Getting Real with HDR - a Step by Step Tutorial for Realistic Looking HDR

Getting Real with HDR – a Step by Step Tutorial for Realistic Looking HDR

Try to make your HDR images look as realistic as possible

Try to make your HDR images look as realistic as possible

If you have been photographing for more than a year or two, you will have heard about HDR (which stands for High Dynamic Range). We have probably seen them, the “overcooked”, over processed HDR images that float around the photo websites. For some photographers, the process seems to force them to overdo their images and after a while that seems to be the only result they are trying to achieve. Do a Google search on “bad HDR” and you will see what I mean. The images have halos,  the colours are surreal and look metallic, the contrast is off and in short, the image is really messy.

When I first shot HDR, I fell into this trap too. These results caused many photographers to say that HDR is not a useful technique and is really gimmicky. That perception is partly true. HDR in the hands of someone who cannot use it effectively can result in some weird looking images, however, HDR done properly can produce some incredible results. To see some good examples of HDR done properly, visit the website HDR Spotting and take a look at the editors picks. There are some astounding images there. The colours are amazing, the contrast is perfect and the detail in the shadows and highlights, sublime. That is what HDR should be. It should be the best combination of the highlights and the shadows properly exposed, the image should look as real as it can. So, how do you get this right you might be asking, read on to find out.

What is HDR?

As I said earlier, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Your cameras sensor has the ability to capture light and colour. The extent to which your camera can do this is called the dynamic range. More specifically, if your camera can render lots of details in the shadows and the highlights in the same shot, then it has a high dynamic range. Over the past few years, digital sensors have become so much better at capturing more detail. This is a huge benefit for photographers and of course for HDR photography. This means that we can get more details out of every image and as a result, the HDR images will be that much more detailed.

Lions Gate Bridge Vancouver - HDR image

Lions Gate Bridge Vancouver – HDR image

How do I shoot HDR?

Making an HDR image involves 3 distinct and separate processes. I will go into detail on each one, but at a high level, they are as follows:

  1. Image Capture
  2. HDR Processing
  3. Image editing in Photoshop

Lets start with image capture first. This is the photography part of this process. It’s pretty simple really. Set up for your shot as you normally would. Make sure you have your subject well composed and you are ready to go. The difference between HDR and normal photography, is that with HDR you will take either three to five bracketed images of the same scene. The reason for the number of images is that you will blend these images together in a dedicated HDR product.

My recommendation for HDR software is Photomatix Pro. It is a programme that has been around for many years now and has some really good editing functions. It’s probably the most widely used software when it comes to HDR. Photoshop also has an HDR function, but in my opinion, its not as refined as the Photomatix Pro yet. Don’t get me wrong, I am a huge Photoshop fan, it is an incredible tool, I am sure that Photoshop will have something within their functions that will be competitive in time, but for now, I still use Photomatix.

Step #1 –  Image capture

These are the steps I follow when I intend to do an HDR shot. They are not rules, nor are they inflexible, they just work for me. You need to find what works for you and gives you the best results, this method has helped me get my best results, so try it out. Tweak it and change it as you need.

  1. Use a tripod – it is a good idea to put your camera on a tripod for HDR, especially if you are shooting in low light. I have done some handheld HDR but only in bright conditions. The tripod will also help you get your composition right.
  2. Put your camera into Manual mode “M”
  3. ISO Settings – it is a good idea to keep your ISO settings at 100 or as low as your camera will go. That way you will avoid introducing unnecessary noise into your images. The process of HDR allows you to capture the dynamic range of light and colour in the scene. Using high ISO settings is great when you are trying to shoot a low light scene and capture it in one shot, but for HDR you will want to keep it as low as possible.
  4. Set your aperture to anywhere between F/8 and F/ 11 and don’t adjust your aperture between shots.
  5. Adjust your shutter speed so that you are exposing the scene perfectly according to your cameras light meter.
  6. Capture one image at this reading
  7. Underexpose by one or two stops (depending on the scene) and capture another image by adjusting your shutter speed.
  8. Do this twice on either side of the perfectly exposed image.

