Lightroom, Photomatix, and the Single-shot HDR

High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is still in its early stages. Photoshop, among others applications, gives us the tools to deal with all the information in an HDR image. With those tools and a little planning we can create some stunning images that better capture what we saw when we captured the scene. Or, with the same tools, we can explore the HDR world with a more surrealistic and illustrative eye. Not trying to capture the reality of the scene but, rather, the reality of our vision. Whether you are in the real camp or the surreal camp (or somewhere in between) HDR affords yet another creative avenue for the photographer.

While Photoshop provides a fair toolset for dealing with HDR images it is somewhat basic. If you are serious about exploring the world of HDR then I recommend a program from HDRsoft called Photomatix. Photomatix is one of the most comprehensive HDR tools on the market. The level of control over every aspect of your HDR image is astounding. It is available as a stand alone application and as a plugin for Photoshop. The stand alone version comes with a plugin for Lightroom which makes dealing with your HDR images even easier from a Lightroom workflow without ever having to open Photoshop! If you are a NAPP member you can get 25% off. Not a NAPP member? Try Trey Ratcliff's site Stuck In Customs for an excellent and comprehensive HDR tutorial which includes a code for 15% off your purchase.

This tutorial is not meant to cover the making of an HDR from start to finish. Here I will look at using Photomatix via Lightroom to take a single image through the HDR process. If you are new to HDR and/or Photomatix then I strongly recommend Trey's Tutorial. Another excellent introduction is Ben Wilmore's two part tutorial. Part 1 covers HDR basics in Photoshop while Part 2 explores Photomatix.

Ben's Tutorial - Part 1

Ben's Tutorial - Part 2

Are you back? Good! Let's get started!

To create and HDR image you would normally start with at least three images at different exposures. But what if you hadn't planned on shooting for HDR? If you shot in RAW then you captured a large amount of information so all may not be lost! Even with a 12 bit RAW file we have 4,096 distinct buckets of image data to work with. Photomatix can deal with that and let you use all of its HDR tools to pull out everything you can!

Here is an image taken at America's Stonehenge in New Hampshire. It is a 12 bit RAW file with a large range from light to dark. A perfect candidate for a single-shot HDR!

test2.lrcat - Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Library.jpg

If we examine the histogram we can see that there is a good range of data without any significant highlight clipping.


When you have the Photomatix plugin installed it appears under the File menu and then the Plug-in Extras sub-menu. Choose Export to Photomatix Pro...


The dialog that appears next warns you about having at least three images for an HDR. You can ignore that warning since all you have is one image!

Settings for processing exported files.jpg

You can, of course, change the settings to your liking but I recommend using ProPhoto RGB since Lightroom plays well in this color space. Use 16 bit TIFF for your resulting file to retain as much information as possible. We will be doing things to the image upon its return to Lightroom. I tend to use sHDR in my filename to remind me that this is an HDR from a single image. When you press Export Photomatix opens.

Tone Mapping Settings - McCullagh_060806_047_20D.tif.jpg

Now adjust the HDR preview using the Photomatix settings. Here's what I've chosen for this shot.

Tone Mapping Settings - McCullagh_060806_047_20D.tif-1.jpg

Here is a good spot to stop and clarify something. In common terms when we talk about HDR and processing HDRs we are really talking about tone mapping. How you tone map will determine whether you wind up with a realistic or surrealistic end product.

So when we press the process button and return to Lightroom, here's where we are:

test2.lrcat - Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Library-1.jpg

At this point you can set yourself free in the Develop module and make your final adjustments to arrive at your finished image.


By using all the image data we had in our 12 bit RAW we were able to extract a fairly high dynamic range from the image. Comparing a section before (left) and after (right), we can see how much was really there!


Purists might argue that the resulting image is not a true HDR image. But it is an image in which we extracted a higher range than if we had just processed it via our normal workflow.

So be on the lookout for those shots where you have a wide range of tones and a large amount of data. Add this technique to your arsenal and obey Rule #5 - Enjoy!