A designer friend of mine recently wrote to ask me what process was responsible for creating a certain “look” of an image she found on Flickr. I recognized it as a combination of HDR (high dynamic range) photomerge, and some other Photoshop filters and tricks. While I personally think the HDR craze is a little overdone, I’ll address the technique here.
Traditionally, an HDR image is created by merging 3 or more photos together that were taken at different exposures. By doing this, you maximize the details in all elements of the photo; underexposure to grab sky/highlight detail, correct exposure for midtone detail, and overexposure for increased shadow detail. However, taking three identical shots is not always possible, especially when your subject is moving. With Photoshop Camera Raw and a few other tricks, it is possible to imitate the HDR effect with a single photograph.
For this tutorial, we’ll take this photo I took of a dive shack in the Belizean Cayes last year (below).
Begin with a RAW image whenever possible. Open the image in Adobe Photoshop Camera Raw. This is the best place to make major changes to an image without losing pixel integrity. To artificially create the effects of a HDR photomerge, we are going to drastically alter some of the RAW settings. Begin by underexposing the image with the “Exposure” setting (in the “Basic” tab). Next, slide the “Recovery” button all the way to the right, or close to it. This will help retain detail in the sky/highlights. Then slide the “Fill Light” setting to the far right as well to fill in shadow detail. The “Blacks” slider can be adjusted to darken the shadows and give more contrast and depth to your image. The “Contrast” slider should be used to adjust the contrast and give your image a dramatic look. The “Clarity” slider should also be moved dramatically to the right – this helps to give exaggerated edges to your details.
Many HDR images also feature selective over-saturation. I use the “Saturation” and “Vibrance” sliders sparingly, and prefer to use the HSL/Grayscale tab in Camera Raw instead. Screen shots below explain the settings.
Next, open the image in Photoshop. We will now apply some filters to achieve even greater effects.
Start by going to Image>Adjust>Shadows/Highlights. Use this panel to lighten some of your shadow features, and enhance your highlight detail. This will also create a “glow” effect around contrasted elements of the photo, like the shack and the sky in our example.
Next, create a duplicate layer of your image in the “Layers” window. Select the top layer, and go to Filters>Other…>High Pass. Be careful not to overdo it on this filter, or your image will look grainy and too sharp. A radius of just a few pixels should do it, depending on your image size and quality. This will render the top layer into a sort of grey textured image. But we will use this layer to create a combined overlay effect with the background layer.
In the Layers window, go to the drop-down menu at the top of the window (default value is “Normal”). You will see a list of options for blending layers. Depending on the severity of effect you desire, select “Overlay”, “Vivid Light”, or “Linear Light”. You can play with these settings to see which one achieves the look you are after. Once you have applied this effect, flatten your image.
Next we are going to sharpen our image with Filters>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen. Again, a little bit goes a long way, so don’t get too crazy with this setting. But using it wisely will help to give that HDR-sharp look.
Once we do this, we will turn right around and use the Smart Blur filter by going to Filters>Blur>Smart Blur. This will help to soften the image just a bit, without losing detail. It will also help to eliminate any noise you created by sharpening and High Pass filtering.
Now let’s take a look at the final result! Without using 3 different images, we achieved similar results to an HDR photomerge. Ta-da!
Original image (above)
After our Faux HDR process (above)