Tone-Mapping HDR Data in ACR
As with most ACR workflows, the first thing you need to do is to use the tone-mapping controls in the Basic panel to set your overall White Balance, Exposure level, as well as the highlight and shadow details.
For this shot, I used the manual White Balance control to slightly warm the color temperature of the clouds and reflections in the water. Next, I boosted the Exposure to match the overall brightness of the scene as I remembered it, increasing the value by just under half a stop. I also made a modest increase to the Contrast setting. The initial look after improving the White Balance, Exposure, and Contrast is shown in Figure 4.
Figure 4 Start the HDR tone-mapping process by tweaking the White Balance and Exposure settings in your photograph.
Next, I noticed after the Exposure change that it did not introduce any significant highlight clipping in the clouds. However, I decided to apply a negative Highlights value anyway, in order to reveal fine details in the cloud structure and ensure there would be no clipping as I applied additional tonal and color tweaks in ACR. I also boosted the Whites and Blacks values by modest amounts to make sure the fullest range of light-to-dark tones was visible in the shot (see Figure 5).
Figure 5 Use the Highlight, Shadow, Whites, and Blacks controls to maximize the tonal range and contrast in your photo, while preserving important details.
Notice that a small amount of red “warning pixels” are shown in the brightest clouds (center) to indicate the possibility of slight highlight clipping in those areas. To be sure nothing was wrong there, I turned the warning off by clicking the top-right triangle in the Histogram area, then zoomed in on the clouds and examined them. Finding no highlight details that were blown out, I left the Exposure, Highlights, and Whites settings intact.
Next, I zoomed in to 33% and panned down (to pan, move the cursor over the preview, hold down the space bar so the Hand Tool appears, then click and drag the preview) to get a good overall view of the foreground details on the surface of the water, but in the context of the rest of the scene. This was necessary to get the best result from the Clarity setting, which improves the local contrast edges on the water’s reflections.
As you can see in Figure 6, an increase in Clarity made a difference in how the surface details and the reflections of the clouds stood out. Moreover, working with Clarity is one of the best ways to achieve a subtle “HDR look” that has more contrast than a regular photo, but without looking ridiculous (see also many HDR photos seen on Google+ and other social media).
Figure 6 Working with Clarity is a great way to achieve a realistic “HDR effect” with your 32-bit photos.
Finally, the overall color intensity and color contrast in the shot needed enhancement, so I experimented with the Vibrance and Saturation sliders. Generally, any time you have a shot with blue skies or a mix of blue skies and warmer hues as we have here, it’s best to use the Vibrance to boost the blues without creating color bands in the sky, then increase the reds, yellows, and oranges with a modest Saturation bump (see Figure 7).
Figure 7 For landscape shots and sunset shots, use the Vibrance control to set the intensity of the blues, while using the Saturation to give the warmer tones a boost.