HDRsoft’s Merge to 32 Bit. A simple and effective Lightroom HDR workflow

logo_hdrsoftHDRsoft, the makers of Photomatix Pro 5  the top selling HDR software, also make a Plug-in for Lightroom that allows you to select your exposures in Lightroom and then Merge those files into a 32-bit Floating Point Tiff file and automatically re-import back into Lightroom for all your Tone-mapping and finishing needs The plug-in; HDRSoft’s Merge to 32 Bit, makes the whole process easy, effective and pain free. So let’s look at the plug-in and then follow through with some thoughts on a quick and easy yet thorough workflow using Lightroom only.

Starting your Lightroom HDR Workflow

Of course everyone has different methods but I’ll show you mine and then you can choose the bits you like and then substitute what you may want to do differently to match your needs. The first thing I do is to take care of things I want to correct before we even begin any merging and then editing. I want to first take care of:

  • White Balance
  • Lens Distortion
  • Chromatic Aberrations

We need to make sure any alterations we make apply to all our images equally or things can get quite squirrelly fast. Select all your exposures you will use in the HDR and then take one of the middle exposures and Alt/Click that image and it will highlight that one above all the others that are selected. Go to the develop module and that image should come up in view For Landscapes, I’m not a white balance nut. I want to get what I saw which is why I try to edit close to when I shot, but I am trying to get the color I saw not a Perfect white balance and there is a difference. I leave the OCD  WB behavior for shoots that require it So I set my White balance, Do lens correction and then do Chromatic Aberration control. I try to take care of this now but the truth is the merging process itself can still cause some CA problems later on. But do what you can in RAW at this stage. With those corrections made, click the sync button to make all your images the same. With those done it is now time to do the easy Merge Process with HDRsioft’s Merge to 32 Bit. Making sure all your exposures are selected, right click them and say > Export> Merge to 32 Bit HDR

Load exposures in Lightroom

Load exposures in Lightroom

The dialog box will come up with some Merging and deghosting configurations. I tell it to align the Exposure and to match Features. . This usually works best but if you see problems in the merge image you may want to try the other option of matching horizontal and vertical shifts. I always have it crop the image which usually if I am on a tripod isn’t a problem but hand held shot images can be wildly twisted and this cuts off the unaligned edges. You may need to go back in in Final and crop the image to taste

Merge to 32 Bit HDR Options

Merge to 32 Bit HDR Options

There is a choice for deghosting and two settings Normal and High. If you have Moving objects in the image you may want to choose this option. In this case in this image with Ocean Waves, I chose not to de-ghost because it can add some weird looks to the waves when it tries to de-ghost them. In this case I like a ghosted look as it adds motion to the water There is a choice to DeNoise the image which I never use, choosing to do that selectively later if even necessary Next are some renaming options. I usually add a suffix of LR32 to make the image stand out and I know the process I used. And Finally a few More choices

  • Stack With Selected Photo: This will stack the 32 Bit with the other photos in Lightroom. I never use this
  • Use Half Floating Bit Format: This will reduce the file file size while retaining OpenEXR dynamic range, 32 Bit Floating bit Tiff can be huge files, If you are low on computing power and memory you may want to use this option
  • Scale Pixel Value in a fixed Range: As I discussed in our 32 bit article, Lightroom/ACR displays Images differently than other Edting programs do. So check this box to make things a little more normal looking in the Display in Lightroom

Click OK and the merge happen in a few seconds/minutes and then the merged image instantly shows back up in your Lightroom  catalog, just remember if you were on a folder or collection view you may have to click back to the All Photographs view to see the reimported file. Here is the unedited 32-bit Tiff

Un-edited 32 bit Tiff

Un-edited 32 bit Tiff


Now comes the fun part, Tone-mapping and editing your 32 Bit Tiff. I tend to do things in a specific order I feel works best. I edit in this order

  1. Globally
  2. Zoneally (is that a word?)
  3. Locally 

You may at this point want to do some image cleanup before you get into the nitty gritty. So take this time to crop your image and clean up any sensor spots that are visible now more will come into view later but that OK) Some people don’t like to crop at this point but I find it better to give me a better idea of the final image and also in cropping I may cut out some areas ct the histogram of the image so this will help me to take better control of my tonality. The great pat about using a Non-Destructive editor like Lightroom is that you can always go back and change the crop. You should also at this point make changes to your White Balance if the changes you made originally before merging now look differently merged. Also recheck to make sure that no new Chromatic Aberrations have popped up that are a result of the merge


Once your clean-up is done, the next thing I want to establish is an overall scheme to the look of the image. How I wanted the image to look and the relationships of tones in the image. Remember we are now taking a High Dynamic Range source and placing it in a Standard Dynamic Range image. It is at this point the choices you make will determine if you have made the overall image one of Standard Dynamic Range (that which can be viewed and printed) or one of a Low Dynamic Range image. This is YOUR artistic interpretation so what you make it is your choice but this is the pint at which that consideration is made

Lightroom Controls

Lightroom Basic Panel Controls

The Controls we will use most at this point are:

  1. Exposure
  2. Highlights
  3. Shadows
  4. Whites
  5. Blacks

Exposure: Exposure controls the Mid-Point of the image in which everything else revolves. In this instance we will use this control much more than in a standard image because while we can expect a certain exposure from good metering techniques in a standard image, in a merged one it’s not always so predictable and can vary greatly depending on the exposures you have shot. So use the Exposure control to either bring down or bring up the exposure into reasonable range and good look (keeping in mind how the scene looked to your eye when you shot it i.e. scene referred)

