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HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. Dynamic range is the amount of tones available in image between pure black and pure white colors. Each time we take a photo, we use a certain exposure. Using the metering system, the camera makes sure the desired subject is properly exposed, but this often means other parts of the image are sacrificed.

HDR is achieved by merging two or more differently exposed photos into one final photo with a wide dynamic range. It is a popular technique used by photographers for various purposes. The main idea is to produce an image containing more visible tonal information than a normal photo. This is especially useful when shooting scenes which contain very dark shadows and bright highlights, such as the sky.

Subtle, realistic HDR.

Photos are captured in camera’s bracketing mode, usually with 2 stops of difference in exposure with each image. You can capture as many exposures you want but the standard is 3 images each with 2 stops of exposure difference. One image is captured with normal exposure (0EV), one underexposed (-2EV) and one overexposed (+2EV).

The next step is merging these images into one using Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro feature. Simply open Photoshop, click File – > Automate -> Merge to HDR Pro. Choose your images and click OK. You’ll see an option ‘Attempt to Automatically Align source images’. In case you were not using a tripod, this option is highly recommended.

The next window you see is where all the magic happens. There a lot of settings, and we’ll go over all the most important ones to get you started.

Choose the 16-bit Local Adaptation mode. This mode grants you the most control over the toning process with several different parameters to adjust.

The ‘Remove Ghosts’ checkbox allows you to remove any unwanted objects in the image that are a result of movement within the composition. For example, leaves that were moving in wind are in different location across the bracketed images. Remove Ghosts makes sure such anomalies are removed.

In case there is a larger anomaly in a specific image, you also have the option to exclude that image altogether from the merging process. You can disable an image by unchecking it’s thumbnail located in the bottom left of the HDR Pro window.

Edge Glow

There are two sliders here, Radius and Strength. Strength controls how strongly to apply the effect, while the Radius controls how much to disperse the effect over a radius. Play with these sliders until you’re satisfied with the results. Just make sure you don’t overdo it by creating too much of a glowing (halo) effect around objects.

Tone and Detail

  • Gamma determines the contrast of the image. Turning it up adjusts the image towards a flatter, even tones. Turning it down increases the contrast between dark and bright tones.
  • Exposure controls the overall brightness of the image.
  • Detail either sharpens or softens out the details.

Advanced

Even though situated under the advanced tabs, these settings are probably the easiest to understand and are self-explanatory. The shadows slider controls the shadows, or dark parts of the image. In a normal image increasing shadows too much might produce undesirable effects such as artefacts and noise, but in HDR this is much more flexible, so don’t be afraid to pull it to the extremes. The same goes for Highlights.

Saturation and Vibrance might seem like similar settings, but they have one important difference. Saturation controls the overall strength of colors in the image, while the Vibrance is more selective, increasing only the strength of colors which are not already saturated.

Curves

If you are familiar with the Curves in Photoshop, this works the same way. It is a just different way to adjust the above mention parameters such as Highlights and Shadows, only with Curves you are able fine-tune the results with more precision.

Toning with ACR

In case you are using Photoshop CC, it has a new feature that allows you to tone a merged HDR image in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). To access it, set the mode to 32-Bit in HDR Pro, check the “Complete Toning in Adobe Camera Raw” option and click “Tone in ACR”.

Next you will see the standard window for processing RAW images in Photoshop, only now you are working with a much wider tonal range. This method might be a simpler approach for beginners, and helps produce a more realistic HDR effect.

Once you’re finished, you need to change the 32-Bit image to a 16 or 8-Bits per channel. To do this, go to Image -> Mode -> 16Bit or 8Bit. A pop up window will appear asking if you want to merge the layers. Click Merge. Next, you will be presented with the HDR Toning panel where you can further adjust the image, or if you just want to keep the ACR settings, choose “Exposure and Gamma” under Method, and set the Exposure to 0 and Gamma to 1.

While the process described here might seem complicated if you are a beginner, it is really simple once you try it. Feel free experiment with the settings to achieve the desired HDR effect.

All photos courtesy of Anes Mulalic.

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