HDR Cookbook – Creating HDR Images the Right Way
You start the process of creating a tone-mapped LDR image by merging all your source images into a single 32-bit HDR image. We all know that. Maybe you have done this already very often, and probably you think that there is not much to think about when you do this. Right? Even more so as this part of the whole process is usually not covered very well in most tutorials you will find on the Internet. Well, after you have read this post, you may have to change your opinion on this. I will show you different ways of merging your 32-bit HDR image, using the tools provided by Photoshop CS4, Adobe Camera Raw, and Photomatix Pro 4.0. As you will see, there are huge differences in the results.
In my HDR work, I have come across a number of situations where especially the highlights of an image got lost somewhere in the HDR process. A close look at the source files revealed that enough details were present. However, after merging the source files, they were lost. Especially, in images like the one shown at the beginning of this post, this can be a real show-stopper since such images live from their light effects. I wanted to find out what is happening here and conducted some tests that actually solved the problem and provided me with a workflow that preserves as much highlight details (and also shadow details for that matter) as possible. In this article, I would like to share my findings with you.
Assumptions and Requirements
My assumptions are that you have produced a standard +-2EV series of three exposure-bracketed shots. Furthermore, I assume that you are working with raw photos. Having your source images only in JPEG format limits the dynamic range of your final image as I will show. Below, you see the source images I have used for testing the different methods.
It is clear to see in the source files that you should really create more exposures here since the dynamic range of the scene is a bit too large for the standard autobracketing series. This becomes apparent, for example, in the upper right of the scene where the light hits the right pillar. This section appears to be completely blown out. Of course, you may argue that I should have just used a tripod and made more source images, maybe going as low as -6EV to cover this range. And of course you are right! However, I was limited to shooting this scene hand-held, and the question is: Can you squeeze more dynamic range out of these shots or any other series of source images that you may have sitting on your hard disk that were created under suboptimal conditions? We will try to do this using the methods explained in the following.
I will compare the following 6 methods for merging an HDR
- Three RAWs: Feeding the 3 RAW files directly into Photomatix. This is supposedly the standard way and also the quickest and easiest way of doing it, and chances are that it is your way of doing it. However, you may be surprised to hear that it is not the way that HDRsoft (the company that created Photomatix) recommends!
- Three TIFFs: Converting the 3 RAW files into 3 16-bit TIFF files using Adobe Camera RAW (version 5.6) and feeding the resulting TIFFs into Photomatix. This is what HDRsoft recommends. The obvious reason for doing this is that you can correct Chromatic Aberration (CA) much more effectively in Adobe Camera RAW (or any other RAW converter software) than in Photomatix. When you look at the results of this test, you will ask yourself why HDRsoft recommends this!
- Five TIFFs: Converting the 3 RAW files to 5 TIFFs using Adobe Camera RAW (three original exposures plus one with -4EV and one with -6EV created from the original -2EV exposure) and feeding the resulting TIFFs into Photomatix. With this method, we artificially create two additional exposures using the exposure setting in Adobe Camera RAW. This is similar to the method being used for creating Pseudo-HDRs.
- Three JPEGs: Feeding 3 JPEGs directly into Photomatix. This is how we probably all started out before we discovered that RAWs offer more flexibility. This method is also still recommended by well-known HDR artists.
- Five JPEGs: Feeding 5 JPEGs directly into Photomatix – the 3 original images plus a -4EV and a -6EV version created from the original -2EV JPEG using Adobe Camera RAW (same process used for the Five TIFFs method).
- PS RAWs: Creating the 32-bit HDR using Photoshop’s “Merge to HDR” feature, saving the result in EXR format and feeding it to Photomatix.
After each of these procedures, the resulting 32-bit HDR was tone-mapped in Photomatix Pro 4.0 using the Detail Enhancer option and the following settings:
- Strength: 90
- Color Saturation: 46
- Luminosity: 10.0
- Microcontrast: 7.8
- Smoothing: 8.0
- White Point: 0.250%
- Black Point: 0%
- Gamma: 1.00
- Temperature: 0.0
- Saturation Highlights: 0.0
- Saturation Shadows: 0.0
- Micro-smoothing: 5.7
- Highlights Smoothness: 30
- Shadows Smoothness: 0
- Shadows Clipping: 0
The white balance was untouched in all images. The camera measured 4150 Kelvin. Wherever possible (e.g. in Photomatix’ RAW processing options), this setting was used explicitly. No other post-processing has been applied. The JPEGs were created using the highest resolution and the lowest compression possible with the camera model (Nikon D90 – JPEG Fine mode).
