Process Your HDR Images in Lightroom

It is no surprise that the good folks on the Lightroom Team move at a quicker pace than the written word. After my book, Explore Lightroom 4: A Roadmap for Photographers, went to press Lightroom 4.1 was released with a few new, and some changed, features. While not enough to "stop the presses" there are a few features worth looking at. One of the most significant is the ability of Lightroom 4.1 to native support 16, 24, and 32 bit TIFF and DNG files. These are the files that contain all the rich information HDR has to offer. Until this release you had to merge and tone map your HDR images in an external application and bring the result back into your catalog.

That round trip workflow worked well (and still does) but you had to learn a new set of tools and sliders to process your HDR images. Now that Lightroom can import these files into the Catalog you can use the tools in Lightroom that are so familiar to you. In fact, most of these tools are aware that you are working on a high bit HDR file. First we'll take a look at what HDR changes are available in Lightroom. After that we will walk through how to create those HDR files in two of the most popular HDR applications.

Here are some of the HDR accommodations Lightroom makes:

The following global Develop Module sliders are HDR-aware

Basic Panel

  • White Balance (Temperature and Tint)
  • Exposure
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Clarity

Detail Panel

  • Noise Reduction (all five sliders)

Lens Correction Panel

  • Profile sub-panel: all controls
  • Color sub-panel: Remove Chromatic Aberration checkbox only
  • Manual sub-panel: all controls

Effects Panel

  • Post Crop Vignetting: Highlight Priority style only

Camera Calibration Panel

  • All controls (only available for PV2012)

In addition to the global sliders that are HDR-aware, the following adjustment brush sliders are also HDR-aware:

  • White Balance (Temperature and Tint)
  • Exposure
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Clarity
  • Noise reduction
  • Moiré reduction

The White Balance Dropper and the Spot Healing tools will also sense that you are working on an HDR image.

You won't notice any outward signs that these sliders and tools are HDR-aware. But they will react to the enormous amount of additional information in the file and offer better control. One obvious exception is the Exposure slider which will range from -10 to +10 for HDR images! This greatly increased exposure range comes in handy with files that have so much information.

Once you have the file in your Catalog you'll proceed as you do in your normal workflow. Lightroom will be aware that it's an HDR file and respond accordingly. You get to use all that Lightroom knowledge and experience to create those stunning high dynamic range masterpieces.

So how do we get these HDR high bit depth files? You will still need an external application since Lightroom can't perform the merge process (yet). Two of the most popular applications are Photoshop (using its HDR Pro feature) and Photomatix Pro. Let's look at Photoshop first.

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Here we have three exposure of Old Red (the venerable old courthouse in Dallas, TX): a normal exposure, one stop under and one stop over. Select all three and then go to the Photo menu.

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Select Edit In > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.

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Photoshop will spring into action and gather the selected exposures. In the Mode dropdown select 32 Bit. Normally you would choose 16 Bit which then exposes the tone mapping sliders. But we will be using Lightroom to tone map so we want the 32 Bit file. In this example the clouds were moving so I also selected Remove ghosts. Click OK and Photoshop begins the merging process.

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Once the merger is complete you will see the result in Photoshop. Proceed as normal and choose File > Save to send the 32 Bit file back to Lightroom.

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Don't worry if the image looks strange. Depending on the number of images and the exposure ranges you include it may look odd. But, if you have done any HDR processing you know that the starting point rarely resembles the end product. So select the HDR image and proceed to the Develop Module and process away! Wasn't that easy?

If you are a Photomatix Pro fan here is how you use that application to create the HDR file. Start the same way we did in the Photoshop example by selecting the images you wish to merge. This time it's off to the File menu!

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Choose Plug-in Extras > Export to Photomatix Pro… Photomatix Pro will start and present you with the following dialog.

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Since I hand held when taking the shots I've selected the Align images option (1). Again, since the clouds were moving I've selected Reduce ghosting artifacts (2) and chosen selective deghosting. This is a really neat feature in Photomatix Pro that gives you great control over deghosting. In order to get at the 32 Bit file we need to check the Show intermediary 32-bit HDR image checkbox (3) otherwise the application will go straight to tone mapping. Lastly, make sure to tell Photomatix Pro to bring the file back into Lightroom (4). Click Export.

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First you'll get the selective Deghosting window. Follow the directions to select the area(s) you want to remove ghosts from. These will be surrounded by a solid white line. You can preview the deghosting and even change which exposure Photomatix Pro pulls the source data from. When you're satisfied click OK.

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Since we aren't proceeding on to Tone Mapping in Photomatix Pro we'll need to save the 32 bit file. Choose File > Save As… In the resulting dialog name the file and choose a location. I usually save it back to the same directory as the source images. Make sure you pick the Floating Point TIFF file format and opt to have Lightroom open the saved image. Click Save. Photomatix Pro warns you that you are about to save a large file.

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Choose Save to proceed. Lightroom will show you the Import dialog with the new file selected. If you chose to save the image in the same directory as the source image choose Add as your import method. If you saved is somewhere else, choose Move or Copy and select the directory with the source images as your destination.

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That's it! The file is now in your Catalog.

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Whichever application you use there will be some differences. The image on the left is the Photoshop HDR Pro version and the one on the right is from Photomatix Pro. Both are fairly good starting points.

What you will notice when you start tone mapping in Lightroom is the much greater latitude all this bit information gives you.

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Comparing the normal exposure and the Photoshop HDR Pro 32 bit file I raised the exposure by 1, set highlights to -100 and shadows to +100. You can see that the extra information in the 32 bit file holds down the noise. The normal exposure has a good deal of noise in the shadows.

One more thing about Photomatix Pro: at present there is a slight glitch with the 32 bit TIFF it creates. While you can process it in Lightroom you can't save changes back out to the file. I'm not sure if this is a Photomatix Pro issue or a Lightroom issue. However, the problem is easily solved by converting the TIFF to a DNG. Select the image and choose Library > Convert Photo to DNG…

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Uncheck the Only convert Raw files checkbox and click OK. Problem solved.

Even if you have your HDR processing down to a science in one of these external applications I encourage you to give Lightroom a try and process some HDRs in the Develop Module. I've found that some of the images come out with quite a different look. So this is can be another HDR arrow in your creative quiver.

Now get out there and shoot some HDR exposures!