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Creating an HDR image in Photomatix


Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR)

with Ben Long

Video: Creating an HDR image in Photomatix

Photomatix from HDRsoft is an incredibly popular HDR merging and tone mapping tool and with good reason. It's been around for years, seen a number of updates, it's got a very full featured set, and it produces great images. We're going to be working with Photomatix throughout the rest of this course and in this movie we're going to take a look step-by-step through of Photomatix's controls. If you don't already have Photomatix, you should run off and download the free demo version, which you can get on
Expand all | Collapse all
  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

Creating an HDR image in Photomatix

Photomatix from HDRsoft is an incredibly popular HDR merging and tone mapping tool and with good reason. It's been around for years, seen a number of updates, it's got a very full featured set, and it produces great images. We're going to be working with Photomatix throughout the rest of this course and in this movie we're going to take a look step-by-step through of Photomatix's controls. If you don't already have Photomatix, you should run off and download the free demo version, which you can get on

This is a fully functional demo except that when you're done and you go to save an image, it's going to put a watermark across it, but otherwise, you're going to be able to follow along with everything we do here. Obviously, I'm not in Photomatix right now. I'm in Bridge. There are a lot of ways of getting images into Photomatix. The way that I like is to simply start with my workflow tool, which is Bridge. I'm going to select the three images of a bracketed set. Each one of these was exposed one stop apart and I'm just going to pick those up in Bridge and drag them down to Photomatix on my dock.

And when I do that, you can see I've switched to Photomatix and I now see this dialog box. I can choose to simply open the files, which is going to let me work on them individually, because there are some things that I can do with an individual photo in Photomatix, but what I want to do is merge them into an HDR. So I'm going to leave that checked and hit OK. First thing that happens after I do that is I get this box which is another way that I can choose images to come into the program. I can hit Browse and go look for files, but these are the images I want. So I'm going to keep those and hit OK, and now I'm onto Preprocessing Options.

This gives me some ways to control how the merge is going to happen. So let's step through these. I'm going to start by telling it to align my source images. I typically shoot all of my HDR sets handheld, which means there is probably some variation for one image to the other. I need Photomatix to get them registered. And I have two different ways of doing that. I can tell it to simply move the images around until the actual edges of the images are aligned, but a better way is to match features. It's going to look through each image and look for a particular feature. Someone's face, in this case, a Volkswagen, and it's going to align the Volkswagen in each image.

Sometimes when I'm shooting a bracketed set, in addition to pushing the camera up or down or left and right, I might tilt it or pivot it, which is going to introduce perspective troubles from one image to another. And so I can tell it that yes, I want it to include some perspective correction and what that will do is map each image onto a 3D plane so that it can rotate it around to the correct perspective. I can also choose to turn this off if I'm feeling confident that I wasn't tilting the camera and that will speed up the alignment a little bit.

I can also give it a maximum shift amount. So if there is something on the edge I want to preserve, I may not want to end up shifting images around too much so I can fiddle with that control. Remove ghosts. If something in the image moves between the exposures in my bracketed set, say, somebody's hand moves, then when the images are sandwiched together I'm going to say I ghostly hand from one image and I full hand from the other. So Remove ghosts gives me the option to deal with that problem. I have two different ways of doing it. We're going to do a whole lesson on ghost removal, so I'm not going to talk too much about these now.

In this set of this car stuck in the ground, nothing was moving. Maybe some leaves are blowing around. I'm not going to worry about that. So I'm going to turn that off. There is nothing wrong with leaving it on, except that it will slow down the processing. I would like to reduce noise. Noise can quickly become a problem in an HDR merge because a lot of what HDR does is to increase contrast in areas and as I increase contrast, I'm going to make noise more apparent. However, I can tell it to only apply noise reduction to certain images in the set. I am going to tell it to only apply noise reduction to underexposed images and there is only one of those.

