Welcome to the this page about HDR and Photoshop. I put it together based on many questions I get about how to create an HDR in Photoshop.
Many regular readers here who have seen my full HDR Tutorial know that Photoshop is a major part of the equation. However, I would caution people against only using Photoshop to create an HDR.
I have created thousands and thousands of HDR Photographs. This site is extremely popular both with professional and amateur photographers that are into cutting-edge visualization. As such, I get many offers from dozens of software packages to product HDR images. I try all the software, including every version of Photoshop, so I am very comfortable in stating judgments on the matter.
I recommend that Photoshop is very much part of the process, but the first step should be to process the photo using Photomatix. See below for the full explanation.
Quick Update on CS6
I wrote everything below from the perspective of the HDR functionality in CS5. I don’t see any improvement in CS6, but if this changes, I will update the review.
HDR in Lightroom
I have figured out a way to get a very strong HDR-like effect in Adobe Lightroom. You can see more on the HDR in Lightroom Presets page here on the site.
Photomatix Pro 4.0
If you have Photomatix Pro 3 (use the Photomatix Coupon Code STUCKINCUSTOMS to save the most money), then you will get a FREE upgrade to Photomatix Pro 4.0 when it comes out… I don’t know when that will be, but I am guessing in the next few weeks. You can download it from the HDRSoft website.
New to HDR?
If you are new to HDR, you can enjoy my friendly, easy-to-use HDR Tutorial. I’ve taught tens of thousands around the world how to do it… I’m sure I can teach you too! The tutorial is free!
Photomatix Pro 4.0 is the clear winner. Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR is much better than CS4, and it has a few redeeming qualities.
Photomatix Pro 4.0:
- Faster (MUCH FASTER – see the chart below)
- Upgraded noise-reduction just for HDR
- Better ghosting control
- and more image control for higher quality images
Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR Pro excels in:
- Having one integrated solution right inside Photoshop
- Easier to learn because there are less controls
Photoshop vs. Photomatix Pro Comparison
|Item||Adobe Photoshop CS5||Photomatix Pro 4.0|
|RAW Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||1:54 (Test 1)
2:01 (Test 2)
|0:58 (Test 1)
0:56 (Test 2)
|RAW Photos – I make adjustments, then click to process||0:50 (Test 1)
0:52 (Test 2)
|0:08 (Test 1)
0:08 (Test 2)
|RAW Total Processing Time (Average)||2:48||1:05|
|JPG Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||1:01* (Test 1)
0:57 (Test 2)
|0:41 (Test 1)
0:40 (Test 2)
|JPG Photos – Loading 7 Images (before Tonemapping)||0:27 (Test 1)
0:29 (Test 2)
|0:07 (Test 1)
0:08 (Test 2)
|JPG Total Processing Time (Average)||1:27||0:48|
* Photoshop CS5 Gives you a warning about not using JPG photos to make an HDR. You have to click “OK”, but I did not include that wait time in my timings.
Test Subjects and System:
I chose a 7-exposure session from a lake at sunset near Nikko, Japan. The exposures ranged from -3 to +3.
I have a speedy 17″ MacBook Pro. I bought it about 9 months ago — the specs are to the right.
In the Photoshop CS5 test, the only things running were Photoshop CS5 (in 64-bit mode), Bridge CS5, and Skitch for taking screenshots. In the Photomatix Pro test, I kept those running + Photomatix Pro.
Now, the Photoshop Merge to HDR Pro option does not allow me to turn on and off Auto-Alignment, Cropping, or anything else. Normally, I turn that off in Photomatix because I use a tripod. To keep the tests fair, I turned on the Align Source Images, Cropping, and Reduce Noise in Photomatix Pro. That way, it was doing the same tasks as Photoshop. However, in my normal conditions, I don’t have those turned on, which makes Photomatix even faster.
Also, as you can see I processed with RAW and JPG files. I preach in my HDR Tutorial that using JPGs is just fine. I don’t see any difference in quality. But, I do notice that JPGs are much faster. This is important!
In these tests, Photomatix Pro 4.0 was much much faster. There’s almost no comparison.
Photomatix Pro processed the images in 1:05 — Photoshop CS5 did the same job in 2:48. It was more than twice as fast!
There are two intense “Computer Processing” periods. The first is when you load the images into the program. After this is done, the human takes over and adjusts the sliders. Then there is a second period of processing.
Speed – Loading the Images
Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR was slow. Painfully slow! During the loading of the images, it give a few indications of why it is so slow. After a period of time it says “Aligning”. Then, after another bit, it says. “Transforming”. Then for another longer period, it says “Crop”. I did not touch the computer at all during this time… I kept the timer on my iPhone going to watch.
In these tests, the only thing I had running was Photoshop CS5 and Bridge CS5. This is not typical. Note that I am usually running Google Chrome, Tweetdeck, Mail, and iTunes for music. So all the times you see in the chart are actually much higher, and the delta between CS5 and Photomatix Pro grows even more.
