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HDR Tutorial For the latest tutorial, be sure to visit .

This HDR Tutorial has helped tens of thousands of people, so I am sure it can help you too. Remember, YOU can do this stuff too. Yes, YOU! I am constantly evolving my techniques. HDR is still a young art form. I’ve been lucky enough to travel around the world and meet some of the greatest HDR Photographers in the world. I share techniques, we shoot together, post process together, and we all work together to drive the art form forward. I am happy to share my techniques here with you guys and gals. Now, I know a great many of you come just to nab my Photomatix Coupon Code - it is “STUCKINCUSTOMS“, which gives you 15% off. If you’d like to order it or give it a free trial, just go to the Photomatix webpage ( The nice people there were swell enough to give my fans the best discount code, so I am happy to share it since I believe in their product. I’ve tried all the others… I still keep coming back to sweet Photomatix! HDR Tutorial and the Texture Tutorial This tutorial below on HDR is free. Free as a bird… I love hearing your feedback, and I can use it when I improve the HDR Tutorial in a few months… I try to keep it fresh with little and big updates to show the latest tricks and tips with the process. I have a second tutorial on textures that is over a gigabyte with a video and included textures. You can get to that textures tutorial ( here. What is HDR? HDR is short for High Dynamic Range. It is a post-processing of taking either one image or a series of images, combining them, and adjusting the contrast ratios to do things that are virtually impossible with a single aperture and shutter speed. I would say that about 75% of my images use the technique, and if you are new to it, then you may notice a slightly different “look and feel” to my photographs. You should also probably note that HDR is a very broad categorization, and I really hate categorization. My process starts with using basic HDR techniques, but then there are many more steps to help the photos look more… let’s say… evocative. I can talk a little bit more about the philosophy behind the photography style here for a quick moment. You might consider that the way the human brain keeps track of imagery is not the same way your computer keeps track of picture files. There is not one aperture, shutter speed, etc. In fact, sometimes when you are in a beautiful place or with special people and you take photos — have you ever noticed when you get back and show them to people you have to say, “Well, you really had to be there.” Even great photographers with amazing cameras can only very rarely grab the scene exactly as they saw it. Cameras, by their basic-machine-nature, are very good at capturing “images”, lines, shadows, shapes — but they are not good at capturing a scene the way the mind remembers and maps it. When you are actually there on the scene, your

eye travels back and forth, letting in more light in some areas, less light in others, and you create a “patchwork-quilt” of the scene. Furthermore, you will tie in many emotions and feelings into the imagery as well, and those get associated right there beside the scene. Now, you will find that as you explore the HDR process, that photos can start to evoke those deep memories and emotions in a more tangible way. It’s really a wonderful way of “tricking” your brain into experiencing much more than a normal photograph. I will post a few interesting HDR photographs that I have taken that people seem to like. This first image below is the first HDR photograph ever to hang in the Smithsonian Institution in D.C. and many of the others are represented by Getty. I think this goes to show how mainstream and accepted HDR can be, if the technique is properly applied.

Step 1: Get your Apple on (but it also works if you refuse to wear a black turtleneck and use a PC instead) So here is a picture of my desktop before I launch all of these apps. Speaking of which, Macs are great, and my Mac’s CPU does not melt - it handles all this stuff with reckless aplomb. I used to hate Macs and hate Mac people, but I’m a changed man. These things are great! Okay, I digressed way too early in this tutorial.

What apps do you need? You can see down there that I have the essentials: Photomatix and Photoshop. I also recommend LucisArt, Noiseware, and Lightroom/Aperture. All of these are available for both the Mac and PC - and for the remainder of this tutorial, the PC and Mac processes are the exact same. I will not talk about Lightroom/Aperture much, other than to suggest that you should really do something to organize all those photos. I mean, sure, your real life might be a mess, but there is no reason your photos have to be. I will of course talk more about these apps below. Software I use (in order of importance):

Please note that you really only need Photomatix below. The others help give your final product a more polished and professional look. Also, I didn’t mention Photoshop because that is an absolute necessity. If you JUST use Photomatix, chances are that your final result will look like everyone else’s ham-fisted HDRs. Please do not take offense to that - most of my first HDRs were as ham-fisted as possible…

