Natural Looking HDR in Photoshop and Lightroom in 5 Easy Steps

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.