping as below, starting at step 8.

As easy as that is, you’ll get much better HDR images from multiple exposures. Here’s all my steps.

  1. Use a tripod.
  2. Use the highest bit-depth RAW format your camera can produce, and the widest color gamut. For my camera (D300) that means 14-bit NEF files with Adobe RGB color.
  3. For my camera (D300) I use the Auto Bracketing feature along with the Interval Timer Shooting menu. I currently bracket 7 images at 0.7 EV exposure intervals, with the timer set to shoot 7 images 1 second apart. If your camera doesn’t have something similar, you’ll have to accomplish the same thing manually.
  4. No matter what camera you have, you want to use Aperture Priority, so that your depth of field doesn’t fluctuate – let the camera change shutter speeds to change exposure levels.
  5. You can choose to use different numbers of exposures. Some folks use 3 exposures like -2 EV, 0 EV, +2 EV. Others bracket nine exposures 0.3 EV apart. Basically, the wider the exposure variance, the more sci-fi your image will come out. With more exposures closer together, the HDR software has more info to work with to keep a photo-realistic transition of light levels. It’s up to you to choose what works best for you.
  6. Get the files onto the computer and Open Photomatix Pro. Choose “Generate HDR …” from the “Process” menu and select the 7 files.
  7. I start with “Align source images” OFF, “Reduce chromatic aberrations” ON, “Reduce noise” ON, “Attempt to reduce ghosting artifacts” OFF, “White Balance” set to “As Shot” and the color setting set to “ProPhoto RGB”. Why ProPhoto RGB? Because these images will be going into Lightroom, which uses ProPhoto RGB internally, and this way I won’t lose any color in the process. It seems having the CA and noise corrections on doesn’t hurt the image, it just takes longer to process, so I go ahead and have them on so that I don’t have to re-run the “Generate HDR…” step again. If the camera moved while taking the bracketed images, use the “Align source images” with “By correcting horizontal and vertical shifts” option, and the “don’t crop” option ON. Most people recommend NOT using the ghosting function.
  8. In the Tone Mapping window, I start with: Strength 100%, Color Saturation 60%, Luminosity 0, Light Smoothing maxed out at “Very High”, Gamma at 1.00, and everything else at 0.
  9. I will drop Strength, adjust Saturation, add Luminosity, and add Microcontrast and Micro-smoothing to taste. If I have a really good HDR photo set, I’ll be able to boost the Saturation and Luminosity; other times it’s best to be more tame with the settings and let Lightroom do some magic.
  10. Process.
  11. Save as a 16-bit TIFF file. This preserves as much information as possible for Lightroom to manage, in case I need to desaturate the greens or boost the sky.

Again, I don’t go for extreme colors, or for processing speed, I go for photo-realism. Other HDR creators will do things differently. To each his own, I say.

I’d love to hear if this is helpful to you.

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2 comments on “HDR Tips

  1. Milton says:

    Thanks for that.have just started using PX, and opted for the exposure blending using 3 shots from canon 5D.Not sure whether I should edit in LR after import, then export to PX , or edit after getting the blended version back??I have elected to use the default settings until I get a trip of it, but so far…the final image is showing a lot of detail, but I am not happy with the “whiteness’ of the shots.

  2. Kevin says:

    You might want to equalize the white balance before exporting to PX, but otherwise you shouldn’t need to edit much in LR before exporting to PX.PX has some controls that can help with basic exposure and color levels, but usually that is better done in your main photo editor (in this case LR). Probably the one most helpful in this mode is the midtones slider.

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