Photomatix - If you click on the following link to buy the HDR software Photomatix (which is quite reasonably priced, for the power it provides), be sure to use the Photomatix coupon code “STUCKINCUSTOMS”, you’ll be set up. If you’d like the trial or to order, just go to the Photomatix website ( and check it out. Hey, it’s better than a sharp stick in the eye. This is the same thing the priest said at my wedding. I wrote a short Photomatix Review ( , but most of that info and more is included right here in this tutorial. Noiseware - I have tried a multitude of “noise reduction” software packages. You’ll notice that the HDR process can create a bit of noise, to say the least. I use Noiseware Professional, and one of the nice guys over there gave the not-so-surprising Noiseware Coupon Code of “STUCKINCUSTOMS” to my readers. You can order it from the Imagenomic website ( or you can read my Noiseware Review (, but it is also mentioned below. LucisArt - As regular readers know, I have been using LucisArt for a long time. And since I send so many people over those parts too, the very nice Barbara provided the LucisArt Coupon Code of, guess, no wrong, it’s “TREYRATCLIFF” that will give you $50 off at checkout. You can get a trial or order it on the LucisArt website ( Lucis Pro - I’ve also started using Lucis Pro more and more. It’s a lot like LucisArt above, but it’s even better. I’ve written a Lucis Pro Review ( a Lucis Pro Tutorial ( here on the site, which maybe you can save for later.

Step 2: Get some equipment on the sly so your spouse does not ask too many questions I have a full My Equipment page ( here on the site, which is much more organized than the following Hawthornesque ramble. That equipment page lists out all kinds of nice recommendations if you are just getting started, or even looking for a little upgrade action from the low-end to the high-end solution. What kind of equipment do you need? All you really need is a camera that has autobracketing. Autobracketing is the ability for your camera to take at least 3 pictures right after one another, each at different shutter speeds. If you are hunting around the menus on your camera now, just look for the words Autobracketing and perhaps some numbers like -2, 0, +2. If you have a DSLR camera, then you probably have this ability. I notice that some of the high-end consumer compact cameras have these as well What equipment do I have? People always ask me this, assuming, “Wow you must have a nice camera!” Well, I do have a nice camera (Nikon D3X), but many of my best pictures were taken earlier with a lesser Nikons. I’m also not what I would consider a hardcore hardware guy - I use equipment to bend nature to my will, and I can do the same sort of work with just about any equipment. I’ve now got much higher-end equipment because I can now see the subtleties in the shots… somehow I can justify spending a lot of money for minor improvements in the shots. I justify many sketchy things in my life, but so do you, so why not add camera equipment to the heap of latent guilt?

I started with a Nikon D70 (now the equiv of the D80). I then went on to the D2X before getting the D3 that now fills my life like a sweet song. For lenses, I have 4 main lenses:  

Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 Review - ( A great wide-angle lens that I use for 80% of my landscapes Nikon 24-70mm f/2.8 Review – ( Perfect for mid-range stuff like birthdays, families, close-up sports, events, holiday cheer, swinger parties Nikon 50mm f/1.4 Review- ( Ideal for cute children, close-up objects where you like a blurry background, friends, interventions Nikon 70-200mm f/2.8 VR (Review coming soon, probably) - A great lens for things that are kinda far away, like animals or sports or that girl you are stalking

As for tripods, I have a giant one with a silky smooth rotating fat head. I used to have a tiny tripod, but it was too shaky. You gotta have a solid tripod. What? You don’t want to carry around a tripod? Comon… if you are going out to shoot beautiful pictures, you better get serious. Also, if you have it over your shoulder or carry it in an aggressive way, it makes an effective weapon. As you can see, I go all over the world, often into sketchy areas, and a big tripod is often an effective deterrent. I carry it so much, I am very good at flipping it around and whipping it around my body like ninja nunchaku.