You may click on any of the images to open a larger version that allows for a more close-up inspection.
There are a few things that become apparent from looking at these results:
- The white balance is very different. Despite the fact that the same setting was used, Photomatix introduces a clear magenta cast when directly fed with RAW images in this case.
- Photoshop’s “Merge to HDR” function applies an extreme reduction in color saturation. No processing whatsoever was applied apart from merging the files and saving the result in the EXR format. The desaturation goes to a point where even subsequent post-processing cannot recover the colors entirely.
- The preservation of the details in the highlights is very different between the approaches. While the findings above are already striking and, to some extent, unexpected, this fact makes all the difference here. After all, preserving details in the highlights (and in the shadows) is the most important point of using HDRI technology in the first place. In the following, I will take a closer look at this.
Preservation of Details in the Highlights
Below, you see crops from all the resulting images. They show the light falling on the pillar at the right top of the scene. In this particular case, these very highlights are what gives life to the scene. Therefore, it is very important that they are rendered with as much detail as possible.
Which conclusions can we draw in terms of highlight preservation from this test?
- A straight-forward conversion of the RAW files into TIFFs (Three TIFFs method) clearly leads to a loss of highlight details. Apparently, Photomatix is able to draw more details from the original RAW files than from the corresponding three TIFFs.
- If there is any difference between using the converted TIFFs (Three TIFFs method) and using the JPEGs straight out of the camera (Three JPEGs method), then the Three JPEGs method preserves slightly more highlight details. This is a surprising result as the 16-bit TIFFs should contain more dynamic range, at least in theory. Note however, that upon a closer inspection of the entire image, one can see that the Three TIFFs method results in slightly more details while the Three JPEGs method produces noise that is harder to remove due to the JPEG compression artefacts. Hence, the conclusion should not be that JPEGs are the better alternative here.
- Creating additional exposures with -4EV and -6EV actually pays off, contrary to the general assumption that you cannot get more details than present in the RAW files. This statement is certainly true, but Photomatix is unable to really use those details, unless you explicitly provide them in additional exposures created through the RAW conversion. Among all the resulting images, the Five TIFFs method certainly results in the most pleasing appearance of the highlights. There are spots that are ultimately blown-out. However, the transitions are smooth and close to what the eye would see in the real scene (at least in this case).
- Apart from the strange desaturation effect, The PS RAWs method comes second in terms of highlight preservation in this test. It seems that the Five TIFFs method preserves slightly more details, but the difference is very small. It seems that Photoshop CS4 does a better job at preserving details in the highlights than the market leader Photomatix, which came as a surprise to me.
- Finally, the Five JPEGs method produces an image that clearly shows the difference between using RAW source images and using JPEGs. The blown-out areas have very harsh transitions, creating an unnatural and unpleasant appearance. This is a clear result of the JPEG compression. In fact, visually, the Three JPEGs method is superior to the more burdensome Five JPEGs method as it glosses over the loss of detail having larger areas of lost highlights with smoother transitions.
The fact that Photomatix cannot pull out all the details from the RAWs (bullet no. 3) is very surprising. I suspect, that the reasons are twofold:
- Converting your RAW files manually gives you much more control over their appearance and lets you decide what you want.
- More importantly, though, HDRsoft themselves say that their conversion technology is inferior to that used in specialized products like Adobe Camera Raw. It seems this gap in performance is significant. Do not get me wrong here! Photomatix is a superb product, but there are a few things HDR soft should work on. RAW conversion quality is one of them.
Final Conclusions and Recommendation
As for any such test, the results should be taken with a grain of salt. They may be different for different scenes and lighting conditions. However, the results indicate the following:
- Feeding the RAW files directly into Photomatix produces suboptimal results as Photomatix is unable to pull all the details from the source files.
- A mere conversion of the RAW files to TIFFs in a RAW converter looses even more details and, at least in terms of highlight preservation, is worse than using the RAWs directly. Note that there are other good reasons for the conversion!
- If you use JPEGs for your HDRs, you will inevitably lose details! This may not be an issue in many images, however, it becomes apparent whenever your source images do not cover the dynamic range perfectly. This is the case often if you are shooting hand-held. Therefore, you should tell your camera to produce RAWs!
- The Five TIFFs method is the clear winner of this test. Pulling out the last bit of detail with a RAW converter before you merge the images into an HDR image does pay off. The reason is most likely that tools like Adobe Camera RAW are specialized in doing this while Photomatix and other HDR tools use inferior software here (my personal hypothesis).
Based on these tests, I recommend to you to do following:
- Shoot in RAW format.