This will result in five images being captured.

Below are the three images I used in making the HDR image you see above. Take a look at how the colours and exposure don’t look good at all.

3 Different exposures for the HDR image above

3 Different exposures for the HDR image above

Some photographers use five shots for their HDR shots, some use seven or up to nine. I have found that three to five shots seem to work best for most scenes. I have only used nice shots on a few occasions, but have not been happy with the results. The colours seem to be “muddy” and unclear once processed. If necessary, shoot seven images and see how that works.

Once you have completed the shoot, download the images to your computer. It is important NOT to edit the images before blending them into an HDR image. Some of the shots might look over exposed or under exposed, thats OK, in fact they must look like that. The software will deal with these issues, so don’t be concerned that the images look bad out of camera, they need to be processed and then the magic begins.

Click on - Load Bracketed Photos

Click “Load Bracketed Photos”

Step #2 – HDR processing

I will be explaining the Photomatix software in this article. I have tried HDR with each new version of Photoshop and I am still happier with the results I get from Photomatix Pro. You can download a trial version of Photomatix from their website. It is fully functional, the only thing is that the trial version puts a watermark on the image. This is OK for trying it out, you will see exactly what the software can do, if you think it is worth it, then you can buy it. Ok, so here is how you take your images into Photomatix Pro

  1. Open Photomatix Pro (or if you’ve set it up as a Lightroom plugin, select your bracketed images, right click and choose “edit in” and Phototix Pro)
  2. Click  “Load Bracketed Photos” and then click on “Browse” and select the images you have taken (you can also drag and drop them into the box)
  3. Click OK once the images appear in the box
Select the options displayed on the screen above

Select the options displayed on the screen above

Preprocessing options are available.  Make selections on the box as shown in the screenshot above. Then click preprocess and Photomatix Pro will begin to tone map the images into a composite 32-bit image. This process is generally quite quick, between 30 seconds and a minute.  Once complete, click on the Tone Mapping button.

Use the “Remove ghosts” function if you have people or moving objects in your images. If you don’t have this, then you wont need to use this function.

The HDR editing screen

On this screen, you are able to select a variety adjustments that will create an overall change to the image. There are no absolutes here. Each adjustment makes minor or major differences to the image and the combination of the adjustments provides diverse options.


At the bottom of the screen you will see different “treatments” (or presets) which you can use as a starting point to your image editing process. I would avoid using these as they are generally overdone. Try and use the functions on the left hand side to edit your image.

Below are the details about each function on the left hand side of the screen and what each does. One of the best ways to see what a function does is to slide it all the way over to the left and then to the right and see how it affects your image, but here are the details:

General Settings

  • Strength – affects the degree to which contrast and detail are enhanced in the image. A value of 100 gives the maximum amount of enhancement. To get a more natural effect, move the slider to the left. The default value is 70.
  • Color Saturation – controls the saturation of the RGB color channels. The greater the saturation, the more intense the color. Move the slider right or left to change the setting. A value of zero produces a grayscale image. The value affects each color channel equally. The default value is 46.
  • Luminosity – controls the compression of the tonal range, which has the effect of adjusting the global luminosity level. Move the slider to the right to boost shadow details and brighten the image. Move it to the left to give a more “natural” look to the resulting image. The default value is zero.
  • Detail Contrast – controls the amount of contrast applied to detail in the image. Move the slider to the right to increase the contrast of the details and give a sharper look to the image. Note that increasing the contrast also has a darkening effect. Move the slider to the left to decrease the contrast of details and brighten the image.
  • Lighting Adjustments – affects the overall ‘look’, controlling the extent to which the image looks natural or surreal. When the Lighting Effects Mode box is unchecked, move the slider to the right to make the image look more natural and to the left to make it look more ‘painterly’ or ‘surreal’. Use this carefully as it can have an unpredictable effect on your image.
  • Lighting Effects Mode – the checkbox lets you switch between two modes for the Lighting Adjustments setting,where each mode produces slightly different results. Checking the box tends to produce results with a type of ‘Magic Light’ effect.