Step 3 - Look at the world in HDR It is key to choose good HDR candidates. What I look for are extreme levels in light in a given scene. Seeing the World Afresh

Consider those situations where there is extreme light and extreme dark, and how you are able to see it when you are there in real life, but you just know if you take a photo of it that it won’t come out right. Also, you normally would not dare to take a photo looking directly into the sun, right? Well with HDR you can… It will open up a new world to you… and the more HDR photography you shoot and process, the more you will learn to appreciate light and the world we live in. In the last several years, I have taken note of how I see the world versus the way others see the world. It’s one of those age-old questions: “Is green to me the same as green to you? Maybe you just use the word green, but you actually see what I call yellow!” Well, this question also applies to HDR. Personally, I see the world in HDR, and that is how I record my memories. I find these photos entirely pleasing to admire. Now, I notice that about 80% of other people also feel the same way. This seems very consistent across audiences when I speak at universities, photo clubs, seminars, and the like. And, if you have read this far, then surely you see the world like me, and you are excited that you have finally found a window into the truth and future of recording imagery for the rest of your life.

Of course, this means 20% of people do not see the world like us. In fact, they absolutely despise HDR photography. Occasionally, you will get some old-school people that think post-processing is the work of the devil, but, most often, I am convinced they simply don’t see the world like this. They see the world exactly how the camera spits out normal images. That’s okay… there is no convincing them… Hey, we can’t make everyone happy, can we? A Good Example of Extreme Light Levels

Let’s work on a photo I did in New York City in Times Square that is now represented by Getty. We’ll go through this son-of-a-gun step by step. Now, this is a pretty good example of having to re-train your brain about light levels. Remember, when you are there, on the scene, your brain can handle it. You fill in the dark areas with light and there is nothing so bright that you can’t read it. But getting a good shot of Times Square without HDR is next to impossible. Keep this in mind as you are around your house, in your neighborhood, driving around your city — you really are taking for granted how your brain is able to filter the light levels that your camera cannot. And here is another photographic-philosophical moment. Everyone shoots Times Square in New York. Everyone. Professionals, tourists, teenagers with grainy cell phone cameras, etc. Think about it and name your worldwide location: Paris, New York, Shanghai - these places are filled with thousands of photographers, many of them very very good, with incredible equipment and great training. YET, it is still quite difficult to get an “original” shot. You end up with just about the same shot that everyone or anyone else can get. So this New York picture is a good example. If you look at this one below, you will see it is a “decent” and “serviceable” shot. However, look at the final version right below that, and you can see how much more interesting and engaging it is. The BEFORE shot, selected in Lightroom

The "Before" Shot of New York's Times Square, as it appears in Trey's overcrowded Lightroom.

The "After Shot", once we have been through the whole process.

Step 4 - Take your autobracketed pictures and prepare for the HDR Set up your camera in Aperture Priority mode. This is important because you don’t want the multiple photos to have that horror-movie lens-flex effect Turn on Autobracketing. If you have 3 pics in the autobracket, set it up at -2, 0, +2. On my Nikon D3x, I usually take 5 pics at -2, -1, 0, 1, +2. I think you will find this +2 to -2 range satisfactory for 98% of situations. The only other one would be if shooting the interior of a house that is extremely dark and there are windows where the outside is extremely bright. Other best practices:  

I usually do 5 pictures (+2, +1, 0, -1, -2) in extreme light or extreme dark. Remember, your camera may do just 3 exposures at -2, 0, and +2. Shoot in RAW, if you can. JPG is okay, but RAW gives your more flexibility later in the processing. RAW photos contain a lot more light information than a JPEG. Please note that when processing in Photomatix later, the RAWs are no better than JPEGs. Use a tripod, unless you have the steady arms of a late-model Terminator robot.

Below, you can see that I have selected 5 pictures from Times Square. You can also easily see that they are all taken at different shutter speeds. By the way, you can click on any picture to go its Flickr page, where you can then click on ALL SIZES then ORIGINAL at the top if you want to zoom in all the way.

Step 5 - Photomatix Now it is time to fire up Photomatix and get crunk in the HDR house. Okay that was stupid. Photomatix will take your 3+ shots and convert them into an HDR image. You can then tonemap the image and save it as a JPEG. I’ll take you through this process. You can run Photomatix in a few ways:   

To generate an single HDR from some autobraketed shots (most common for beginners and the bulk of this tutorial) To do a huge batch of HDRs after you come back from a shoot To convert a single RAW photo into an HDR

Let’s go over the first one in detail. I’ll mention the others later, but they are not too hard to figure out after you understand how the first one works. When Photomatix is loaded up, you just see a menu. Note that I am using Photomatix 3.1 here and new versions come out all the time, but later iterations should still work within the margin of error of this screenshot.

