HDR How-To


HDR Tutorial Final ImageHow do I shoot and process an HDR Photograph?

Update 5/5/2014 The Original post has been updated to show the new interfaces and features of Photomatix Pro 5

This will give you the quick and short method to shooting and processing. There will be a lot more things to cover along the way but I will do them in posts to the blog. This will get you started and allow you to experiment and get used to the process of shooting for HDR and how to bring it all together in your computer.


First off, the equipment you will need:

  • A camera that is capable of manual operation or exposure bracketing in Aperture Priority mode. This would be almost all DSLRs, MILCs (Mirrorless) and some Point & Shoot digital cameras
  • A Tripod, nice good quality steady one
  • A remote shutter release, although it is possible to use your timer or just press the shutter button. A shutter release can give the ultimate results and control
  • An HDR Processing program. Now I always recommend PhotomatixPro 5 from HDR soft. I have tried a lot of different programs but I still think it is the best. There  are plenty more and you can even use Photoshop CS2 or later to process HDRs. Photomatix does have full function trial you can use to see if you like it before you buy. But it will watermark your images. For 15% off your purchase of any Photomatix software, enter the coupon code: theHDRimage at checkout. It’s available in a lite version, The Pro version which is a standalone with Plug-ins for Lightroom, And as a plug-in tone mapper for Photoshop and Aperture


So it’s time to shoot.

We want to capture the highest dynamic range for each image even if we are shooting multiple exposures. So if your camera is capable of shooting RAW or Tiff format, do so. If you are not comfortable working in either of those formats, you can shoot JPEGs, it will still work fine even if it is not the ultimate in quality.

First we need to determine a good subject and lighting for HDR. Landscapes are a natural for it but best early morning or late in the day when the light get more contrasty or has more Dynamic Range, which is what of course we want. Architecture is especially good, interior architecture it’s almost a necessity, Vehicles work great. Remember we are looking for a subject that we can’t capture well with normal photography, in fact if you can get it right without HDR, do it. People or portraits or really any object in motion are not good for HDR because remember we are going to be taking multiple exposures and any movement in between those images will cause ghosting or worse in our image.

Now that we have selected our subject we need to shoot our images. For this basic tutorial we are going to shoot 3 Images at 3 different exposures. We are going to use either manual mode or Aperture Priority Auto. We choose Aperture Priority over Shutter priority because we want out Aperture and therefore our Depth of Field constant.

So let’s talk about setting our aperture first. I think it should be shot with a very deep Depth of Field (DOF) so I always shoot my HDRs with a smaller Aperture. I usually shoot at f16. on my Full Frame camera that gives me the maximum DOF without getting some softness issues that occur at even smaller apertures (Diffraction), If you are shooting with a cropped DSLR/MILC you should probably shoot around f11 and if using a Point & Shoot f8 will be fine. But the point is we need to use the same aperture for every shot.

With our aperture set we take our 3 shots. We need to have each shot 2EV or 2 stops apart. So if in manual mode and reading your meter that would mean we want 1 shot each at 0, -2 and +2 on the meter.It’s important for our 0 exposure that we meter on a midtone and not the brightest or darkest area of our scene. This may be the blue sky or some green grass but don’t meter your 0 exposure on say the sun or the dark shadows. You will get a much better image with good metering techniques. If you are using Aperture priority mode on your camera that can do exposure bracketing. We want to set our bracketing at 3 exposures, 2 stops apart. (some Nikons can only do 1 stop apart so do 5 exposure, 1 stop apart) All set?

Now take 3 images carefully shooting so there is no camera movement. Remember our software is going to have to line up 3 images so the less movement between each shot there is, the sharper your final image will be. Some people like to know where the 3 exposures start and finished so they may take a picture of their hand in between each group but you really can only do this with manual mode since it will mess up your bracketing since you are adding a 4th shot.

If you did things right you should have three images that look similar to this:

0 Meter Exposure

0 Meter Exposure


-2EV Exposure

-2EV Exposure


+2EV Exposure

+2EV Exposure

With your images shot you are done. One of the fun parts for me is that when I am actually shooting I never know what I really have. It kind of goes back to the days of shooting film when you weren’t really sure what you had till the photos were developed. Those old days before LCD screens on the back of our cameras.

Once you return home download your images to your computer and open them to view in an appropriate software. If they are RAW files you may need to open them in Bridge or Lightroom or your original RAW software that came with your camera. But you want a browser that you can see your images and to define the file numbers for your sets of 3 images.

Processing/Tone-mapping your HDR

There are a few ways we can get our bracketed exposures/images into Photomatix Pro 5 for Processing

If you are a Lightroom User: Highlight your 3 (or how many exposures you have) for your HDR Image and Right/control click and say “Export in Photomatix” It’s an Export not an Edit in command

Lightroom Export

Lightroom Export

If you are using Photoshop and Bridge: Select your images and  Right/cmd click and say “Open in Photomatix 5. A dialog box will appear and ask what you want to do. Click “Merge for HDR Processing and Fusion” It will show the file numbers you selected and click OK again

Or provided you bought the full standalone version of Photomatix 5, you can simply open Photomatix 5 and click on the Load BracketedPhotos

Photomatix Load

Photomatix Load

Click on the “Load Bracketed Photos” button and it will open another dialog box that you can browse for and find your images you want to combine into your HDR.

