High Dynamic Range or High Dynamic Awesomeness? Lightroom and Photomatix
July 16, 2013
13 comment

High Dynamic Range (HDR) is a technique used in photography to capture a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image. When you take a photograph, your camera is capable of capturing a certain range of light, just like your eye is able to observe a certain range of contrast within a scene. If the scene you are trying to take a picture of has some really dark areas and some really bright areas, your camera may not be able to capture detail from both areas in one image. You, as the photographer, choose which is more important and set your exposure accordingly, losing detail in either the shadows or the highlights as a result.

One of the things you can do with HDR involves taking multiple images with different exposures to capture those details in both the lights and the darks. The specific technique photographers use to create an image that squishes these multiple exposures in to an image that can “fit” in to the functional dynamic range for viewing or printing is called tone mapping. Tone mapping is so synonymous with HDR that the terms are often used interchangeably, but HDR is a general term for the idea of capturing a wide range of contrast, and tone mapping is a technique for processing HDR images in to something practical.

To demonstrate, I took these images on a trip up to the mountains.

Lightroom Fanatic - Composite Of Three Exposure Images

Lightroom Fanatic – Composite Of Three Exposure Images

The composite above is of three separate images I took with different exposures of the same scene. In the center, the image captures a bit of detail in the clouds and some in the trees. Most likely, this image is what the camera would have produced by metering the scene, but it loses the drama from the clouds and the separation of the trees down the hill.  The other two images come from the auto-bracketing feature of my camera, which captures the same scene at different exposures. On the left, the sky is blown out, but there is additional detail in the trees. On the right, the image captures the dramatic details in the clouds, but little detail from the trees.

Break Out The Pocket Protectors

Let’s say the center image captures 12 EV (exposure value, or stops) of light. That’s pretty good, considering our eyes can handle between 10 – 14 EV. But in addition to the center image, I had my camera take another image 2 stops below and another 2 stops above the exposure of the center image, which gives me an additional 4 EV of information, or 16 EV total. HDR!

Now what?

Now that we have all that information, we need to do something useful with it. 16 EV is a higher dynamic range than my eyes can process, and much higher than the 10 EV of many monitors. The answer is: tone mapping. Tone mapping allows us to replace (or map) one set of colors for another in order to make all of those EV fit in to something our monitors can display and our eyes can see.

To do this, we need software.

There is an option to send selected images to Photoshop for HDR but, let’s face it, HDR in Photoshop doesn’t compare to the power and ease of use of Photomatix. And it just so happens that there is a Lightroom plugin included with Photmatix Pro that makes integration between the two a cinch.

You can download a free trail of Photomatix on the Photomatix Download page. The trial of Photomatix Pro is fully functional and never expires, but adds a watermark to final images. When you’re ready to purchase Photomatix, head here and use the coupon code ‘LightroomFanatic’ to get 15% off!

Creating A Tone Mapped Image With Lightroom and Photomatix

In Lightroom, select your bracketed images and click on File > Export or use the shortcut .

Lightroom Fanatic - Bracketed Images Selected In Lightroom

Lightroom Fanatic – Bracketed Images Selected In Lightroom

With the Photomatix Lightroom plugin installed, you have a new Export preset, shown below. The folks at Photomatix recommend leaving the color space as Adobe RGB for the best results.

Lightroom Fanatic - Lightroom Photomatix Export Plugin

Lightroom Fanatic – Lightroom Photomatix Export Plugin

Change any other options that you want and click on Export.

Lightroom Fanatic - Exporting To Photomatix Options

Lightroom Fanatic – Exporting To Photomatix Options

The next dialog that appears gives you some options for how Photomatix will align the images and a few other settings. I hand-held my camera when I took my shots and I found that the by matching features option worked better for my images, but mileage may vary. If you try one and your images don’t seem to be perfectly aligned, try the other option.

The other option this dialog presents is what to do with the final image. You can automatically re-import the final image back in to Lightroom, which is handy.

Click Export, and Lightroom will export the images to Photomatix.

Lightroom Fanatic - Exporting to Photomatix

Lightroom Fanatic – Exporting to Photomatix

Now, you’ll be in Photomatix. While Photomatix is extremely power and easy to use, there are a lot of different options. I recommend reading more about the tool in their documentation, but also just experiment with the options. The presets on the right will give you a good starting point covering many different styles. When you’re happy with your image and ready to head back to Lightroom, click the Save and Re-Import button on the left.

