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Combining HDR and LDR


Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR)

with Ben Long

Video: Combining HDR and LDR

There are times when I just love what HDR techniques do to one part of my image, and really hate what they do to another part of my image. There is a way out of this problem though. You can keep the HDR image and composite it with one of the original source files that you use to make that HDR. You'll get a result that has HDR in some parts of the image and just regular R in other parts of the image, so you get some original source file mixed with a nice HDR result, and that's what we're going to do in this movie.
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  1. 6m 46s
    1. Welcome
      2m 0s
    2. What you need for this course
      2m 37s
    3. Using the exercise files
      2m 9s
  2. 24m 55s
    1. Dynamic range defined
      4m 31s
    2. Understanding bit depth
      3m 37s
    3. Image sensor and shadows
      2m 38s
    4. Three methods for capturing more dynamic range
      3m 56s
    5. HDR shooting and processing
      4m 40s
    6. Single-shot HDR
      2m 43s
    7. When to use HDR
      2m 50s
  3. 19m 59s
    1. Finding HDR subject matter
      4m 38s
    2. Shooting HDR
      9m 45s
    3. Workflow and organization
      5m 36s
  4. 17m 52s
    1. Using gradient masks to improve dynamic range
      3m 56s
    2. More dynamic range masking
      8m 57s
    3. Masking with brushes
      4m 59s
  5. 1h 35m
    1. Creating an HDR image in Photoshop
      12m 15s
    2. Creating an HDR image in Photomatix
      22m 5s
    3. Creating an HDR in HDR Efex
      11m 47s
    4. Merging in Photoshop and processing elsewhere
      3m 51s
    5. Using Tone Compressor in Photomatix
      4m 25s
    6. Using Exposure Fusion in Photomatix
      7m 35s
    7. Single-shot HDR images in Photomatix
      4m 18s
    8. Single-shot HDR images in HDR Efex
      1m 3s
    9. Single-shot HDR images in Photoshop
      5m 32s
    10. Ghosting and Photoshop
      2m 51s
    11. Ghosting and HDR Efex
      2m 47s
    12. Ghosting and Photomatix
      6m 36s
    13. Batch processing in Photomatix
      10m 51s
  6. 2h 12m
    1. Reducing noise and correcting chromatic aberrations
      13m 33s
    2. Finishing an image
      8m 42s
    3. Handling HDR images that are "flat"
      13m 37s
    4. Combining HDR and LDR
      23m 3s
    5. Selective editing with HDR Efex Pro
      9m 42s
    6. HDR that doesn't look like HDR
      12m 42s
    7. Tone mapping troubles to watch for
      6m 46s
    8. Why use HDR for black-and-white images?
      5m 26s
    9. Black-and-white HDR
      12m 39s
    10. Panoramic HDR
      12m 3s
    11. HDR time lapse
      4m 24s
    12. Processing the trestle image
      10m 1s
  7. 37s
    1. Goodbye

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Watch the Online Video Course Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR)
4h 55m Intermediate Jul 22, 2011

Viewers: in countries Watching now:

In this course, photographer Ben Long describes the concepts and techniques behind high dynamic range (HDR) photography, a technique used to create images that have a wider range between the lightest and darkest areas of a scene than a digital camera can typically capture. The course begins with some background on dynamic range, on how camera sensors detect shadows, and on the kinds of subjects that benefit from HDR. Ben then describes and demonstrates several methods of generating HDR images, starting with single-shot HDR, which relies on masking to subtly enhance the dynamic range of a shot. Next, the course covers multi-exposure HDR, which involves shooting several photos of a scene, each at a different exposure, and then combining them using software tools. Ben demonstrates how to use Photoshop and the popular Photomatix software to process HDR images whose appearance ranges from subtle to surreal.

