Single Shot HDR with Photoshop

Part 3  |  The Photoshop technique

Above is the end result I got from applying my new HDR toning technique. When I start to create an image like this I don’t have anything specific in mind. I prefer to just see what happens when I start making adjustments. Here’s the complete Photoshop workflow I am now using to create an HDR look with a single image.

This will be the final entry of this series. If you haven’t read the first two entries you can read part 1 here and you can read part 2 here.

Open your image in Photoshop

I begin by opening my image directly out of Lightroom but you can skip that step if you already have a jpg image that you want to use with this technique. If you’re using a PSD or Tiff file with layers the first thing you should do is flatten your image. Here’s a look at my image when I opened it in Photoshop:

Next I make a copy of this image to be used later. I do this by selecting the entire image and copying it to the clipboard. Here’s how to do this with the menu bar:

You should now have the marching ants making their way around your entire image. To save time you can also do this with a keyboard shortcut (command+A on a Mac or CTRL+A on a PC). Once you have the entire image selected you can copy it to your clipboard to use later. Here’s how you copy the entire image using the menu bar:

The keyboard shortcut for copying to the clipboard is command+C on a Mac or CTRL+C on a PC. Be sure that you selected the entire image before making your copy.

Now that we have a copy saved to the clipboard it’s time to run the HDR toning effect on the image. Here’s where the HDR toning dialog is located:

This brings up a new dialog box with all sorts of sliders that do all sorts of cool things to your image. You can try adjusting the sliders for your own look but for this technique I recommend using a preset from the preset drop down menu. My favorite preset for this technique is the scott5 preset (created by Scott Kelby himself). Here’s a look at the HDR dialog box and where to find the scott5 preset:

When you select the scott5 preset your image should now have the full HDR look like this:

Don’t worry if you think it’s way too much. That’s actually what we are going for here. Go ahead and click the OK button so we can begin to tone down the HDR look.

Creating the layers that will let you adjust your image

The key to getting your image to look the way you want it to look will be blending back in parts of the starting image (remember how we copied the starting image to the clipboard before we applied the HDR look). I found that creating two new layers that use the starting image, one for texture and one for color,  gives me the most flexibility when I fine tune my image. I also create a third new layer from the starting image to use as a comparison image (a before/after layer). Here’s how to create the first new layer that will let you dial in your HDR look:

This will open a new layer dialog box. You can also use a keyboard shortcut to create your new layer (command+shift+N on a Mac or CTRL+shift+N on a PC). The first thing I do with this dialog is change the name of my new layer to color. This will help when you start making adjustments later. Here’s where you change the name of your new layer:

With the new name entered its time to change the blend mode of your new layer. This is done by clicking the drop down next to the word Mode. Because this will be a layer that lets me adjust the amount of HDR color I want to change the blend mode to color. Here’s what the dialog looks like when I choose the color blend mode:

This creates a new blank layer. Make sure you have your layer panel visible (I use layers a lot so mine is always visible). At this point you can paste the original image to this new layer. Here’s how to do it from the menu:

The keyboard shortcut for paste will also work (command+V on a Mac and CTRL+V on a PC). You should see a change in the color of your image. With more colorful images the difference will be more dramatic.

Next we’ll do the exact same thing but we’ll be creating a layer that will let you adjust the amount of texture in your final image. This new layer is the one that will really control the overall HDR look. Here’s the steps for creating the new texture layer starting with creating a new layer:

This layer will get renamed texture.

Next we need to change the blend mode of this new layer to luminosity.

Now click OK and paste the original image into this new layer.

At this point your image should look exactly like it did when you opened the image. What we’ve created is a bottom layer (background) that has been processed to look like HDR but we’re seeing the color information from the color layer and we’re seeing the texture (or contrast) information from the texture layer. The blend modes we used when we created the new layers are overriding the look of the bottom layer.

Now I create one last layer that I can use as a comparison with my work in progress. The steps are the same as above but this time I leave the blend mode set to normal and I rename the layer: starting image.

After the new layer is created paste the starting image onto your layer and be sure to turn the layer visibility off. To turn the visibility off click the little icon that looks like an eye (next to the starting image layer). When the eyeball icon is invisible the starting image layer is turned off. Here’s a close up look at the layers panel with the visibility turned on (left) and off (right):

Now your Photoshop file is ready for you to made the adjustments that will give you the HDR tone-mapped look.

Using layer opacity to create your unique HDR look

Now that we’ve created all of our layers, named them appropriately and set their blend modes we can start to create our single shot HDR image. It sounds a bit backwards, but lowering the opacity for the color or texture layers will increase the color and texture in the final image.

I like to start by selecting the color layer and adjusting the opacity down until I’m happy with how the colors look. Sometimes it’s 0% opacity and sometimes it’s 50% opacity. Every image is a little bit different but the bottom line here is that you have an adjustment slider to move until you like how things are looking. Here’s a look at the color layer selected and making adjustments to the opacity (circled in red on the right of the image):

Here’s a closeup of my layer panel as I adjust the opacity from 0% back up to 51%:

With some images this adjustment will be really dramatic. If you have an image with very similar colors this opacity adjustment can give you really nice color separation (much like creating simultaneous contrast). If it looks too aggressive just increase the opacity until you are happy. If you want to see a before and after of your image just turn on the visibility of the starting image layer. For this image my color layer opacity was set to 25%.

Once you’re happy with how it’s looking make sure that the starting layer is turned off and we’ll adjust the layer that really controls the HDR look.

Bringing in the HDR textured look

Go ahead and select the texture layer and begin to lower the opacity of this layer. This time you should see a huge change to your image. Here’s a look at my image with the texture layer opacity set to 0%:

This is the adjustment that will let you will fine tune the image to your own personal taste. Whenever I’m making this adjustment I often toggle the visibility of the starting image layer to compare what I have with where I started. Sometimes this comparison helps me to decide if the moves I’ve made were a little too much (or not quite enough).

For my final image the opacity was 75%. A higher opacity (closer to 100%) gives you less of the HDR look and a lower opacity (closer to 0%) will give you more of the HDR look. Adjust the opacity slider up and down until you’re happy. There’s nothing destructive to this technique and, ultimately, you’re creating something that is your own vision of the image. There is no right or wrong result, just different results.

When you’re happy you can go ahead and save your image and share it online (or better, get a print of it made).

For me this entire process takes me well under 5 minutes and it gets me very close to being finished. Sometimes I’ll go a bit further by converting to black and white, adding a vignette, or using a mask on the starting image layer to completely remove the HDR effect from specific areas of my image (this is very useful when you have people in your shot). The bottom line here is that there is plenty of adjustability and room for personal preferences so there’s no limit to what you can create. Here’s another look at my final version of this image as a single shot HDR image with the addition of a mild vignette and a platinum gradient map:

And that’s my technique. I know it was a long read but trust me when I say that after you do it a few times you’ll be creating some killer images and doing it super fast.

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