- Merge your HDRs using Photomatix and not in Photoshop to preserve the colors.
- Convert your RAW files to TIFFs using a high-quality RAW converter to retain control over highlights and chromatic aberration.
- If you have a scene with important highlight regions and your coverage of the dynamic range is close to the edge, you should develop additional TIFFs with a lower exposure value.
Thanks for another great post. Something I don’t quite understand though:
“1.Feeding the RAW files directly into Photomatix produces suboptimal results as Photomatix is unable to pull all the details from the source files for one reason or another”
The details above seems to show that Photomatix is better at pulling the detail out of RAWs than it is TIFFs (or something is lost in the TIFF conversion).
You are right when you compare the thee raws method with the three tiffs method. However, one would expect that no matter how many “fake” exposures you create using a raw converter, photomatix should always be able to pull at least the same amount of details from the three raws. As the result of the five tiffs method shows, this is not the case: you can actually get more details (than photomatix is able to extract) by creating additional exposures and feeding those into photomatix.
I hopen this explains it.
got a question regarding handheld hdrs. I mostly take three shots handheld (-2,0, +2) then I merge them in PS then tonemap the .hdr file in photomatix. The reason why I merge them in PS is because it is much better then merging in photomatix. less ghosting and noise. So wanted to know if this is the same case for you or how do u go about merging your handheld three shots?
in most cases, I merge my shots (hand-held and tripod) in Photomatix. Maybe Photoshop is better in aligning the images (although I cannot confirm this), but the negative effect of desaturated colors kept me from using it more often. Besides, Photomatix Pro 4.0 has a nice semi-automatic deghosting feature that I use a lot.
thanks for that..yeah i actually haven’t tried using photomatix 4.0 for merging..So what u saying in ur article is that once u shoot the raws then u convert them to tiffs via camera raw and then use those tiffs to merge hdr in photomatix? Also, when u convert to tiff using camera raw do u do any adjustment to the 3 bracketed images or u just convert the RAWs without touching them?
And one more thing ..im finding photomatix 4 is very good in doing single RAW HDR image..have u tried that out?
“So what u saying in ur article is that once u shoot the raws then u convert them to tiffs via camera raw and then use those tiffs to merge hdr in photomatix?”
Exactly! The trick that I am reporting on here is to actually produce two more TIFFs with lower exposures to pull every bit of detail out of the highlights.
In some cases, I also apply some clarity in ACR. However, I found that any adjustments prior to the merging can have strange effects and is destined to reduce the quality of the HDR. I like to minimize any pre-processing before the merging and do everything in post-processing. I found that this gives me the best results.
Yes, I have tried psuedo-HDRs. However, I would always convert the single RAW into three or more TIFFs before feeding them to Photomatix for the very same reasons stated in the article.
thanks for that. Very helpful indeed and your blog is very good. I would like to see more videos on your HDR workflow. You have one video which is really good but a little too fast in capturing what is going on but yeah fantastic blog and keep up the good work because it helps.
Thanks a lot, Ankit! I will keep up the work!
I don’t use photomatix; however, photoshop’s alignment is scary good and much better than Nik HDR Efex Pro, which I’ve compared extensively. I agree that the loss of saturation with photoshop HDR merge is often a drawback, however.
Excellent article. Thank you!
By the way, I noticed that in some situations when creating HDR in Photomatix (from RAWs) I was losing details in shadows if I used a colour space narrower than PhotoRGB.
interesting observation. I’ll have to check if the color space has any effect on the highlights too. I live by the rule to never change the color space anywhere in the workflow. I am using sRGB all the way through since it turned out to be the most unproblematic, also accoring to many atrictles I read on the web.
I meant ProPhoto RGB 🙂 “When source images are in RAW format” settings. It was very contrasty scene.
I read your post for the first time and got the required understanding of the HDR. process
You sir are probably if not the best at explaning this subject.
Thanks a lot, Karl!
I try my best, and it’s nice to hear that you found it useful.
Thank you for a great and informative tutorial, excellent. i have a quick question. My ACR in CS5 only allows me a value of -4 to +4 EV, so had trouble adjusting the -2EV exposure to -6. I had to process in ACR to -4 then open in CS5. Then I used an adjustment layer set to antoher -2. Am I missing anything? PC version 32bit CS5.
Also, a similar tutorial with your setting for Topaz adjust would be much appreciate 🙂 (not giving away all of your secrets(
sorry, that part may be a bit unclear. The -6EV was meant in relation to the original 0EV exposure. So the entire series is +2EV, 0EV, -2EV, -4EV, and -6EV. The latter two are the additional exposures created with ACR. They are based on the original -2EV image with the exposure value in ACR set to -2 (resulting in -4EV overall) and -4 (resulting in -6EV overall) respectively.