Topics include:
  • Understanding how the image sensor detects shadows
  • Capturing a broader dynamic range
  • Knowing when to use HDR
  • Finding good HDR subject matter
  • Using gradient masks to improve dynamic range
  • Merging in Photoshop and processing elsewhere
  • Dealing with ghosting
  • Reducing noise and correcting chromatic aberrations
  • Handling HDR images that seem flat
  • Combining HDR and LDR (low dynamic range)
  • Selective editing with HDR Efex Pro
  • Creating panoramic HDR images
  • Creating an HDR time lapse
Photoshop Photomatix SilverFast HDR Studio
Ben Long

Combining HDR and LDR

There are times when I just love what HDR techniques do to one part of my image, and really hate what they do to another part of my image. There is a way out of this problem though. You can keep the HDR image and composite it with one of the original source files that you use to make that HDR. You'll get a result that has HDR in some parts of the image and just regular R in other parts of the image, so you get some original source file mixed with a nice HDR result, and that's what we're going to do in this movie.

Go to the Exercise Files folder into the Chapter 6 folder and grab images 9933, 9934, and 9935 and do an HDR Merge in Photoshop. When you get to here, be sure that you're set for a 32-bit image and go ahead and check Remove ghosts. There was some wind blowing and my hand was a little shaky when I took this shot, so I think it's probably not a bad idea to have the ghost removal turned on. And when you're all done, you'll have this, a 32-bit file in Photoshop.

And it'll look pretty lousy. We've got blown-out highlights, we've got just overall tonal weirdness. Don't worry. Remember, this is simply that our monitor is not capable of displaying the full range of tones contained in this very data-rich 32-bit image. So we're going to do a Save As here. Write it out as an EXR file. I want to use the same file name as one of my source images, so I'm just going back to Bridge and copying that, going over to Photoshop, pasting that in, and I'm going to save it back into the same folder.

This allows me to keep the EXR file in the same place as all my other images. I'm going to close that up, and if we come back here, we see 9933.cr2, my RAW file, and here's 9933.exr, the file we just made. If your EXR file is not showing up in Bridge next to one of your originals, if it's way down at the end of your list, go up to View > Sort and make sure you're set for Ascending Order > By Filename. Now take the EXR file into Photomatix and it will look just like it did in Photoshop, because again, it's our monitor that's the problem here.

Hit the Tone Mapping button and we're off. we now have a nice tone-mapped HDR image. So let's see what we've got here. First of all, my histogram shows all the data clumped up in the middle, so I'm going to have contrast problems that I got to deal with. Next thing I notice is that the merging and tone-mapping process has revealed a sensor dust storm that apparently blew through my camera at some point, so I'm going to have to take care of all of that. Now obviously, I cannot do that in Photomatix. I have to do that in Photoshop. I think I'd be able to take care of this, no problem. It's not a deal-breaker.

Let's look at the image here. When I shot this image obviously one of the things that was really striking me was the really dramatic sky, and that's why I chose to do this as an HDR image. I knew I'd be able to keep a lot of really cool stuff in the sky. What I really wanted to happen was for the sun to open up over my head and light up this little village bit right here. And that just didn't happen. I've got this beautiful light shining on some parts, but I don't have it here. So the foreground is a little blah. It needs something and I'm not sure what it is. But I know for sure that I want good strong HDR techniques on the sky, so let's get started with those.

I'm going to go ahead and hit the Reset button for a couple of reasons. One, I just want to be sure that you're working from the same starting point that I am, but also I want to know where the default settings are for most of these sliders because they're usually put in a fairly safe place, meaning they're not set to an area where I'm going to be possibly more prone to noise or halo. So I just feel like it's a nice safe starting point for me to start working. So I want more of that HDR thing in the sky. I'm going to increase my Strength slider, being careful to keep an eye out for noise, and then I'm getting some in the sky.

However, I shot this image with a Canon 5D Mark II which has over 20 megapixels worth of data in it. So individual pixels of noise, I'm not too worried about. They are probably not going to show up in print. I still want to keep an eye on it, keep it as low as I think I can get away with, and I will then check the noise with a test print and see if it's something I need to take action about. Again, I'm going just for detail in the sky, so I'm going to increase my Detail Contrast. Now that's serving to darken the image. In this case that's a good thing because again, my tones were all clumped in the center.

