HDR Lifecycle Index:
1) Conception - planning & shooting
2) RAW Infancy - prepping photos for tone mapping
3) Tone Mapping Puberty - tone mapping & Photomatix
4) Photoshop Maturity - Layer blending & final edits
Oh, how the nanocycles seem to fly by. One minute you’re welcoming brand new RAW files onto your hard drive, and the next they’re finished with tone mapping, almost fully mature HDR photos. Isn’t it always the way? Nostalgic sighs become me… haaaaaahhhhhhh… (that’s how I sigh, leave me alone).
So this is it gang, the final stage in the HDR Lifecycle series. Before I put you to sleep with masking techniques or layer adjustments, I wanted to reinforce two points:
- You guys are the best. There have been some excellent discussions in the comments and the community that’s forming here really rocks my socks. For the most part, you’re not the fluff-fluff comment crowd, but the engaged critically minded type (yes, even you Nick Davis… I suppose :-] ). Community is a key ingredient for growth, so keep doing what you’re doing.
- There are other ways! This guide is just a presentation of my general workflow. In fact, almost every time I make an HDR photo, I try to experiment and deviate. Yesterday, my mind was blown by Tony Kuyper’s luminosity masking and I started using some of his techniques (they’re not really even his anyway, he just adopted them). I highly suggest you only incorporate my notes on post-processing into your own workflow where it seems appropriate, but DEFINITELY DON’T treat them like some sort of HDR Bible. I sure don’t. Find your own path, do your own thang, work it harder, make it better, do it faster, makes us stronger (Daft Punk not Kanye West)
Lightroom to Photoshop
After “Re-Importing” from Photomatix to Lightroom, we’re automatically warp whistled back to Lightroom where our newly tone mapped image has been grouped with the original bracketed DNGs. I love it when automation saves me time and keep things organized!
Next we need to get all these files into a single Photoshop document as individual layers. There are several ways of doing this in Photoshop or Bridge, but we’re in Lightroom which gives us exactly one good way. With all relevant files selected, right click and choose Edit In > “Open as layers in Photoshop…”
Again with the warp whistling between programs.
This is the home stretch. After we’re finished in Photoshop all we have left is wild, exciting dancing. Be careful you perfectionists, Photoshop has been known to consume entire evenings and then ask for more without a second thought. “Photoshop takes as much time as you have.” An ego-maniac once wrote that quote on his photo blog… and I believe him (it was me).
STEP 1) Stop, Look, Listen
This step takes about 15-20 seconds and will give you the advantage of decisiveness and purpose while editing. Look over your tone mapped image and the other bracketed exposures. Consider which areas of each photo are strongest and also which parts of the tone mapped image could use revision. Loosely envision what the final photo will be like and form a preliminary plan of attack.
STEP 2) Layer Blending
The masking method I employ is taken from Trey Ratcliff (his video embedded on the right), except I avoid the one-way ticket of layer merging by using groups and group layer masks. Although the final PSD file size ends up being larger, the non-linear workflow is well worth the sacrifice since I can go back and change the masks at any point.
The goal for this step is to create an image that is well exposed everywhere by masking parts of each layer together. Every time is different, but generally I start with the tone mapped image set as the top layer and bracketed exposures stacked underneath from dark to light (darker on the top). I add a layer mask to the tone mapped layer and reveal the parts of the darkest exposure I want using a semi-transparent brush (usually 20-50% opaque). Once I’m satisfied, I group the tone mapped layer and this top exposure layer together. Then, I add a layer mask to this group and repeat the process with the next lightest source image. When finished, my layers are nested in groups each with a mask.
In the screen shot there are two layers above the rest. After I went through all the layer masking and the grouping process, there were several areas that still didn’t seem right. I found that these original exposures had elements I wanted. Although I could’ve highlighted these areas with the masks already in place, to avoid confusing myself with more complicated masks, I copied these exposures over the other layers and started with fresh masks.
STEP 3) Photo Editing
Likely you already have you’re own techniques so I’ll keep it brief. This topic alone is worthy of its own series.
If layers were blended right, now we have an extremely well exposed dynamic image to edit per usual in Photoshop. Almost always I find there is some dullness in the mid-tones as well as varying color casts throughout. I fix the contrast issues with masked Curves adjustment layers. Don’t be afraid to use several of them and be selective in your masking. For a really helpful (and advanced) tutorial about using luminosity masks to create specific value based selections, definitely watch this short video by Matt Norris. I’ve just started to incorporate these concepts into my editing and find them useful.
To correct color casts I lean toward the HSL adjustment layer for simplicity’s sake. It’s straight forward and lets you isolate specific color channels. Often, I end up turning down saturation on a few channels in order to let the best colors shine and avoid the classic HDR folly of having every color over-saturated.
You know the shot is done when it makes you say “wow” or you hate it more and more with every new edit. In both cases, it’s time to add the final sharpening touches and walk away (I use the High Pass filter for this, not the Unsharpen Mask).
That’s it! We made it! Do a dance yo!
At long last! A fully developed HDR Photo!
Here it is, the end result of all the work. Usually it takes me between 1 -3 hours to run through this whole workflow. It depends on how picky I am, how much refinement the tone map needs, and how much caffeine I can pump into my system.
So, I’m curious, where is your workflow different than mine? I love talking about workflow strategies and personally invite you to start a conversation with me on the topic. Either drop a line in the comments, via the contact form which goes straight to my personal inbox, or on G+.
Before/After Photoshop Edits
(Slide the slider to compare the before/after shots. Best viewed in Firefox.)
The left side is after layer blending, but before adjusting contrast and color. The right side is the final HDR photo.
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