I hope this clarifies it.
Of course – Silly me 🙂 makes perfect sense now.
Tis me again? Another question. I have a Canon 1DS mk2 and at present I have my AEB set to 7 shots -3 to +3EV (1EV difference). I could set the camera to 5 exposure AEB with a 2 EV diffence dialing in -2 to start with so effectively taking -6,-4,-2, 0 and +2EV exposures. Would a 5 RAW file selection in Photomatix be better than a 5 TIFF, in your opinion?
yes, 5 original RAWs are definitely better than 3+2 TIFFs developed from 3 RAWs – at least in terms of dynamic range. I would still develop each one of the RAWs into a TIFF. See my article on “Correcting Chromatic Aberration” (https://farbspiel-photo.com/hdr-cookbook/correcting-chromatic-aberration) for details.
The problem is that shooting 5 images hand-held takes longer than 3 and the movement of your hands between the shots translates into more severe alignment problems (depending on how steady you are able to hold your camera). So you have to check if that works for you. If you are shooting from a tripod, you should obviously take as many shots as necessary for covering the dynamic range of the scene. In that case, you do not necessarily need the AEB function since you can change the exposure manually without moving the camera drasticly.
Excellent article and good work. I wonder if the best of both worlds could be achieved by layering a 5 tiff Photomatix merge with a Photoshop merge, and setting the layer blend mode to color?
Interesting that you use so much Topaz in your workflow. Rick Sammon takes a similar approach in his HDR Secrets book, and I have been using Adjust for as long as I have been doing HDR, but I am far from convinced by inFocus.
You are certainly getting exceptional end results. So thanks for taking the time to share.
BTW I must admit to doing a lot of hand held, but with a Canon 1D4 with 10fps. It is still surprising how much misalignment there is between the shots. This is something you notice if cutting in part of a single frame in post.
thanks for the nice feedback. Your idea with the layering sounds interesting. Of course there are infinite possibilities of combining different versions of all of these images. I guess I will give your approach a try next time.
I think the Topaz tools are great. Of course, you must use them with extreme care as it is very easy to overdo the effects. I would say that I do not use very extreme settings, and I am also far from using all the sliders it offers. As for Topaz InFocus, I was not impressed either when I first used it. But I discovered that this, too, is a matter of not going too extreme. I start with small “Blur Radius” values and work my way gently up the scale until I see artifacts appearing. At that point I reduce the radius again slightly. This works on most images and gets back some sharpness. It does not perform miracles, though.
Finally, for the hand-held shooting: Of course you need a reasonably fast camera. But I found that reducing camera shake to get well-aligned images straight out of the camera, is more a matter of controlling your body than of controlling your camera. It’s a combination of relaxing, breathing and focusing your mind. Hmmm… do I sound like a ZEN master? 😉
Cheers, Trevor! And thanks for stopping by.
Great work on many fronts! I must say I am as in awe of the hand-held technique as I am any piece of the process. I use a sturdy tripod with a remote shutter and still the right breeze or simple shake from the shutter can wreak havoc. You must do a tutorial on you technique! Cheers!
Thank you very much for your HDR CookBook it is helping me a lot to learn HDR photography . So far I have done only one hdr shot. I am newbie .
Please make your Video slow so People like me can see step by step and learn.
Hi Klaus, great article, love it! I have one question for you. What about shooting in RAW, convert the brackets to JPG and then feed Photomatix with created JPG files? Trey Ratcliff does this as far as I know.
thanks for the feedback! Of course you can use JPEGs. However, it is a well-known fact that you will lose data and details when you do this. Moreover, there is no real reason for doing this unless you are really short of hard disk space. In this case, you should rather spend a few bugs on an additional drive.
Trey is well-known for being the opposite of a pixle peeper. For example, he carries his lenses without a lens cap in his bag arguing that you wont see the scratches in the images. Hence, he may not be the best advisor in this case. 😉
Thank you for explaining the HDR techniques so wonderfully….it was really great visiting your page.
This is my first day of playing with this techniques, Im such a lucky person to get to know your work and Tips, you accelerated my curve of learning the subjetc in such a way.. Thank you very mucho for your teachings Master, this serves me well
You are welcome Fernando!
I hope you enjoy the information, and I am looking forward to seeing the results.
