Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR)
Illustration by Petra Stefankova

Handling HDR images that are "flat"


Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR)

with Ben Long

Start your free trial now, and begin learning software, business and creative skills—anytime, anywhere—with video instruction from recognized industry experts.

Start Your Free Trial Now

Video: Handling HDR images that are "flat"

As we've been discussing throughout this course, one of the great things about HDR, in fact the reason to use HDR, is that it can give you good exposure throughout the full tonal range of your image. One of the problems you're going to run into with HDR though is that it gives you good exposure throughout the full tonal range of your image and we're going to see in this lesson why that can be a problem. Go to the Chapter 6 folder and grab images 319, 320, and 321 and merge them using Photoshop. These images were shot handheld and Photoshop is going to do a better job of giving us a good merge than will Photomatix or HDR Efex.
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

please wait ...
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

Handling HDR images that are "flat"

As we've been discussing throughout this course, one of the great things about HDR, in fact the reason to use HDR, is that it can give you good exposure throughout the full tonal range of your image. One of the problems you're going to run into with HDR though is that it gives you good exposure throughout the full tonal range of your image and we're going to see in this lesson why that can be a problem. Go to the Chapter 6 folder and grab images 319, 320, and 321 and merge them using Photoshop. These images were shot handheld and Photoshop is going to do a better job of giving us a good merge than will Photomatix or HDR Efex.

And I know that because I've tried it in all three and this is the one where it works the best. When it's done aligning the images, we end up here in our Tone Mapping dialog box. Now we're going to do our tone mapping in Photomatix. What I want to do here is spit out a 32-bit image, so I make sure the Mode is set to 32. I also want to remove ghosts. You may think this is a shot of the fence, there's nothing moving. Well, it was a very windy day and the grass is tall enough that the grass is blowing around. Watch this area right here as I check the Remove ghosts box, and you'll see some stuff disappeared.

So there were some little ghosty bits in there that might have been smearing up the grass and costing us some detail. If I switch to one of the other images to make it the primary image, you should see something shift around and then here's the third image. I think I'm going to go with the second one because I like that it's got just a little bit more highlighted in this area. So I'm going to take the second image, make sure I'm set on 32-bit, and hit OK and let it create a 32-bit file. And when it's done, I end up here.

Right away, you notice the sky is completely blown out. I'm not worried about that at all, because this is a 32-bit file. There's a whole of the data in there, but the monitor can't display it. It doesn't have the dynamic range to display all the stuff that we've got in here, so I'm not going to worry about that. I need to save this out as an EXR file that we're going to take in to Photomatix and tone map. But to do that, I'm going to jump over here to Bridge and I'm going to copy the file name of this image. Not the extension, just the name because I want all of the components of this HDR to stay grouped together in the folder where they're stored.

So I'm going to have these three source images, the EXR image that I'm using to get into Photomatix, and then my final tone-mapped image, so there's going to be a lot of little components here. I'm going to say File > Save As. I'm writing it into the same folder. I'm just going to paste the name in there and I'm going to change my format to OpenEXR. So it writes out a 32-bit file into that folder. I'm going to close that because we're done here in Photoshop for the moment. And if I look back here in Bridge, I see that I still have my three source images along with this EXR image.

I'm going to go ahead and stack those. Stacks > Group as Stack. So now they're all kind of staying together in this little logical container. Now remember, stacks are just a Bridge function. I don't see anything change out in my file manager. So let's take this EXR image and pull it into Photomatix. It will open it up and it's going to look just like it did in Photoshop. I still have all this overexposed highlights because this is just the RAW 32-bit image which my monitor can't display. I need to tone-map it to start seeing better details.

So I hit the Tone Mapping button, Photomatix gives me an initial tone map, and I'm going to close the Presets. We're really not going to use the presets in this course just because they're easy enough to use. you click on them and your image changes. We want to learn how to use the sliders over here. Presets are a great way of quickly getting a look on an image and they're worth playing around with, but in the meantime, let's go over here and do this by hand. Start by hitting the Reset Default button. I want to make sure we all have the same settings here. This is where Photomatix will begin.

Photomatix always pulls in the last settings that you used even if you were working on a different image. Take a quick look at the Histogram, we see that I don't have any blacks. All my tones are clustered here in the center. And sure enough, this image has a contrast problem. It has very low contrast. We've also got some clipped highlights here. Let's try and take care of those highlights first, which I'm going to do with my white point slider. And the reason I'm going to do those first is that if I can't get those the way that I like them, I'm probably going to abandon this image. So it would be a drag to do a bunch of work on this image and then find out that it's ruined by these overexposed highlights.

So let's try and fix those first. I'm moving to tone down the whites. And looking there, there is detail in there. This is the magic of a 32-bit data space. This is why we shoot HDR. It has pulled a whole lot of detail back into there. That looks much nicer. Now let's think about the contrast problem. This is all washed out down in here. It's just it's blah. The whole image has this gray haze over it, beyond the fact that half of the image is gray. There's just this lack of punch here that's the result of low contrast.