Already they're starting to spread out some. What I really need though is a good strong black point adjustment, so I'm going to do that next. Notice that I'm not necessarily following the sliders in order. Increasing contrast in the image is going to increase my sense of detail. Actually not just my sense of detail. It's actually going to increase detail. I guess we can argue philosophically whether my sense of detail and actual detail are really two different things. But by increasing the Black Point, I'm going to increase contrast in the image, and that's going to help the sky some. So I'm going to try putting that to there.

You can see I clipped the blacks. I don't care too much. However, this bit here is starting to get a little too black, so I'm going to back off on the Black Point. Notice that I'm ignoring the foreground right now. I'm just trying to get the sky where I want it. And even as I back off from here, this part is still staying very, very dark. So I'm going to hit the Smooth Highlights and see if... there we go! I can get that a little bit more smoothed out so that I don't have such contrast. I think the sky might still need some additional contrast adjustment. I'm going to do that in Photoshop because there I will be able to use some masking tools to constrain it, but the sky is looking pretty nice. I like where that's going.

Lighting adjustments are worth playing with a little bit. I'm going to back off here because as I do, I think I'm going to get a little more play in the sky that I'm going to like, so that's looking good. Now I'm liking the sky where it is. Let's think about the foreground. The foreground really has that HDR-y look to it. It doesn't quite look real. It's kind of flattened out and it looks a little bit painterly. I wish that I could give you some more specific parameters that I'm thinking of about why it's painterly, but that's the best I can come up with.

It just doesn't look photographic. Sometimes that really works to your advantage. You could argue that maybe the sky doesn't quite look photographic, but the sky is not bugging me. This part is. I would like this to look more realistic, more like a photo. So I think maybe we're done with the HDR step here. I've got the sky looking like I want. There's not going to be anything I can do HDR-wise while it's here other than to back off of the HDR Efex to get this looking more realistic. And if I do that, I'm going to lose the nice sky that I've got. So I'm going to process this.

And when it's done, I have my tone- mapped image. I'm now going to go out and save this as a 16-bit TIFF file back into the same folder as my original source images. So I hit Save and you should've seen something change down here in Bridge. Let's close this up and go look. Now I've got 9933 tone-mapped TIFF. That's the file we just made. I've got my 9933, 9934, and 9935 RAW files and my 9933.exr. These are all of the components that are going into my HDR. So I'm going to select them all, click on this one down here, I'm going to Shift+Click on this one up here to select all of them, and then I'm going to hit Command+G for Group.

I can also get that up here under the Stacks menu, Group as Stack. So now all of these images are in a stack. What's nice about this is that the only image that I see right now in Bridge is my final tone-mapped image that I'm working on. But if I need to start over or go back, I can just open up the stack and there are all the components. So let's get the tone-mapped version open in Photoshop and now we're ready to get to work on finishing the image. I'm going to start that by taking out the sensor dust, which I'm going to do with the Spot Healing Brush. It's very simple tool for removing spotty stuff like this.

I just click and the spot goes away. I can change my brush size using the Left and Right Bracket keys. I really just want to brush to be just bigger than the spot of dust that I'm removing. I'm taking the sensor dust out first because if I can't remove the sensor dust, then I may decide that the image is a lost cause. The Spot Healing Brush works by copying data from around the brush into the inside of the brush and then it does some blending stuff to smooth it all out. Now up here these kind of streaky bits of dust, Spot Healing Brush isn't working quite so immediately with those because it's partly copying the dust from around the brush back inside the brush, so I'm just duplicating a lot of dust.

So I'm going to grab the Clone Stamp tool, which I did by hitting S, and that's this tool right here, and I'm just going to clone some of this out. One of the nice things about working with clouds is that they're random and fractal-y and you don't have to be real perfect and precise with your cloning. Clouds are a little bit random and so they respond very well to this kind of touchup. If I inadvertently leave a little black bit, it's just going to look like a little black bit of cloud. So even if you're normally not comfortable with retouching-- see here I'm actually brightening up part of this cloud but it's still all just looking like a big puffy cloud bit.