More Options

  • Smooth Highlights – reduces the contrast enhancements in the highlights. The value of the slider sets how much of the highlights range is affected. This control is useful for preventing white highlights from turning grey or uniform light blue skies becoming dark blue-grey. It is also useful for reducing halos around objects placed against bright backgrounds. The default value is zero.
  • White Point and Black Point – these sliders control how the minimum and maximum values of the tone mapped image are set. Moving the sliders to the right increases global contrast. Moving them to the left reduces clipping at the extremes. The White Point slider sets the value for the maximum of the tone mapped. The Black Point slider sets the value for the minimum of the tone mapped image.
  • Gamma – adjusts the mid-tone of the tone mapped image, brightening or darkening the image globally. The default value is 1.0.
  • Temperature – adjusts the color temperature of the tone mapped image relative to the temperature of the HDR source image. Move the slider to the right to give a warmer, more yellow-orange colored look. Move the slider to the left for a colder, more bluish look. A value of zero (default) preserves the original color temperature of the HDR source image.

Advanced Options

  • Micro-smoothing – smoothes local detail enhancements. This has the effect of reducing noise in the sky, for instance, and tends to give a “cleaner” look to the resulting image. The default value is 2. Important note: The Loupe may not properly show the effect of the Micro-smoothing setting when the area magnified is uniform. If you want to see the effect of the Micro-smoothing setting at 100% resolution on a uniform area such as the sky, you will have to select an area that contains an object in the scene in addition to the sky.
  • Saturation Highlights – adjusts the color saturation of the highlights relative to the color saturation set with the Color Saturation slider. Values higher than zero increase the color saturation in the highlights. Values lower than zero decrease it. The default value is zero.
  • Saturation Shadows – adjusts the color saturation of the shadows relative to the color saturation set with the Color Saturation slider. Values higher than zero increase the color saturation in the shadows. Values lower than zero decrease it. The default value is zero.
  • Shadows Smoothness – reduces the contrast enhancements in the shadows. The value of the slider sets how much of the shadows range is affected. The default value is zero.
  • Shadows Clipping – the value of the slider sets how much of the shadows range is clipped. This control may be useful to cut out noise in the dark area of a photo taken in a low-light situation. The default value is zero.

Once this part of the process is finished, then it is time to take the image into Photoshop. Save the tone mapped image and then re-open it in Photoshop.

Step #3 Image Editing in Photoshop

This is a very basic workflow. It will enhance the lighting and tonality in your images. These techniques are discussed here at high level.

Shadows and Highlights

Photoshop has a function called Shadows and Highlights. Use this tool to bring out detail in the shadows of your image. Use it carefully, if you overdo the treatment on the shadows, there may be some unsightly image degradation or “noise”. This function is not great for adjusting highlights, so use it for the shadows only. This tool is found in Photoshop as follows: IMAGE > ADJUSTMENTS > SHADOWS AND HIGHLIGHTS. The adjustments of AMOUNT, TONAL WIDTH and RADIUS should all be kept aligned close to one another to ensure that the adjustment looks realistic.

Shadow and Highlights function in Photoshop

Shadow and Highlights function in Photoshop

Levels Function

The levels function in Photoshop is for adjusting the lighting in an image. This means that if your image is a little dark you can push up the exposure slightly and see more details in the image. The levels function shows a representation of a histogram. Move the sliders in to touch the edge of the histogram as a general rule. This will ensure that your image has a good representation of highlights and shadows.

The Levels functioning Photoshop

The Levels functioning Photoshop

Hue and Saturation

Once the exposure and lighting has been adjusted and looks correct, then you may begin adjusting the colour in the image. The tool to use will be the Hue and Saturation tool. The important tip here is not to adjust the master channel but rather to adjust by each channel independently. To do this, click on the top toggle button that says “default”. A drop down menu will appear and each colour channel will be available from there. Slide the Saturation Slider to the left to desaturate (remove colour) or to the right to saturate. That way you have the best control of the colour in your image.

