Truthful Tone Mapping: a quick guide to realistic HDR in Photomatix Pro

How to make realistic HDR photos using Photomatix

How to make realistic HDR photos using Photomatix

High dynamic range (HDR) is something photographers either love or hate. We  love it! You can use it to create some extremely dynamic, surreal images and push the look to its limits. There are many bad examples of HDR out there where extreme tone mapping in Photomatix has left images overcooked and overdone. But when you aim for realistic HDR and your images aren’t pushed to extremes, it’s a technique that can really help you in difficult lighting conditions.

The strength of the HDR ‘look’ depends on the image. Some cry out for a strong, bold, unmistakable HDR approach, while others require a gentle realistic HDR look that you wouldn’t even know was HDR. Photomatix Pro’s Tone Mapping – Details Enhancer does exactly what it says on the tin, making every fleck of rust or faded colour really jump out in our sample image for a hyper-real look.

When taking your own HDR images, put your camera on a tripod and use manual settings for everything, including focus, white balance and exposure. Bracket the exposure with the shutter speed only, at -2 stops, normal exposure and +2 stops. In very high-contrast conditions, such as indoors with windows, you’ll need more bracketed images to handle the exposure range (find out how to use your camera’s auto exposure bracketing to conquer high contrast).

We found this wrecked boat on a beach in California. The sun was shining so the light reflecting off the white side of the wreck made a normal image impossible. It’s ideal for some fun in Photomatix Pro, so let’s get going!

How to make realistic HDR photos in Photomatix: step 1

Step 1: Check out the default
Download, install and start Photomatix Pro (see Super Tip!, right). In Workflow Shortcuts on the top left of your screen, check Load Bracketed Photos. Next click Browse and open photomatix1_start.tif, photomatix2_start.tif and photomatix3_start.tif and click OK. Uncheck Align Source Images and Remove Ghosts, then click OK again. On the Tone Mapping Adjustments page, click the first Preset.

How to make realistic HDR photos in Photomatix: step 2

Step 2: Build a custom preset
Play around with the Preset thumbnails for a while. Look at overblown Grunge and cool B&W. Then choose the thumbnail for Enhancer – Default, because it’s a great starting point. Although you could happily go with it, you want to create a strong look here, so put Strength and Colour Saturation up to 90. Jump down to Gamma and set it to 1.30. Then go back to Luminosity and set that to 6.0 and Detail Contrast to 1.0. Tick Lighting Effects Mode and select Medium.

How to make realistic HDR photos in Photomatix: step 3

Step 3: Move on down
Smooth Highlights to 30 and set White Point and Black Point to 0.010%. Set Shadows Smoothness to 10, but leave all the other controls as they are. It’s all very heavy-handed, so a halo is just visible around the boat, but it’s not too objectionable. Click Process, then File>SaveAs, and make sure that TIFF 8 bit is selected in the window before you save it. Next close Photomatix Pro, fire up Photoshop Elements, and load your new image.

How to make realistic HDR photos in Photomatix: step 4

Step 4: Remove haloing
In Enhance>AdjustLighting>Shadows/Highlights set 10%, 10% and +20%. In Enhance>Adjust Lighting>Levels, move the midtone slider to 1.15. In Filter>CorrectCamera>Distortion move the Vignette to -30. With the Burn tool at 100 pixels, change the Range to Midtones at 9% and go around the boat to remove the halo. Get rid of sensor spots in the sky with the Spot Healing brush, using the Content-Aware type.


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