Important software in order of use:
Photomatix Pro- In my opinion the best HDR software out there. If you search for coupon codes on Google you can get a little off but there is a free trial version that leaves a watermark that you can get from their website.
Photoshop– I use Photoshop to further clean the images that you save from Photomatix. This means that it is not absolutely necessary, but it is recommended. Photoshop also allows plug-ins that make your life easier in post production. Some of these I will go into now.
Topaz Denoise- A plugin to Photoshop that has saved my life many times when cleaning the noise from a photo. The HDR process can a lot of noise and this is great.
Topaz Adjust– Topaz Adjust can help bring some contrast and, like my favourite preset suggests, pop into the final product. I can’t live without this plugin. You will use it on every HDR you produce.
Nik Software’s Color fx Pro– This opens up a whole new world of colour and contrast that you can add to you final image. After I found out about this piece of software, my images went to a whole new level and yours will too.
My Post Production Process
Although I said before to always shoot in the RAW format, it is not essential to creating HDRs. Infact it is best to convert the original RAW files to jpegs before putting them through the HDR software. Photomatix is not great at doing this so use a photo editing suite such as Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Most cameras that shoot RAW also come with some software that will do this so don’t go lugging out on a piece of software that you don’t need.
To get started I import into Photomatix Pro (Or Nik HDR Efex Pro if you prefer). I don’t do the HDR conversion in Photoshop. Although Photoshop has gotten better at HDR over the years, it still can’t touch what you can do in some post-capture plugins that are dedicated to HDR.
If you have moving objects like people running or cars driving, they are going to be “ghosts” in the image so I mask them out in the photo and put back in the best single shot of the moving object via a layer in Photoshop so that the finished product isn’t blurred. I also tweak things like bright lights and skies in this final composite using the best image from my original raw files.
You may also want to further tweak the image creatively. You can apply any additional filters, adjustments or plugins you like at this point to further improve the image to taste.
Let’s get down to the nitty gritty. This is the image that we will be processing during the tutorial.
A HDR at night can cause a lot of the usual problems that photographers come across during processing so its perfect to use for this.
Below, you can see the five images at different exposures before I merged them together.
You can see how you can see from the blackest blacks to the whitest whites over the course of the 5 brackets.
Right lets get processing.
Using Photomatrix Pro
Now, it’s time to start making the adjustments that are good for this image in particular. Remember, none of these settings are cast in stone and are my preferences. You will learn your own style:
First things first, open up Photomatix and click on “Load Bracketed Photos”. This will bring up the box where you can just drag the brackets in.
This box will come up asking a few options.
As long as you have the “Align source images” box ticked you cant really go wrong at this point. I always remove ghosts automatically as why not. If it helps reduce hosting, then brilliant. I will probably change it in Photoshop anyway. Reducing noise is always a good idea so tick; the same with chromatic aberration.
Strength – Keep it at 100%. If it comes out too strong, you can always dial it back later in Photoshop, should you want to go into the Advanced steps.
Colour Saturation – Keep it reasonable. Don’t over-saturate your photo. Again, each photo is different. There is a difference between colour that pops and colour that over saturates.
Luminosity – I keep this slider all the way to the right. The further to the left, the less contrast will be in the photo. If you find yourself with “Halo” problems in daylight shots, moving this will help.
Detail Contrast – A mysterious slider that helps the details and fluctuations in colours on the very small scale. Play with this until it looks and feels right. Generally, the more to the right, the more grungy and black it becomes.
Lighting Adjustments – This is an important slider that affects the “HDRness” of the shot. The more to the left, the more psychedelic (DON’T EVER DO THAT!).
White & Black Point – You will see the difference if you move these sliders. If the image is too dark then move the White point up. I know image the white point putting more while in the picture. Strange. I always pump a bit of black in there to keep the contrasts.
All the other sliders? They are interesting, but I honestly don’t use them much. I won’t waste your time by going into what they do because I never even touch them. Have a play and see what suits you.
YOU ARE DONE!
Well sort of. After saving your final tonemapped image you can stop here. On the other hand that process can also ruin an image, even if you spend ages in Photomatix. You can see in this image I have done the sky is ruined by noise created by the HDR effect. Photoshop can fix a lot of these problems. Some would say they are advanced skills but they are completely worth it. There is nothing worse then a surreal HDR with halos and a lot of noise.
I mentioned a few plug-ins earlier. This is the time to use them, especially the Topaz adjust and denoise. I am planning to do a HDR video tutorial at some point so you can see my full process about how I mask and layer up my images. That is a tutorial for another day.