And that's just because darker underexposed images tend to have more noise on them. I can also control the amount of noise reduction. Honestly, I usually just leave this at the default. If you're working with maybe an older camera that has a problem with noise then you might want to fiddle with this setting. As you increase noise reduction, there is a better chance that you're going to soften fine details in your image though so you don't want this any higher than it needs to be. Chromatic aberrations are those colored fringes, usually purple or blue, sometimes green, maybe even red, that appears around high contrast areas, usually things up against a bright sky.

So telephone wires or a tree limb or a rooftop, something like that. In this case, it could be the edge of this car. I was shooting with a very good lens. So I know that in this case, I do not need to worry about chromatic aberrations. They are also something that are very easy to remove in Photoshop. So I'm going to leave that unchecked. Again, the less that I have checked, the faster my processing will go. Finally, if I don't like the white balance of my image, I can choose a different white balance here. We've got some preset white balances to choose from and I can see a preview of how my white balance is going to change over here.

Typically, if you're shooting correctly, you won't have to worry about this. I was shooting in Adobe RGB color space on my camera so I'm going to leave that set to Adobe RGB and I'm going to tell it to go. Now honestly, I want to give you a little caveat here. I find that Photomatix does not do as good a job of aligning images as Photoshop CS4 and CS5 can do. So a lot of times what I'll do is I'll do my alignment and my initial merge in Photoshop, create a 32-bit image that way, say. Then I would open that into Photomatix and then to my tone mapping, and we'll look at how to do that later.

And here I am in Photomatix with the full Photomatix interface. So what I've got here is a big preview, we've got some Zoom controls up here, got my nice handy Histogram palette over here, a bunch of sliders and controls over here for controlling what my image looks like, and this floating palette down here of presets. This is sometimes a good way to start with Photomatix if you're feeling a little intimidated by on the sliders or you don't really understand what they do. You can simply start with a preset and then adjust it later. I'm going to just hide that preset thing for a while, because we're not going to use that.

So let's take a look here at what we've got. First of all, if you're following along in Photomatix, come down here to the Reset Default button and click it to make sure that your sliders are set the same as mine. And go up here and choose Hide Others just to get Bridge out of the way and un-clutter my screen a little bit. So now we're looking at the sliders and their default configurations and let's see what they do here. First of all, up at the top, I have Process. Photomatix can actually do two different processes for merging HDR sets. The first is Tone Mapping and this is what we've been talking about so far throughout in this course.

This is the process of taking a big 32-bit data space worth of color, picking specific tones from throughout that entire big 32-bit data space and placing them into a 16 or 8-bit data space to get them back down into something that we can print. So that's tone mapping. That is the traditional HDR effect. I love it that there is now a traditional HDR effect, given that HDR has been around for all of five years. I can also do Exposure Fusion. If I turn this on, immediately you see that my image changes.

Exposure Fusion doesn't do the full-on tone mapping effect. Instead it does something similar to what you might do in Photoshop by stacking layers and changing blend modes. If you've ever changed the blend mode in Photoshop of a layer from, say, Normal to maybe Multiply, and noticed that your images gotten darker as it's merged with the underlying layers in a particular way, that's Exposure Fusion. It's just a very complex kind of layer blending sort of thing and we're going to look at that later. Typically, you'll find Exposure Fusion is going to give you more of a normal photographic look. You can see here that my shadows are very dark in here.

They're not very well exposed. I don't really have overdone highlights. When I go back to Tone Mapping, I get more of that HDR look. So within Tone Mapping, I have two additional choices. I can choose Methods. Details Enhancer is going to give me all that fine detail in here, all of that that you expect to see in an HDR image. Well, Tone Compressor is going to give me something that looks again a little more like a normal photograph in that everything is not perfectly exposed. I've got dark shadow areas. I've got bright highlights, but it is really amped up.

These dark areas are very exaggerated. I can change all that, of course. I am going to look at those controls later. For now, let's stick with Details Enhancer. Within that, I've got all of these sliders. So let's see what happens as I start playing with these. First, Strength. Watch what happens as I drag the Strength slider to the right. Notice most of these sliders do not update in real-time. I have to let go of the mouse before I see the change. I've started to get a little more detail in here. The image looks a little more flat overall because every part of the image is now a little better exposed.

