Single shot HDR with Photoshop

PART 1  |   The idea behind my technique


People who are new to my blog may not know how much I like to work in Photoshop. I process every image I deliver to my clients and between jobs I often revisit images to practice old techniques and explore new techniques. While I try to keep my processing time to a minimum when I’m on deadline, I will spend a little more time in Photoshop when I’m creating special images (composites, HDR’s, or images that will be blown up and sold as fine art prints). A good rule of thumb for me is to keep my processing time well under 5 minutes per shot and to do as much in camera as I can.

I’m a big believer in practice. Practice is how I speed up my processing. Practice helps me deliver my images on time. Practice helps me improve and it keeps my skill level high. If you ask me, you need to spend lots of time working on your technique. This mindset applies to anything you want to improve at (like cooking, athletics, playing video games and so much more). Because I’m such a big believer in practice I am always photographing or processing to continue learning new things and to maintain skills on things I learned years ago.

I’ve been using Photoshop for a long, long time and I even worked as a full-time photoshop touch-up artist before starting my photography business. Because of my Photoshop background I have a tendency to think about my post-processing when I’m planning a shoot and when I’m on a shoot. Being in Photoshop is a lot of fun for me and so is teaching.

The technique I’m about to share is something I discovered when I was playing around with some older images and applying some new approaches to post-processing. Let me begin by talking a bit about a very basic idea that I apply to my Photoshop work.

“There’s nothing wrong with processing an image more than once”

The above quote is something Dan Margulis said during one of his Photoshop World sessions on advanced Photoshop techniques. I consider Dan to be one of the most skilled users of Photoshop I’ve ever met and I was fortunate to get to talk with him at length between sessions.

In a nutshell, when you process an image more than once you may hit on something that works better with each new attempt. It might be better overall or there may be a specific element (like color or contrast) that you like better. In fact, if you process an image three times from scratch you may find things you like about all three. So what do you do when you have three different versions of an image and there’s something you like about all of them? You load them all into Photoshop (as layers) and you use blend modes, masks and opacity to bring the best parts of them into a single image. This technique can give you some incredible results. For an HDR image this kind of thinking can be the difference between a really incredible image and an image that looks over-the-top.

It was this kind of thinking that led me to try something with the HDR toning capability of Photoshop CS6.

Why this isn’t easy

The reason I practice my post processing so much (especially color correction) is that it helps me to develop my eye for what’s working and what isn’t. It’s difficult to make a move that helps part of the image but completely kills another. But making big moves is something I do on a regular basis. If I know I want something to have more color I’ll go way past the point of good judgement (on a duplicate layer) and I’ll reduce the results with opacity. If there is a problem area of the image that got too much color I’ll start masking to balance the results.

Processing in Photoshop like this is the total opposite approach to how you might use a single light to get your shot in-camera (you’d never over-light a scene and try to pull back detail later) and that’s probably why some people don’t think this way in post-production. A much more common approach (with Photoshop) is to make a move until it looks like too much and then back off a bit before hitting the OK button (while looking at the entire image). I try to look at specific areas I’m working on and ignore areas that are overdone (I’ll fix them later). This is a lot like getting a single light right on a subject and using light controllers like flags to keep that light off of things you don’t want lit.

It’s easy to fall into the habit of working on an entire image at once and not thinking about small areas of the image that need attention. It’s also easy to have a very small part of an image (that is over done or not fixed) ruin the entire shot. I think this is the reason that some people produce HDR images that others don’t care for.

There are things that HDR does really well

Some people like to say that HDR images look fake. Others don’t like the unnatural glow that you sometimes get when you tone-map a 32 bit image. But for all the negatives, HDR has some really killer things about it that I love.

I think that HDR does an incredible job of bringing out details, highlighting textures and giving you the ability to see into darker areas of a picture. I also like how similar colors can be driven apart by HDR processing.

The problem I have with HDR processing software is that the sliders can be confusing and often give me some really wild results. This is why most photographers I know (that create HDR images) will use HDR processing software as a starting point and they will work the image in Photoshop (or a number of outstanding plug-ins) until they are happy.  I treat my HDR tone-mapped images just like I treat a new RAW file (by taking it back into Lightroom and finishing things up in Photoshop).

But using bracketed shots isn’t the only way to get the HDR look.

The single shot HDR

The classic method of creating HDR images is to take lots of shots of something (preferably with a tripod). With a properly exposed image, an underexposed image and an overexposed image you have lots of information to work with. Sometimes you can’t use a tripod or you didn’t get a bracketed set of shots. Luckily, there’s still ways to get the HDR look with a single image.

My new solution for single shot HDR’s is to create a single normal looking image that has good contrast and would look good without any more work. I then create a very over-the-top HDR version that I can blend with parts of my original image. I think I’ve simplified my system enough to go ahead and share how I’m doing it.

If you’re shooting RAW you can use programs like Lightroom to bring back lost highlight information and bring out shadow detail. Doing things this way will often add noise (especially in the dark areas you brighten) but that’s easy enough to control with the noise reduction sliders.

When I’m going to create a single shot HDR image I will process the image just like I normally do but I might push the shadow and highlight recovery a bit more than normal. It’s important not to go too far since you will be using this processed version of your image to blend with your HDR version.

It’s also important for me to say that your final image is a very subjective result. There are no right or wrong answers, only what you want to share with the world. Don’t get caught up in wondering if you did too much or not enough. Adjust your images until you are happy and share an image you are proud of.

Coming next  |  Processing the image in Lightroom

My entire technique now takes me less than 5 minutes to do. Once you are comfortable with the individual steps I recommend recording an action to do all the moves that never change. I programmed all my moves into an action and assigned it to my f5 key. Now all I have to do is process my image in Lightroom, send it to Photoshop, hit the f5 key and then adjust a few sliders until I like how it looks. It’s really that simple.

But for me to show everyone how I do it requires a lot of screen shots along with some explanations. So I’ll be dividing up my technique across three blog entries (including this one) and showing all of my personal settings on an example image.

The next blog entry will show how I prepare an image in Lightroom to become a single shot HDR. I hope you’ll continue reading by going to part 2 here.

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