Photomatix Select Photos

Photomatix Select Photos

After you have selected your image with the software you chose to import, your next dialog box will look like this:

Photomatix Merge Dialog

Photomatix Merge Dialog

Starting from the top of the panel

Align sources should be checked

Select how you shot the image, whether on a Tripod or Handheld. This is important for the alignment and how hard the program needs to work. As you get into more advanced HDR and if your technique on a tripod is spot on perfect, you may even turn off align sources for better alignment, but that’s for later on.

You will notice a Crop Aligned Images box. When Photomatix aligns the images, if the images are really off in alignment it will crop the image to get the bad edges off, sometimes this leads to an image slighly off from the regular 2:3 photo image so you may need to crop later to bring it back to a standard aspect ratio.

There is a check box for  ” Include Perspective correction” for Handheld Images, I keep this checked also. As an image may be twisted from image to image you may get some perspective distortion say to the shape of a building. This helps pull those lines together. I usually use the default 12%

“Show Options To remove Ghost”  I will use if there are things in motion in the image that this may be a problem, people or water moving. But if it is not necessary I keep it off. Most times I do leave it off. However I will say the “Selective De-ghosting”tools is one of the most powerful parts of Photomatix Pro 5.1 that sets it apart from other software for Aligning and De-ghosting. I have a seperate post on how to use this once you get used to doing the basics

Reduce Chromatic aberrations I usually check also, it stop the blue/purple fringing that is common place on areas of extreme contrast.

Reduce noise: I never use. There are way better noise reduction programs out there that I will use later if necessary.

The last two boxes For white Balance and color space. Choose the color space you edit in. If you DON’T know what that is choose sRGB. And white balance I leave as shot. If there are really problems with white balance I correct them In my RAW editing program before Export (save the file as a TIFF to open in Photomatix  Standalone instead of a RAW file if you are correcting WB but not coming directly out of LR or Photoshop Bridge). It is much more precise

Then Align and Show De-ghosting and Photomatix

If you selected to do de-ghosting

This is the screen you will be presented with:

Photomatix De-Ghost

Photomatix De-Ghost


At this point you can select theExposure you want the De-Ghosting based on and then the amount of de-ghosting you want which you can see in real time. This method will be good if you want to “Solidify” your ghost, if youw ant to eliminate a ghost you may be better off using selective de-ghosting. But try different exposures and different amounts and use what you feel looks best. In this image I used it to bring more detail and stop motion to the waves.

32 bit preview

If you use a Import method OTHER THAN LIGHTROOM…you will have a choice in the Image selection box of “32 bit Preview before processing” (I wish they didn’t eliminate this in the LR Mod but I know why they did)

You can check the box and get to see what a 32bit Image looks like. You also can see the 32bit histogram at this point and learn a lot about the dynamic range you captured

With the 3 (or more) Images combined before tone-mapping

It will look somewhat like this, pretty ugly huh?

Photomatix 32 Bit Preview

Photomatix 32 Bit Preview


That is because no monitor available now can display a 32 Bit HDR image. So now we have to take this image and “Tone Map” it so that it is visible on our monitors and can be printed if we desire.

Also at this point you can go to File> Save and save this as a Radiance RGB HDR file. This will allow you to reopen the original HDR file and rework it if you don’t like what your first attempt at tone mapping did. It eliminates having to do the first 3 steps again. (Advanced users: If you intend to Tone map in Lightroom or Photoshop ACR at this point Save it as a 32 Floating Bit Tiff  that LR and ACR will recognize. Unfortunately you can’t do this step if exporting from LR but you would need instead to use Photomatix’s Merge to 32 Bit Lightroom Plug-in

Tone Mapping/Fusion

Now we click on the Tone Mapping/Fusion and Our Tone Mapping Screens Open up.

Photomatix Tone Map

Photomatix Tone Map

On the left is our Process type dropdown and adjustments panel, at top are our scaling/zoom functions along with a Selection check box which we will discuss later in another blog post. On the right or down below, depending on Image orientation, are presets. The presets are good because they allow you to see many different styles of HDR, from mild to wild and  you can see where the adjustment controls move to for different looks. After you get used to working with Photomatix Pro 5, you may come up with your own presets, just like I have, with your favorite setting, which you can save as custom presets

Working our way around

Screen Shot 2014-05-05 at 12.20.02 PMAt the top are two buttons, One for Tone Mapping, one for Exposure Fusion.  Each with Dropdown subsets of that method

Exposure Fusion is more like what you would get from Two Exposure Blends, which is fine but not what we want…well it MAY be what you want. Remember this is your art and where the look YOU desire matters. Under the Exposure Fusion are 6 subsets

Fusion/Two Image

I’m not going to go through them all here, but you should play with them to see if they do give you a look you desire


I prefer use: Tone mapping.  Under that the Method Drop down gives us 3 choices.

