Over the years, different software solutions for creating an HDR image from a set of source exposures have emerged. First, it was Photomatix and other dedicated software tools that where mainly used. In parallel, people always used to do manual blending for more subtle results. Then HDR was added to Photoshop and with Lightroom CC/6, it was finally possible to merge your source exposures directly in Lightroom.
In this article, you will get an overview of the most commonly used methods and techniques. They are quite diverse and can be used to achieve different types of results, ranging from a classical colorful, detail-rich HDR look to very subtle and natural looking images.
The Good Old Photomatix
Photomatix is the mother of all HDR software. It’s been around the longest and it arguably offers the most flexibility with its different tone-mapping and exposure fusion options. It has also set the baseline for what you may call the typical HDR look, whether that’s good or bad. In the video below, Blake Rudis takes you on a tour through Pnotomatox Pro 5 and shows you how to use it.
Nik HDR Efex Pro
Merge to HDR Pro – Photoshop
Photoshop’s Merge to HDR Pro function gives you basically two options: You can use the toning algorithms directly built into Merge to HDR Pro, or you can save your merged image as a 32-bit image which contains the full dynamic range. This 32-bit image can then be toned, for example, in Adobe Camera Raw or in Lightroom to get a more natural look.
Merge to HDR Pro Toning
In the first video, Julianne Kost shows you how to merge your images into an HDR in Photoshop. The actual tone-mapping interface in this video is slightly outdated, though. Thus, I am giving you second video with a more recent interface and respective explanations below.
Adobe Camera Raw Toning
In this video, I am giving you my workflow for toning your 32-bit HDR images in Adobe Camera Raw. This lets you create very realistic-looking images.
Merge to HDR – Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw
Here, Howard Pinsky explains how the new HDR function in Lightroom works. Creating HDR in Lightroom is very simple as there are extremely few options. The result is stored as a Raw image that you can process in any Raw converter. So, toning your HDR image after you merged it is no different then processing a normal photo in Lightroom.
Since Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) are virtually the same with respect to their raw image processing modules, the same function is also available in the current ACR release. So, if you have Photoshop, you actually have both HDR applications and can choose which one to use. In this video, Julianne Kost shows you how the HDR function in ACR is used. I am adding it for completeness.
You can also create an HDR image fully within Photoshop without using its Merge to HDR Pro feature at all. One way to do this is to create Luminosity masks that hide or reveal parts of your image based on its tonal values. With this method, you can blend the well-exposes parts of each of your source photos together and get a very natural looking HDR.
In cases where Luminosity Masks do not work or where you need more flexibility, creating those layer masks for blending the relevant parts of all the images together is the way to go.
In the video below, Marc Muench shows you how he blends two or more images in Photoshop using layer masks to reveal the relevant parts of each image manually.
The modern way of doing HDR is to use the tool that fits the image at hand best. So, don’t stick to a single software for convenience. Try out the other options and optimize your results by using the best one. Also, consider blending two or more different versions in Photoshop later on. This way, you can even combine the best of all worlds.