HDR and Photoshop and Lightroom

How do I use HDR in Photoshop?

I get this question a lot! I have an answer for you, but it is not what you expect.

First off, I have a FREE HDR Tutorial for Mac or HDR Tutorial for Windows here on StuckInCustoms.com that describes the step by step process. You’ll see that Photoshop is sometimes part of the process, although I strongly recommend you use something else to do the “HDR” bit.

Do you primarily use a Mac to edit your photos? If so, then check out Aurora HDR Pro! I worked with Macphun for over a year to build the ultimate HDR software! If you’re primarily a Windows user then I would definitely use Photomatix Pro. I’ve used and recommended Photomatix Pro for many years. They gave me a Photomatix Coupon Code of “TREYRATCLIFF” that will save you 15%.

Quick Verdict for HDR on Mac

I don’t use Photoshop at all when using Aurora HDR Pro — this is because Aurora has layers and lets me fix everything right inside of there. Having said that, I may go into Photoshop in the end to use some content-aware-fill to get rid of annoying things like power lines or ugly birds. But I don’t use the HDR-in-Photoshop options…

Quick Verdict for HDR on Windows

Photomatix Pro 4.0 is the clear winner. Photoshop “Merge to HDR” is much better than earlier iterations of the software, but it has few other redeeming qualities.

Photomatix Pro:

  • 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 “Merge to HDR” Pro excels in:

  • Having one integrated solution right inside Photoshop
  • Easier to learn because there are a few less controls

HDR in Lightroom

This article does not go into depth other than to say that HDR in Lightroom does not produce very strong results. The resulting image I would say has extremely subtle HDR effects, which some people like. Sometimes the effects are so subtle that I barely even notice a difference. The entire process is also very slow. Again, you can use the more powerful tools listed above (like Aurora HDR) to do subtle effects or more artsy effects.

Photoshop vs. Photomatix Pro Comparison

Note that this testing was done in CS5, although there have been no significant changes I can see since Photoshop CC has arrived.

Item Adobe Photoshop Photomatix Pro
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 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 test, the only things running were Photoshop (in 64-bit mode), Bridge, and Skitch for taking screenshots. In the Photomatix Pro test, I kept those running + Photomatix Pro.


Photomatix Pro 4

Special Conditions:

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!

Overall Speed

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 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 “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 and Bridge. 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 Photoshop and Photomatix Pro grows even more.

My first broken test:

What I had running in the background for all the tests before the reboot:

  • Tweetdeck
  • Google Chrome with about 6 tabs (gmail, websites, nothing too taxing)
  • iTunes playing music
  • Photoshop
  • Bridge
  • Apple Mail & iCal
  • Skitch

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, Bridge, 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 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 “Merge to HDR” 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 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 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 Photoshop! 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.

Noise Reduction for HDR

Photoshop did make some very nice changes with Noise Reduction, but that is part of the RAW import process. Since the Merge to HDR Pro option goes around that, you don’t get any of the good Noise Reduction for HDR images inside Photoshop.

Photomatix Pro 4.0 has a newer, more robust way to reduce noise. It even allows you to adjust the noise in the “input” images before they even begin the processing period. Smart.

The image there to the right was taken from a single RAW. As most of you HDR veterans know, noise at night is a big problem. The new Noise Reduction in Photomatix (which works even for a single RAW photo) really saved me a lot of time.

You can click on the image there to go see the full size on SmugMug. You’ll notice little white bits… they almost look like stars that I drew in, but they are falling sparkles from previous explosions


HDR Toning – Are you kidding me?

I was also intrigued by another little feature in Photoshop 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.


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 Photos for you made with a combination of Photomatix and Photoshop

Here are a few photos photos for you. You can see more on at my Portfolio. I make a new one every day here on the home page at StuckInCustoms.com, so you are welcome to come back daily! 🙂

The Mist From The Tree Tops Fell On Me From Above And Behind

Moonrise Kingdom

Downtown Beijing After Rain

Road Trip New Zealand!

