Five Minutes to Realistic HDR using Lightroom and a 32-Bit Plugin

Five Minutes to Realistic HDR using Lightroom and a 32-Bit Plugin


Easy Peazy HDR in Adobe Lightroom to make realistic HDR images!

HDR photography used to be time consuming, difficult to learn, and required expensive software. Recent new technology now allows anybody, even beginners, to make perfect HDR in less than 5 minutes – while eating a bowl of ice cream. It’s that easy!


Using Adobe Lightroom for HDR

Just wait until you see how awesome this is!

The Perfect HDR Workflow takes place completely within Adobe Lightroom 4 or 5, a very robust, yet inexpensive, state of the art software. There is also an inexpensive plugin you will need. It’s made exclusively for Lightroom by the smart Photomatix people and is the secret sauce which makes this workflow possible and so elegant. It’s called “Merge to 32-bit HDR plugin” and is available for $29. They also have a trial version available so you can test it out first. These are the same people who make the world’s leading HDR tone mapping software, Photomatix Pro. So, take comfort, there’s no smoke & mirrors in this HDR workflow and you’ll be working with the best software available today. At the same time, your photography will now blow away 95% of the HDR images which are still being made using the old, harder to learn, HDR tone mapping process.

Notice, you don’t need to own Photoshop or endure the pain & suffering of learning how to use Photoshop to do this method! This, in itself, is huge and a welcome departure from the way HDR photography is typically done.

Advantages of 32-bit HDR Processing

The process I’m going to show you is technically called 32-bit HDR processing. The Perfect HDR Workflow is just my name for the particular workflow I designed with the beginning photographer in mind. My criteria was that total cost be under $150 US, which immediately rules out Photoshop in the workflow. Another requirement was that it be so easy that even a beginner can learn to make extraordinary HDR photos in minutes.

The advantages of the 32-bit process are:

  • It’s fast
  • It’s inexpensive
  • It yields realistic looking images
  • It’s very easy to learn

HDR doesn’t have to be complicated anymore. In fact, the Perfect HDR Workflow obliterates the complex technical barriers of making outstanding HDR which used to exist. Now, anybody with a digital camera and the desire can play a much bigger game when it comes to HDR photography, can do this!

Are you ready to see how it’s done?

Five Minutes to Perfect HDR

Here we go. Start with the three bracketed RAW images right out of the camera (you can download these for free if you want to follow along):

Easy realistic HDR in Lightroom

-2 shot at: ISO 200, F8, 1/1500

Easy realistic HDR in Lightroom

0 exposure shot at: ISO 200, F8, 1/350

Easy realistic HDR in Lightroom

+2 exposure shot at: ISO 200, F8, 1/90

In less than 5 minutes you’ll end up with an HDR photo looking like this:


Start your stopwatch:

The first thing you want to do is create the 32-bit image. With the three RAW files selected in Lightroom, right click and in the dialog box which appears, select “Export>Merge to 32-bit HDR” as shown below.

Screen Shot 2013 11 23 at 10 17 57 AM

A new dialog box opens up where you choose your options for merging the RAW files (see image below). Always choose to “Align Images” and then one of the alignment options. If your three photos were taken handheld, select the alignment option “by matching features”. When you shoot on a tripod, you would chose the other option, “by correcting horizontal and vertical shifts”.

If there are moving objects in your scene such as: cars, people, clouds, trees, or anything else – select “Remove ghosts” and the software will usually do a great job of producing a non-blurry merged image, with no ghosts. For this landscape photo, nothing was moving so this option was not selected.

Noise reduction is usually necessary in HDR photography, however, I recommend not using the “Reduce noise” option which the plugin offers up. Instead, you are better off using the noise reduction built into Lightroom. So, leave that unchecked, as well.

Moving down to where you choose how the resulting 32-bit file is saved. I recommend simply combining the file names and adding a suffix like “32-bit HDR” so that, at a glance, you know that is the 32-bit file you want to work with in Lightroom.

The final dialog box selection you want to make is; “Stack with selected photo.” It’s so easy and elegant how this plugin makes your HDR workflow when this is selected. After the 32-bit file is created, the plugin automatically imports it right back into Lightroom and places it neatly next to the original RAW files. This keeps my OCD mind happy. Leave the final two options unselected then click the “Merge” button.

Here’s what the dialog box should look like

Screen Shot 2013 11 23 at 10 18 08 AM

In a few seconds, your newly created 32-bit file appears in Lightroom and looks something like this:

Screen Shot 2013 11 23 at 10 20 14 AM

Okay, well that’s not too pretty! That’s because this is a 32-bit file which your computer monitor can’t correctly display. But Lightroom 4 or 5 can process it, so let’s do that.

