How to Create an HDR Image

How to Create an HDR Image


It seems like HDR or High Dynamic Range imagery is all the rage right now. There are lots of tools around for assembling an HDR image and, although Photoshop now has a tool to do this, PhotomatixPro is much more sophisticated and the results are much better, so I’ll show you how to use it.

Before we start, however, a bit of background as to what HDR is and why you might use it. One of the limitations of digital cameras is that they can only capture an image with a fairly narrow dynamic range – the range of lights and darks in the image. In fact, faced with a scene that has very bright areas and very dark areas, you and I can see much more detail in the scene than the camera can capture in one shot.

However, the camera can capture lots of images of the same subject each with a different exposure. So you can expose for the light areas and again for the dark areas and again for the midtones and capture 3 or more images of the same subject that together show all the rich detail in the shadows and in the highlights. What HDR software does is to help you assemble these images into one image with a wider range of lights and darks than you can get in a single image.

To capture for HDR, ideally you need a series of images shot using a tripod so you eliminate movement between the images. Your overall camera settings should not change from one image to the next – except that the exposure for each will be different. Typically you’ll use your camera’s Auto Bracketing feature to capture the series and it’s best to limit your shooting to a scene that won’t change while you’re capturing it so you don’t get movement between frames.

It is possible to render an HDR image from a single camera raw image and you would have to do this if you were shooting a moving crowd for example. However it’s best, where possible to capture multiple separate exposures. If you’re using an IS camera disable this feature when shooting on a tripod – leaving it on can actually cause camera movement.

A trial version of Photomatrix Pro 3 is available from so download and install it. If you don’t have suitable images to work with, there are three sets of sample images on the site that you can use. Here’s how to assemble an HDR image from multiple exposures:

Step 1

Launch Photomatrix Pro 3 and select Generate HDR image. Select your series of images and click ok. You can use three or more images and the program can read DNG files so you don’t have to convert these first.


Step 2

In the dialog you can select to Align the images if you think there may be some movement and you can change the White Balance setting. You can also select to reduce ghosting artifacts which may occur if there is movement between images such as people walking.

Click Ok and wait as the processing is performed.


Step 3

The resulting image won’t look good and that’s to be expected. You can save it at this point if desired by choosing File > Save As and save it as a .hdr image. You can later open this and work on it without having to generate the HDR version from the source images again.


Step 4

Choose Tone Mapping and you’ll begin to see the possibilities in the image. Click Show Original to compare the image with what you had previously. You should see enhanced detail in the shadows and in the highlights.


Step 5

To get a surreal effect, from the Smoothing options, select a low value – the lower the value the more surreal is the image and the higher the value the more realistic is the result. Adjusting the Strength downwards will also help you retain more realism if that’s what you want.


Step 6

Use the Color Saturation slider to adjust the saturation of the colors in the image and use Luminosity to adjust the overall lightness.


Step 7

There are also presets you can select from in the Presets dropdown list such as Painterly, Grunge, Natural and Smooth Skies.


Step 8

When you have an effect you like, click Process to process the image using the settings you chose.

When the finished image appears, choose File > Save As to save it and you can then open it in Photoshop or another editor to finish working on it.

Read more from our Post Production category

Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at

Some Older Comments

  • Rick February 26, 2013 04:25 pm

    I've used Photomatix Pro and I noted that one of our comrades says to use Photoshop to do noise reduction....Photomatix has a screen that offers it and it works quite well. and Hey Noah!! dont wonder, try it!! photomatix works on a copy of the original, so go ahead and play...that's how I find cool new things to do to my pix.

  • Roy Hale December 17, 2012 11:50 am

    Done very nicely. Thank you for sharing this technique. I love HDR pictures. It takes the normal photos into a realm of art and I like that. Good work!

  • Andy March 1, 2011 02:36 am

    When I first looked at HDR I tried Photomatix, but I struggled to achieve natural looking results - perhaps it was my adjustment technique!

    I moved onto TuFuse and more recently SNS-HDR, which I find gives very natural results with relative ease.

    I've put together simple tutorial here:

  • Noah February 27, 2010 03:47 pm

    What happens if I click "Tone Compressor"?

  • Angus Leigh October 19, 2009 12:59 am

    Excellent tutorial about post editing using HDR.

    This is the post editing technique exactly handle the following situation that trouble me

    Extreme Lighting Photography

    It may be useful to know the zone system for dynamic range issue

    An Introduction to Zone System

  • Johan August 18, 2009 10:40 pm


    I think the image is quite flat and misses detail.