Inception Reflection New York

The Rock Moved So Slowly That I Did Not Notice

walking alone and being somewhat lost on which way

The Secret Workshop Of Jules Verne

Reflections on the Eiffel Tower Isn't it romantic?  What could be more perfect than a beautiful sunset here in Paris?There was a big storm all day long, but I could see the clouds were beginning to break up a little to the west, and I knew there was a possibility the sun would dip into an opening beneath the heavy clouds.  So, with that intense possibility, I headed over to the Eiffel Tower area hoping the light would turn out right...I also made a behind-the-scenes video.  Since you guys have been so nice over on Google+, I'll share that video exclusively there first, so be sure to stay tuned... I'm still editing the thing together!- Trey RatcliffRead more here at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Fourth on Lake Austin

Aurora Australis Galactica

An Abandoned Game Trail in China

There Evolved a Technopolis

Lijiang at Night

The Secret Crystal LakeThis remote lake was so icy cold.  You would think it's about 33 degrees or something, right?  It felt like absolute zero.  I dropped a little piece of my tripod in here and my hand almost froze off trying to retrieve it.In the distance you can see where the glacier comes into contact with the glassy lake; it gives a sense of the epic scale here.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Hong Kong from the Peak on a Summer's Night If you want to see how I made this (and how you can too!), visit my HDR Tutorial. I hope it gives you some new tricks!I had a long day waking up at 5 AM to take a series of subways and trains up to Shenzen for some meetings. I had a Chinese VISA, which you don't need to get into Hong Kong, but I had to use to cross the official Chinese border after getting off the train. I didn't realize that it was a one-time use VISA, and I had to go to Shanghai the next day. This caused a lot of problems with the Chinese officials, a body of government with which I do not enjoy causing problems.Anyway, after I got back to Hong Kong after a day in Shenzen, I was hot and sweaty and in the sort of meeting clothes that aren't great for being hot and sweaty in. But, everything about Hong Kong was still awesome and I had too look hard for things to complain about. The sun was setting, and I made it up to The Peak just in time for a shot.This was a 5-exposure HDR shot at 100 ISO, and, of course, a sturdy tripod to get all the lights as steady as possible.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Sunset in Ibiza Ibiza is a fabulous island off the coast of Spain that is the "in" destination for all the Euros that like to get trashed, party, dress in white, do medium-level-drugs, and stay on the beach without many clothes.I saw this girl bouncing around and very happy about something, so I went over and said hello, introducing myself.  She didn't speak much English, but I managed to ask her if I could take a photo of her.  She enthusiastically said yes, and I explained the sitch as we walked over to the water, mostly using interpretive dance to span the language gap.  She was Italian and her name was Wendy.  I think that is a strange name for an Italian, but I didn't question it.  Anyway, I asked her just to walk off into the ocean and I would take a photo.  She did just that, and I grabbed this shot just as the sun was dipping below the horizon.- Trey RatcliffThe rest of this entry resides here at stuckincustoms.com.

The Treetop Temple Protects Kyoto

Approaching Mount Fuji from the Old Village What a perfect place this is!I’ve been to Japan many times, but I never had the chance to visit Mt. Fuji! This time, Tom and I made a point to do it, and this was one of our fist stops. You can see much more about it in the video above!- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Bryce Canyon National Park

A Neo-Rockwellian Christmas When dad is a photographer, then there is a major degree of pressure to deliver photos on all the requisite holidays and celebrations! So, I decided to try to re-invent the family Christmas photo with HDR. Please note that many of my inventions go down in flames, but, as Winston Churchill said, “success is the ability to go from one failure to the next with no loss of enthusiasm”.Christmas scenes have a lot of light levels. The lights on the tree, the deep greens withn the branches, a roaring fire, lights in the room, reflections off the ornaments, and the like. It’s wild! I’m pretty sure this is why people like Christmas scenes so much - a wonderful treat for the eyes that is rich in texture and rich in light. Traditionally, it’s been very difficult to capture so much richness in a single photo, saving a lucky and heroic combination of shutter speed, aperture, ISO, and lenses.The tree lights made the faces of my three stunt-children (who are also my real children) glow perfectly. No flash could have achieved this, unless you are the kind of Rambo-flash guy that would go bury one inside the tree to hit their faces from the left. But, let’s face it. That’s hard.This was a 5-exposure HDR. You will notice that I often use 5 exposures, but note I could have done it with 3 exposures at -2, 0, and +2. Some silly Nikon cameras, like the D3X I use, will not let you step by twos, so I had to take 5 at -2, -1, 0, +1, and +2. The middle exposure, from which the kid’s faces were masked in and perfectly lit, was shot at f/4 aperture, shutter speed of 1/250, 100 ISO, and at 28mm.- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

Reflecting on the Taj Mahal

The Road to Mount Cook along Lake Pukaki These lenticular clouds are pretty rare — but not on the south island of New Zealand! This is called the land of the long white cloud… I’m not sure of that means these lenticular clouds or not. Maybe a smart reader here on the blog can tell me!Anyway, I do love this photo… I think it is one of my new favorites…- Trey RatcliffClick here to read the rest of this post at the Stuck in Customs blog.

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