Have a great time and a great weekend!
greeting from China
i just became interested in HDR recently. however, i get puzzled by how to use those softwares and i cant decide what format i should use-single RAW or three JPGs. now i get a little bit. i guess all i need is more practices. thanks for ur instruction. awesome work. 😀
I would opt for three RAWs as the input to your HDR process. Three JPEGs are ok too, but give you less quality. A single raw only gives you a slight increase of dynamic range and is not really HDR.
So, shoot in RAW mode (and JPEG) and use the RAWs. If RAW conversion seems to complex to you right now, shoot in RAW anyway. Some fine day you will learn how to master it, and then you will be thankfull for having those RAW images on your hard dusk.
Visit me at facebook.com/farbspiel
Excellent article indeed! I’m not redoing some of my previous HDRs with your technique to see the differences.
I have a couple of newbie questions though, pls don’t mind me asking. I’m using CS5 with ACR 6.4:
1. How to save from RAW to 16-bit TIFF in ACR? The way I’ve figured out is to change the bit-depth of an image once its in ACR from 8 to 16 and then save it as a regular TIFF. But when I open it again in ACR, it reverts back to 8-bits. Scratching my head over this.
2. How do I save a 16-bit TIFF in PS? Adobe’s PS CS5 help says that there is a bit selection option (8, 16, 32 etc.) when one selects to “Save As…” a TIFF. But when I try to do that, I don’t see any bit selection options, just compression and bit organization.
I manually changed the image bit depths from 8 to 16 in PS once the images are opened. But now stuck as I can’t figure out how to save a 16-bit TIFF.
Thanks and keep up the good work!
you are right, ACR does not let you save as 16-bit TIFFs. But that is also not really necessary. Since you develop additional exposures, all the dynamic range should be covered.
As for PS: If you load the 16-bit TIFF produced in Photomatix into PS, and don’t change to 8-bit inbetween, your saved TIFF will also be 16-bit.
I hope this helps!
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Klaus, your blog is truly an exceptionally good resource on HDR Photography. Appreciate sharing this amount of detail free of charge – it’s worthy of publishing into a practical guide.
Klaus, you are the best at explaining HDR! I read your HDR Cookbook early when I was starting to do HDR – great tips. I’ve come back to visit the blog to discover even more useful info! Thanks.
I did take some bad advice and feed jpegs from RAW into Photomatix – you can figure out from where it came.
I’ve been doing pseudo-HDR from one handheld RAW because it suits my needs. I smartened up and now feed TIFFs into Photomatix. 3 TIFFS from one RAW going into Photomatix – although I have made some extra brackets (as many as 5) when necessary.
Appreciate the knowledge you share.
These are some of my HDR’s on G+:
Tom L in Canada
Thanks Klaus for another great article.
I was putting together your advice the article where you compare noise reduction work flows, plus Topaz’s recommendation on how to use Denoise 5 and I noticed a great improvement in quality when I use the 3 TIFFs that result from denoising the 3 RAW files to feed Photomatix.
From this article, I take that I should add a -4 and a -6 TIFFs also the result from processing the 2 extra RAW’s with Topaz’s Denoise 5.
Is that right? Would you have any other advice about the steps at that time in work flow?
you’re welcome! Yes, you should treat the extra exposures created in ACR in the same way as the original exposures by processing them in DeNoise before merging all of them to an HDR.
I have tons of advice! 😉 Most of it is in the Cookbook.
Regarding that saturation loss with PS, I can’t verify this for CS5. Could it be the color correction settings are off for you? Using Adobe RGB never gave me desaturated colors like the ones you got in this example.
I cannot comment on CS5, but in CS4 there is really not a lot you can control in the merging process. Maybe it’s also an effect that is depending on the particular image. I can just state what I observed in my work, and this desaturation effect also occurred with other images I processed.
Thanks for this article. I think this is what lightroom does when you export your photos to photomatix. It converts them to TIFs before pushing them in Photomatix. I will give the additional Two exposures a shot next time.
Always shoot RAW…RAW rules!!!!
I’ve been running some of my own tests, and just started publishing the results: http://goo.gl/isu7u and http://goo.gl/VdesQ. Your Five TIFF method is definitely superior, and I’ll be publishing those results shortly. Thanks again for all the great information you’ve posted. …doug
You’re welcome. I am looking forward to your results.
I discovered your website through the Strictly HDR Forum. I find your articles easy to follow and very informative and look forward to improving my HDR work by trying your methods. Thank you for setting up this website.
you’re welcome! I hope you will find lots of interesting stuff for your own workflow.
