HDR Tutorial - Photomatix

UPDATED FOR 2012

I have developed a deep interest in and appreciation for HDR Photography.  I just love what it can do to my photos.  If you are not sure what HDR is, you can read about it here.  It is by far my favorite type of photography.  I am clearly not an expert, and I continue to learn more all the time, but I have had a lot of questions from people about how I create some of these images, so I thought it would be fun to write up a tutorial and hopefully it helps!  If you have any feedback, be sure and drop me a line.  

It seems like more and more folks are experimenting with HDR and it also seems like everyone has a slightly different way of using the tools and crafting the images.  So, this is my version.  As I add new tips and tricks, I will come back and update this tutorial.  Also, I consider this a quick tutorial, in that I do not use Photoshop and can process an HDR photo in 15 minutes or so.  There are other great HDR Tutorials I have found on the web, and they all differ somewhat - some are quick like this one, and some are very detailed and in my opinion, complicated.  This one is my simple, “anyone can do it” version of an HDR Tutorial.

I do all my HDR work with essentially 3 products: Photomatix (to create the HDR itself), Color Efex Pro (an awesome collection of filters that I use on EVERY HDR photo - see review here), and Aperture (where I remove dust spots, straighten things up if needed, etc.).

There are several software products on the market that you can use to create HDR images, but this tutorial is based on HDRSoft’s Photomatix, which I use exclusively and I find it is used by everyone else I know doing HDR too.  So, I guess I am saying we all think it is good.  :)  It is a great product and I recommend it highly.  If you decide to purchase Photomatix, you can click here to get a 15% discount.

The basic tools that I use for shooting and creating HDR images:

  • a camera that has auto-bracketing, or the ability to nimbly move your camera settings between shots 
  • a tripod - it is vitally important that your images line up so that you can avoid blurs etc -  I have shot a few handheld HDR shots, but it's not always easy so a tripod should be your 2nd best friend (after your camera of course!)
  • software that will allow you to create the HDR images from your files - I highly recommend that you use Photomatix.  You can read my review of it here.  
  • some version of Lightroom or Aperture to manage basic edits (I use Aperture)
  • Color Efex Pro from Nik Software - this I use on every image for HDR - it has a dizzying array of filters that help me finish off the HDR photo
  • a nice add-on product which can add a little zest to an image is Topaz Adjust - I really like the product and you can read about it here
  • an Apple computer! (but you can do this in Windows too!)

The basics before you start firing off shots:

  • get the camera on the tripod and line up your shot - this sometimes takes me a bit as I like to move around and check it out from various spots, as you probably do too!
  • put your camera in Aperture mode - this gives you control over the Aperture, but the camera uses it’s own brains to figure out how many seconds per shot (shutter speed)
  • set your Aperture depending on the scene, available light, etc.
  • set up auto-bracketing with the number of exposures you want (3, 5, 7, etc), assuming your camera has auto-bracketing, and if not, then adjust your Exposure Value for your first shot and get ready to rumble! (I normally use 7 shots per HDR photo, each 1 stop apart)
  • check to make sure you are shooting in RAW format - I recommend that since you will capture a greater level of detail with each exposure
  • check your ISO, I frequently leave mine at 200 (the basic setting on my Nikon 700)
  • shoot!

Basic Outline of my HDR Workflow: 2012

I manage all of my files in Apple’s Aperture program.  I really like the product and actually use it for some touch-up and other adjustments after I have completed my Photomatix and Color Efex Pro adjustments.  Here is a basic snapshot of my HDR workflow:

  • dump RAW files into a Project in Aperture
  • select the appropriate images, and export them from Aperture to my desktop as 16 bit TIFF files, 
  • open Photomatix and begin merging the files into an HDR image
  • make all necessary adjustments in Photomatix (more of that to come) and save the file as a TIFF file, and then bring it back into the original Project in Aperture
  • from Aperture, click Image > Edit With > Color Efex Pro
  • Apply chosen filters in Color Efex Pro: my favorites (and most frequently used) are Tonal Contrast, Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Glamour Glow - though which I use depends on the image, and sometimes I use them all!
  • Final touch up in Aperture (saturation adjustments, straighten if needed, remove dust spots, etc)