Let me drag it off over here and you can see the difference. Now my sky is going out. It's not so perfectly exposed. These bits have gotten darker because they're not so perfectly exposed. This is basically controlling the overall strength of the HDR effect. If you think about this HDR process as being choosing from this huge set of colors a subset that are going to go into my final image. Well, when I increase Strength, I'm saying choose more of those colors. Bring in more detail, bring in more intermediate tones in these clouds, bring in more tones in these shadows.

So I'm getting more of that HDR effect. Now you may say, yeah, but the image is looking dingier and darker. For the most part, any initial image out of Photomatix is going to look a little rough and you're going to have to do some work to get it fixed, and all of these sliders are very tightly integrated and work in concert pretty tightly. So don't worry. We're going to be able to get some of that brightness back. What I'm looking for right now with strength is just trying to assess overall detail throughout the image. How much detail do I want anywhere in the image? I'm going to put it up here. Default is 70. I'm going up to about 90, because I really want the sky to get some of the stuff in it.

Now we'll work on brightness and contrast throughout the rest of the image. Color Saturation is just what you think it would be. It's simply a saturation slider. The exaggerated HDR aesthetic is for a lot of saturation and we can pour that in right here if we want. We can go the other direction and get a very pastel look. If we want, we can even go all the way to grayscale. Draining saturation is never your best option for going out to grayscale. I like the default saturation here, because this was kind of midday out in the desert. It was not a supersaturated environment. So I'm going to leave it maybe up a little bit.

Luminosity is going to control overall brightness, but it's not going to do it in the way that you're used to with the brightness control. Watch what happens when I drag to the right. Yes, my image has gotten brighter, but it has not gotten uniformly brighter. My sky looks pretty much like it did before. Here is my default. So watch the sky and keep an eye on this time here. Just watch this whole area right here as I drag to the right. It got brighter down here, but not so much in the sky. I didn't blowout any sky detail. I've got my contrast kind of a same there, but this bit is brightened up.

You can think of the Luminosity slider a lot like the Shadows/Highlight slider in Photoshop. It brightens up dark areas and leaves lighter areas alone. I don't think I want to go quite that far, because it just doesn't look natural to have all of the stuff so bright. So I'm going to back off of this. The more I go to the left, the more natural my image is going to look, because I'm not getting all of this kind of artificial brightening that wouldn't actually exist in the scene. So I'm going to drop these in about right here. Detail Contrast used to be called micro-contrast. If you're using an earlier version of Photomatix, you're going to see different names on some of these controls. These used to be micro-contrast.

Every edge in the image is basically a contrast change. So the edge of this door is going from the dark bit of the door to the light bit on the sky. The edge of this door is going from the dark bit of the door to the darker green of this tree here. So edges are always made by creating an area of contrast. Detail Contrast basically goes through the image and makes lots of little localized or micro-contrast adjustments. All these little bits get contrast increased along their edge.

Oddly enough, the practical upshot is that my image gets darker, but again, I can fix that later. What's nice about it is I'm getting a bunch of that good HDR crunchy, really detail-y detail in here. So you just need to play with that balance of how much darkening do I want without worrying about it too much, because I'm going to be able to brighten it up in other ways. Also, as I'm doing any of these sliders, I want to be keeping an eye out for halos. I'm just barely starting to get one around the car. Older versions of Photomatix and less capable HDR tone mapping programs are going to have problems with halos around high contrast areas.

And as I'm playing with these contrast sliders, there is a chance I'm going to be introducing halos. So I want to keep an eye on those and make sure that I'm not going so far that I'm getting ugly halos. Lighting Adjustments used to be called smoothness and what that's doing is it's going into those areas of micro- contrast and trying to smooth them out so that there is not such a sudden change. The practical upshot of this control is it can do a good job of getting rid of halos. If you're not careful, it's going to add halos. Overall, it's called lighting adjustments, because it changes the overall look of the lighting in the image.