Hue and Saturation Function in Photoshop

Hue and Saturation Function in Photoshop

Dodging and Burning

These functions are localized adjustments. By using a brush tool, you are able to make certain areas of the image darker and other areas of the image lighter. This is useful for adding the finishing touches to your image. There is also the sponge function which is a saturation tool which can saturate colours at a local level.


Almost every image that comes out of a digital camera requires sharpening of some sort. The easiest and quickest tool to use is the Unsharp Mask tool and it works effectively.

Unsharp Mask Tool in Photoshop

Unsharp Mask Tool in Photoshop

The Unsharp Mask has three separate sliders: Amount, Radius and Threshold. As a general rule you can keep the Amount anywhere between 80 and 120%, Radius can be set between 1.0 and 3.0 pixels and Threshold is generally at zero. Adjust the sharpness of the image according to each image requirement and beware of degrading the image by over sharpening. You will easily notice if an image is over sharpened by the appearance of a “halo” around certain edges in the image. The idea is to sharpen the image but not make it overly sharp and lose image quality.

Lions Gate Bridge Vancouver - HDR image

Lions Gate Bridge Vancouver – HDR image

Once you are done, save your image and thats it! Have a go, try different settings in different light, let me know what you think and how your images turn out. If you have any questions, drop them into the comments box below.

Please leave your comments and questions below. If you want more HDR tips, try some of these articles:

Read more from our Post Production category

Barry J Brady is a Fine Art Landscape and commercial photographer based in Vancouver, BC. He is also an addicted traveller and loves travelling to far off places and capturing their essence. Barry is an entertaining and experienced photography teacher and public speaker. He loves nothing more than being behind his camera or showing other photographers how to get the most out of their camera. To see more of his work, visit his site here. You can also join Barry on a photography workshop in Canada. Click here to find out more.

  • Tony Roberts

    Never done HDR myself but as a club and salon judge hate overlooked HDR. After reading this article I know the meaning of the tools but still don’t know how to get GOOD HDR. What to avoid. A few sample pics with the settings you used would be great.

  • Hi Tony – hopefully Barry will reply with his answers. It’s different for every image but I recommend a few things:

    Keep Strength about 70-85% to keep it softer
    – keep luminosity slider to the middle
    – keep saturation under 45 because when you go back to PS and add blacks and contrast the colors naturally saturate
    – keep smoothing highlights more to the right to keep whites clean
    – keep the output that comes out of Photomatix looking almost a little flat then punch it up in PS that is normal
    – keep Detail Contrast to the middle
    – keep Lighting Effects to Natural on the button version

    try that and see how you go

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for the comment Tony. I agree, overcooked HDR is not the goal, the goal is to get the most realistic looking HDR images. I am happy to post pics with settings, but each lighting situation and result is different and so there is no formula for getting a particular look. The key thing is to avoid overdoing the effects in the HDR software. I will see if I can post some images with the settings…

  • barryjbrady

    Tony, to give you an idea on the settings, this is what I used on the image with the bridge in the background:
    Strength – 100 – Wanted to emphasise the detail in the scene
    Colour Saturation – 80 – The scene was pretty dull, so I boosted the sat in the HDR and in PS afterwards
    Luminosity – +4
    Detail Contrast – +6 I punched this up a little as the rocks were looking a bit too smooth and I wanted more detail in them
    Lighting adjustments – +2.1 – To make the lighting look as natural as possible
    Smooth Highlights – 30 – To keep the highlight natural
    White Point – 0.604%
    Black Point – 3.208%
    Gamma – 0.87
    Temperature – +3.9
    Micro-smoothing – 20.9
    Saturation Highlights – +10
    Saturation Shadows – +7.9
    Shadows smoothness – 50
    Shadows Clipping – 0

    Again though each image is different, so this may not work on each image you shoot. I would recommend that you try a few different HDR shots in different lighting conditions and experiment with the various functions to see what works best for your taste.

