HDR Tutorial, Photography, Photomatix Pro

HDR – Intermediate

So you have completed the beginner tutorial.  You have loaded your bracketed shots into your HDR software and now you are asking yourself “why are none of the presets giving me the results I want and how come my image is so grainy?”. The purpose of the intermediate tutorial is to give you the knowledge to move away from the presets and create your own templates based on your creative thought process.

For the purposes of this tutorial, if you would like to follow along, please download the trial (or full version) of Photomatix Pro.

If you do not have Lightroom or Photoshop, please take a look at Gimp.  It is a free image editing and retouching program and will offer some of the functionality of Photoshop.

Step 1. – Loading Base Image

If you have not used Photomatix thus far, the first step is to introduce you to the starting interface.

Upon opening the program you will see this:

HDR Tutorial, Photography, Photomatix ProFor the time being, we are going to select “Load Bracketed Photos”.  If you want to process a large number of photos you can select “Batch Bracketed Photos” and, if requested, I can create a tutorial for that at a later date.

After you select the “Load Bracketed Photos” option, you will be prompted with the following window:

HDR Tutorial, Photography Tutorial, Photomatix ProClick on “Browse”, select the 3 bracketed shots you wish to merge, and press the “OK” button.

Once you have clicked the “OK” button you will be prompted with the following options:

HDR Tutorial, Photography, Photomatix Pro

You will notice that I have everything unchecked except for reducing chromatic aberrations.  The reason you do not need to check those is the all-mighty tripod.  While the software does a relatively good job of aligning the images for you, if you take the shots properly with a sturdy tripod you do not have to worry about the software “guessing” at the alignment.  Furthermore, for the same reason, I did not select the “Remove Ghost” option.  However, if there is a heavy wind and you are shooting a landscape with moving objects (i.e. leaves, trees, grass) you may want to select the “remove ghost” option and let it detect automatically at a “normal” rate.  This may eliminate some of the movement from your photos.

TIP: If you want the absolute best quality for your photo, make sure to change the color primaries from Adobe RGB to ProPhoto RGB.  ProPhoto RGB produced larger image files but with the added size also comes more information to edit in your post processing.  If your computer is not very quick you can keep the color primaries as Adobe RGB.

Regarding the noise reduction and white balance, you will want to leave them unchecked and “as shot”, respectively.  Lightroom or Photoshop will do a much better job of reducing noise in your photographs. If you do not have an image editing software, you can use the built in noise removal feature.

Press “OK” and let it run through its paces to produce the base image.

Once Photomatix is done working its magic, you will be presented with this:

HDR Tutorial, Photography

Once you get to this screen, select the option of “Tone Mapping/Fusion”. When you make your selection, you will then be granted access to the editing panel:

HDR Tutorial, Photography

This is where the fun begins.  Immediately to your left you will notice a panel with various sliders.  This is where you will make all the necessary adjustment to produce an image to your liking.  Immediately to your right, you will notice there are many different preset options you can cycle through by clicking on their respective thumbnails.  Go ahead and click on a few to see all the different effects that you have at your disposal.  Notice how the sliders on the left move each time you make a new preset selection? You can get a general idea of what each slider does by moving them around on your own and seeing the direct effect it has on your image. Feel free to explore at this point before returning to my explanation of the sliders and how they affect the end result of your image.

Step 2. – Tonemapping Image

Okay, lets take a closer look at your sliders and the effect they have on your image.