We’ll be working mostly in the Basic panel of the Develop module in Lightroom. The first step is to simply click the “Auto” button which gives you Lightroom’s best guess at the right setting for the image:

Screen Shot 2013 11 23 at 10 20 25 AM

It’s already looking much better. But let’s take it a step further!

Adding Your Artistic Touch

Now it’s time to add your personal artistic mark on your photo! At this point, you take over the processing manually to create an HDR image that is most pleasing to you. There are no right or wrong settings. However, my 5 minute process to Perfect HDR does follow some general guidelines so let me show you how this image evolved for me.

Working in the Basic panel, you first will reduce the “Highlights” (slide it left) and increase the “Shadows” (push it to the right) sliders until the image looks best to you. Then you might adjust the “Clarity” to a slight positive value, which adds local contrast between pixels. It makes the HDR photo “pop.” Please be careful not to push clarity too far right. My advice is to keep it below 30, for now anyway. Now let’s jump out of the Basic panel.

For just a couple of quick automatic adjustments, open up the “Lens Correction” panel. I recommend that you always check the box to “Remove chromatic aberration.” Also, you may want to straighten your horizon and/or vertical lines using the “Upright” adjustment tool. Here is what the “Lens correction” panel looks like when you make these simple adjustments:

Screen Shot 2013 11 23 at 10 24 24 AM

Now, go back to the Basic panel to finish. Set the white and black points as shown in the video below. The other sliders in the Basic panel can then be fine tuned to your taste and that’s it! Woooo Hooooo, done in less than 5 minutes! You’ve just made your first Perfect HDR photo! Send it to Mom and your friends and be ready to receive their adoration!

Watch The Full Perfect HDR Workflow Video

In the video below, I show the complete processing of this image including how to set the white and black points correctly. It’s easier to show some of the steps in a video, rather than try to describe it all in written form.

Try the Perfect HDR Workflow

If you want to give the Perfect HDR Workflow a try yourself right now, you can download my RAW files of this image for free. Get the free trial download of the merge to 32-bit plugin from the Photomatix website. The plugin you want is the last item on the page. Install the plugin with your copy of Lightroom 4 or 5. Then follow along to get the hang of the Perfect HDR Workflow and find out for yourself how easy this really is! If questions come up, I hang out on Google+ every day and you are welcome to circle & chat with me there or on my blog.

Become an HDR Wizard

Next time, in Easy Peazy HDR in Lightroom Part II, we’ll take this image further using the other panels of the Develop module in Lightroom. I think you’ll be amazed at the power and control you have using Lightroom to process your HDR photos. It’ll be like you’ve evolved into this unstoppable HDR Wizard!

Read more from our Post Production category

Keith Cuddeback has a love of nature and other cultures that comes across in his landscape and travel photography. Based in San Francisco and specializing in realistic looking HDR photography, Keith is constantly exploring the American West and sacred worldwide destinations. He finds post-processing at least half the fun of photography and as the creator of the Perfect HDR Workflow is a champion of the amateur photographer. He’s always looking for simple tools that anybody can use to create art with their photos.

  • You nailed it Martin.

  • MartinHughHarvey

    Thanks Keith – one of our favourite hiking areas – plus we’ll be back next April and with a new camera setup. Replacing my D300 system with an X-E2

  • MartinHughHarvey

    if I have the LR NIK plugins already (including HDR Efex 2) is there a compelling reason to add this?

  • The NIK plugin links LR to NIK’s HDR Efex, which is a tonemapping alternative to Photomatix Pro. It doesn’t do 32 bit processing. So, if you want to do the clean 32 bit process, you’ll need a way to create a 32 bit file from your brackets. The Photomatix plugin is the cheapest and easiest way to do that. That’s the whole reason for this workflow… simplicity and ease which yields great results for everybody right away..

  • MartinHughHarvey

    I knew you’d say something like that – there’s a reason it’s termed 32 bit! Thanks.

  • MartinHughHarvey

    Is the (Fuji X-E2) RAF format supported? There are some comments around the web which give me pause.

  • Jake73

    If I were to shoot just one RAW image, and later on in a post-production (for example Aperture) create additional images with differend exposure stops. And use this to create the 32-bit HDR file.
    Would it have the exact same outcome as I would shoot several RAW images with a camera?
    Simply thinking that camera/computer use the same pre-programmed settings to use available light info to come to a certain result.