  • Andy

    Thanks for sharing your knowledge Barry. It is great to see what tweaks you have found work for you as it gives a good starting point for someone who does not know the software well. I also found it really easy to follow the article, keep up the good work!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for the comment Andy, appreciate that.

  • Hardik Ramani

    Very nice article. Thanks Barry for sharing.

  • Toufiq

    Very useful tutorial, Barry! Thanks for taking the time to write it. Do you plan to write a tutorial on mastering HDR panorama soon ? 🙂

  • Berge Simonian

    Nice to see you sharing your tips with the internet. I still reference the class notes from your HDR class whenever I shoot bracketed and it’s still the best one out there. It always gets me the look I’m waning from my photos which is, like the name dictates, a highly dynamic photo in terms of light; no crazy tonal blowouts, etc!

    Keep doing the awesome work you do!

  • Kelly

    Wow Barry, such great information…..a very informative article…..I agree…. a great starting point!

  • marsden Epworth

    Lovely primer on HDR. Detailed and straightforward. Thanks. I think I will try this again.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Marsden, glad this has rekindled your desire to try HDR again!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Kelly, appreciate your comment.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Berge, I am glad that it works for you, keep shooting!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Toufiq, thats a great idea for a new article, I will look at doing one on that!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for taking time to read the article Hardik.

  • Thanks, Barry. Very helpful information. Much appreciated. Nice shots

  • I’d love that Barry, it would be a nice complement to this one

  • barryjbrady

    Thank you Ursula. I hope your HDR images will get better and better…

  • Michael Owens

    This is a great article, very indepth, and I am pleased its with Photomatrix Pro. I think, like the OP, that it’s the best HDR processing software out there.

    I hardly ever use the Photoshop one now, its 95% of the time Photomatrix, and the other times its HDR Effex Pro.

    Thanks for sharing anyway! Love it!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Michael. glad you enjoyed the article.

  • Michael Owens

    Thanks Barry, followed you on Twitter. Hope to gain some more invaluable tips from you!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for the follow Michael, much appreciated!

  • Great article, I’d love to see some more HDR articles using different software suites though. I always try to go for a realistic appearance, but I use Nik HDR Efex and Apple Aperture and the workflow is very different. Nik allows more control of the items done in Photoshop in this tutorial, while Aperture can handle the rest (I imagine Lightroom workflow would be similar). Could there be an article with the Nik version sometime, how about a general article about using that suite of software?

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for your comments Stephen. I have only experimented with Nik HDR Efex and in some cases it seems to give more control over some adjustments. I have however read a few reviews of Nik HDR Efex vs Photomatix and most times the conclusion was that Photomatix was a better option for more advanced HDR. Now, that does not mean the Nik product is bad, it is simply about using the right tool for the right job. In this workflow that I explained, the end process is in Photoshop and there you can do an infinite amount of adjustments, selections and blending to make your image look spectacular. This article didn’t go into those details, might be something for a later article. I think the key thing to remember is to use the best tool for the result you are trying to achieve. My opinion is that Photomatix Pro with Photoshop offers you tremendous flexibility in processing and adjustment, others will prefer Nik HDR or even other HDR suites (there are quite a few). I will relook at the Nik software and see if there is an article in that.

  • barryjbrady

    You have some great images on your Flickr Stream BTW…

  • Thanks for looking at my shots and responding to the feedback. I really like the articles on here, but do find they rely on Photoshop quite a bit. I use PS for work frequently as a designer, but since I’m a hobbyist photographer I like a more streamlined approach to spend less time editing, hence Aperture for the basics and sometimes using the Nik plugins. I also prefer a natural style so that fits my needs well.

    I think sometimes the perception that photography takes a great bit of software skill is intimidating to newcomers; I’ve had success getting friends into the hobby by explaining it can be simpler and still get wonderful results – I guess I’m just trying to pass some of that sentiment on. I agree however that it is a very personal choice and everyone will approach it differently.