I have recently changed my workflow when creating HDR’s and I am getting better results using this new method. I shoot 5 to 9 raws on a Nikon D300. My raw converter is DXO Optics Pro. I created my own preset specifically for HDR. I disable the exposure compensation and let it fix the barreling/pincusioning, chromatic abberations,vignetting and decrease the noise. Optics Pro uses a module tailored to my camera and lens. I convert the raws to DNG in Optics Pro. Photomatix converts the DNG’s to a 16 bit Tiff. Then I import the Tiff into Adobe Bridge and/or Photoshop. Usually I don’t have to change much in Bridge/PS. Sometimes I change nothing at all. If I want to I use the PS plug-in Nik Color Efex Pro to spice it up further. If I want to make a black and white HDR I use Nik Silver Efex Pro. Then PS converts it to a Jpeg. This has made a significant improvement in my HDR’s.
Thanks for the info, Lenny!
Wonderful tutorial! Will have to try this out. It has been wonderful following you in your posts..I am glad I found your sites…
Just a quick question. How do I create a -6EV bracket? My ACR and Lightroom 3 can only go as low as -4EV. Should I export a -4EV bracket in TIFF and, import it again and then lower the EV by 2EV again. Will that work?
the -6EV is relative to the original 0EV exposure, and you can create it from the -2EV exposure simply by setting the exposure slider in ACR to -4 (-2 + -4 = -6).
Brilliant, well detailed and explanatory.
Hi Klaus, I just discovered this site, and all I can say is “Wow!” I’m trying to digest it all and have a couple of questions.
1. You use Topaz DeNoise. Is there any reason the noise reduction in Lightroom would not be as effective?
2. My camera is a Canon 60D, which can do +3 and -3 EV brackets. Shooting RAW, is there any reason not to go with this wider range?
Thanks in advance for your insights and keep up the great work!
thanks for the “Wow!”. 😉
To your questions:
1. I have no experience with the NR in Lightroom. However, the thing is that Topaz DeNoise and other NR products have highly sophisticated algorithms running inside that are specialized on reducing noise without blurring the image too much. All the NR stuff that’s built into other programs (like Lightroom, Photoshop, Camera Raw etc.) is usually much simpler and not as effective. So I would recommend going with a dedicated NR software.
2. If I understand correctly, the 60D has three shots with a maximum of +-3 EV. So you can create an exposure series of -3, 0, +3 EV. Right? One reason for not going that wide is the difference between the shots. The closer the shots (e.g. -1, 0, +1) the smoother the transitions between dark and bright areas in the final image. Having gaps of 3EV may yield suboptimal results in that respect. However, as with anything in photography, you have to experiment, and sometimes -3, 0, +3 is the way to go.
Thanks for the reply, Klaus. I think you are right, that -3, 0, +3 is too wide. I have not been very happy with my HDRs since I started shooting this wide. I thought it was just poor shooting 🙂 IIRC, you recommend -2, 0, +2 for hand-held. The majority of my shots are hand-held, so I’ll give that a try and see if they get better!
Hi there, I have just started trying out HD and your site has been a very valuable resource. Thank you.
“Based on these tests, I recommend to you to do following:
Shoot in RAW format.
Merge your HDRs using Photomatix and not in Photoshop to preserve the colors.
Convert your RAW files to TIFFs using a high-quality RAW converter to retain control over highlights and chromatic aberration.
If you have a scene with important highlight regions and your coverage of the dynamic range is close to the edge, you should develop additional TIFFs with a lower exposure value.”
Should I convert TIFFS in ACR before I merge HDRs in PHOTOMATIX? Or do you make the HDR and then convert or out as TIFFS?
Thanks! I am glad you find my recipes useful.
To your question: I recommend (and HDRSoft actually recommends that too) that you convert your RAWs to TIFFs *before* you feed them into Photomatix (or any other HDR software). That gives you full control over the conversion and the dynamic range, as explained above.
(I’m sorry for my english) Thanks for sharing your great job! I’ve a question for you. My camera is a Pentax k-5 and i can take 3 or 5 shots as follow:
3 shots: -2; 0; +2
5 shots: -2; -1; 0; +1; +2
5 shots: -4; -2; 0; +2; +4
5 shots. -3; -1,5; 0; +1,5; +3
Which is, in your opinion, the best choise?
If I shot 5 shots (-4; -2; 0; +2; +4), i can improve the result if I create the other pictures (-3; -1; +1; +3), or not?