Lightroom Fanatic - Tone Mapping Image With Photomatix

Lightroom Fanatic – Tone Mapping Image With Photomatix

If you selected the option, Lightroom will have automatically imported the output file from Photomatix.

Lightroom Fanatic - Tone Mapped TIFF Imported

Lightroom Fanatic – Tone Mapped TIFF Imported

Now do any further adjustments that you want in Lightroom.

Lightroom Fanatic - Final Tone Mapped Image

Lightroom Fanatic – Final Tone Mapped Image

Lightroom and Photomatix make it easy to process your HDR files in to a beautiful, tone mapped image. With the Photomatix plugin for Lightroom, the integration is seamless! Try it out, and share your images with the Lightroom Fanatic community on Twitter by using the hashtag #lrfanatichdr!

Check out the video tutorial for this post below!

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There are 13 comments

  • Tom Gilmore says:

    How come I get this message when trying to export a file out of Lightroom using the above method?

    An internal error has occurred: Could not load toolkit script: PhotomatixApp

    • dave says:

      Hi, Tom. I haven’t seen that error. Does it look like it’s coming from Lightroom or from Photomatix? I’d double check the options in the export dialog to make sure there aren’t any odd settings or unselected drop downs. Otherwise, it’s the normal recommendations. Try to reinstall Photomatix and LR plug-in.Make sure you have the latest version of Photomatix and LR installed. I just did a few tests with LR 5.4 and Photomatix 5 and had no issues. Let me know if reinstalling works!

      • Tom says:

        Hi Dave,
        Yes, I reinstalled the plugin and that solved the problem. Im finding this blog to be a great source of info.

        • dave says:

          I’m glad you’re up and running!

          I appreciate the comment, Tom. I definitely try to be helpful. If there are any topics you’d like to see on here, let me know!

          • Tom Gilmore says:

            OK, Dave. Since I am new to the Photomatix Pro 5 plugin for L/R, I am finding so many slider options to transform my images to HDR that is confessing to me. I watched a few YouTube videos that seemed to help. Can you offer any standard settings for let’s say a landscape photo taken wide open that might bring out the best results?
            Thanks, Tom

          • dave says:

            Every image is a snowflake! There are a lot of factors that go in to which options will work best for which images. We have a lot of red stone here in Colorado, which uses vastly different settings than some of the mountain snow/leaves scenes. What I usually do when I don’t know is click through the presets to see which one gets me closest, and then adjust some of the options from there until I get what I want. Then I save those settings as a preset so the next time I go in with a similar image, I can start from that preset and do fewer adjustments for the specific output. Hope that helps!

          • Tom Gilmore says:

            Yes, Dave your comments about saving presets have been working great for me. I found that out by trial and error and when I found a specific setting that worked for a typical image I saved it as a preset. I already have saved several presets and find that a great feature. It is almost addictive working in HDR and can’t image doing it without the L/R plugin. I sent an email to Ron at Photomatix about the fact that the crop tool was not working. He said the next version would address this. I don’t mind as I do a lot of the pre processing with L/R anyway where I can crop the image, etc before using the plugin to send the files to Photomatix. Your “snowflake” analogy is a great way begin processing each image file in Photomatix.

  • raden adams says:

    good job David, excellent as a matter of fact! I am just now learning HDR and I have found that just about everybody uses Photomatix Pro. With it’s easy integration with LR5, I think it is a no brainer if it is that much better than anything else. Keep up the good work and if I purchase Photomatix, I will use your discount. Thank you.

    • dave says:

      Thanks, Raden! With spring coming here, I’m going to be doing more with HDR, too. Let me know how it goes!

  • Paul Thompson says:

    I’m using L/R4.4 but I can’t get Photomatix Pro to show up in the Edit In submenu. Have I missed something?



  • alfred says:

    i have a lumix fz200 which has an HDR setting to merge three automatically bracketed images. how does this compare with using the above software?

    • dave says:

      Hi, Alfred. In my opinion, you get more creative control by doing the HDR merging outside of the camera. You get to adjust the sliders to figure out how much of each of the variables you want to apply to your finished image, and you can change them and experiment, which is always easier on a bigger screen. I’d venture to say that the software version probably provides more options and a higher quality output, especially if you’re starting from raw images. And you can also assemble as many images as you want in to the HDR (or turn a single image in to an HDR). Hope that helps! Thanks for the comment!