Even if you're not normally comfortable with cloning, cloning clouds is a really easy thing to do. So I think that's looking pretty clean, and there might be some more dust in there and there might be more that reveals itself as we start doing contrast adjustments which you've seen how that works. I might tidy the image up on my own later. So first thing I'm going to do here is do exactly what I would do with any normal postproduction process. And I start by looking at my histogram to try to get some analysis of the image and figure out what might need to be done. Still in a low contrast situation. All of my tones are gathered up here in the middle. I do not have a good strong black anywhere in the image and my whites are a little weak also.

So I'm going to start by adding a Levels adjustment and strengthening my Black Point. Aha! Now we're getting some good contrast throughout the image. Again, our idea here is we're going to replace this foreground, so I'm not worrying too much about it. I'm looking at the sky and I'm looking at these mountains and things. And I'm going to go ahead and brighten this up, maybe to about there. Now we can see in my final histogram, I'm going to click this exclamation mark to get it to resample, the bulk of my tones are still gathered in the middle. But look at the image. It's mostly gray clouds and hazy midtone green value.

So it makes sense that there is a lot of data here in the middle, but I do have some nice brighter highlights now. I'm worried about clipping some of this. Obviously, I've clipped the sky and my Black Point adjustment has compromised with the lower parts in my clouds a little bit. So I'm going to do just a little bit of quick masking here by painting into the layer mask. We don't really have time to go into all of the theory and practice of layer masking. There are so many videos here in the lynda Library that you can learn the stuff from. What I'm trying to do now is protect the darker areas of the clouds in the image so that they don't go completely black.

And so this is just a basic tonal adjustment that's going to put my overall contrast in a better place, that's going to give me a print with more punch, and that's looking pretty good. Now the foreground, I don't like it. So what I'm going to do, we already know what I'm going to do. I'm going to go back here to Bridge and grab one of my original images. Let's go with the one that's just nice basic exposure. I've got this one, I have the underexposed one, and I have the overexposed one. Hmm. Actually maybe the overexposed one is a good way to go. In Bridge, I'm going to hold down the Command or Ctrl+T on Windows to select these two images, go over to Filmstrip mode, and I can see them side-by-side.

This one is a little brighter than this one, but you know, I could still get to this one from this one. I think I'm just going to stick with the basic exposure one. Open it up in Photoshop and I can do a little work here. I'm going to ignore the sky and just watch the foreground while I make a few adjustments. I think I'm going to desaturate it a little bit because our HDR image is not supersaturated, so I think it might not be a bad idea to kind of match the color there. Open that. And now I've got this image open and I've got my HDR image.

I need them in the same document, so I'm going to hit Command+A to select all. Then I'm going to copy, with Command+C. Ctrl+C if you're on Windows. I'm going to go back over here and paste. So what I've got here is a layer that contains my original Camera RAW image and behind it, I've got my HDR image. Note what happens if I turn off the visibility on my original camera image. I can see that they're not properly aligned. They're not registered, so I need to get them in exactly the same space.

I need to do what the HDR process did, which was align these images. Fortunately, Adobe has pulled out that alignment stuff and given you discrete access to it. So I'm going to select this layer and this layer, and I did that by holding down the Command or Ctrl key and clicking on them. And then I'm going to go to Edit > Auto-Align Layers. That's going to align the layers automatically, as you might expect. I'm going to set Projection to Auto. That's going to tell Photoshop to just decide what it thinks is best, and now it's done.

Notice what's happened. It was a subtle thing, but suddenly I've got this extra space around my image. It has translated the upper layer, meaning it has moved it left and right, but it's also rotated it some. And now if I click off the visibility on Layer 1, I see that they're perfectly aligned. Now we're ready to really start getting somewhere here. I want the upper layer. This is the village layer. In fact, let's just label it so that I don't get confused here. I'm going to double-click there and call that village, and I'm going to call this sky. It's going to be easier if I put the village behind the sky because it's the sky that I'm really wanting to preserve.