  • Jake, if your single RAW image has no clipped highlights or shadows, then you can do what you suggest and get detail in all areas of the finished photo. In that case, I would say, just go ahead and process the single RAW file in Lightroom and forget about making the plus and minus exposures. I don’t see where you would gain anything by doing the extra work.

    If the dynamic range of the scene requires multiple exposures in order to capture all the light details, then the single RAW image approach won’t give you great results compares to an HDR process simply because there is no single frame which contains all light detail without clipping.

    HDR methods were developed because of the limitation of camera sensors. When sensors evolve more and can capture the full dynamic range of light in a single frame every time, we won’t be needing any of the HDR processes currently in use.

  • Rob

    Do you have any good solutions to fix halos in HDR images (other than making them flatter)? Thanks!

  • dbur

    I think there is some common misunderstanding of HDR. How you tone map an image really has nothing to do with whether it is a merged stack of exposure bracketed images or not. You can tone map a jpg, or a single raw, or multiple raws from the same image, or multiple images with different exposures and get exactly the same tone mapped result regardless of the type of source images. The difference will theoretically only be noise in the darks you pull up and blown highlights in the bright areas. If the contrast of the scene is not high then a single image can work as well as a bracketed stack. If the contrast is high then a bracketed stack gives you good data to pull the darks up with and good data to pull the highs down with. That’s what HDR is. The tone mapping is just the post processing you use to get the image you want. You can make it natural or grungy, your choice. But that’s not caused by the image being ‘HDR’.

    I’ve done some HDR’s that don’t look any better than the tone mapped best single image in the stack. I’ve also done some that would have been impossible without an HDR stack.

    This HDR image would have been totally blown out in the windows and light areas and totally black in the darks areas where the pews are. The tone mapped HDR actually looks like relatively even natural lighting.

    I could make one of the image stacks from this panorama available if anyone wants to try it, But you should be able to easily find a place with high contrast to make your own.

  • Peter Booker

    We would be amazed at what he would do by manipulation – his black and white shots stood way over his colour work because of the difficulties with colour processing and manipulation, but, with the digital ‘darkroom’ I think that his output of superb colour work would be phenominal

  • De

    You should get AfterShot Pro 2 it is a simple right click

  • Russ

    I tried the technique above and it worked great. Then I used Photomatix first to merge the photos to 32 bit. then imported to lightroom and the results were the same. Thanks for the tip. This is saving me a lot of time.

  • Ben

    I am having this same problem. Did you ever figure out why it’s happening?

  • Holt Webb

    More than personal taste, the reason HDR looks better is because it IS better… at least from a technical standpoint. 🙂
    One of the great benefits of creating an HDR image is the near
    elimination of noise when making value adjustments. You can
    stretch a merged image a LOT farther than even the best single RAW
    capture simply because you have so much more information.

  • Holt Webb

    I need some help. 🙂
    You recommend stacking the merged image with the original photos. I do this on my Mac and LR puts the merged image next to the most underexposed of the three bracketed shots. Easy to find, easy to work on. However, my buddy does this on his Mac and LR “stacks” the image with the most underexposed of the three bracketed shots. And when he tries to reveal the merged image from the stack, it isn’t there. I’ve never used stacks before, so I’m probably missing something obvious, but we tried every option in the flyout menu and nothing would reveal the merged image. WE found instructions online, but they didn’t work either. The “stack” that supposedly held the two images only held two exact copies of the original. No merged image was created. (And we still don’t know how to separate the stack). Our plugin settings are identical, and mine works fine, so I’m not sure where else to look.

  • Hmm… you can do it same without 32bit HDR plugin and LR,
    just use PS -> merge to HDRPRO and mark checkbox edit in 32bit
    that’s it!
    look at my examples od 32bit HDR without LR only PS

  • Tom Rodovsky

    I’ve downloaded Photomatix Pro and have Lightroom 5 on my Mac. I’ve selected the 3 bracketed photos in Lightroom, but don’t see an option to “Export>Merge to 32-bit HDR”. I do see in the “Plug-in Extras” an option to “Export to Photomatix Pro”. Is it implied that exporting will convert to 32-bit?

  • Tom,

    It isn’t Photomatix Pro that is used in this workflow. It’s another Photomatix product called “Merge to 32-bit plugin.” However, this video and article were made 4-5 years ago and that product is no longer available from Photomatix. Today, I’m using Lightroom 6 and its’ built-in HDR merge capability to get my 32-bit image. It’s way easier and yields virtually identical results. You can make your HDR now fully within the Lightroom environment without resorting to any other 3rd party software. Cheers!

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