How To Create a HDR Image in Photomatix

If you’ve ever been out shooting on a sunny day, you may have found it hard to achieve a good exposure in all areas of your photograph. One way of overcoming this problem is to create a High Dynamic Range (HDR) image using numerous photographs with different exposures. The following tutorial will show you how to create a HDR image in Photomatix.

Creating a HDR image doesn’t start at the editing stage. While you can create an HDR image using just one photograph, this will not yield the best results since you may be missing important details in the shadows and highlights. For this reason, you need to plan for HDR images when you are taking your photos. For best results, you will want to use a tripod. While many programs are capable of aligning hand held shots, I don’t find them reliable. The number of exposures you need will depend entirely on the the lighting in your scene. For most situations, I would recommend taking 3, 5 or 7 photographs with 1 full stop difference between shots. In some extreme cases, such as photographing indoors, with a brightly lit background outside a window,  you may need to increase the number of photographs, or alternatively shoot 2 full stops between photos. I also recommend shooting in RAW.

For the purpose of this tutorial, we will be using 5 photographs with 1 stop exposure values (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). In the -2 exposure photograph, the details in the sky are nice, but there is no detail on the boat, since it is back lit.  In the +2 exposure photograph, we can now see the details of the boat, but the sky is completely blown out. This is a good example of why you would want to combine photographs to create an image with an even exposure.

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For those wanting to know, here are my exposure settings for the 5 photographs, listed from left to right. I always shoot at 100 ISO.

  • 1/160 sec @ f/4.0
  • 1/80 sec @ f/4.0
  • 1/40 sec @ f/4.0
  • 1/20 sec @ f/4.0
  • 1/10 sec @ f/4.0

1 – Once you have determined exactly which photographs you are going to use, you will want to convert the RAW files to jpg. While Photomatix is capable of doing the conversion, you have more control if you do it yourself. It’s not necessary to fool around with any settings at this point, just open the RAW files in Photoshop, and save them using the default settings.

2 – Once you’ve opened up Photomatix, the first thing you will need to decide is whether you want to create an HDR Tone mapped image, or an Exposure Blend. What is the difference?

Exposure Blend (aka Exposure Fusion) combines the differently exposed images so that highlight details are taken from the underexposed photographs, and the shadow details are taken from the overexposed images. This method gives you a photograph that is evenly exposed throughout, but does not have a lot of contrast. This is the method I use if I intend to significantly edit in another program afterwards, such as Photoshop.

HDR Tone mapping is a two step process. For the first step, the exposure information of the photographs are combined to create a High Dynamic Range file. At this stage, the file is an unprocessed state. There is so much information that it can not be viewed on your monitor. Tone Mapping adjusts the information in the highlights and shadows so that they can be viewed correctly in prints and on monitors. This is the method I use when I want that “HDR Tonemapped” look.

It’s not uncommon for me to try both methods to determine which will look best for the scene I am working with. This is a however a tutorial about HDR, so we will proceed using the HDR Tone mapping editing method.

Example of an Exposure Blended Image

Example of a HDR Tonemapped Image

3 – In Photomatix, go to Process->Generate HDR... Click on the Browse button, and find the photographs you are going to edit. Click OK. If any of the images are missing EXIF data, you may get the following pop up window. Simply tell Photomatix the difference in exposure values, and then click OK.

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4 – At this point, the Generate HDR Options box should appear. You will want to select Align Source Images in case your camera moved slightly between photographs. Since we shot using a tripod, we will select By correcting horizontal and vertical shifts. If you shot handheld however, you will want to choose By matching features. The HDR process by nature can increase the amount of noise in shadow areas. For this reason, I usually select Reduce Noise.  Alternatively, you can leave this unchecked, and manage the noise later on in another program such as Noise Ninja. Take Tone Curve of Color Profile is recommended, so unless you have a specific reason not to select this option, don’t fight it. If there are elements of your scene that are moving between frames, such as people, grass or leaves, you might want to experiment with Attempt to Reduce Ghosting Artifacts. Since our scene is relatively calm, we will skip this option.

 

5 – After processing, you should see the HDR image. As mentioned earlier, it is unprocessed and does not show the details in the hightlights and shadows very well. Click on the Tone Mapping button to continue.