My first broken test:
What I had running in the background for all the tests before the reboot:
- Google Chrome with about 6 tabs (gmail, websites, nothing too taxing)
- iTunes playing music
- Photoshop CS5
- Bridge CS5
- Apple Mail & iCal
The first time I ran it with Merge to HDR Pro, it took 6:05 (six minutes and five seconds) to load. Just amazingly slow! Then, I thought, “Well, I do have it in 32-bit mode,” since I was also running some old plugins. So I tried it again in 64-bit mode. I shut down Photoshop and re-opened. Then I did the Merge to HDR Pro option through Bridge again. The second time it took 13:10. THIRTEEN MINUTES. I was just about to Force Quit the program — I was sure something was wrong! How can this be — in 64-bit mode? Isn’t it supposed to be faster?
So I decided to reboot and try again. I was worried that maybe there had been a memory leak or something had just gummed up the works. Because thirteen minutes just didn’t make sense! Now, I am using big images from a Nikon D3X. And these were RAW files, but that still seems like way too long…
After I rebooted, I loaded NO OTHER PROGRAMS expect for Photoshop CS5, Bridge CS5, and Skitch. I did not like doing this for the test, because this is not a “normal” environment for me. I usually have several things running. This time, it was much faster and clocked in at 1:54. So, after this, I decided to restart the whole test and have nothing else running to keep the results as clean as possible.
Speed – Processing the Images
After you make your slider changes, you can process them. There is a period of waiting whilst the image processes. Again, Photomatix Pro was not just a little faster, but way faster.
For the RAW files, Photoshop took an average of 8 seconds and Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR Pro took a whopping 51 seconds (two tests at :50 and :52).
And remember… I wasn’t doing anything else on the computer… I wasn’t checking the mail or tweeting or anything… just watching the water boil…
Photo Quality and Control
I’ve been using previous versions of Photomatix for years, so I am familiar with the sliders. Because I am a private tester, Photomatix would not allow me to post screenshots of the new GUI. However, it is very similar to previous versions.
The new Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR Pro dialogs are very similar to that of Photomatix Pro. However, they do not have nearly as fine control. There are about 1/3 as many sliders, which is good and bad. It’s good in terms of simplicity, but it is bad it terms of flexibility.
I find that there are so many different sorts of HDR shooting conditions. The more sliders you have to adjust one part of a photo for one condition and another for a different condition — the better. I’ve processed a bunch of images with both now, and I prefer Photomatix Pro. I get much more fine-grained control.
More importantly, I feel like I get more “pop” with the Photomatix Pro controls. It’s tough to explain… what do you think? What’s your experience with these tools so far?
The two above images are from Photomatix Pro 4.0 (left) and Photoshop CS5 Merge to HDR (right). Although it is probably hard to tell at this resolution, I believe the Photomatix Pro one has finer control. Both tools allow you to move the sliders around until you are happy with the image… so there is not really a one-to-one comparison possible here… Also, I did not show the new GUI for Photomatix Pro 4.0 at the request of the developer.
Better Ghosting Control
I remember when CS5 Merge to HDR Pro was announced that it had this cool feature for repairing ghosts. Ghosts are those nasty bits where part of an image is moving around in the various frames. A dog running across the bottom of the frame would be a good example.
Well, Photomatix Pro 1-ups CS5! It allows you to control various ghosts around the frame at the same time! Basically, there is an intermediate step where you can drag the mouse around one area and select a new single “source” image for that area, and then do it again for another section. For example, you may want to pick the dog from one exposure and the blowing tree from another. It’s great flexibility and very smart.
HDR Toning – Are you kidding me?
I was also intrigued by another little feature in CS5 that all the videos were raving about. It is called “HDR Toning…” and it allows you to take your image inside Photoshop and give it an “HDR Look”. Cool, I thought! Well, I got in there to try it, and it told me that I had to Flatten the entire image first! That means, basically, that you have to take all of your layers and make them one. This is a deal-killer for me, since I like to have several layers open while I am working on an image.
Worse, it makes no sense! Most of the other Photoshop filters and controls work on a single layer without requiring the entire thing to be flattened. What’s up Adobe? You gotta fix that up… it’s sloppy.
What are Your Results So Far?
The Final Photo – The Lake at Nikko
This place was Cold with a capital C, as you can plainly see.
And worse, I had forgotten my special little gloves with the flip-up fingertips. So I was goin’ finger-commando while trying to line up this shot. The wind was pretty stiff in my face. The wind always seems to be against you, eh? I think I just never notice it when it comes from any other angle.
By the way, there is only one place that is convenient to quickly warm up your fingers.
There is an older, historic part of Nikko that is about a 30 minute drive away. The drive is practically straight up a mountain, through a series of switchbacks. During the entire time up the mountain, I was surrounded by clouds. I thought it would be quite miserable at the top. But once I poked out, everything was free and clear. I was between cloud layers, exactly where this chilly lake sat at sunset.
HDR Photo Equipment
As for I have a Nikon D3X, but it does not require a camera that beefy to make photos like the ones you see on the site. In fact, many of my photos were taken with a camera that only costs a fraction of this beast. I have a full rundown of HDR Camera recommendations here on the site as well.
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.