So normally the way I would address contrast is I'd go in here to the black point and I'd crank it up, and right away I'm getting nicer detail in here. The image is dark overall, but I at least getting some contrast back in here. But there's a problem with this, and that is these clouds right here. They're already really, really dark. They're almost unrealistically dark, but not quite. But what this means is I don't want to darken my image too much, because if these things turn black or if the bottoms of these clouds turn black, it's going to start looking really weird. And that's what happens as I pull my black point in. Look these things are just really getting ridiculously dark.

Even the worse tornado weather doesn't give you that kind of stuff. I'll leave the green point slider for those. So I can't do anything there. Let's fiddle about with the Strength a little bit and we're probably going to see that increase in Strength is also darkening up those clouds. So I've got a bit of a problem here in that any of the controls that I have over here whether they're simple toning controls or my more HDR effect type controls, they're going to darken these clouds up to a point that I don't like and possibly also darken the bottoms of these clouds.

I need to be able to make a localized adjustment. I need to be able to locally adjust contrast throughout this image. And Photomatix does not have any local controls. So I think this is a case where I'm just not going to be able to do too much to this image in Photomatix. I'm going to have to take it on into Photoshop. So I'm going to do that right now. I'm going to double-check that I'm okay with the detail that's in here. I'm ready to go. I'm going to hit the Process button. Now this is what I was saying. A lot of times the problem with HDR is you get very even exposure through everything.

And that's what we've got here. We've got good exposure here, we've got good exposure here, and the whole image looks flat. So we need to find a way to unflatten it. I'm going to up here to File and choose Save As and I'm going to say I'm going to save this into my same Chapter 6 folder. It's got the original name that I started with, but it's appended tone-mapped, which is good. I'm saving it as a 16-bit TIFF file. It's good that it's good that it's named it that way, because that means it's going to appear in my directory right alongside my other images.

So I'm going to just drop that right there into the stack and rearrange these so they're on the front. Now let's open this up in Photoshop and see what we can do here. First thing we need to do is we need to fix the contrast in the foreground. I'm going to do that with a Levels adjustment layer. So I add a Levels adjustment layer down here and I'm going to go in and fix my black point. Now I screw up the sky when I do this but I'm not going to worry about that because I'm going to apply a mask that's going to fix this. I'm also going to increase my white point.

And right away, the foreground is looking much better looking. it's looking really weird in that HDR kind of way, but that's okay. I've shot these images in HDR and I'm possibly willing to go for that. Some of this weirdness is because of the smeariness of the grass moving between shots. The ghosting worked pretty well, but it's still a little bit soft in here because there was so much movement. So I'm not going to worry about that. That's just part of the stylized HDR thing. Oh, look! My overexposure came back and my clouds are black. Augh! That's just because of my Levels adjustment.

I don't need to worry about that. My original okay clouds are still there. So what I need to do now is mask the image so that the clouds are protected. A lot of different ways of doing this. I'm going to do it with the Gradient tool. I'm going to set my Gradient tool there. Where I start clicking it is going to put white into the mask and where I stop, it's going to put black and it's going to create a smooth gradient in between. So if I drag like this, I get this effect. Look what's happened here in my mask.

I've got white down here, a very quick ramp from white to black, and then black up here. So this part of my image is getting the Levels adjustment, this part is not, and there's a smooth transition in between. Here is before, here is after. And now you can see that yes, my edit did spill into the sky a little bit, but that's fine. The transition zone from the sky to the foreground. It's okay if that's a little hazy. So that's pretty much fixed up the image right there. It might be nice though to try and get a little more depth into the image, maybe by brightening up the foreground a little more.

So I'm going to add another levels adjustment and I'm going to. You can see that I still don't have a strong white point in this image. I'm going to pull this up here. Again, I'm ignoring the sky. I'm watching this bit in here. And we've got a cool thing happening here. We've got these white bits up against these darker bits. So exaggerating that some more is maybe going to give us some depth. Normally as things recede into the distance, they should start to appear darker. So if we can lighten the foreground more than we lighten the background, we're possibly going to create a greater sense of depth.

I want to fill my mask with black now because I don't want this Levels adjustment applied anywhere to this image because I want to be able to brush it in by hand. So with my mask selected I'm going to choose Fill, fill with black, and now I'm now in pretty good shape there. I'm going to grab a paintbrush and some white paint, okay. And I'm going to get a nice big brush. I'm using the bracket keys to make the brush bigger and smaller. And I'm going to just brush some brightness in here under these bits of grass that are already bright. Before, after.

That punches things up quite a bit. And this still makes sense. One of the things about a sky that's all broken up like this is you get bits of bright light in different places. In fact, it might even make sense to stick a little back there somewhere just to show that we're getting dappled light hitting the ground in lots of different places. Just as an experiment, I'm going to say if I can get even a little more depth and darken the horizon back here. So I'm going to add another Levels adjustment and this time I'm going to darken things.