Possible extra steps:

  • There are times when I use Topaz Adjust to finish off my HDR images - it gives some nice finishing touches that I am really enjoying
  • if using Topaz Adjust, which functions as a plug-in to Photoshop/Aperture/Lightroom, then from Photoshop click on Filter > Topaz Labs > Topaz Adjust, and it will launch the program for you
  • make any updates you wish in Topaz Adjust and then click “ok”, taking the updates with the image back to Photoshop
  • once finished with Photoshop, save it and it takes the updated image back into Aperture
  • now I have an image that has been through Photomatix and Color Efex Pro (and possibly Photoshop and Topaz Adjust)
  • if necessary, I make final minor adjustments in Aperture and I am good to go!

So I will begin this tutorial with the seven frame bracket you see below.  This is a shot I took in Vienna, Austria.  These 7 shots were each taken at a different exposure value, ranging from -4 (really dark) to +2 (really bright).  They were taken on a spring morning, before full sunrise.  


You begin by dragging your shots to Photomatix and you will get this simple menu:


Click on "Merge for HDR Processing" and then click "OK".  The next menu you get is the one below - again, just click "OK" (assuming it has the proper files selected).

 

Next up is the Preprocessing Options box...it looks like this:

I always check "Align source images" and "By correcting horizontal and vertical shifts".

I always check "Reduce Ghosting Artifacts" and usually go with "Automatic", unless you want to get really specific, in which case you can check "Semi-manual" which lets you highlight an area to de-ghost.  It's pretty intellient, really.

Next, I always check "Reduce noise" and do so "on merged image".

Lastly, I also check "Reduce chromatic aberrations".

Then, click "Preprocess".  This is where the fun begins.  You are now ready to Tonemap your image.  It's great fun!  Here is the primary adjustment menu for Photomatix.  Note that in addition to "Tone mapping" that there is also an option for "Exposure Fusion".  This tutorial is based on applying Tone Mapping, but sometimes it is worth clicking the Exposure Fusion button just to see what you get!

First things first: always make sure you look at the very bottom of this menu and select Default for Reset and Presets - otherwise you may actually be starting with your last used settings, which can definitely affect your outcome.  Always reset to Default before beginning!

Now, onto the slider menus...

Strength: this can affect the brightness of your image and also seems to work better for me when I leave it in the middle, somewhere around a setting of 50.  Also, the higher the number, the more of an HDR look you get, so I try not to push this one too far.  I tend to aim for a more natural look.  Well, most of the time.  :)

Color saturation: this one is obvious, and I usually leave it right where it is at 46.  I can always adjust saturation later in Aperture, where I prefer to do it anyways.

Luminosity: this also affects how bright the image is, and I leave it alone unless it's really needed (and it rarely is)

Microcontrast: another slider that I just don't touch - it smooths out the details

Smoothing: this is the biggie!  First, click the little box that says "Light mode".  You get this menu:
I always leave it all the way to the right.  If not, you start to get some really wacky, “over-cooked” or cartoonish-looking HDR images.  Nothing wrong with that, if that is your goal, and yes we have all done it at one time or another.  But, my goal is to use HDR as a tool to craft beautiful images, and having that slider to the right is the best way to stay on that path.
Next up is the Tone Setting section of that menu.  There are 3 sliders here...
White Point, which I tend to leave at 0.25
Black Point, which I tend to leave at 0.0
Gamma, which I tend to leave at 1.0
And next up on that big menu of sliders is the Color Settings section.  Here is what it looks like, and those default settings are the ones that I typically use.  Yep, I mostly skip that section too.  I would rather make color adjustments in Aperture, after I am done with creating the HDR and done with my filters in Color Efex Pro.
And finally at the bottom of that big menu are the Miscellaneous Settings.  Below is a screenshot which also includs my typical settings (the default settings, actually).  Again, I basically skip this section too.
So now, you are ready to finish up with Photomatix, so hit the "Process" button.  Photomatix works its magic, and generates your HDR photo, which at this point looks like this:
It's pretty blah, right?  Well, we are far from being done with the image yet.  
This is your tone-mapped image, and although you are done with Photomatix, you now need to make some further adjustments.  It's easy and fun though - and you are almost done - so hang in there!