    If there's a chance in showing how HDR images in PS are produced in just a few click's, (I really mean just a few click's) I'm happy to give you a demonstration.

    Kindest regards,


  • Mandy August 12, 2009 07:00 am

    Thanks for this tutorial always wondered how you did HDR.

  • Don Reeves August 10, 2009 11:34 pm

    I've tried all the HDR software out there and Photomatix is a great tool and much better than Adobe, but...
    The easiest and most intuitive HDR editing software is contained within Nova Developments Photoimpact pro 13.
    The software itself is very inexpensive and for the price it's a very powerful program.
    It doesn't handle ORF files well but I use Olympus master 2 which is free software and works best with ORF files anyway.
    Other than that, it really is awesome software and since using it I find myself using Adobe allot less.

  • Landscape Photography August 5, 2009 11:49 am

    Have not tried photomatix, however the few times i've tried HDR in Photoshop i've been really unhappy with the results.. might have to give Photomatix a run.

    Thanks for posting.

  • Eric Magnuson August 3, 2009 11:03 am

    Photomatix for the win! It's a great piece of software. I've also heard of people using Photoshop's HDR feature to align the images and make an .HDR file, but then they use Photomatix to do the actual tone mapping.

  • Jerry Massey August 1, 2009 08:43 am

    Bring the raw images into Photoshop and run a noise reduction on them (I use Dfine) and save the images as TIFF files.

    Bring the TIFF images into Photomatix and generate an HDR image. Tone map it to your liking and save that image as a TIFF file.

    Bring the tone mapped image back into Photoshop and make any editing changes required and save your work.

    This procedure gives you a relatively noise free HDR image.

  • Sean Mullins July 31, 2009 08:40 am

    I just started using Qtpfsgui (yes, its a little tricky to say!) and I really like the tone mapping, which allows you to create quite artistic affects, though for me it seems a little buggy (eg its hopeless at guessing the initial exposure level) but the price is right :)
    My first attempt using "real" pics is here:

    Is the photomatrix download time limited?

  • Rick July 31, 2009 06:19 am

    If you're looking for a decent free/open-source alternative to Photomatix, you might give Qtpfsgui a try. Hard to pronounce, easier to use. There are some decent tutorials out there to get you started and have some good results from the beginning. I've used both Photomatix and Qtpfsgui, and I have to admit I like the latter.

  • Scott Flaherty July 28, 2009 10:49 pm

    IMHO, you should do your RAW conversion using your usual RAW converter before loading images into Photomatix. Load TIFFs into Photomatix instead. The Photomatix RAW conversion processing won't give conversion results that are as good as say, ACR, Lightroom, NX2, etc.

  • ClaytonB July 26, 2009 09:23 am

    There are many free software packages that can be used to create and edit HDR images. see . I like to use Picturenaut to create the HDR and Qtpfsgui to do the tone mapping. It actually is almost the same work flow described in the tutorial using free software.


  • Paul Duncanson July 25, 2009 02:50 pm

    As the makers say on their web site: "Note: the name of our dynamic range increase software is Photomatix not Photomatrix."

  • MeiTeng July 25, 2009 01:25 pm

    Besides photomatix, are there any free HDR software I can play around with?

  • Ebates July 25, 2009 10:42 am

    Whoa! I had no clue messing with the levels would make that much of a difference. I like how much more distinct and ominous the second picture is...a nice touch!

  • Tony July 25, 2009 05:28 am

    Has anyone had had issues with photomatix resizing the photos? The biggest i can get is an 11x16..nothing bigger and i have no idea where to change it.

  • Helen Bradley July 25, 2009 03:56 am

    If anyone is interested Photomatrix Pro can be downloaded as a free fully featured trial version from I suggest anyone who is questioning how Photoshop compares with Photomatrix, download the trial and then compare the same sequence of images rendered in each program.

    I think you'll get much better results very easily with Photomatrix and, if you're shooting a lot of HDR then the price makes it worth buying to get a good smart workflow that delivers the goods.

    It won't cost you anything but your time to determine if it works for you.

  • Bridget Casas July 25, 2009 02:20 am

    I have started to play around with HDR. I purchased the Photomatix software at the student price. It is easy to use - you just need to have the right images with the right variance in exposure. Have a look at my first attempt here: I also show the 5 images I used to create the one image.