Detail Enhancer
Contrast Optimizer
Tone Compressor

The Tone Compressor is fine if you want a natural looking image but really isn’t that powerful. I don’t think I have ever used it…but don’t let that stop you.

I prefer Detail Enhancer or  Contrast Optimizer not because I want something that looks unnatural but just that is gives me much more control and the ability to fix problems that may pop up in an image. If you prefer the Wild, The painterly or the CGI look. Detail Enhancer most likely is the one for you but you can get very natural looks with it too if you control it right.

Lets Look at Detail Enhancer first

Detail Enhancer

This panel controls are all set up with the most important settings at top and they work their way down in order of importance or use.

The two most powerful controls as we work down the panel are  Strength and Lighting Adjustments. In the Lighting Adjustment  panel check the box for Lighting Effects. This again will give you more powerful choices.

Between Lighting Adjustments and Strength, these two controls will adjust the differences between brightness and shadow and the intensity of those areas. Go back and forth with both of them until you get the desired look you want, without ugly artifacts that can be a side effect of too much or too little of each other.

I usually start with Natural and then move the Strength bar back and forth till I find what I want. But depending on the image and what I am looking for I may go up to Natural +or down toMedium or Surreal, again adjusting the strength to get where I want to be.

Color Saturation is just as it suggests, how much color you want in the image. I’m usually around 70% for a starting point

Tone Compression will raise or lower how flat or contrasty the image in tonal values, It makes things either all very much the same lightness or you can go to the left and make the image very contrasty from Bright to Dark

Detail Contrast can bring in more detail to the image by increasing contrast at edges.

Moving down to the next section,

Under More Options.

These are your tone controls.

Smooth Highlights is a good control to know if you get a lot of Haloing or white glow around objects. using this control can lesson those artifacts

White point  affects bright tones, Black point affects dark tones and Gamma affects Mid-tones. Gamma is the control in this section I use the most, since again when we blend the 3 images it tends to make the whole image more towards mid-tones and we need to bring some contrast back to it. (I usually use 1.2 as my Gamma Start point) Using these controls you can go by eye or also use the histogram to set your Black, White and Mid Points

The rest of the controls we won’t worry about for now, I will talk more about them in other lessons in the blog. They are very helpful when you run into problems with an image such as Burnt Edges (dark areas surrounding areas of brightness) or haloing. But if we do things right from the start, we may not have to deal with those problems.

Contrast Optimizer

Contrast Optimizer is my favorite Tone Mapping method, It’s one of the things that is new in Photomatix 5 and a welcome addition if you prefer a very natural look as is MY preference

The controls are few but really work well together

We start again with: Strength

Strength again establishes The relationship between  The highlight of the image to the shadow. As you drg it to the left of it’s 50% default It will make the shadows much darker than the highlight. As you drag it to the right it will bring up the shadows to a tone closer to a mid-tone in relation to the highlight. I usually use about 80 as my starting point.

Tone Compression is very similar to strength but can be used more to flatten out the tone of an image instead of working the Highlight to Shadow maximums. It fixes the in between.

You use these two controls the most and go back and forth with them till you get the look you desire

Beneath that is Lighting Effects

Lighting Effects is gradually masked mostly to the bottom of the image. That’s because in a normal landscape we have a line between earth and sky. This control helps to bring back a little life to the Earth part on the lower half. So use it to bring back the Lightness and detail you want to see

The rest of the controls are similar to the Detail Enhancer mode and control Your Black, White and Mid-tone Points (for an article about setting White/Black points go HERE While it deals with setting Points in Post work you can carry some of the ideas to this point in your process)

For our example image I used the Detail Enhancer mode of tone-mapping

With all their controls set to their default settings we got a pretty ehh image

HDR No Adjustments

HDR No Adjustments

But with just a  bit of tweaking and then finishing work in Lightroom or Photoshop (Most images you try to get their best in Photomatix but they almost always benefit from Post Processing the final output.)

I set Strength at 90, Tone Compression at 80% , White clip 2.1, Black Clip at 6.0  and then Gamma at -1.20 and that was about all I had to do  In post, I touched up some of the overall levels and sharpened the image. and this is my result for a look as I saw the scene when I shot it.

Photomatix HDR Tutorial Final Image

Photomatix HDR Tutorial Final Image

It’s hard to give a recipe for what YOU want in your image. Experimentation is the key and after a while you will find the look you  like and you will find that your settings won’t vary much if you like that look consistently for your images.

If this is the look you want, go to File > Save and save the image. I prefer to save it as a 16bit Tiff file and then maybe do some Final Adjustments in Photoshop. But you also have to option to save as a 8 bit JPEG file.

If you Exported from Lightroom then simply hit the Save and Re-import Button. Just make sure that Lightroom is showing “All Photographs” and you are not in a  Collection or a folder as you may not see the re-impoirt that way

There of course is a lot more to it depending how deep you want to get into HDR and there are many more articles (over 180!)in the Blog section of The HDR Image and use the Tag Cloud or Search function to find something you may be looking for.

And lastly don’t forget if you are just purchasing any HDRsoft / Photomatix products Click this link HDRsoft to take advantage of the 15% off coupon code: theHDRimage

Thanks for looking, Hope that Helps