Facebook Pixel Creating an HDR-like Image From a Single RAW File in Lightroom

Creating an HDR-like Image From a Single RAW File in Lightroom



If you have been anywhere near the photography world in the past couple years, I am sure you have heard of HDR by now as there have been countless tutorials floating around on how to create HDR images using 3 bracketed exposures in programs like Photomatix and Photoshop. However what if you don’t have your tripod or if you are shooting a scene with moving subjects, yet you still want to create an HDR type shot? Well, good news, it is possible.

This tutorial will teach you how correct and produce a single RAW image into an HDR-like masterpiece using only Lightroom! That’s right, Photoshop skills are not even needed for this tutorial.

Image is provided courtesy of Lin and Jirsa Photography.

Shooting the Image

Before we get into the actual post production steps, let me quickly give you a background of the image and how it was shot. I always shoot in RAW format simply because it provides vastly more tonal information than the compressed JPG format. What does this mean? It means that we can do much more to the image in post production before the image quality degrades. Your ability to alter Color Temperature, Exposure, Brightness and Saturation is much more limited with JPG files in comparison to RAW files. Bottom line, if you are trying to create an HDR look from a single image, you MUST SHOOT IN RAW.

What you see below is the RAW file directly from a Canon 5D Mark II. The crucial component for shooting a single shot image that is going to be turned into an HDR shot is to shoot it so that you are not clipping any shadows or blowing any highlights. This typically means that you are going to be anywhere from 1-2 stops under exposed in order to save most of the highlights and still keep detail in the shadows.

When you are getting used to this process, it is wise to take a few different shots of your scene at different levels of exposure in order to get the hang of just what level of exposure you need. If the shot is too bright, you will have no details left in your highlights, where as if you shoot the shot too dark, then you are going to create too much noise brightening the shadows.

01-original-raw-file.jpgImage Metadata (Canon 5D Mark II, EF 17-40mm F/4L USM @ 40mm, 10 seconds, F/11, ISO 100)

RAW files will always look dark and murky from the camera since there is no post production applied to the image. Keep in mind that the camera LCD preview will apply some post processing settings to the image when you are previewing them, so I recommend that you turn on your highlight alert to make sure you didn’t blow your highlights or clip your shadows. You will notice that the shot above is exposed so that we can still see color in the sky, while still seeing most of the detail in the shadows under the dock.

If you haven’t already done so, download the image and load it into Lightroom. The RAW image you see above is “zeroed out” meaning that every Lightroom slider is set to 0. Lightroom will typically apply default settings to each image, so you want to make sure your image is zeroed out as well, otherwise it will look differently.

Processing the Image

Step 1) Brightness +80 – The first thing I typically do when processing an image is to typically dial in an approximate Brightness level so that I can see the correct effect when applying other adjustments. I am going to start with +80 as a baseline, however, I will revisited the Brightness to make sure it’s correct once our Contrast/Black levels are adjusted. During brightening I am paying more attention to the brightness levels of the darker areas than the sky and water since I can burn those down later.

On a side note, I always resort to using Brightness before Exposure. Reason being that Exposure affects highlights more than shadows and mid-tones, while Brightness adjusts all of the tones equally. You should now see something like the image below.


Step 2) Contrast +100 – I love my landscapes to really pop and so I love using a lot of Contrast in my shots. I am always careful to make sure the shot doesn’t look faked, but even at +100, I don’t think it’s too much. You should now see the following.


Step 3) Blacks +7 – Now, I am going to dial in my Blacks to make sure the blacks in the scene are truly black versus a dark shade of grey. During this part you want to be careful not to clip (lose detail) too much of the shadows in the scene by taking your Blacks too high. If you press “j” you can see which areas are clipped as they will be highlighted in blue as shown below where blacks are set to +17.


I find that Blacks right around +7 suits my taste, though yours may differ. Here is what you should see now.


Step 4) Brightness +110 – Now that my Blacks and Contrast are dialed in, I am going adjust my Brightness up just a bit more. While this may look very bright on an uncalibrated screen, this level of Brightness will ensure that it comes out correctly from our printers. Again, keep in mind that I am going to do some additional dodging and burning in a moment.

I would encourage everyone to make sure their screens are calibrated to your printing solutions as pictures can often come out much darker on paper.


Step 5) Recovery +100 – Recovery is a great tool for bringing down highlights. So, we are going to max it out to bring down the highlights on the ocean and sky a bit before we get to dodging and burning. The highlights in the sky and water should now look a bit more subtle as you see below.


Step 6) Burning the Sky – To get that HDR look, we need to burn (darken) our highlights while dodging (brightening) our shadows in order to balance out the overall exposure. While we used to do this all in Photoshop, Lightroom’s dodging and burning capabilities are quite powerful and can save us a lot of time from having to do this in Photoshop.

We are going to begin with burning the sky by selecting your Adjustment Brush (K). Once selected, you will see the Adjustment Brush panel open up as you see below.


We are going to drop Exposure to -1.80 while using a large brush to softly paint over the sky and the ocean. I like to paint with a brush size of 30, and simply use the edge of the brush to do the painting to keep it subtle. You will need to adjust the size of the brush as you go to fit into the little areas next to the dock and such. To erase any brushing in unwanted areas, simply hold “alt” while brushing.

By mousing over the little adjustment circle on the image, you can see the area that has been affected with your brush as they will be highlighted in red as you see below.


Your image should now look like this.


Step 7) Dodging the City – Just as we did with burning the sky, we are going to use the Adjustment Brush (K) to dodge the cityscape in order to bring out the detail in the shadows. To do so, I am going to select the Adjustment Brush and this time move my Exposure to +1.00 and now paint over the docks, city and mountain area. This time I am going to reduce the Flow of the brush to only 50 so that the brush doesn’t come on too strong.
By mousing over the Adjustment Brush marker you can see the painted area in red like below.


Your image should now look like the following.


Step 8) Noise Reduction Luminance +100, Color +25 – Since we are doing a lot of exposure adjustment, we are going to be adding a little bit of noise to the picture. While the noise isn’t too significant, as shown by the image below, it is my preference to reduce it. You can see the difference in the comparison below.


Step 9) Sharpening Amount +110, Radius +2.0, Detail +70 – The noise reduction that we performed in Step 8 does kill a little bit of the detail in the shot, so we are going to sharpen it to compensate.

Step 10) Lens Correction Amount -35 – Our last step is to add a little artistic edge burn vignette to the image by applying some Lens Correction. When using a vignette, I always use Lens Corrections versus Post-Crop vignettes. Reason being that a Lens Correction will actually just dodge or burn the natural colors on the edges, while a Post-Crop vignette will actually apply a black or white vignetting to the outside of the image.

Now your final image should be similar to the one you see below!


Congratulations, you have just learned how to color correct and create an HDR effect from a single RAW file!

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Post Production Pye
Post Production Pye

I hate speaking of myself in the third person, haha. I am a Partner and professional photographer with Lin and Jirsa Los Angeles Wedding Photography, and the Senior Editor for SLR Lounge Photography Tutorials. I am passionate about photography as an art as well as my part as an educator in the industry. Subscribe to our YouTube Channel and feel free to hit me up with questions anytime on Facebook.

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