Photoshop HDR: How to Create High Dynamic Range Images in Photoshop

As an amateur photographer, you spend your days with a camera strapped around your neck, capturing anything and everything you come across. After a hard day’s work, you go home to view the results on your computer and you can’t help but feel a little disappointed. What was bright and sunny in real life turns out dull and lifeless. What was shrouded in shadows and oozing with character comes out dense and drab. What’s going on? Is it your camera, or your technique?

The answer: you aren’t using HDR photography. HDR photography is the latest buzzword in photography techniques that can change the way you take photographs. In this tutorial, we will learn everything there is to know about HDR and how to create HDR images in Photoshop. For a more in-depth tutorial on similar advanced Photoshop and photography techniques, check out this course on advanced HDR editing.

What is HDR?

HDR stands for ‘High Dynamic Range’. This is basically photographer speak for any scene that contains a lot of light as well as dark areas. This range of lightness and darkness is called ‘dynamic range’ or ‘luminance range’.

Let’s try to understand this with a couple of examples:

photoshopHDR1This sunny image is washed in bright sunlight. There are almost no dark areas anywhere. Since everything has an almost uniform level of brightness, it can be said to have a ‘low dynamic range’.

photoshopHDR2

The second image, in contrast, is significantly more complex as it has both bright and dark areas. Parts of the image are shrouded in darkness, but there is also a patch of sunlight peeping through the trees. Because there is a large range of light and dark areas, it can be called an image with a high dynamic range.

As you can imagine, capturing the second image would be much more challenging to the photographer, who has to ensure that the photograph is neither underexposed (i.e. too dark) nor overexposed (i.e. too bright). If you are a skilled photographer, you can probably play around with the exposure settings to do the job, but if you’re an amateur, or lack the right tools, you’ll have to settle with a sub-par image.

Or, you can turn to HDR photography.

Why You Should Use HDR Photography

Barring specific scenarios, your camera usually has one objective: to capture reality as the human eye sees it. This sounds deceptively simple, but it is not – the human eye is far more complex than any camera. This is why photographers must turn to tricks like HDR photography to capture a more faithful rendition of reality.

HDR photography is a post-processing technique that helps you take better photographs by capturing a wider dynamic range of light. In the most common HDR photography technique, three or more images – at normal exposure, underexposure, and overexposure – are merged together to create a combined image with a higher dynamic range. The end result is a photograph that looks much more ‘real’ – neither washed out, nor drenched in darkness.

Once again, a couple of examples will make this clearer.

This is an underexposed image. This means that it has more shadows than highlights.

photoshopHDR3

This image, on the other hand, is overexposed. It has too many highlights, not enough shadows:

photoshopHDR4This is the image at normal exposure:

photoshopHDR5If we merge these three photographs together, we get the best of both worlds: dark shadows that pop out, and bright highlights that add tons of character to the scene.

photoshopHDR6.jpgAs we’ll see below, you can control the shadow/highlights in any picture to create images with a lot of character that also happen to appear more life-like.

Where Should You Use HDR Photography?

As great as HDR photography might be, it’s not meant for every scene. The best places to use HDR photography are:

  • Landscapes and Wide-Open Spaces: Landscapes are prime candidates for HDR photography as they are usually static and have high dynamic ranges. When shooting landscapes, it’s a good practice to use a higher exposure (more on this below) when shooting the lighter areas and switching to lower exposure before capturing the darker regions. The resulting HDR image in post-processing will appear much more life-like.
  • Close-Ups: HDR photography isn’t just for wide-open spaces; it also works exceptionally well for close up shots. This is particularly true for images that have a limited range of colors – say, a swirl of chocolate ice cream or a cup of coffee.
  • Still Images: Using HDR photography for moving objects often results in unnecessary blurring. You’ll want to stick to static subjects when using HDR.
  • Extreme Light Conditions: HDR photography works well when the subject is either drenched in light (say, an outdoor shoot in bright sunlight), or in poor-light conditions (especially for backlit subjects). HDR balances out the extremes and results in much more ‘natural’ looking photographs.

Now that you’re convinced HDR photography is the best thing since sliced bread and PBJ sandwiches, let’s learn how to create HDR photos in Photoshop.

How to Create HDR Photos in Photoshop

There are two ways to create HDR photos in Photoshop. One takes advantage of Photoshop’s built-in ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ feature and requires multiple images. The other can take a single image and convert it to HDR with some post-processing magic. We’ll take a look at both these two techniques separately.

Creating HDR Photos with Merge to HDR Pro Feature

If you open Photoshop and go to the File -> Automate menu, you’ll see a ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ option. We’ll use this feature to create our HDR image.

Step 1

The first order of the day is to go out and capture different images at different exposures. You can take as many images as you want, but I recommend taking at least three – at normal (0EV), under (-2EV) and over (+2EV) exposure. Taking more than 5 photos at different exposure levels is a little overkill in my opinion, so stick to the 3-5 limit.

For this tutorial, I’m going to use these three images:

Underexposed

photoshopHDR7.jpg.png

Normal Exposure

photoshopHDR8

Overexposed

photoshopHDR9

Our objective will be to bring the colors to life, making the shadows a little darker and reducing the harshness of the highlights.

Pro Tip: For better results, use a tripod for capturing your images. This negates any minor movements that creep into all handheld images. While Photoshop has an auto-alignment feature that will iron out most crinkles, it’s not perfect and using a tripod will result in far more ‘professional’ looking images.

