HDR Tutorial – Advanced HDR techniques

HDR Tutorial – Advanced HDR techniques 2017-01-17T20:43:47+00:00

Note: You can also download this tutorial as a free PDF eBook here in case you prefer to print or read it offline.

Table of Contents




Now that you know what HDR is, how to take and post-process HDR photos I would like to show you some more advanced techniques. This section is dedicated to them but please note that I won’t provide complete solutions here, rather I will try to show you what is possible with HDR to inspire you to try some new things.


In my opinion Black & White HDRs are really incredible. As HDR is all about light and tone-mapping can enhance details and textures in the image, black & white HDR images have really strong contrast and very well defined details what you can see in the image below that was captured in London underground serveral years ago:

Black & White HDR taken in London underground
Creating black & white HDR is really simple and doesn’t require any special approach when taking bracketed photos.
Instead everything is done in the post-processing phase and there are two possible approaches:
  1. Desaturate a photo in Photomatix Pro by setting Saturation slider to 0 in case of Details Enhancer and to minimum value (-10) for other processing methods. In case of Details Enhancer you have to also make sure that both Saturation Highlights and Saturation Shadows are also set to 0.
  2. Converting the photo to black & white in Photoshop, Lightroom or similar program.

It is possible to achieve striking effects using either of these methods, however, I prefer to do this in post-production in Photoshop (that is I prefer 2.). Why? This gives me much more flexibility. Photomatix isn’t black & white conversion tool so apart from Saturation slider it doesn’t give me much control in the way my black & white image is created. Using dedicated software I can eg. control individual colours and their influence on the final image, I can add grain, use colour filters and a lot of other settings. BTW most of the time I use Topaz B&W Effects to convert my images to black & white.


After some time when one gets experienced in tone-mapping HDR photos it becomes clear that no matter what the settings are there are some scenes for which they simply don’’t work – some areas look good with other settings while some look good with different ones, for instance:
  • Eyes and cloth look better when using Details Enhancer but skin and hair look better when using Tone Compressor.
  • Water sometimes looks better at different settings than sky.

There is a simple solution. The HDR photo has to be processed several times with different settings (eg. with eyes looking good and with cloths looking good, or with mountain looking good and sky looking good). Then those photos can be blended in Photoshop (or even in Photomatix) using layer masks.

There are even photographers who blend this way photos from different HDR software. Others blend input photos with the tone-mapped one (I use it occasionally). So there are many options.


HDR panoramas are probably one of the most impressive HDR photos you can make but also one of the most difficult to create.

Taking HDR panorama

To take normal non-HDR panorama image you have to take multiple images by panning your camera. You should also use Manual Mode to ensure the exposure is the same for all frames of the panorama to make stitching in panorama software easier and to create seamless transitions between the frames.

To create HDR panorama you basically need to do the same thing but for each of the camera positions, instead of taking a single photo you have to take bracketed photos. It means HDR panoramas often consists of a few dozens of images – this makes processing tricky as you will deal with really huge files. Also note that unlike with regular HDR images you should use Manual Mode (instead of Aperture Priority mode) when taking bracketed photos. So you need to manually change the exposure for each of the bracketed photos. It creates delays and is one of the reason there might be a lot of ghosting in your panorama if you have moving clouds, foliage or people in the scene.

Post-processing HDR panorama

After taking HDR panorama you have to stitch and tone-map it. There are basically two approaches to post-processing HDR panoramas:

  1. Stitch to panorama, then create HDR – create panoramas at multiple exposures first and then merge them to HDR image, and tone-map them.
  2. Create HDR, then stitch to panorama – first process all bracketed sequences in HDR software and then stitch the results to panorama.

Normally, preferred way is 1) because if you use local tone-mapper (like eg. Details Enhancer) it might produce images with different tone levels what would make them difficult to stitch after tone-mapping (there would be very visible seams and inconsistencies). Problem with 1) is that it requires much more RAM memory to create HDR and tone-map it. So if you face out of memory issues or the process just takes too long, you might want to try 2) approach instead or alternatively use lower resolution version of your source images.

So what you need to do is to stitch images to panoramas, eg. if for each frame of the panorama you took 3 images at 2 EV spacing, you would end up with 3 panoramas:

  • 1 for -2.0 EV exposure
  • 1 for 0 EV exposure
  • 1 for +2.0 EV exposure

After stitching them you need to proceed as normally, i.e. load them into Photomatix Pro, select processing method of your choice and finish the result which you can later fine tune in Lightroom or Photoshop if you wish.

Below you can see one of the HDR panoramas I created in a cenote in Mexico. It required taking about 50 photos (5 frames, with 10 photos each) and it took about 10 hours of processing to stitch, tone-map and post-process in Photoshop.
HDR panorama created in Photomatix Pro


Long exposure HDR recently became one of my favorite techniques. It combines this characteristic fine art look with benefits of using wider dynamic range of HDR. Best thing is that creating long exposure HDR doesn’t differ that much from creating regular HDRs.

The main difference is how you actually take the bracketed photos as normally you won’t be able to use auto bracketing feature for that as in case of most cameras this feature is limited to taking exposures no longer than 30 seconds and creating long exposure HDR will normally require much longer exposures (2 minutes or even longer).

There are two options:

  1. Switch to Manual Mode and take bracketed photos by changing the exposures manually or
  2. If you use Canon DSLR install Magic Lantern firmare and use its Advanced Bracketing feature that will allow you to use any exposures, including those longer than 30 seconds.

Another thing you have to think of is deghosting. If you would like to make sure you blur movement in all your photos to avoid ghosting completely you would probably need several minutes to take a single bracketed sequence. So what I normally do is to make sure that only normal and overexposed images are long enough to blur movement. Then I create my HDR normally by using deghosting and after finishing editing in Photomatix, I open my image in Photoshop and replace parts of the photo that aren’t smooth enough with one of the longer exposures.

Below you can see example HDR photo I captured in Chania, Greece during evening blue hour.

Long exposure HDR from Chania, Greece

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