Natural Looking HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom in 5 Easy Steps


HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography was developed out of necessity to overcome limitations of photography equipment, mostly in digital cameras’ sensors. From the beginning, the technology was intended to make photographs as close as possible to human experience by bridging the gap between what the human eye perceives, and what the digital camera can actually capture.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 1

Montreal, Canada – HDR processed, five exposures, tripod.

Think of HDR as a sophisticated, software based, ND (Neutral Density) filter. Instead of placing it in front of the lens at the moment of capturing photos, HDR allows you to accomplish it in post-processing. It sounds practical and convenient, right? There is no need for extra equipment and you can work on extending the dynamic range of the scene without rush, at your own pace, in the comfort of your home.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 2

Montreal, Canada – HDR processed, three exposures, hand-held.

Why is HDR photography getting such bad press lately?

I believe that the main reason for this is the misconception in defining what HDR actually is. Somehow, there is a notion, that HDR is a new style in photography, which is completely false. HDR is not a style or genre; it is a technique of post-processing. It is a tool. The way the final photo looks is absolutely up to you, as you have full control over the entire process.

There are many different tools and techniques for creating HDR photographs and each one has its own advantages and limitations. If you are going for a surrealistic, edgy look in your images, Photomatix is your best friend.

But, if you are like me and your main goal is to achieve images that are as natural as possible and reflect the best aspects of the original scene, I definitely have a solution for you – one that I’ve successfully used for years and love.

On my blog, dedicated to travel and landscape photography (see my bio below for a link), you can find a detailed breakdown of my shooting and processing techniques for almost every photograph. In most cases where I used this technique, it is not easy to tell if the photo was processed as HDR unless you read the description. They look that natural.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 3

Big Sur, California – HDR processed, three exposures, tripod.

The technique is somewhat underappreciated, but it is very powerful and easy to master. The beauty of it is that you do not have to learn additional software and there is no learning curve. You use familiar and powerful Adobe tools, Lightroom and Photoshop, and nothing else.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 4

Cayo Coco beach, Cuba – HDR processed, three exposures, tripod.

This technique leverages the power of 32-bit processing in Photoshop HDR Pro, the module of Photoshop that was established in version CS3.

Below is the infographic that illustrates the schematic view of the entire process, from the time you take the photo to the moment you are ready to save the final image.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 5

The Technique

1. Bracketing Photographs

Before you can start processing photos for HDR you need to take a series of bracketed shots with different exposure values. Normally, you take between three and five shots in each series but, in extreme lighting conditions (example: shooting directly into the sun), you might need to take anywhere from seven to even nine shots.

Ideally, you take multiple shots on a tripod but, since Photoshop has an extremely effective alignment tool, it is possible to take hand-held photos and let Photoshop align them.

2. Lightroom: Preprocessing

This is very simple step that should not take longer than one to two minutes. Import photos into Lightroom and only apply the following adjustments in the LENS CORRECTIONS panel:

3. Photoshop: Tone Mapping

This is an almost completely automated process and should not take longer than two minutes.

In Lightroom, select the bracketed photos that you want to merge to HDR. Right click (option click on Mac) and go to Edit In > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 6

Your bracketed photos will open in Photoshop and will be placed on separate layers. Immediately, the complex algorithm will be applied in order to align the layers. This comes in handy if you took the photos hand-held, without a tripod.

Next, the HDR Pro interface is triggered. All you have to do here is select the tone mapping mode. Opt for the 32-bit option to ensure that you preserve as much information as possible from the original images. Click OK.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 7HDR Pro will merge the bracketed photos into a new 32-bit image and open it in Photoshop’s main interface. The tone mapping is complete. All you have to do now is save the document (File > Save). The new HDR image will be saved and automatically imported back into Lightroom. You can find it next to the original bracketed photos.

4. Lightroom: Main Processing

This is the most exciting step. You edit the newly tone mapped HDR image with enormous bit depth (32-bit) to give it the desired look and feel you want. Use standard Lightroom workflow to achieve your artistic vision.