 

An Unprocessed HDR Image

 

At this point you will probably feel overwhelmed by the number of options that are available. Don’t panic, you don’t need to know what every single setting does in order to achieve good results. We have, however, hit a fork in the road, and you need to decide which direction you are going to go. You can edit using the Details Enhancers Method or the Tone Compressor Method, but not both. The Details Enhancer method does just that; it allows for precise adjustments where pixels are in high contrast with their neighbours. With the Tone Compressor method, you can avoid the noise and halos that the detailed method might give you, but the image will lack local details and contrast. Fortunately, you can click on either tab, try out a few settings, and if you don’t like what you see, switch back to the other tab without losing your settings. I don’t believe I have ever used the Tone Compressor method, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Your photograph will dictate what works best for you.

For the Image Preview window, I like to have it as large as possible, while still fitting within the screen. For this reason, I choose the Fit option.

For the purpose of this tutorial, ONLY COMPLETE ONE OF THE FOLLOWING STEPS, either 6A or 6B.

6ADetail Enhancer Method – There are 3 main settings that will influence the look of your overall image. They are:

  • Strength – Controls the overall contrast of the scene.
  • Color Saturation – Controls how strong the overall colour is. Don’t over do it!
  • Smoothing – Controls the smoothing of contrast variations within the image. There are 5 radio buttons to select from. (Very Low, Low, Medium, High, Very High) . This setting is highly influenced by your taste. I’ve always been a fan of subtle HDR, so I generally choose a High setting. Click on the images below to see how smoothing affects the look of the photograph.

 

Very Low

Low

Medium

High

Very High

 

Other settings you might want to play with include:

  • Luminosity – This will lighten up the details in the shadows and increases the contrast for details
  • White & Black Point – These will adjust the overall contrast for the entire scene
  • Temperature – Adjusts the overall temperature of the HDR image (cool to warm)

Here are our final settings. (Each photograph will have different settings based on lighting conditions and preference):

  • Strength: 80
  • Color Saturation: 50
  • Luminosity: 7
  • Light Smoothing: Very High
  • Micro contrast: 7
  • White Point: 1.000%
  • Black Point: 0.0000% (default)
  • Gamma:  1 (default)
  • Temperature: -3
  • Saturation Highlights: 0 (default)
  • Saturation Shadows: 0 (default)
  • Micro-smoothing: 0 (default)
  • Highlight smoothing: 0 (default)
  • Shadow smoothing: 0 (default)
  • Shadow clipping: 0 (default)

This is what our final image looks like using the Detail Enhancer Method.

And after a few minor adjustments in Photoshop.

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6BTone Compressor Method – Start by temporarily changing the Tonal Range Compression to 10. Next, adjust the Brightness slider until your mid tones are no longer dark. Use the Contrast Adaption to increase the details in the shadow areas. At this point, feel free to back off the Tonal Range Compression to a more reasonable value while watching how it affects your image. If you would like more contrast in your image, you can adjust the White or Black Points. Adjust the Saturation slider to increase or decrease the amount of colour in the image.

Here are our final settings. (Each photograph will have different settings based on lighting conditions and preference):

  • Brightness: 4
  • Tonal Range Compression: 5
  • Contrast Adaption: 10
  • White Point: 0.000%
  • Black Point: 0.111%
  • Temperature: 0
  • Saturation: 1

This is what our final image looks like using the Tone Compressor Method.

 

Hopefully, after reading through this tutorial, you will have a better understanding of how to create a HDR image in Photomatix, as well as the options available. Best of luck!

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2 Responses to “How To Create a HDR Image in Photomatix”

  1. Tome says:

    Great article. No matter how often I use Photomatix, it’s refreshing and useful to see the approach used in such a great image. Personally I’ve never found Tone Compressor very useful and I can only agree on using high or very high smoothing. Have you ever used the technique of masking the hdr layer over the original layers?
    Btw, I didn’t know that you shot the pirate ship with an f/4.0 :).

    • Jonathan Eger says:

      I haven’t tried masking the HDR over the original layers, but it’s a great idea. You could also combine both the Detail Enhancer Method with the Tone Compressor in post, which might give you some interesting results.

      The reason I shot at f/4.0 was because it was a low light situation, and it was windy that day. Since I was bracketing my photos, I didn’t want the clouds to move too much between frames. I could have increased the ISO, but I like to keep it as low as possible.