HDR – Merge to HDR

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Well, now that you have everything set up and ready to go, it’s time to take some pictures. What? You’re too lazy to go and take them yourself? Alright…since you seem to like StrangeGround, you can browse this FOLDER for any photos you like and try to edit them yourself! All the pictures there are nicely organised and titled, so you’ll know what to download right away. Also, later, we might add our result photos and preset files used when creating them, but for now, you will have to do without it :-D. We personally tried to edit all the photos in the repository, and it is possible with the right settings.


For regular photography, you should always go for RAW. But what to do with HDR? You can also keep shooing in RAW, there’s certainly no harm in that. BUT, for this technique, most of the time you won’t need any pre-hdr editing on the photos (except maybe for some noise reduction, but that’s usually not an issue, since you’re using low ISO setting). When you import the photos into the hdr making program, they’re converted into jpeg or tiff anyway, so if you have the photos in RAW format, I recommend exporting them into jpegs manually. Actually, I often shoot into jpeg directly…well, most of the time it’s because I forget to change it…but the results are not that different. So, the important thing to remember: don’t do any brightness modifications on the photos and export into jpeg or tiff before you begin the hdr creation process!


Ok. First we take a look at Photomatix. You can get a plugin for Lightroom and export the images directly into Photomatix, but for this tutorial, we will be using the standalone import. So, a good start would be a double clicking the program icon. And now follow the pictures:

Click “Load Bracketed Photos”

firstNow select the photos and click “OK”


And now it gets interesting! In our case, we’re using handheld photos, so we check the appropriate box. We don’t need to bother about the noise in this case and we’ll skip chromatic abberations and ghosting for now. Click “Align & Merge to HDR” and watch magic happen :-).


I don’t think you will like what suddenly appears on the screen. Now you have to tinker with the sliders to make the image look somehow good. There are many options and we will cover more in the video, but for now, just know this: the most useful are the ones marked on the screenshot. In this case, we’re using the “Details Enhancer” method, which should besufficient most of the time. A little bit to the sliders now. Strenght controls the overal impact of the whole technique on the photo. Tone compression is hard to describe. Try it and you will see. But the slider you will get the most from is the one called “Lightning Adjustments”. All the way to the right, it makes the picture look nice and natural; all the way to the left makes it look surreal. If you check the “Lighting Effects Mode” box, you will get just few simplified buttons. Also, the white and black point are nice to control the balance in the picture. Go ahead and play with it yourself a bit. Of course, if you want, you can download the preset you see on the right side of the picture. Click HERE for download. Put the file in the C:\Users\[username]\AppData\Roaming\HDRsoft\PhotomatixPro\Presets folder to see it inside photomatix. Click “Apply” once you’re done.


In Photomatix 5, there is also a neat option called the “Finishing Touch”. This lets you do some contrast, color and sharpening adjustments. When you’re done with all the settings, hit “Done”.


Congratulations! You’ve just created you own HDR photo (actually, you just extracted a LDR photo from an HDR one, but that’s not important). Now just save and brag about it in front of your friends ;-).


Luminance HDR

Now this takes quite a different aproach to the thing. It’s a bit more complex and sliders are not as self-explanatory as in photomatix, but once you spend an hour or two tinkering in it, you’ll love it! There are many features luminance has to offer and if you’re smart enough to use them, you won! So let’s run the program and start editing!

Once the software boots up, you will be asked if you would like to make a contribution. On the first run, you will refuse. But once you start it for the tenth time, you realise the author deserves it 😉


After you made your decision about the donation, click the “New HDR Image” icon.


An HDR Creation Wizard window pops up. Click the big green plus button and select the images you want to use. In this case we’re using the same photo as in photomatix and you can find in in the repository we provided in the handheld section. Your photos now appear in the left frame. You should check the exposure values. Usually it is correct, but it happened few times to me, that I somehow discarded the metadata on the file and if that happens, just adjust the EV on the slider under the preview for each photo. Last but not least, since it is a handheld photo, you should let the program do the alignment – so check the box. Now, just click “Next” and Luminance will start aligning the pictures.


