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Lightroom HDR Tutorial

Learn how to take photos, merge them into one HDR image and how to enhance it.

The High Dynamic Range technology, also known as HDR, involves taking photographs in groups; each group having a range of varied light-exposure images –usually from the lightest to the darkest exposure values. This can be achieved using an HDR application.

Although the HDR photo technique has been in existence for over a decade, it had just been incorporated into Adobe’s Lightroom program only a few years ago.

If you want to learn all technical details of taking HDR photos, check this HDR photography guide; In this tutorial, you’d be learning how you can create HDR photography using the Lightroom HDR workspace. You’d also be finding out more about the advantages as well as the disadvantages of using Lightroom for your photo editing workflow, and how you can enhance your experience by using a unique application known as AuroraHDR (as a standalone app or as a plugin within Lightroom).

A stunning HDR landscape

Photo Merge: Using Lightroom’s HDR

The very first you’re required to do is select the images you’d like to process; 3 to 5 exposures would do.

You may then proceed by selecting the appropriate HDR option:

  • Use the Command-H shortcut on the keyboard
  • Right click to choose Photo Merge > HDR or
  • Choose from the top menu, Photo > Photo Merge > HDR

Having done this, the system will go through a process of generating a preview image; a progress bar and a popup window would then be displayed on the screen.

Auto Tone and Auto Align

Auto Align: Checking this box simply implies that you’re amending the little changes that may have occurred between images that were taken using a handheld camera device. Whether or not the image was shot handheld or using a tripod, it’s always a very good idea to check this option.

Auto Tone: It is generally advised that this option should be turned on; particularly because there is no other method of manually adjusting your image’s tone or exposure in the Lightroom environment.

Deghosting Features

Ghosting is generated from objects in the image that move from shot to shot when shooting is being carried out in a bracketed sequence. If for example, a bird flies across the sky or scene in the course of your shooting, it’d appear in relatively different locations in each shot.

Consequently, after the images have been merged together, the resultant HDR image might end up with a translucent ghost of birds in various spots all over the sky.

Deghosting options range from None to Low, Medium, and High. But if the ‘None’ option is not chosen, Show De-ghost Overlay box can be checked. When selected, it shows a red translucent overlay effect.

Due to the sensitive nature of the de-ghosting technique, one might be right in saying that Lightroom does not feature a perfect de-ghosting tool. That notwithstanding, small de-ghosting effects can be applied and gotten away with.

In some cases, however, the de-ghosting could end up giving your image some horrible side effects. If care is not taken, ghost bird might be fixed, but this might leave other problems in the picture Nevertheless, you’re more likely to achieve better results when you leave the ‘ghosts’ inside the HDR merge, then take them out later using the healing brush.

Further touch-ups like contrast, balance and more, can be carried out on your resultant HDR image to give it a more enhanced look.

HDR brackets

Merging into HDR

This has always been the intended ‘destination’ – all other processes are for the sole purpose of giving us a perfect HDR merge. So, after all, the options have been settled, the next thing you want to do is to hit the ‘Merge button’.

Being an excellent organizer, Lightroom adds the resultant image to its the original images library – but distinguishes the hybrid image by adding “HDR” to its filename. Irrespective of the filename extension you may have used, RAW originals, JPG, TIFF and the likes, the resultant merged HDR image will be saved as a DNG RAW file together with its application generated Develop Settings.

Once it is back in Lightroom, fine-tuning can be done to the Develop settings to suit your desired taste.

Lightroom Develop Settings

Common Problems with the HDR Workflow

For a more balanced knowledge on the subject, let’s briefly examine some of the artifacts that occur –particularly when processing complex images.

One is Deghosting Defects. This error or artifact does happen when one processing a complex image with lots of moving objects. They are often undetectable by the MEDIUM setting of Lightroom’s deghosting algorithm. 

Using the ‘HIGH’ option, however, effectively takes care of the artifact issues but overrides the picture pixel elements in the image; in this case, the HDR technique may not apply to the ‘replaced pixels’.

Another is the ‘Islands’. This is caused by some incomplete deghosting and alignment effects. In this case, a kind of see-through patch is featured between two close figures. They are generally very minor, and difficult to notice – even on the entire screen. Nevertheless, this is still something to be considered especially if you have a thing for excellence.

Saturated Edges occurs in situations where there is a distinct boundary between a light and a comparatively darker region of the photo. They are not always noticeable on large screens.

There are instances where there is a line separating the light and shadow areas. Alignment Algorithm might be the cause. It is important to point out that its occurrence is as a result of LR’s MEDIUM-deghosting not perceiving the area as problematic. This is also referred to as Shadow Edges.

The last on the list is Blur Defect/Artefact. In an attempt to test LR’s extremes, two images were used and compared between HIGH and MEDIUM settings. The result was then placed side by side for comparison. HIGH-deghosting was carried out on the one, and MEDIUM-de-ghosting on the other. 

A close look at the first image revealed that some parts of the background were blurred while some others were still sharp. The blurred section is consequent of the HDR algorithm while the bright part is that of the de-ghosting algorithm. 

If the sharpness-detail lost by the HDR algorithm is to be recovered, an app like Photoshop or Aurora HDR must be used to produce a high-quality HDR image.

Aurora HDR Plugin

Compared to LR, Aurora HDR is a better dedicated Mac-only HDR photo editor with exceptional capabilities. The app is a product of a joint project between the picture app-giant, Macphun, and the world’s most popular HDR photographer, Trey Ratcliff and can be a perfect alternative for Photomatix Pro.

Export photos to Aurora HDR plugin

Aurora is easy-to-use, highly intuitive, and efficient. Its presets, tools and features are state-of-the-arts and have consistently provided users with remarkable and mind-blowing results. As earlier mentioned, you could even use Aurora HDR’s plugin in LR to augment LR’s shortcomings.

#1 HDR Software for Mac