You will also notice that I have selected the original RAW photos. Actually, I could have converted them to JPGs first, and that is what Photomatix mentions on their page as well ( That page has some finetuned information in case you are interested in the finer differences in file formats. They have a new Lightroom exporter, which I am currently evaluating. It will probably change my workflow a little around this area, and I will be sure to post an update here soon.

Photomatix - Selecting some photos for HDR Processing Choose the images you like then click OK. You will then see a second dialog. I have selected the most common choices that I make. You will notice that I make no choices. First, I use a tripod and a wired shutter release, so I have no camera shake. If you are doing handheld, then, of course, choose “Align source images”. I get mixed results with the other choices. I have a better program for reducing noise and a better method in photoshop for fixing “ghosting artifacts”. You can play with those options, if you wish, however. There are not many wrong choices you can make on this dialog, so don’t panic.

The first choice you make is not your last... but don't worry... Click OK again and now your computer will churn like a farm of computers generating a single frame from a Pixar movie. You will soon see a strange looking image on the screen. You are not done yet - not even close. That is an HDR image and you can’t really do anything with it until it is tonemapped. So, now click on “Tone Mapping” (note this is also available via the menu system)/ Now you will get a nice little dialog with all these fun gizmos and Willy Wonka-like controls. Every picture is different. There is no “right way” to set these sliders. There is certainly a “wrong” way to do it, though. I am sure you have seen lots of crappy HDR images. Below, I paste an example of how you can really make your image look too funkadelic. Funkadelic is cool if that is what you want or you have a lot of druggie friends that like laser light shows and your mind-bending HDRs, but most people don’t like them. Actually, please don’t look at my old work. It’s a little over-the-top too… I cringe when I think about it. Just look at the newer stuff. Thank you kindly.

Friends don't let friends do HDR on Drugs Above, you can see the options I selected. It’s way overdone. The key setting is that “Light Smoothing” with the 5 radio buttons underneath it. Don’t choose anything to below the fourth bubble. Please! For the sake of humanity! Below, you can see better selections. Here are a few things I do… although none of these are cast in stone: 

  

Take that Strength bar up to 100%. We will dial it back down later in Photoshop. So, the result of this step will look a little overdone, but never fear, we’ll take it back within the norms of reason. Watch out for the Color Saturation. It’s easy to get carried away. I also like to slide the Luminosity bar over to the right as far as I can before it looks too flat. The further right the Lum bar is, the less halo effect you get as well. If you don’t know what the “Halo” effect is, you will soon enough - especially with daytime shots. Another way to combat that is with the next few steps I go through below.

 

I like to crank up the White Point and Black Point bars to give it some punch and contrast. See that histogram? Don’t be afraid of it? Continue to move the White Point and Black Point until you get MOST of that histrogram inside that little rectangle Micro-Smoothing helps you get some nice contrast in the details. I often set it to zero and then clean up later in Photoshop if it gets a bit overzealous in parts of the picture. All the other sliders I rarely touch, unless it is a finicky shot.

Photomatix and some slightly more reasonable settings... Once you have set everything up with the sliders, click PROCESS. Save the resulting image as a .jpg and then prepare to bring it into Photoshop.

Step 6 - Photoshop fun What? You are not good at Photoshop? First you tell me you don’t like carrying tripods, and then you tell me you don’t like using Photoshop. How about this… Let’s get you a little bit out of your comfort zone, eh? That’s what good friends do right… push you to make yourself better. If you keep doing things you are comfortable with, then you are never going to improve and experience new things, right? So comon… get with it.. Photoshop is great fun.