Thanks a lot!
which is the best choice? That totally depends on the scene. There is no general rule to this. Usually, -2; 0; +2 will suffice. If you shoot into the sun or in a room with bright windows, -4; -2; 0; +2; +4 is better. In situations with slightly less dynamic range, -3; -1,5; 0; +1,5; +3 will generally produce smoother gradients and help reduce halos.
Should you artificially produce the steps inbetween? I have no data to give you a definitive answer. You should simply try it and see what works best for a given scene.
I hope this helps!
Thank you very much! I’ll try all possibilities!
I’ll see you on google+!
Thanks for the tutorials, Klaus. Many good things are to be found on your site.
I’ve long fielded the question from other people as to whether to use RAW or TIF files as input to Photomatix. Despite HDRsoft’s recommendation, I’ve always found that PM does a better job generating an HDR from RAW (Nikon NEF) files than from TIF files. The TIF input lacks depth and good shadow information. (I just did one more test to verify that.)
That said, if I needed to gin up extra exposures as you mention above, or if I needed to address CA before tonemapping, then 5 TIF files would probably be better than 3 RAW files.
I wonder if there’s a difference between Windows and OS X versions of Photomatix. I wouldn’t think so, but…
you’re welcome! I found that developing the RAW into TIFFs myself gives me much more control. I have not really noticed any drop in quality. I guess small changes in the workflow can have visible concequences. So, maybe we take different routes here.
Wow, thanks for sharing your experiments, farbspiel!
This is a most welcome comparative study especially for those trying out HDR 🙂
Great article. Thanks for sharing the info. I used it here :
Thanks for doing these tests–they’re enlightening.
What is the reason for using tiff’s instead of, say, the png file format?
I know that both are apparently lossless, but I quite often see people saying that they work with tiffs. I assume there must be a reason to choose tiff over png, so I’m curious.
interesting question. To be honest, I have never tried using PNG for HDR. I don’t know the pros and cons. However, I know that TIFF is an established standard for the publishing industry. So it is fully supported by all available software products out there, and it is definitely suited for the task.
Thus, I simply use it without doing much research on the issue. I hope that explains it.
I appreciate the answer, Klaus.
Indeed, TIFF being an accepted standard is probably a big part of it. E.g. I tried to open some PNGs with Photomatix 4.2, and it didn’t recognise them.
So far I’ve found that PNG is nice if you want to save an image to the web for people to be able to download and edit losslessly. (Though maybe you can do that with TIFF, too; I haven’t looked into how well TIFFs compress yet.)
For sharing an image with a smaller file size, saving as a 100% quality JPEG with a high quality image-editing program (such as GIMP or Photoshop) seem just as good as PNGs to my eye (though I’ve only tested with GIMP so far).
Fantastic article and many thanks. This is the workflow that I now use.
I do have a question about Photomatix Pro 4.0 I am hoping you can assist me with.
* I load by TIFF images into Photomatix Pro 4.0
* Photomatix Pro 4.0 performs the pre-processing/HDR merge and presents the preview image. The image in the preview panel in crisp/sharp.
* However, when I then select ‘Process’ the image produced thereafter in the subsequent window (the xxx_tonemapped) is not as crisp/sharp.
Do you experience this degradation in quality? I find this frustrating.
When I look at your images and others they are crisp/sharp.
Thanking you in advance.
Photomatix (and other HDR software) is not really good at creting sharp images. The HDR process in itself has a tendency to make things blurry. To be honest, I never look that closely at the images after the tonemapping.
There are basically two things that decide how sharp your image gets (apart from producing sharp source images, of course):
1. Good noise reduction at the right time (https://farbspiel-photo.com/learn/hdr-cookbook/three-noise-reduction-rules)
2. The post-processing you do after the tonemapping. That is absolutely essential! Do not expect your images to look great when they come out of Photomatix! You have to work on them in some image processing tool.
You may want to look at tools like Topaz InFocus for sharpening your images in post-processing.
I hope that helps you.
Thanks for this article – I shall probably go back and re-do some of my earlier HDR attempts when I was restricted to only 3 exposures (why Canon hasn’t upped that limit yet I don’t know).
However since my discovery of MagicLantern I tend to do a minimum 5 shot process but based on that idea should I still convert all 5 images to TIFF first (after the CA tweak, etc) or just let Photomatix at the RAWs straight off?
if you have enough exposures to *safely* cover the entire danymic range, creating additional artificial exposures is not necessary. You have to decide about that on a case-by-case basis. However, you should always do the CA reduction, white balance correction and possibly the lens distortion correction explicitly in your Raw converter software. Otherwise, you don’t have sufficient control over these things, and you might find that the results are suboptimal.
I hope this answers your questions.
