Photoshop Fails: How to Create Amazing HDR Images

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In the “Photoshop Fails At” tutorial series we take a look at some of the horrible things you see coming out of Photoshop and how you could/should be using that feature. In this tutorial, we’ll cover the beauty and disgrace of the HDR feature in Photoshop. HDR has progressed a ton since Adobe first introduced the ability to create an HDR image, when the feature first came into existence it was horrible, but even as things got better HDR still has a stigma of the “nuclear vomit” style HDR. Let’s take a look and see how we can create better HDR images. Download the RAW photos right here!

Watch the full video tutorial here!

1. The Bad: Nuclear HDR Vomit

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We’ve all seen it, but for some reason we still come back to it. This is the classic example of bad HDR. Study this photo and do anything BUT this. It’s bad, bad, bad.

2. Start the Photoshop Process

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After you’ve shot your bracketed images to merge to an HDR (click here if you need help shooting images for HDR) go File>Automate>Merge to HDR Pro and choose your images in this dialog box via the browse button. If you think there may be slight shifting between your frames, you can tick on the option to align the images automatically.

3. HDR Settings

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The Photoshop HDR dialog box will pop up. We used to have to fiddle with settings in here and risk fouling our image by cranking up the radius, or detail of the HDR adjustment, but lately in Photoshop we can work in the newer 32-bit mode which preserves an immense amount of image detail to be toned in the Adobe Camera RAW editor. This saves us from the dreadful “Nuclear HDR Vomit” effect. Photoshop will even everything out in the HDR editor and all we need to do is hit the “Tone in ACR” button. The file will transfer into Photoshop and then open in the Camera RAW editor.

4. Toning in Camera RAW: The Basics

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First thing we want to do is boost the Shadows and Blacks by “+100” each and reduce Highlights and Whites by “-40” each. Then adjust the temperature to “6000K” and “+40” tint.

5. Toning in Camera RAW: Color & Contrast

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Next drag the contrast slider up to “+50” and also bump clarity up to “+5” and boost the vibrance to “+40”.

6. Tone Curve

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I created a mild “S” curve to boost contrast and also dragged the high-right side white point down a little and even boosted the black point over on the right-hand side. I also jumped into the color channels and added more red to the highlights of the image, some magenta to the shadowy areas, and a subtle “S” curve in the blue channel to add yellow to the shadows, but blue in the highlights. NOTE: You can see exactly what I did in the video above.

7. Split Toning and Adding Color

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We’re going to add some orange to the highlights by setting the hue to “40” and the saturation to “10” in the highlights area and set the hue to “340” and the saturation to “10” in the shadows area of split toning.

8. Sharpening & Tweaking

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Click on the Effects tab (“fx” icon) and if you’re using a newer version of Adobe Camera RAW, bump the Dehaze setting up to “+20”. Next I went over to the Lens Correction tab and set the Lens Vignetting to “+20” and the Midpoint to “40”. Go back to the Basic tab and reduce the overall Exposure to “-0.20”. Make sure you hit the Detail tab and give it about “100” sharpening and then zoom into 100% and make sure you don’t need to add or remove any sharpening.

9. Converting & Saving the Image

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You can’t save a 32-bit image as a JPEG so it needs to be downgraded to either 8 or 16-bit. This will make quite an impact on the way the image looks. The way I preserve much of the original image is I create a new blank layer and hit Cmd/Crtl + Shift + Alt/Opt + E to merge a copy of my HDR into that new layer as a flattened layer and then go Image>Mode>16 Bits/Channel and choose to NOT flatten the effects. There will be a color and tone shift, but not nearly as severe as our original layer with that Camera RAW filter still applied. You can save a JPEG from an 8 or 16-bit image. TIP: You can’t use many of the tools in Photoshop to edit or manipulate or clean blemishes from an image until it’s been converted to an 8 or 16-bit image.

You can see that we have a nice image after creating this composite with the HDR merge tool in Photoshop. The high dynamic range has allowed us to easily get the color and light in the sky as well as the color and detail in the lobby of the building. This is where the power of HDR is, it’s High Dynamic Range (HDR). That’s HDR done right.

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