First, if you are horrible at Photoshop, then I recommend you spend a little time watching Photoshop User TV ( They have a weekly podcast and a bunch of old episodes you can catch up on. They go through about 3 examples per week - minitutorials. Over time you will get to know all the tools and how to use them. 95% of the tutorials you see on Photoshop TV will have nothing to do with HDR, but they will get you familiar with the tools. I use many many many tools in Photoshop to clean up and perfect my final images… you will get there too… just be patient and try to learn a few new things per week in Photoshop. If you learn 3 things a week, that’s over 150 things a year. It’s worth it! As you might have seen, Photomatix is great, but it probably messed up parts of the image that you now need to repair. This, briefly, is what we are gonna do: 

 

Import all [5] of the original images plus the .JPG we just made in Photomatix o Please note that this is kind of overkill to import all of them - over time, you will probably only import just the ones you need, as you will see. Also, most likely you will have 4 images — the 3 originals plus your Photomatix result. Repair the areas that are blown-out with the DARKEST of the original images by using “Masking”. Repair the ghosted pedestrian and cars by selecting the best RAW, which we will have adjusted to have nice coloring in the RAW importer

RAW Importer

First, did you know the RAW importer for Photoshop can also work with JPEGs? It’s true! Go set that up in your preferences under File Handling. Now, go ahead and open the original images plus the Photomatix result JPG in Photoshop. The dialog you see here is the RAW importer for Photoshop. It is very nice because it has these wonderful sliders. What I am going to do is select my favorite of the Original shots, and adjust the sliders so that it looks as close as possible to the Photomatix result. You see, what we are going to do here is remix THIS photo with the Photomatix one to both a) make it look more realistic and b) repair the ghosting. You can see my settings - how I increased the Fill Light, increased the Blacks, and adjusted the Vibrance, Saturation, and Clarity. You can adjust yours as need be. Trey’s Undeniable Truth of HDR Photography #34: If you shoot during the daytime and there is a nice blue sky, your HDR processing will make your sky look gray, mottled, and possibly give it a halo that will make viewers curl in a ball and cry. If you do not fix this in Photoshop by masking in the original sky before you upload to show your friends, then they may no longer be your friends.

Opening up the 6 photos with the RAW Importer Okay, moving on. Maybe you should go get another coffee or a glass of red… things are about to get juicy. Stacking and Aligning the Photos

In the screenie below, look down in the lower right at the layers. You can see the 6 layers there. I put the HDR result on top, and stacked the other 5 below, from darkest to lightest. To get this done, there are a variety of ways, as there is with everything in Photoshop! If you read the following bullet point list, I will assume you are a beginner, so I will try tell you the easiest way!    

After you open all 6 (or your number) into Photoshop, you should have 6 windows open in Photoshop. Choose your favorite of the original RAWs. That will be your base or bottom layer. Go to another one of your windows. Go to Select > All. Then Edit > Copy. Then go back to your base layer and do a Edit > Paste. Then you will have 2 layers. Continue to repeat this with all of the other photos, including the HDR result, which I usually put on top.

I have also made sure to align all the images so they are neatly stacked:   

You can use Auto-Align under the Edit Menu …Or you can shift-drag the images into the same window, which auto-centers them. …Or you can press V to get into move mode and use the arrow keys at 300% to nudge them around. This is usually what I have to do with the HDR layer, turning it on and off to make sure it’s lined up just right.

Masking and Combining the Photos

Also, I am going to throw something at you here called MASKING. This is a really valuable thing to know when cleaning up HDRs. Essentially, what you are doing is taking the TOP LAYER - the HDR layer, and then “punching through” to see the layers beneath. If you look closely at the layers on the right in the screenshot below, you can see that I have created a LAYER MASK for the TOP LAYER. If you see those little black and grey marks there, that is where I have painted black to see the layer beneath. I used a brush, adjusted the opacity to about 30%, and kept painting until enough of the lower layer shined through. To create a mask and start revealing the layer underneath:    

  

Click on the top layer (the one you want to punch through) On the Menu, go to Layer > Create Layer Mask > Reveal All. Choose the brush tool (or hit B). At the top, there are two areas to adjust: o “Opacity” - Set that to 30%. This means how hard you will be pushing down the brush to punch through to the bottom layer. o Brush - Click that dropdown and make the brush size 100. You will keep adjusting this size throughout, depending on what you want!  Quick Tip - to change the size of the brush quickly use the bracket keys ( [ and ] ) Now that you created the mask, you will see a little white box on that layer down in the lower right. See it? Click on that little white box it because THAT represents the mask. Make sure your chosen color over on the right is BLACK. Start using the brush on the photo. Each stroke will make that layer 30% more transparent. If you stroke the same area over and over again, you will get to 100%, which allows you to see the layer underneath. After you are done masking the two layers together, Merge Layers in the menu or by pressing Command (Ctrl on PC) E.