OK, understood I think. Let me put it this way what I think you are saying…
Presuming I have the dynamic range covered off you’re saying I should do my corrections in Lightroom or ACR (the CA, etc) and then just feed the corrected RAWS to Photomatix and drop the TIFF stage. Only use the TIFF stage if I need to add a false exposure in.
Thanks for taking the time to provide so much useful information! I have been struggling for the last few years to create the ‘perfect’ HDR workflow and I believe your methods may actually accomplish that goal for me. I have a question though about the conversion of raw to tiff. I am using LR4.3 and Photomatix Pro. I have been exporting my raw files to PM after importing them to LR. As they are being exported to PM, the taskbar at the top of LR indicates that the files are being converted to TIFFs before being processed by PM. Once the PM process is completed they re-imported to LR as a TIFF file. Does this method follow your suggestion to convert the RAW images to TIFF before being processed by PM. Or, is the image being converted from RAW to TIFF by PM?
Thanks for this, this is a good reference to keep!
I am in the process of experimenting with HDR … together with the usually family photos – I enjoy creating spherical panorama – Your blog will definitely help me improve my pictures as I will apply this on my future panorama process …. I am actually leaning toward converting cr2 files into it’s equivalent TIFF files to produce HDR images – your article made it very clear for me – Thank you very much 🙂
Hello Klaus. Thank you for all of this great information! Your work is truly amazing and an incredible inspiration! I noticed that this article was written in 2011. With the significant advancements in LR 5, Photomatix Pro 5.0.4 and Adobe Photoshop CC, do you feel that the 5 Tiff method described above is still the way to go for HDR workflow processing or are there any modifications that you would now suggest making to your workflow based on product improvements over the last few years? Again, thanks so much for your help!!
Just wanted to say THANK YOU for this great article. I found photomatix did strange things to my canon raws (weird green tint), so I was exporting as JPEGs out of adobe camera raw. Never realized how much detail I was losing even at quality 12. Now I use 16 bit TIFFs.
A quick question if you have time… is making the extra 2 tiff ‘fake brackets’ worth doing, even if the camera histogram shows no clipping for either the black or white side? And what about just shooting 2 more brackets (again even if the histogram says I have 100% of the dynamic range covered in 3 shots)? Should I import 5 real brackets and 2 fake brackets then?
PS hope you have some comments for the post above by robert also. Cheers!
HDR is like being in the “DARK”room? Remember spending hours watching my dad process single exposure photos. He had to. This is lubricous. The photos can be beautiful but the picture is in the eyepiece!! Go paint or draw something instead.
What is the difference between creating additional tiffs and shooting 5 brackets in the first place when creating HDR?
I’m enjoying Mask it like a pro – well done.
nice article and analysis.
I was just wondering what settings you use when converting the RAW files to TIFF files. I usually do this in Lightroom, where one can set the curve to linear, the contrast to a small negative value and all the clipping values to zero. With the default tonemapping, detail is obviously lost in this conversion, but I would expect that with those settings, everything should be preserved. After all, the highlight recovery of software such as lightroom is then used before the export to the tiff format. Re-increasing the contrast for the resulting images is never a problem.
Hi ~ Thank you for this excellent comparison. A couple of questions: (a)) in your final 1, 2, 3, 4 is it safe to assume that 3 comes before 2? (b) I have recently tried a RAW merger via Lightroom > Edit in HDR Pro (Photoshop) and the result is a 32 bit TIF file. How do I convert this 32 bit TIF file (or PSD file) to a JPG without dramatically altering the image? The TIF looks great… but I can’t use the TIF online… I need a JPG. Thank you!
Wish I’d been doing this all along! Making tiffs from the RAW files 1st has reduced the noise I have always gotten in Photomatix tremendously. The finised results from Photomatix now look sooo much better. Great article! Sooo glad I came across it!!!
Hi Steve, thanks for the feedback. I am glad you found this workflow so helpful.
If time was not an issue and you had a tripod then why not just shoot or even 7 jpeg brackets instead of faffing about converting raws to tiffs? wouldn’t that achieve the same result? Would that provide adequate dynamic range – or am I missing something? This is quite an old post does photomtix still have a problem with Raw? Good post thanx.
Yes, in a perfect situation, there’s no need to put that much effort into the post-processing side. You’re right! But if, for some reason, you had to push it, and the dynamic range captured in the images is on the edge, this can help.
I have not conducted any recent experiments with Photomatix, but I would assume that due to the way they convert RAW files internally, things have not changed that much. But maybe I should have a closer look to confirm or debunk this.
Let me know if that answers your questions.