I'm not going to darken with the black point, because that'll go a little too far. I'm going to darken with the Midpoint slider. Now what I would like is a gradient mask that would go from my foreground into this darkening, but I don't want to darken the sky. So I want to go from my foreground into a darkening and then back out into not masked at all. In other words, I want to go from black in my mask in the foreground, because that will protect the foreground from the effect, into white up here because that will allow the effect through, and back to black up here because that will again deactivate my mask.

So I'm back to the Gradient tool. I can pick what kind of gradient I want and I've got a lot of different presets up here. I've got a full palette of lots of different gradients. But I've also got just these buttons over here. This is a Straight Linear Gradient from foreground color to background color, This is a Radial Gradient. It'll do a circular thing. This is a weird Angle Gradient, and this is a Reflected Gradient, so it mirrors on both sides your foreground and background color. So I'm going to pick that. I've got white as my foreground color and black as my background, and now I'm going to click here and drag up to about there. That worked! Here is before, here is after. Before, after.

So by darkening the horizon line, now I'm really getting a strong sense of depth in this image. Here it is after. It looks flat. The foreground is all perfectly evenly exposed. Part of our ability to perceive depth is something called depth queuing. As you look through more atmosphere, things get defocused more and they appear darker. When everything is perfectly exposed, we lose some of that depth queuing. So by adding this little bit of the darkness, I'm making the horizon look farther away.

This is very often something you need to do to your HDR images. I don't mean specifically put a gradient right there in your image. I just mean think about what's farther away, what's closer, what should be lighter, and what should be darker. So now I'm going to just save this image. We may come back to it later. I'm going to save it. It's warning me that including layers will increase file size. That's what it does when you're saving a layer TIFF. That's fine. We've got lots of storage. So save that away and when you go back to Bridge, you should see an update here.

So thinking about depth is a critical step of your HDR post-processing. You want to be sure that you're not getting that flattening effect that comes from even exposure across your image.

There are currently no FAQs about Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR).

Share a link to this course

What are exercise files?

Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course. Save time by downloading the author's files instead of setting up your own files, and learn by following along with the instructor.

Can I take this course without the exercise files?

Yes! If you decide you would like the exercise files later, you can upgrade to a premium account any time.

Become a member Download sample files See plans and pricing

Please wait... please wait ...
Upgrade to get access to exercise files.

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

Learn by watching, listening, and doing, Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course, so you can download them and follow along Premium memberships include access to all exercise files in the library.

Exercise files

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

For additional information on downloading and using exercise files, watch our instructional video or read the instructions in the FAQ .

This course includes free exercise files, so you can practice while you watch the course. To access all the exercise files in our library, become a Premium Member.

Join now Already a member? Log in

* Estimated file size

Are you sure you want to mark all the videos in this course as unwatched?

This will not affect your course history, your reports, or your certificates of completion for this course.

Mark all as unwatched Cancel


You have completed Shooting and Processing High Dynamic Range Photographs (HDR).

Return to your organization's learning portal to continue training, or close this page.

Become a member to add this course to a playlist

Join today and get unlimited access to the entire library of video courses—and create as many playlists as you like.

Get started

Already a member ?

Exercise files

Learn by watching, listening, and doing! Exercise files are the same files the author uses in the course, so you can download them and follow along. Exercise files are available with all Premium memberships. Learn more

Get started

Already a Premium member?

Exercise files video

How to use exercise files.

Ask a question

Thanks for contacting us.
You’ll hear from our Customer Service team within 24 hours.

Please enter the text shown below:

The classic layout automatically defaults to the latest Flash Player.

To choose a different player, hold the cursor over your name at the top right of any page and choose Site preferences from the dropdown menu.

Continue to classic layout Stay on new layout
Exercise files

Access exercise files from a button right under the course name.

Mark videos as unwatched

Remove icons showing you already watched videos if you want to start over.

Control your viewing experience

Make the video wide, narrow, full-screen, or pop the player out of the page into its own window.

Interactive transcripts

Click on text in the transcript to jump to that spot in the video. As the video plays, the relevant spot in the transcript will be highlighted.

Learn more, save more. Upgrade today!

Get our Annual Premium Membership at our best savings yet.

Upgrade to our Annual Premium Membership today and get even more value from your subscription:

“In a way, I feel like you are rooting for me. Like you are really invested in my experience, and want me to get as much out of these courses as possible this is the best place to start on your journey to learning new material.”— Nadine H.

Thanks for signing up.

We’ll send you a confirmation email shortly.

Sign up and receive emails about and our online training library:

Here’s our privacy policy with more details about how we handle your information.

Keep up with news, tips, and latest courses with emails from

Sign up and receive emails about and our online training library:

Here’s our privacy policy with more details about how we handle your information.

submit Lightbox submit clicked
Terms and conditions of use

We've updated our terms and conditions (now called terms of service).Go
Review and accept our updated terms of service.