  • Process: Tone Mapping and Method: Details Enhancer: I use this setup exclusively.  It provides the best results for me personally.  If you would like to experiment with exposure fusion and tone compression go ahead.
  • Strength: In the simplest terms, strength affects how much “HDR” toning is being applied to the photo.  The closer you move the slider to 100 the more contrast and “pop” your images will have. My personal sweet spot ranges from 70 all the way up to 100.
  • Color Saturation: This slider will determine how vivid your colors will appear.  Again, the more you move the slider to the right the richer your colors will appear.  Personally, I normally leave this slider at its default level of 50.  I prefer to adjust color and saturation in Lightroom.
  • Luminosity: The more you shift this slider to the right the more bright your image will become.  Again, I normally do not make many adjustments to this slider.  I prefer to make lighting corrections in Lightroom or Photoshop.  If you do not have image editing software, you may use the luminosity slider along with the white point, black point and gamma sliders to achieve a lighting composition you desire.
  • Detail Contrast: This one is very important. Similar to strength, it will add additional contrast but it does so on the finer details of your photo.  I use this slider for each of my HDR photographs and my sweet spot is usually around the 80% to 100% mark.
  • Light Adjustment: This is where you get the HDR painterly effect.  If you move this slider to the right you will get a more natural looking photograph.  If you move this slider to the left, you will get the HDR painterly effect.  TIP: Instead of using the slider, I prefer to check the “Lighting Effects” checkbox to enable the button layout instead.  Normally, I will select either “Normal” or “Normal +” for my settings as this helps retain some realism but feel free to use “Surreal+” if that is the look you have been searching for.

Enable “Show More Options” and “Show Advanced Options”

  • Smooth Highlights: If you move this slider to the right it will reduce the amount of detail in your highlights.  Removing details from a photograph that is not yet finalized is generally not my preferred method of editing so I generally leave this one at 0.
  • White Point: When you move this to the right it will enhance the luminosity of your highlights.  I normally make only correctional adjustments to this slider.
  • Black Point: When you move this to the right it will increase the darkness of the shadows in your image. I normally make only correctional adjustments to this slider.
  • Gamma: This is one of the 3 main sliders that I use extensively. This slider controls your mind-tones. The mid-tones basically refer to the parts of your photos that are not too dark and not too light.  When you move it to the right, you will increase the luminosity of your mid-tones thus blowing up the overall look of your photo.  If you move it left you get a very dark, grungy, industrial looking photo.  TIP: As mentioned above, use the gamma in conjunction with luminosity, black point and white point to achieve proper lighting.
  • Temperature: If you move this slider to the right it will change the tint of your photograph towards the oranges/reds (hotter).  If you move it to the left you will get a blue (cooler) effect.  I almost never use this slider as I prefer to make these adjustments in Lightroom.
  • Micro-Smoothing: I leave this one at 0.  This slider will again remove details form your photo which I normally do not want.  If you are going for an extreme painterly look, you may use this slider to get that more blurry, fantastical look.
  • Saturation Highlights: I normally adjust this slider for all my photos.  As it implies, it will increase or decrease the saturation of the highlights (the bright areas in your photo).  I have no set sweet spot for this slider as it can go to the extreme ends on either side of the slider depending on the look of the original scenery I am trying to reproduce or reinvent ;).
  • Saturation Shadows: This slider will adjust the saturation of your shadows (the dark’s on your photo).  I normally boost this one to around 60% or between 4.2 – 6.2 on the slider.  However, similar to the saturation highlight slider, I may go to the extreme ends on this one as well depending on the look I am going for.
  • Shadow Smoothness: When you put this slider to the right it will make the whole photograph a bit more dark by increasing the shadows. I normally leave this at 0.
  • Shadow Clipping: This can be useful when you have a lot of noise in really dark (shadows) areas.  It will basically remove some of the noise by making the dark areas even more dark (a.k.a black).

Once you have made all the changes to your tonemapped photo, click “Process” and save the resulting image as a 16-bit .TIF.

That basically covers Photomatix Pro.  Please keep in mind that the way I have outlined the slider options is conducive of my techniques.  You should experiment with all the options and find out the look that appeals the most to you.  Art (your art) should represent your vision.  Only follow another persons instructions to understand your options and develop your skills.  After that, you will have the tools to let your creativity loose on the world.

I was initially planning on including the Lightroom section for noise reduction and further color and lighting adjustments to this post.  However, the length of this post is getting a little excessive so please look forward to part 2 of the intermediate HDR tutorial.


Thank you for reading!


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