It's difficult to completely understand everything that it's doing, but here, you can see this bit of the sky got darker and now my car got a big halo around it. If you don't see this halo, look away from the image for a bit and then look back and now watch as I dial this way. Now this bit got brighter and these bits got darker. Lighting adjustments does a lot of complex things to your images. So there is nothing wrong with going, "I don't know, what this does, but I like the way that this setting looks more than I like the way this settings looks." Play with it until you find something that you'd like.

If you're worried about well, what if what I like is wrong, first of all, there is no right or wrong, but there are some things you can look out for. Again, keep your eyes open for halos around these areas and as you do with all your HDR processing, keep an eye on the image as a whole and make sure it's not going too flat. we want shadow in the image, we want highlight in the image. Those are the building blocks of our vocabulary as photographers. So we don't want to flatten the whole thing out too much. Now I have some additional lighting adjustment controls here. If I click this Lighting Effects Mode button, my slider goes away and gets replaced by these buttons.

These buttons are not simply preset values on that slider that we saw before. Each button is actually a different algorithm. So I've got Natural, I've got Natural+ which is just I guess a little more natural and actually it does look a little bit better. I got Medium, and obviously, each one of these as I go up is increasing the overall HDR effect. I'm getting more weird detail and more exposure. Then go all the way to Surreal. Now you can very clearly see the halos that are something you often have a problem with, with tone mapping and HDR software. And Surreal+ or Surreal 2.0 which is getting really, really surreal and very, very processed looking.

It's actually starting to look a little bit like a color Xerox. So bad halos here. Weird, kind of posterize-y looks all around. I actually like this Natural+ look back here or maybe even Natural. Now, overall my image is still too dark. So I need to get some brightening going on here and I got some tools for that. I may come back after I've got it brightened and play with these some more that's perfectly normal. You're not going to be able to just work through these in order and end up with a finished image. You're going to have to juggle settings across the control set here. So I have this More Options section that I can open up.

I've got a few things in here. Let's come back to Smooth Highlights in a second, because this next one here, White Point, is going to let us get some brightness into our image real quickly. Look at my histogram and you see that all the tones are in the lower half of the image, meaning this is a dark image. I want to get some of these tones spread out here. White Point is just like the White Point slider in the Levels dialog box. As I drag it to the right, my image gets brighter and my tones spread across the image, and now I've actually got a lot of highlight clipping over here. I've overexposed some highlights. Obviously, some of these in here, this one here, maybe even up into the clouds.

So I'm going to back off a little bit. But it's nice. I've have gotten some of that gray dinge off of my image and it's looking a little bit nicer. I also have just below the White Point slider a Black Point slider, which is just like the Black Point slider in the Levels dialog in Photoshop or another image editor. You can see I don't have a lot of good strong blacks down here, really practically none at full black. That's going to make an image that lacks a little punch. I can get some more contrast into my image. I can get stronger blacks, which are going to look better in print, by dragging my black point to the right.

As I do that, I feel like I need to brighten things up again a little bit more, because I've pulled some of my tones back to the left. Now I'm getting a nice contrasty image and it's curious that here even in the HDR world, the tools that have the most effect are just your basic white point and black point. You've got to have black-and-white set properly to have good contrast in your image. I also have Gamma, which is going to let me, just like the Midpoint slider in the Levels dialog, move my midpoint around to get some of those middle gray tones, shoved more up into the bright areas.

Now all that blackens more. I'm going to back off on the Gamma a little bit. I lost a bit of punch there. Okay, so now I've got the overall exposure of my image looking a little bit better. You may want to start with your White /Black Point and Gamma corrections, before you do too much of the other HDR stuff. Just get your histogram looking healthy, get the image to an overall good level of brightness and contrast. So we skipped to this Smooth Highlights control. If you're a landscape photographer and you shoot a lot of skies, you're going to want to spend a lot of time with Smooth Highlights. What this does is smooth out-- and remember in HDR terms or rather in tone mapping terms, when we say smoothing, what we mean is we're controlling the transition in areas of high contrast.