    Thanks again for looking through my images, I’d love to connect on Flickr if possible.

  • barryjbrady

    I agree Stephen, photography should not be intimidating. I believe that photography is more accessible than even to everyone and it should be a fun activity. Once you get more serious about photography, then you can delve into the intricacies of the craft of photography. I am happy to connect on Flickr, I will follow you there!

  • Vajeeh

    What about Raw images.Or are JPEG images better for HDR work?Your article is very helpful.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Vajeeh. It is better to shoot in RAW as the RAW file contains so much more information, which will make your HDR images that much better. Photomatix is able to process RAW files, so it is really easy. Of course, if you aren’t used to shooting on RAW, you can use JPEG too, my preference is RAW though.

  • Amit

    Thanks a lot Berry, I am trying my hands on HDR pictures for few weeks and you solved my problem about overdoing. I will certainly follow. Wonderful article !!

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks Amit, glad you found it useful, keep shooting!

  • Farkas Gyula

    I usually generate the 32bit image in photoshop/photomatix then do the “real editing” in Lightroom. The result are much pealsing for me

  • Craig

    Great article, Barry! I’ve been shooting HDR off and on for years but never with the techniques you’ve outlined. Looking forward to applying them in he field and in post-production. Thanks for sharing, it’s much appreciated.

  • barryjbrady

    Thanks for reading the article Craig, much appreciated. I hope that the tips will help you get even better results and take your image making to the next level.

  • barryjbrady

    Glad to hear that Farkas, thanks for the comment.

  • Sascha Kleiber

    Great article! I’m doing HDRs for a while too, I use photomatix just for creating the 32 bit tiff file, which I edit in Lightroom. Then you have way more options in Lightroom for editing it. So I almost completely process the hdr in lightroom itself.

  • barryjbrady

    Great to hear that Sascha, glad you are enjoying HDR

  • Raghav

    Amazing article. I’ve been thinking of taking up HDR photography, and this is just the perfect guide for it. Thanks a lot.

  • Darryl Lora

    Thanks Barry for an extremely easy to follow tutorial. I look forward to more tips and advice from you.

  • Thanks for reading Darryl!

  • Enjoy the results Raghav

  • Lou

    Articles on HDR very useful. What format do you use for original image capture. RAW? JPEG?

  • Michael Shake

    It’s really not important to shoot at f/8 or f/11. Any aperture will work depending on the depth of field look your going for. What is important is to keep the aperture the same for all of your exposures so you maintain a uniform depth of field. I shoot in Aperture Priority mode with my ISO at 100. This way the bracketed photos with only differ in the shutter speed. I also shoot 3 exposures 2 stops apart and find that works in almost all circumstances.

  • Michael Shake

    I might also add that in Photomatix I find the “Details Enhancer” method gives the most natural look. By far the most important slider adjustment is the “Strength” slider. The default is 70 but I find that to strong which may introduce haloing so I lower it to 50 or less, sometimes as low as 10. I’m not looking to get a finished result in Photomatix just a good exposure with no haloing or artifacting. I then process it in Photoshop and then Perfect Effects from onOne software. Here is an example showing how HDR can work in very bright sunlight with harsh shadows and very bright highlights. Three exposures, f/22, ISO100, 1/4s, 1.0s, 4s.

  • ChshreCat

    I’ve never managed to get Photomatix to give me anything except “The HDR Look” and I finally gave up on the program entirely. Now I merge them in Photoshop, output straight to ACR and then adjust in Photoshop after that. Photomatix always made things either flat or dayglo crazy.

  • Suyash Nandgaonkar

    If you tinker around Photomatix a bit, you do get great and natural looking

    HDR. You did see the results in the article. Although the settings Photomatix uses to create a image when you first load it can be wrong, you need to tweak them. Personally I feel Photomatix is easier and probably better than Photoshop.

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