Highlights and Shadows: Highlights and Shadows control the Dynamic Range Compression of the scene. You’ve captured a High Dynamic range now how do we fit that in a Standard Range scene. We do so with these controls. You will, if you captured a very wide DR range scene need to use these control quite aggressively, it’s not usual at all for me to have them set at Highlight -100 and Shadow at +100, so much so that I made a preset to do just that. Once we have Exposure, Highlights and Shadows set, we then need to go in and set our Black and White Points

Whites and Blacks: When we establish White and Black points we are basically telling the program that “This” is White and “This” is Black. But in order to do so you really need to know how to read your image and the scene to even know if the image does in fact HAVE a white and a Black Point, not every image or scene does. The good new is that if you needed to use HDR mostly your scene does. An example of an image that will not have a black or white point is a very low contrast mid-toned image.  This is not a usual shot for HDR in fact there would be no need to shoot an image lie this HDR and setting a White and Black Point would make the scene much too contrasty. You can use a couple methods to set your White and Black Points in Lightroom.

Use the Histogram: You can look at the image histogram and then move the white and black sliders till you see the clipping warnings triangles on the histogram start to light up. (See the Blacks clipped above)Move the slider until they do and back off. Use the clipping warnings,

On the Histogram if you click on those triangles (square illuminated) this will turn on the clipping warnings on the image itself. White clipping will turn red, Blacks clipping will turn blue. Go to the edge and back off

Use the ALT/OPTION clipping warning. If while moving the White and Blacks Slider you hold down the ALT/OPTION key, the image will turn Black or White and only when Clipping appears will you see parts of the image and those parts will be clipped. Go to clipping and back off In the end it’s good to use the different methods but the image still must meet your criteria for look so don’t always just go by numbers or histograms (provided you have a calibrated monitor…if you do.. DO!) You may have to go back and forth between all the controls we just used to establish your overall look but once you have that it’s now time to move on to the next step This is the Image with Global Adjustments

Global Adjustments

Global Adjustments


 You may have established a good overall look to the image but now is the time to establish different relationships between sections or zones (No relation to the “Zone System”) of the image. You may want to have the sky darker or the foreground lighter in relation to the opposite part. So here is where and when it is a good tie to use tools such as The Graduated Filter Tool (shortcut M) or the Radial Filter (Shortcut Shift + M) Just be sure you understand the Radial Filter as it works opposite how you may think in that when you make the selection the edit is applied OUTSIDE of the selected areas. If you want to work inside the selected area you need to invert the mask But use these tools to establish the balance of tone from area to area with in the image as a whole. Here I brought down the exposure of the sky only using a graduated filter, I also added a bit of clarity to bring out the clouds

Zone Adjustments

Zone Adjustments


The final step is to work on the tonality of the image locally. This is making adjustments to the image in small areas. The best tool for this is your Adjustment Brush (shortcut K) use this tool to go around small area that you need to change the tonality of or other types of adjustments. I like to use this tool to apply some sharpening because I don’t always like to sharpen the entire image as it can ad some harsh problems to areas that aren’t supposed to be sharp (out of focus areas or soft detail like clouds) Here I used the Adjustment brush to bring up the Seaweed piles and also to brighten the waves

Local Adjustments

Local Adjustments

Finish up:

  When you are past this point you should have the overall image you want and now it’s up to you to ad any other enhancements you think the image needs, curves, saturation, clarity and any changes in HSL you may feel you need to make. Finishing up outside of Lightroom: Once EVERYTHING you want to do to the image in Lightroom is done, it’s at THIS point that you may want to take the image outside of Lightroom, either to Photoshop or to one of the Popular Plug-in programs Like Topaz, onOne etc for final work. Why I stress this is once you send the 32 bit Tiff outside of Lightroom with “Edit in” it will no longer be  a 32 Bit image but it’s color depth will be reduced to 16 or 8 bit depending on what your Edit in preferences are set to in Lightroom. Not that this is a problem because the edits you do going forwards do not need to be in 32 Bit but you do need to know this happens and that going back and making changes to the original 32bit Tiff will no longer have any effect on the new edit file

Here’s the Final Image, I brought it into Topaz Lab’s Clarity for some Detail Enhancements and I did some sharpening dn final tonal adjustments. Just to show the next step if you even need to do another next step after working in Lightroom. Many images you will have a final image right inside Lightroom and you merely take that and export it for web or print

Final Image

Final Image

And that’s the basics to using HDRsoft’s Export to 32-bit HDR plug-in for Lightroom and some basics in Lightroom once you have that 32 Bit TIFF back in Lightroom to continue your work. This little plug-ion makes it so easy to get a 32 Bit Tiff for Lightroom it’s just a  no-brainer

If you would like to purchase HDRsoft’s Export to 32 Bit HDR plug-in for Lightroom, Click on the link and don’t forget to use the Coupon Code THEHDRIMGAE for 15% off your purchase of anything at HDRsoft including their great Photomatix Pro5

One Comment

  1. Marty July 5, 2014 at 7:58 pm #

    Thanks for sharing, Peter. I use the plugin more than the full product, because I too feel I have more control, and get a more natural result. I tend to use the same settings every time, not really experimenting, and so far I have been generally pleased with the results. There is the occasional one that doesn’t work out to my satisfaction. Having said that, you’ve given me some reasons to try some alternate settings to see if I can get a better result. So we’ll see what happens. Thanks again.

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