So if we are going from a darker area to a lighter area, we're controlling this transition in here. When it's not controlled well, that's when we end up with these halos. When it is controlled well, we have a smooth transition in here and it doesn't look so bad. Skies sometimes suffer from smoothing problems and what that looks like is the bottom of the clouds turned very, very dark gray or even black. There are no clouds in the world that have black on their underside. Smoothing out the highlights, as you'll see, I've lost some contrast in the highlight areas of my image. That will take care very often in that dark underside of a cloud.

So again, if you're a landscape shooter and you're shooting big, puffy white clouds and they're coming out too dark on the bottom, Smooth Highlights is going to be usually how you can take care of that. We may not be able to get this image all the way to finished here in Photomatix. we may need to go into Photoshop and do some work here and there. There is nothing wrong with that, that's normal, but we can get it easily 90-95% of the way there. Temperature is just a white balance adjustment. I can warm up my image a little bit. I can cool it down. Again, there is no right or wrong here. This is purely just your taste for the image. I'm going to leave it kind of just flat or it was maybe a little bit warmer.

And now I have one last additional set of tools, Advanced Options, which give me some controls that I may not use that much. That's why they're hidden away in this Advanced Option section. Micro-smoothing is yet another smoothing option. It's going to again let me control very, very fine contrast details. So as I increase it, I'm getting more smoothing and I've lost contrast in some of these fine detail areas. So I lost some detail in my clouds. I lost some of this. Why would I want to lessen the detail? Well, I might want less of an HDR look, but I might also be having a problem with noise in my shadows.

As I back off on Micro-smoothing, I might sometimes find that these areas get very, very noisy. So it's important to keep an eye on that and know that increasing your Micro-smoothing is way of taking them out. I'm not having too much of a noise problem, really none at all in this image, and I'm liking the detail I'm getting in the cloud. So I'm going to leave this here. I can control the Saturation and the Highlights and Shadows independently. This can be handy, again, if you are a landscape shooter and you shot some nice, bright, white clouds that have come out a little blue. I could drain some color out of just the highlights to take care of that problem.

Similarly, if I've got a colorcast in shadows, this could be a way of taking it out or increasing it if I would like more. Shadows Smoothness is the exact opposite of Smooth Highlights. This will smooth out details in the shadows, effectively lowering contrast. This can be one way of handling some noise issues. To be honest, it's not something that I use very often. Shadow Clipping has the look of being a more extreme version of Shadow Smoothness. But it's actually doing something much simpler than that. It's simply redefining my blacks, letting the clip darker areas into full black.

Watch these dark shadows in here. As I increase Shadows Clipping, I start to lose some detail. I'm getting darker shadows. Here I've gone to complete black. That's starting to look pretty unnatural there. This can be a way of trying to restore some nice dark tones back into my shadows. If I'm feeling like my image is so flatly perfectly exposed to HDR, this is a way of getting some oomph back into shadows and getting some kind of dimensionality back into my image. If I was shooting a 360 degree panorama, there would be a point whether there was a scene in the image where the size of the panorama hit each other.

I can check the 360 degree image box to let Photomatix know that there is a scene that needs to look out for and not exaggerate too much. So this is looking pretty good. There might be some things that I'd like to do in Photoshop. I'm going to want to take out these power lines here. I might want to try and get a little more shadow in here underneath these doors, because it would look a little more natural. We're going to look at how to do those kinds of things in Photoshop, but right now I'm liking my overall merge and tone mapping. Again, if you really like the HDR look, the way you're going to get it is to increase Strength and play a lot with your Smoothing controls and with Micro-smoothing.

If you get a set of parameters that you really like, you can save them as a default. Go down here and choose Save Settings, give it a name and when I do that back here in my Presets panel, there is a place where my presets will appear and I can just click on that to apply those to every other image that I want. So that's a rundown of the basic tools in Photomatix. we're going to be looking at all of these in more detail throughout the rest of this course. So if you don't have it already, get the demo installed so you can follow along. Before we get to that though, we're going to take a look at another HDR processing tool.

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