So what I'm going to do now is blend these two layers together using a layer mask. With the sky layer selected, I'm going to choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. That gives me a layer mask down here that's completely empty. It's full of white, meaning I'm seeing this entire layer. No part of it is masked. What I would like to do now is create a mask that slowly masks off or gradually masks off the bottom part of the sky layer. So I'm going to take my Gradient tool, I'm going to make sure that I've got black and white, and I'm going to drag from about here, holding down the Shift key, to about here.

I'm holding down the Shift key because that constrains my drag to 45 degree angle, so it's a way that I can be sure of getting a perfectly vertical gradient. When I let go, there we go! Look at my layer mask here and you can see that it goes from white through a gentle gradient into black. So I'm seeing HDR sky up here, slowly revealing down to the foreground down below. I think I missed a little bit though. I need a longer gradient. The transition here is too sudden. The tops of these mountains are still a little HDRy.

So I'm going to click up here and down to here, and this is just going to pave over that last gradient that I did with the new one. That's looking better. That's looking a little more realistic. It's great that I've got this hazy fog- filled valley back here because this kind of hazy, blendy, somewhat HDR, somewhat normal look just looks like a shelf of clouds sitting over the mountain. So now we're getting somewhere. I've got HDR sky. I've got normal R foreground. Now I can think about what needs to be done with the foreground. It's still a little bit dark and it's still a little bit flat, so I'm going to click on village and add a new adjustment layer down here, a new Levels adjustment layer, and that's going to let me do some basic tonal adjustments.

I couldn't get these quite right in Bridge because I need the tonality of this layer to match the feel of my sky layer. So I think that's looking pretty good. It's got a correct level of saturation. And remember, tonal adjustments can affect saturation. I'd basically brightened it up and lowered the contrast a little bit and that's desaturated it a little more. I like that. But it still looks a little flat. And like I said, what I wanted ideally was for a hole in the sky to open up right over the village and give me some nice dramatic lighting on here, and I didn't get that. There is a chance that if I had stood around and waited that would have happened.

The sky was moving and changing very quickly. But I loved this white cloud up against these darker background clouds, so I didn't want to risk losing that. I can though cheat a bunch of the light in this image, so let's click on the village layer, add a new Levels adjustment layer, and I'm going to brighten the image. I'm going to move my white point and that's going to bright the image. I'm washing out all this stuff. I don't actually know right now what is the correct Levels adjustment because I don't want this Levels adjustment applied to the whole image.

I want it selectively masked in. So I need to get a mask built before I can figure out exactly what the adjustment is that I need. With the adjustment layer selected, I'm going to go up to Edit > Fill and tell it to fill with black. There are lots of other ways of doing this fill. There are keyboard shortcuts you can use. Now I'm going to take my Paintbrush and some white paint, make my brush smaller with the left bracket, and start painting into the image in the areas that I want to look like they are getting more light, the areas that I want to look lit up.

And pretty much all I'm doing here is following the areas that are already lit up. This side of these buildings is brighter than the other side, so I'm just exaggerating that. Basically, it's really a paint by number situation. I don't even have to think of that much. And I can get a big improvement in the lighting. Now I've got some masking information there, so I'm going to go back and reconsider my Levels settings because I think maybe these are a little too bright. I'm going to back off tiny bit there, put it more about there. Because it's obvious that there's not a lot of bright sunlight shining into the image, so I don't want it to look too fake.

But there are more places that I can brush. Again, I'm just looking for highlights. Tops of these trees here can be brighter, mostly on the right side. I'm assuming a lighting source that's coming from up here. I can hit the top of this little mount of dirt or hay or whatever it is. I'm going to hit some of the highlights on this grass. What all of this serves to do is to make the image look a little more three-dimensional. It gives it some depth. By the way, that compass thing that you're seeing flash up from time-to-time, that's because I'm using a trackpad and occasionally. I'm hitting two fingers on the trackpad and it's making that happen.

That's just a Mac OS thing. Don't worry about what that means. I think maybe this grass I've gotten a little too bright. Now when you're masking, black areas are getting no levels adjustment, white areas are getting the full levels adjustment. If I paint with gray, I get an attenuated levels adjustment. So I can paint with gray in here and that's going to darken up these areas that I've painted, but not darken them all the way back to where they were. In other words, I'm getting some of the levels adjustment in there, not all of it. That's looking pretty good! Let's take a look at what we've done here.