Here is the photograph I took in Cuba and processed using this technique. Below the photograph, you can find a screenshot of the Lightroom interface with all of the adjustments I performed in order to achieve the final look.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 8

Cayo Santa Maria, Cuba – HDR processed, three exposures, tripod.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 9

At this point, HDR processing is done. If you are happy with the way your photo looks, you can save it as a JPEG directly from Lightroom (“Export” in Lightroom).

5. Photoshop: Final Touches (Optional Step)

In some cases, HDR photos require additional edits, such as selective sharpening, noise reduction and HDR artifacts cleaning. Photoshop is your best friend for selective editing.

Select the HDR photo in Lightroom, right click and select Edit > Edit in Adobe Photoshop. In Photoshop, do what is necessary to improve your final photo. In the majority of cases, all you will need is to reduce noise and nothing else.

That is it. This is how you achieve natural looking HDR images in five easy steps or less.

NaturalLookingHDR Photo 10

Manhattan, New York – HDR processed, three exposures, hand-held.

PROS of 32-bit HDR processing in Photoshop HDR Pro

  • It does not require stand-alone HDR software
  • The learning curve is minimal
  • Tone mapping and editing are completely two separate processes and it is easy to achieve a natural look
  • This technique takes advantage of 32-bit editing

CONS of 32-bit HDR processing in Photoshop HDR Pro

  • In some cases when there are multiple moving objects in the scene (trees, leaves, water), it can cause artifacts that require additional cleaning.

Have you tried this method before? How do you process your HDR images? Please share in the comments below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Viktor Elizarov is a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada. He travels around the world and shares his experiences on his popular travel photography blog. Visit Tutorials section of his blog for free tutorials (including original raw files) and free Lightroom presets.

  • Rick

    I love your work. Very well done.
    “”If you are going for a surrealistic, edgy look in your images, Photomatix is your best friend.”. You might be reading too much into this statement. What he is saying here is true, Photomatix IS great for creating surrealistic images. He didn’t say that it was “typical”, or that the typical Photomatix user only did surrealistic images. He just said that if you want to do that type of work, that Photomatix was the best software to use. Don’t let “Mr. Owen” shade your opinions of everyone else’s posts. I did not see anything negative about Photomatix in the article. I’ve used all 3 programs and they all have their own strengths and weaknesses.

  • Thank you very much! I guess you’re right.

  • Guest

    I tried, but after have saved as psd, I get a (Dutch) message that color depth is not supported 🙁

  • jaapm

    Tried to do so, but after having saved as PSD, Lightroom gave (Dutch) error of not supported bit depth 🙁

  • jaapm

    Got it! One should edit/save as TIFF instead of PSD being my default.

  • ipaco
  • lyle

    Excellent post and comments – learn something new every day. I haven’t been doing the lens corrections as noted here – going to redo some and see where it takes me. Thanks.

  • I have played around with HDR very little. Here is an image I made today using this method, I still find something unnatural looking about it. I really like the method but just can’t seem to get it right. Does the author or anybody else have any more tips for someone looking to get better at HDR?

  • Robin,

    check this tutorial where you can download the source files and play with them

  • Thank you very much Viktor, I will do that immediately

  • Dennis Lawrence

    Can I do this same thing in PSE 14?

  • Marian Murdoch

    Yes, but today’s video can extract single images easily, making it almost impossible to miss a shot.

  • Tooguud

    No. Even with 4K video (4096
    x 2160), extracting a still image with comparable quality to today’s DSLRs (7360
    x 4912) is still a pipe-dream. Your standards must be really low. Have you ever compared a video frame to a still digital image? Ever consider the limitations of shooting at 1/30th or even 1/60th?? Come on Marian.

  • I worked in video editing professionally for years and I understand where you are coming from but 4K PHOTO feature in Panasonic Lumix cameras, where you can pull a single frame from a video, is amazing. It can not compete with 24 mpix RAW files but it is still a very useful feature.

