HDR Lifecycle: Photoshop Maturity

HDR Tutorial: Reine After Photoshop Edits - Marie Reine

Look at this fully mature HDR Photo. Ah... they grow up so fast.


Sparing no uncomfortable detail, The HDR Life Cycle series explores and attempts to explain the miraculous creation of an HDR photo.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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)
And now, the exciting conclusion to… the HDR Lifecycle.
If you’re unfamiliar with HDR photography, it’s quite interesting stuff. Check out this (creatively titled) article “What is HDR Photography?

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.

Lightroom - Open as Layers in Photoshop

Exporting from LR to PS


Photoshop Edits

Photoshop takes as much time as you have.

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.

HDR Tutorial: Layer Blending

How I blend my layers.


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!

HDR Tutorial: Photoshop Edits

I like to keep editing as simple as possible without sacrificing results.

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+.

HDR Tutorial: Reine After Photoshop Edits - Marie Reine

Woot! A fully mature HDR Photo!

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.
[beforeafter]HDR Tutorial: Reine Before Photoshop Edits - Marie Reine HDR Tutorial: Reine After Photoshop Edits - Marie Reine[/beforeafter]

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16 Responses to HDR Lifecycle: Photoshop Maturity

  1. Link Web Page April 28, 2013 at 6:23 am #

    Loved it. My thanks for doing such a good job. I will definitely check to your site to see what’s new and inform my coworkers about this website.

  2. travel November 10, 2012 at 10:18 am #

    think that is the best article thet i have read

  3. Adam Allegro March 23, 2012 at 7:07 am #

    Awesome Andrew. My workflow is nowhewre nearly that involved, but yours seems to do the trick… Beautifully done! BTW, what is the plugin for that Slider????? That thing is sick!

  4. Luna March 23, 2012 at 2:55 am #

    The photo really look so amazing.. Thanks for some tips on Photoshop! 🙂

  5. Mark Summerfield March 22, 2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Thank you for this excellent series, Andrew. One question on your technique: When you bring all the individual DNG files into Photoshop, have you ever run then through Photomatix individually to obtain a more consistent look to the tonemapped version? Depending on the image and the amount of blending required, I have sometimes found this additional step necessary to ensure a smoother blend.

    • Andrew March 22, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

      You mean tone mapping each bracket DNG and then loading all the tone maps as bracketed images into Photomatix? I have not tried this, but imagine the result would have a lot of punch.

      I have tone mapped single DNGs before with good results. Since DNGs store more values than they display, this method is a good way to add some dynamic range without bracketing several shots.

  6. Born25 March 22, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    I am fun of capturing different images, thanks for sharing this beautiful shot… How I wish I can undergo a kind of photo shop to improve my photography skills…

  7. nick March 22, 2012 at 7:42 am #

    The balls of light remind me of Tatl and Tael, the fairies from Majora’s Mask

  8. Steven Perlmutter March 21, 2012 at 4:51 pm #

    Great image, and I really appreciate the tutorial on your workflow. I’m still very much a newbie with PS, but am learning more and more each day thanks to guides like this.

  9. A.Barlow March 21, 2012 at 12:44 pm #

    Always impressed with these posts; so very clean in easy to read detail. Nice one.

  10. Len Saltiel March 21, 2012 at 11:51 am #

    I go through some similar steps Andrew. Once I have blended the layers, I usually use plug-ins to add that extra something. I do this as I really don’t know Photoshop except for the very basic functionality. The plug-ins that I use are the Nik Suite, On-One Suite and Topaz Suite. I know some PS purists will decry the filters but the learning curve is too steep for PS and I rather be shooting. Thanks for sharing your process.


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