I'm going to hide this Levels adjustment layer, turn it back on, and you can see that I've just painted some nice highlighting in that makes the foreground a little more interesting. Every image needs a foreground and a background, so I've got a nice strong foreground, I've got a nice strong background, but I've also got this middle ground back here. These hills over here. I like the idea of darkening them, because we've got this beautiful lit-up spot back here, and that might look more lit-up. Ooh! You know, I need to mask that off right there. It's getting too much levels adjustment and it's blowing out. I'm going to go back to this Levels adjustment layer here, grab my black paint to protect this area, and I'm just going to paint over this and I start getting some detail back there.

That may be too much restoration, so I'm going to go to some gray. Don't worry that I didn't see this before. That doesn't matter. Very often editing works this way. You work through your image, making adjustments as you need them, going back and forth from one tool to another, responding to the image as it changes, and simply getting done what needs to be done. I also see that I have revealed at some point this big dust spot that'll have to be taken out. This is a perfectly normal editing workflow. Well, normal for me.

There are people who can see exactly every edit before they go, but if you're finding yourself fumbling through it, don't worry, just as long as the final image works out. As I was saying, I would like these to be darker because I think it would frame the foreground a little bit better. It would reveal the bright background a little more. So we're going to do just what we've already been doing here. We're going to go to Levels and we're going to darken the image. Now I could darken the image with a black point adjustment, but that makes these bits more contrasty. And as they become more contrasty, they look like they've got less atmosphere in front of them, and I don't like that because they should be receding into the distance.

I could do it with a mid-point adjustment. That's not bad, but I think a better way is to simply dial down the white on the Output slider. That's going to just give me a more realistic subtle darkening. Now I need to fill my mask with black, Command+A to select the entire mask, Command+Delete to fill it with black, and that adjustment that I just defined is now completely masked. I'm going to grab my brush, make it bigger, make sure that I have white paint here which I do, and I can just start painting darker into these hills here.

I'm not going to be too careful with this mask right now because I don't really know if this effect is going to work, I don't know if I have my Levels settings where I need them, and I don't know if I actually do want these things darker. So I'm going to just quickly rough this in to see what I think it is. One problem with darkening it is while it maybe sets it off more from the background, I'm afraid it might make it blend in more to the foreground. I'm going to back off on the darkening a little bit. Let's take a look at before, after, back off a little bit more.

I'm trying to go for kind of three planes of depth in the image here. So now I've got foreground that's slightly darker, middle ground, and this lit-up background. I think I like that. So now I would go in and refine my mask. And that again is just about carefully painting, making sure that I'm not darkening the background, making sure that I'm not spilling over onto my foreground. And this is another case where you can kind of get away with murder with your mask here. I don't have to perfectly trace around every leaf on this tree because if there are areas that go a little bit darker, that'll possibly just look like shadow.

If the top of these roofs get a little bit darker, they look like darker bricks. So this is not a gnarly masking job, so if you're not real comfortable with masking, don't worry. I'm going to leave this where it is. I like that that area is lit up. I think this is looking pretty good. Last thing I might consider is a vignette. I'm going to duplicate my background layer, go up to Filter > Lens Correction. I want this to be a slightly subtle vignette. I go over to the Custom tab and dial in a little bit of darkness about right there. Hit OK.

One thing about this preview in Lens Correction is it's not showing the effects of adjustment layer. So this darkening that I've applied may actually be darker than it was in the preview because I've got a Levels adjustments on here. Before, after. I like the way that protects the corners a little bit, gets my focus here more in the middle. It's probably a little more touchup that needs to be done but that's the process of taking an HDR image and an LDR image, Low Dynamic Range or Normal Dynamic Range, and combining them. I've kept my nice HDR sky. I've got a more realistic normal dynamic range foreground.

I'm probably going to want to play at some point with adjusting the opacity of my sky because that lets me play with more or less HDR effect. So it may be that I like it a little bit more in there because it doesn't look so blatantly HDR.

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