  • Marian Murdoch

    Wow, why are you so harsh? *runs out to play in the sun*

  • Tooguud

    WOW! You think that was harsh? You post something without having any real understanding of the subject and when someone actually gives you the facts, you take umbrage and say its harsh?

  • Tooguud

    Yes. I agree. 4K is much better than what we previously had. Consider this though. One quality that all film and video has is a slight blur. This is a GOOD thing. When we first had the ability to render 3D animations at a totally realistic level, we realized that a single frame looked amazing, but when played at 24 to 30 frames a second it looked weird. We actually had to add motion blur back into the work for it to look natural. When filmmakers used 35MM film (yes, I know they still do), they used the same film as 35MM still cameras. The 35MM camera was developed to use the movie film. Both entities were using the same resolution substrate. The reason a movie frame was slightly blurred was the speed of the shutter not the resolving power of the film they used. As a result, movie companies used still cameras to shoot the promotional stills to use for the advertisements and posters.

  • JRG

    Sorry but you’re wrong. I saw your images and they all screen “look at me, over the top hdr”. If one can identify a hdr image as such it’s because it’s not natural looking, and your images fall into this category.

  • Lol, thats hilarious. And Totals wrong. But its ok to have no idea of hdr, dont worry.

  • JRG

    Sorry to burst your bubble. Your photos are good, but the hdr processing is not. They can be easily identifiable as hdr, so they are not natural looking. In fact it’s the luminosity relation between dark and light parts what is messed up. But i guess your only natural reaction should be mockery. That’s fine by me, it says lots about you.

  • There is no bubble to burst. I’m not doing this since yesterday, and its just hilarious because you are the first person in years to tell me that my images scream “over the top hdr”. I hate over the top hdr and my images are fare from it. I don’t know why you are trying to mock me, but it doesn’t work, i know that my images are NOT over the top hdr. In fact, most of them aren’t hdr at all but exposure blendings. 😉 Better luck next time.

  • Marian Murdoch

    There is a way to instruct that doesn’t include snapping at people.

  • Marian Murdoch

    There is a way to instruct that doesn’t include snapping at people.

  • Tooguud

    Nobody is “snapping” ay anyone here Marian. No one is saying you’re stupid. No one is saying that you’re a bad person. The fact is, you don’t know what you’re talking about. Did you really expect no one to point that out? Do you always get your feelings hurt this easily?

  • Marian Murdoch

    The “your standards must be really low” and the “come on Marian” were not necessary to teach me something. If someone really wishes to instruct, there is no need for that kind of attitude. If someone talks to me like that, am I really going to want to listen to what they have to say? I’m very open to learn, which is why I read this site, but I’m not going to be instructed by someone who has no respect for those whom they are trying to teach.

  • Tooguud

    What kindergarten do you attend?? I’m not trying to teach you anything. Its evident that you haven’t learned as much as you thought you had. Your statement was wrong, I pointed it out. Does your Mom know you’re on the internet?

  • Tooguud – please take this as a gentle reminder and warning – we like to play nice here on dPS and do not tolerate belittling other people or name calling, which this conversation is bordering on. Fact or not is irrelevant – words can have emotion, and there is a way to say things that is nice, and not so nice. So please end it here and Marian I’m sorry you’ve had to receive those comments. That is unacceptable and we apologize.

  • Tooguud

    No problem………

  • Thank you

  • Tadd Seiff

    @saschakleiber:disqus No, you are reading that defensively and incorrectly.

    “If you are going for a surrealistic, edgy look in your images, Photomatix is your best friend.”

    All this says is “Photomatix can make surrealistic, edgy looking images”, or “Photomatix is the best tool to use for this purpose.” It says nothing about typical results or that these are exclusive results with this software.

    Someone else might opine the same for Photoshop. What if I said “If you want to make surreal looking images, Photoshop is the best tool”. How do you read that one? That’s not only my opinion, but IT IS TRUE that Photoshop is a great tool for making surreal looking images.

    You read more than the words on the page, I think.

    P.S. I don’t own or use ANY of this software, my comments are only about interpreting English sentence structure.

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