  • Pat Bloomfield July 25, 2009 02:09 am

    Great tutorial Helen.

    I have not heard of Photomatrix before and am not sure where it sits with Lightroom and Photoshop?

    I can't see people buying additional programs when they already have their preferred applications especially when it is possible to do HDR already?

  • rick July 24, 2009 11:11 pm

    Helen - Excellent tutorial. I've been wanting to try this. Your post looks pretty straightforward. Thanks again.

  • dmolavi July 24, 2009 09:28 pm

    This is an excellent tutorial on using photoshop for HDR, which, IMHO, produces better results than Photomatix:

    Also check out:

  • Razvan Chiriac - shiraq July 24, 2009 07:55 pm

    Great tutorial!
    I make myself a lot of HDR image and I follow almost all the steps that you present. Is a very instructive tutorial, from the beginer point of view to a master.
    Thanks DPS :)

  • Abhilash July 24, 2009 03:21 pm

    Its a nice article.

    What would have made it a really nice article is if the whole process would have been explained with freeware apps. I think that DPS has a considerable population of amateurs who are either learning the ropes or just shooting for fun. They too would like to be able to go HDR without going broke.

    Tools like photomatix have been written about to death. I do all this with GIMP Plugins (Exposure Blend, Advanced Tone Mapping) and also with qtpfsgui. Although you need to play around a little bit more, the results are just as good. Besides you learn more as these tool are more verbose.

    Just my two cents :-)

    Tone Mapping

  • Helen Bradley July 24, 2009 02:41 pm

    I actually just wrote a Photoshop Merge to HDR post on my own blog using this same image sequence as I had a request for it. You may want to check out the steps and the result.

    I think PhotomatrixPro rocks and Photoshop's tool is barely in the race here, it really doesn't offer the breadth of tools for getting the range of effects out of the HDR image.

    Additionally, PhotomatrixPro can be called from inside Lightroom using the Lightroom Export Plugin so it's really as convenient as Photoshop in this sense.

  • Sam July 24, 2009 01:59 pm

    yeah photomatix is the best at HDR, photoshop on the other hand is absolutely useless at HDR.

  • Debbie Hudson July 24, 2009 01:50 pm

    Wow! I've been reading a lot of photo blogs and threads on photo boards, and I've just never taken the time to sit down and see how HDR was done.

    Your article makes it so easy! Thank you!

  • Gelay July 24, 2009 12:07 pm

    Photomatix is a great app for producing HDR. I find the workflow in Photoshop more complicated than Photomatix.

    Robert Moore is right - Trey Ratcliff IS a big name in HDR.

  • Richard Skoonberg July 24, 2009 11:58 am

    This is a very straight forward tutorial. I thought it would be more complicated. Your example image is excellent. I can't wait to try it. Thank you!

  • david huting July 24, 2009 10:16 am

    Thanks for the guide! It looks like a different version of Photomatix than I have.

    For another in-depth guide I recently posted, "Dave's Guide to HDR Photography", including more photos and some stunning examples, check out:


  • Shadow July 24, 2009 09:36 am

    Nice tutorial. Usually I don't use the "details enhancer mode", I find it harder to get a realistic results with this one than with the tone compressor mode. This tutorial might help me try something new !
    But... I must confess I don't really like the title. HDR images is what you get just after step 3, ie a .hdr or .exr file. What you get in the end of the tutorial is not a HDR image, but a tonemapped image, which is quite different.

  • Victor Augusteo July 24, 2009 09:00 am

    Great tutorial Helen,
    Usually i do everything in lightroom, but this time you made me wants to try something different :)

    I actually go ahead and tried it myself, using photomatix for the first time in my life, if you want to check out the result, its here: HDR Photoshoot from The Nut, Stanley, Tasmania

    Comments and critics are welcome and encouraged:)



  • Robert Moore July 24, 2009 08:37 am


    Great article. I just wanted to recommend another website that has an in-depth article on creating HDR images.

    The photographer is Trey Ratcliff and is a big name in the HDR world. Check it out.

  • Peter July 24, 2009 08:07 am


    Can we try first the less sophisticated Photoshop, then move on to the harder stuff? I think your posts are very instructive, but this seems like a 'progressive' type learning lesson... just a suggestion...

    A useful post over all...thanks DPS...

  • Michael Garmahis July 24, 2009 07:22 am

    Check out my Fake HDR Photoshop tutorial