You will notice the areas in which I painted. Those areas were blown out and unreadable. So, I chose the DARKEST layer, in which the signs were very readable. I masked those through so we can read, for example, the ticker on the right at the ABC Studios.

Photoshop - Stacking the Layers and Starting to Mask -- BTW, see how the layer style is "Overlay" - Ignore that.. all layers should be Normal. I hope that was easy for you to understand, at least in concept. People sometimes have trouble with Masking, so I hope I explained it okay. Now, we are going to do the same thing again, but we are going to use a different layer. The people are horribly ghosted because Photomatix got confused (also, I turned off ghosting correction, because I like to choose which one out of the 5 has the best people). As you can see below, the mask is done to show the people correctly. Also notice the gray around the mask so that there is a subtle transition between the original and the HDRed version. Note for Daytime HDRs with a Big Blue Sky: You will probably want to do something like this to mask in the original sky anywhere from 50-100%. Make sure that sky is bright enough, or else it all looks just a little fake.

De-ghosting the image by masking through to the layer where the people look best

Step 7 - Noise Reduction (optional but recommended) You will notice that you probably have a lot of noise in the finished result. The HDR Process does this‌ it is an unfortunate side effect, but easily cleaned up. I will not go into the full description of Noiseware here, but you are welcome to go read my Noiseware Review ( The only thing I really have to do is to show you the following screenshot. I mean, are you kidding me? The only tip I can add beyond this, for a full master’s touch, is to create a duplicate layer of your finished product before doing the noise reduction. It may get rid of some details you quite like, in which case you can use the masking tricks above to just keep the details and noise how you best see fit for your own work of art. As you can see below, this can help make your final product look a lot more silky-smooth.

Below, we can see the final image once again! All the hard work has paid off! Behold!

The final product, after a lot of fun steps... remember... it's the journey, not the destination...

Bonus Step - Sharpening and adding pop with Lucis Pro or LucisArt Many of my images get a visit from the sweet lady Lucis. The LucisArt Plugin is awesome. I suggest you download the trial and give it a run! The trial is nice because you get a preview window that shows what all the cool sliders do. If you buy it, be sure to use this LucisArt Coupon Code of TREYRATCLIFF during checkout to save yourself $50 - not bad! If I ever meet you in person, you can buy me a cappuccino or something‌ You can get the trial or order it at the LucisArt Website ( Note that sometimes I use an even better program, and you can find out more about that at the Lucis Pro Review ( I really don’t mean to overwhelm you with options, just to let you know that there are good, better, and best paths to sharpening.

When you use LucisArt, I suggest the SCULPTURE setting with the top slider less than 12 and the bottom slider above 70 or so. Now, the screenshot below has the bottom slider at 55 original just to show you how it makes the lines “pop”. It’s a bit like UNSHARP MASK, but quite a bit better, in my judgment.

Bonus Step - Processing a single RAW file

In Photomatix, go you can simply open a RAW file and then go right to Tone Mapping! This is a new feature, and a welcome time saver… People ask me all the time if it is better to use just One RAW or multiple. Well, sometimes you have no choice if the subject is moving… but the result can be quite nice in both conditions. For the record, I always take multiple exposures whenever possible.

To show you how good images can look from just a single RAW file, here are a few examples:

That is an hour of your life you will never get back, but let’s hope you formed some good memories and skills to create more. Best of luck and I thank you for all your comments and feedback. I currently have over 20,000 emails unread in my photography inbox, so I apologize if I do not get back to you… just don’t have enough time I am afraid. But thanks for all your comments and support! I hope you all have as much fun with HDR as I am - again, best of luck to you!

For the latest tutorial, be sure to visit .

HDR Tutorial  

from by trey ratcliff

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