Once the aligning is done (usually takes about a minute), you will be presented with a choice of HDR creation profiles. The default is “Profile 1” and this usually works for me very well. But there is no harm experimenting with the other ;-). Now just click “Finish” and watch the magic 😀


Now you’re already presented with the merged image. First thing you’ll notice is, that it is rotated. quicly fix this with “Edit->Rotate clockwise”. On the right side you see the default presets for all the processing methods, but those you can ignore and concentrate on the left side only. From the “Operator” drop down menu, select the method you want to use. Now, we’ll use the “Mantiuk ’08” option. The predefined display option won’t do much, but you can change that to your needs too. You can’t see any cahnges to the picture yet, but that will soon change. Leave the other settings at their defaults and change only the “Result size” to “1024 x 1547” – it doesn’t take long to render and it gives you a good view. Now click “Tonemap” or (and this is far better) tap “CTRL+T”.


A new tab opens in the central area, next to the HDR image, that shows you the result. It’s actually not that bad, but I will add a bit of saturation. You can also turn on the Luminance slider and see the changes done that way, but I won’t do that now. Since I’m satisfied with the result, I will change the “Result size” to the max. Now tonemap it again. And there you go: a nice photo! Now keep in mind, this photo is still just one of the tabs – that means you can make more! The tab feature is one of the things I really love about Luminance!


If you just can’t get the sliders to your liking, but like our results, check the photo repository we provided for preset files. The ones for Luminance are just .txt files and in the application, you can save or load them using the controls as in the picture: the first icon saves the settings in a text file and second icon loads settings from such a file. The stack icons on the right have very similiar functions, but just store the presets within the application itself – for your own editing, use the ones on the right; for the preset import and export use the ones on the left. Also, if our presets don’t work for the sample pictures straight away, don’t panic. I’ve observed that everytime I create the same HDR picture, the merge is always just a little bit different and can result in some mess. Just give those sliders a little nudge and you’ll see ;-).


Now, switch back to the original tab and change the “Operator” to another value – and in this tutorial, we will use the one called “Fattal”. Also, change the size back to the smaller one. Now let’s try tonemapping it again with default settings. As you see, the result is veeery blackish.


So, after playing a bit with the “Alpha” and “Beta” sliders, you can ballance highlights and shadows and you could get something like this. Don’t be confused with the tab name in the picture – I’ve done few steps in between to get the result.


Why do we need two images? Simple – there may be aspects you like more on each picture. This way we got them both and can now bring them to photoshop and using masks, blend them together. Now, to save the processed photos, simply click the “Save all” icon in toolbar and all the processed pictures will be saved. Note, that this will not save the picture on the first tab – that is an actual HDR picture and you can save that by selecting the tab and slicking “Save as…” icon. This will bring up menu for you to save in in some HDR format. This way, you can open the aligned photo again anytime you want to process it differently or with another application.

Two more things we’d like to show you! It has to do something with gamma values ;-). The first thing is the “Adjust levels” button. After clicking it, a windows comes up which lets you clip whites and blacks and adjust gamma value. You can also try the “White Balance” icon, but there are no options to it so it just does…something. You can also change the “pre-gamma” slider next to “Result Size” menu.


And the second gamma related thing is this! Gamma mapping of the source HDR picture. You can change the values from the drop down menu and watch what happens to your picture. The default is set to gamma 2.2, because almost all monitors these days are (or should be) set to that value. You can also move the blue bar in the histogram to adjust picture. The default setting usualy works great, but it’s nice to know we have some options.


So, there you have it, an HDR done using the Luminance HDR software!

What now?

Yes, you’ve made a nice HDR picture, but don’t let that fool you – there’s always room for improvement ;-). For example, if you look at the Photomatix and Luminance Fattal results, you can see there are some strange red lines around that twigs in the top area. That is no good! It might be also good to bring up the whites in some areas of the picture and that’s what we’ll use Photoshop and Perfect Effects 8 for. Proceed to the next page for some fine tuning the image.

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