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From the author of Creating the HDR Photograph

Creating the HDR Photograph

Once you have a merged preview to work on, you can set about customizing the look of the image using special controls for mapping the tones and colors in the original data (also called Tone Mapping).

  1. Just below the image preview, click on the different thumbnails to evaluate and select the Tone Map version you prefer. As you do so, watch not only the brightness of the preview but the Histogram. The objective is to make sure that the “slopes” of the histogram (anything that is not flat white line) falls within the light grey portion of the histogram. Here I chose Shadow Mid-Tone Priority (as you mouse over each thumbnail its type will be displayed as help text). This helped eliminate clipping problems later in the process.
  2. Once your Tone Map version is selected, click on the Styles option under the preview (see Figure 4). This will display another series of thumbnails (which look like mounted film slides). Each of these thumbnails provides a preset “look” for the image, ranging from very subdued to very graphical looks. I most often choose Optimal, Linear, Natural, or Vivid depending on how bright or dark and how colorful or muted my original photos are. Here I chose Linear to provide a more accurate look, plus more latitude during edits.
  3. Use the Highlights slider to eliminate any clipped highlights, while using the Shadows slider to avoid clipped shadow details (see Figure 5). As you do this, the light grey area in the Histogram will actually widen, giving you more leeway with the remaining edits to keep the histogram inside this region. If you can’t tell whether tones are being clipped by looking at the preview, click on the “S” and “H” options to the left and right of the Histogram. This activates a Lightroom-like clipping preview, which adds a color highlight to any region of the preview that has been clipped.
  4. Use the Brightness slider to set the overall exposure (see Figure 6). As you do so the histogram data will shift towards one side or the other, but as long as you keep everything in the light grey area, you’re good! Here I darkened things up a tad to make it more like the scene I capture right after the sun set.
  5. Move the Black point slider to set up the parts of the image that you would like to be pure black or very close to it. Here, because of the late hour, I chose to make some of the land mass closer to pure black because its details are not vital to the composition.
  6. Use the Contrast, Saturation, and White Balance controls as you would in a raw editor to fine-tune the look of your image (see Figure 7). The more you increase the Contrast slider, the more you will get that illustrative or “painterly HDR” look, and the more you decrease it the more you will get a “soft focus” effect, so deploy it carefully. Here I increased the contrast slightly and made the clouds and overall appearance cooler (more blue) to ensure a more realistic look, and provide color contrast with the warm highlights, respectively.
  7. If you have several series of images from the same location and time of day, and you want to process them all the same way, you can create a Preset from the steps you just took by clicking on the plus button next to the right of the thumbnails and preview control. Each preset lets you decide which of the editing parameters you want to include, which is helpful if for example there are likely to be variances in highlight and shadow details (see Figure 8).
  8. Click Save to choose your file format (8- and 16-bit TIFF is available as well as Unified Color’s proprietary BEF format and JPEG). The final image is seen in Figure 9.
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