Save the file to your desktop in your preferred file format (I typically use 16 bit TIFF).


I then import the image back into Aperture and get ready for the next round of adjustments, which will occur in Color Efex Pro.

So from Aperture, I right click on my newly-imported HDR photo, and choose Edit with Plug-In > Color Efex Pro.  There are several filters here that I love: Tonal Contrast, Pro Contrast, Brilliance/Warmth, and Glamour Glow.  I thought I would go ahead and try them all on this photo, just to show you how much of a different result you can get with this incredible product.

So I start with Tonal Contrast.  Here are my settings:

If you are not familiar with Color Efex Pro, this is not a full review, but you can find one I did here.

For Tonal Contrast, it really brings out the details.  If there is a sky in your photo, be careful with the Highlight Contrast because it can add a lot of grain and noise in the sky, which I personally do not want.  So you can see I dropped it on this photo, and bumped up Midtone Contrast.  I left Shadow Contrast and Saturation alone.  Here is the result after applying this filter:

It really brought out the details in the building, which I like.  But, I am not done.

Now, let's add the Pro Contrast filter...and here are the settings that I used on this one.

I really like this filter, and use it on almost every shot.  It really makes the photo POP!

Here is how the photo now looks, after getting the Pro Contrast filter applied...

Ok, now we are getting somewhere!  The contrast is much better - this filter really took the photo from "blah' to "almost there".

Now, I am going to apply the Brilliance/Warmth filter. Here are my settings that I used:

I bumped up the Brilliance to give it a bit more pizazz, and slightly dropped the warmth so that the sky would get a little bit more blue.  Here is the result after that filter:

You can see how when you start to stack these filters, the cumulative effects of having multiple filters applied to the image really adds up.  It still has the detail pop from Tonal Contrast, the overall contrast of the building against the sky from the Pro Contrast filter, and how the colors are starting to pop a little thanks to the Brilliance/Warmth settings!  One more to go!
This time, I am giving it a slight touch with Glamour Glow.  Here are my settings:
And, here is the photo after applying slight touch with Glamour Glow...
As you can tell the Glamour Glow setting really smooths out the sky, which is nice, and it also softens the details in the building, hence the light touch with it because I like the details to be visible.  At this point you do a final save in Color Efex Pro, and since I have this set up as a plug-in to Aperture, once it is saved it just drops the photo right back into Aperture for final touch up and editing.
Yep, there is still a little more to do.  You do see the dust spots in the sky, don't you??

Ok, so back into Aperture.  I also decided I needed to straighten it a little, and then use the "skin smoothing" brush in Aperture and wiped it across the skies with a mild setting.  That tends to remove some of the details, but I wanted to go with a more smooth, natural sky here so it worked for me.
After all those shenanigans, here is the final version of the photo:


In my opinion, this is WAY better than any of the single exposures from the 7 frame bracket that I started with.  That's what I love about HDR - it just brings a photo to life!

Well, that is about it.  Thanks for reading all the way through and let me know if you have any questions!  HDR is an exciting type of photography and I really enjoy taking and processing HDR photos.  As I mentioned at the beginning, everyone I talk to seems to have their own take on how they like to process HDR photos.  This is may current workflow and process that I use to create my photos.  As I change and my techniques evolve, I will certainly include new elements in this tutorial.

Thanks again, and I hope this was helpful!