Step 2

After you’ve created your images, it’s time to start the merging process. Head to File -> Automate -> Merge to HDR Pro. You’ll be asked to select the files you want to merge together.

photoshopHDR10.jpgHit ‘Browse’ and look for the files you want to merge. Once selected, you’ll have the option of automatically aligning images for better fit. This is not necessary if you used a tripod to take the pictures.

Once loaded, hit OK.

Step 3

After you hit OK, Photoshop will do the processing and present you with an option to manually set the EV (Exposure Value).

photoshopHDR11.jpgDon’t worry if this reads like all Greek to you. ‘Exposure Time’, ‘f-Stop’ and ‘ISO’ are technical terms us photography nerds like to use. Here’s what they mean:

  • Exposure Time: Also called ‘shutter speed’, this determines the length of time the camera’s shutter is kept open. Simply put, the higher the exposure time, the more light reaches the image sensor.
  • f-Stop: The f-Stop or focal ratio is the ratio of the focal length to the diameter of the entrance pupil. All you need to know for now is that f-Stop controls image sharpness and focus. f-Stop is sometimes also called aperture.
  • ISO: ISO is a measure of the camera’s sensitivity to visible light. The higher this figure, the more sensitive the camera is to visible light.

Alternatively, you can set the EV (Exposure Value) manually. If you’re using your phone camera, the EV range available to you will most likely be between +2 and -2EV (normal being 0 EV). Advanced DSLRs may have a higher EV range.

Play around with the EV for individual photographs and see what the results look like. Don’t worry if you break things – you can always go back and restore the original image. For now, you should focus on experimenting with different values. For more help with these photography terms, check out this course on Photoshop and digital photography.

Step 4

After you hit OK, you’ll be taken to a screen with a ton of different options. This is where things get tricky. Photoshop throws a huge number of settings at you, and unless you are an experienced photographer, you’ll find these very confusing.

photoshopHDR12.jpg

Let’s break it down one by one:

  • Mode: You can choose between 8, 16, and 32-bit images. 32-bit images have different options (see below) than 8-bit and 16-bit images. For obvious reasons, higher bit images are associated with better quality, though 16-bit is good enough for most purposes.

photoshopHDR13.jpg

  • Local Adaptation: ‘Local Adaptation’, ‘Equalize Histogram’, ‘Highlight Compression’, and ‘Exposure and Gamma’ are different methods of controlling the image. ‘Local Adaptation’ gives you the most control, so we’ll stick to that for now.
  • Edge Glow: This makes the edges of objects in the image ‘glow’. Try playing around with the radius and strength of the glow. It can yield some very interesting effects and give your images a vintage, dream-like feel when done right.
  • Tone and Detail: You have the option to control Gamma, Exposure and Detail here. These are all technical terms and beyond the scope of this tutorial. For now, you should know the following:
    1. Dragging the gamma bar to the left (i.e. higher gamma) highlights the whites in the image and makes it appear more washed out.
    2. Higher Exposure increases the brightness and highlights in the image.
    3. Higher Detail increases the visible difference between the shadows and highlights. Lower details gives images a painted-on effect, while higher details makes them appear richer, more vibrant.
    Play around with these settings until you get the desired effect.
  • Advanced: Under the ‘Advanced’ tab, you can control the Shadows, Highlights, Vibrance and Saturation of the image. Increasing the shadows increases the amount of darkness in the image. Moving the highlights bar to the right has the opposite effect – it increases the amount of whites in the image. Vibrance controls the contrast between colors. The higher this figure, the more colorful your image will appear. Increasing the saturation has almost the same effect, though many people find the vividness too harsh. Saturation also affects the skin tone of the subject – something you might want to avoid in portrait photography. If there are people in the image, I recommend changing vibrance and letting saturation be.
  • Curve: You can also control the amount of lights/shadows in the image by manipulating the curve. Understanding the curve is a complicated, technical task you can learn more about in this tutorial on mastering HDR photography.

There are different options for different methods and modes as well. Play around with the settings until you get the desired effect. When you’re done, hit OK.

Step 5

You’ll now see the finished image. If you like what you see, save it as a PSD or RAW file (you can’t save HDR Pro images as JPEG or PNG).

This is what my final image looked like, compared to the original:

photoshopHDR14.jpg photoshopHDR15

The changes are very subtle, but you’ll notice that the image on the left has darker shadows (look at the shadows on the girl’s arm and the shade of the leaves on the grass) and an almost retro feel to it. You can play around with the settings and achieve a lot of different effects – the key is to experiment with different exposure in the original image and post-processing.

But what if you had just one image to use? Is there some Photoshop magic you can use to upgrade the image to HDR?

Fortunately, Photoshop included a new feature called ‘HDR Toning’ in CS5 which mimics the ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ effect, albeit with just one raw input image. We’ll take a short look at it below.

Using HDR Toning in Photoshop

To use HDR Toning (CS5+ only), head over to Image -> Adjustments -> HDR Toning. You’ll be presented with a bunch of options, which, you’ll notice, are exactly the same as the options in ‘Merge to HDR Pro’ above.

photoshopHDR16.jpg You can play around with the settings, or use one of the many included presets. I used the ‘Surrealistic’ preset then reduced the radius of the edge glow, decreased saturation and detail, and increased the highlight to achieve this retro film-like effect:

 photoshopHDR17

As you can see, the possibilities are endless. This isn’t true HDR since you’re using only one image, but the effects are comparable.

HDR photography is a powerful tool to help you take better pictures. Learn more on how to use it effectively in this course on using HDR editing to create powerful images.