Process Your HDR Images Using Photoshop

The HDR software market is getting a little more crowded each day. There’s Photomatix, easyHDR, FDRTools, and many others that will all create, post-process, and enhance your RAW and HDR files. If you already own Photoshop, you might already own all of the software you need to enjoy the benefits of HDR imaging. Let’s check out some HDR processing using just Adobe Photoshop CS3 (and a little Bridge and Camera Raw too).


HDR Raw Files

Above you see the three exposures I used to create my HDR version of the scene. I am not going to cover creating the HDR file because I have already done this in a previous tutorial (click here to see the tutorial covering this subject). Once the HDR file is created and saved (I use the Radiance setting) I then open the file in Photoshop and begin the processing by clicking Image – Mode – 16-Bit. The dialog opens with the default method set to Exposure and Gamma. Click the drop-down menu and select Local Adaption. You will see two sliders for Radius and Threshold but we aren’t going to use those. Click the down arrow next to Tone Curve and Histogram. This is where you take advantage of all that tonal information that you captured in your over and under exposures.


Convert to 16-Bit

I start by sliding the bottom left point to the right to adjust for the black point. From there, I just start clicking on the curve line and moving it up and down to adjust the mid-tone values. The values you are adjusting range from black in the lower left corner to white in the upper right (see my curve above). once you have started to get the Tone Curve looking good, play with the Radius and Threshold sliders to fine tune your adjustments. Try and keep the Threshold low or you can develop edge ghosting (ghosting bad, very bad!).

Once you have adjusted your curve to bring out the best tonal range possible, go ahead and click ok to complete the conversion. Once the file has converted to 16-bit, you could start making your Photoshop adjustments, but don’t go crazy just yet. Instead, save the file as a TIF. This will keep all of the data intact at 16-bits per channel and will let us take advantage of some more pre-processing.

Now that you have your image saved as a TIF, go find it in your Bridge and then right-click or control click on the thumbnail and when the menu pops up, click on Open in Camera Raw. now we can really start working this image!

Basic Panel

So here is what I would do in Camera Raw but remember that your image will dictate which adjustments you will need and want to make. In the Basic Panel I would work just as I would with a RAW image. I would move the Color Temperature to the right to warm up the building. Next I will move the Recovery slider up to reduce the brightness of the clouds just a little bit. From here I take the Fill Light up to about 15 to brighten up some of the shadows. The blacks look good so I will move on to the Clarity slider and crank it up to about 45 and move my Vibrance slider up to +45.

Tone Curve Panel

From here I would move on to the Tone Curve Panel and make some slight adjustments to the Lights (-8) and Darks (-3) to keep the detail in the clouds and darken the building ever so slightly.

HSL Panel

Under the HSL / Grayscale Panel I’m going to boost the saturation of my oranges, yellows, and blues to get them to pop a little more.

Detail/Sharpening Panel

Finally I will go the Detail Panel and make my final Camera Raw adjustments by setting my Sharpening Amount to 87 and my Masking to 17. Masking is really the key to this sharpening tool because it allows you to just sharpen your edges while leaving your smooth areas unaffected. No one needs a sharpened sky (always make sure that you adjust your sharpening with the image zoomed in to 100%). Go ahead and finish up by clicking on Open Image.


Now it’s time to add a few more finishing touches. Go ahead and duplicate your background (Cmd + J). Now go up to the Image menu and click on Adjustments and then Shadow/Highlight. The default setting of 50% for the Shadows never looks right but don’t worry, we’ll fix that in a moment. Click on the Show More Options box to expand the dialog box. Now that you have the expanded dialog, lower the Shadow amount and then adjust the Tonal Width and Radius to your liking. If your image is like mine and has contrasting areas (bright sky against darker building) you will probably need to keep the Radius set fairly low. I darkened my sky a bit by raising the Highlights amount to about 9% and then adjusted the Tonal Width and Radius accordingly. The final step here is to go down to the bottom of the dialog box to the Midtone Contrast and raise it up to a fairly high level. Mine is set to +53. Click the Preview checkbox to toggle your changes off and on to see if you like them. Once you are satisfied, click OK to apply your changes.

high Pass Filter

Duplicate the background again and drag this new layer to the top of the layer stack, then go up to the Filter menu and select OtherHigh Pass. When the filter dialog comes up, slide the Radius over to around 3 or 5. You don’t want to go to high or you will introduce ghosting (remember, ghosting BAD). Click OK and then change your blend mode for this layer to Hard Light.

Go ahead and finish off the image with a Curves or Levels adjustment layer to really get those tones looking just right. Try setting your adjustment layer blend mode to Luminosity to keep your colors from getting over-saturated.

From here I would probably save my image as a PSD file so that I could come back later and make adjustments to the layers if i wanted to. Your adjustments may or may not be similar to what I have done here because everything we do to an image is based on personal preference. I could work this image till the cows come home and still not be done, but that’s pretty much true with any image. Now take a look at the two images below to see the difference in a Photomatix processed image (top) and the one that we just processed in Photoshop (bottom).

Museum of the American Indian

HDR file processed in Photoshop

Click the images for a larger view.

The point is not whether one is better than the other, that’s a personal choice, rather that you don’t need to go buy another program for HDR procesing if you already own Photoshop.

As a side note, I was going to make a video tutorial for this but it would have gone well over my 10 minute YouTube time limit. Processing your HDR files in Photoshop is not as fast as using one of the Tonemapping programs like Photomatix but you can still achieve some really nice results.



  1. Nice job on the tutorial Jeff!! Good to know this.

  2. Just looking at how easy this is. Nice and simple. Time to read back on the other post you made. Thanks.

  3. Roger Tregelles says:

    Great stuff Jeff! This was just what I was looking for to create HDR images in CS3. Someday I’ll buy Photomatix, but after just getting my new D300 last week I need to save up my money again. 🙂

  4. Good job Jeff! Hope to see more of this in Boston! Very interesting.

  5. Nik T. Jone says:

    great tutorial very very helpful

    yet i would say (maybe im just biased) photoshop is actually
    for those who want to work for results, rather than take the easy way out.

    both are very good programs


  1. Raoul Pop says:

    Process Your HDR Images Using Photoshop

  2. PhotoWalkPro » Process Your HDR Images Using Photoshop

    A “how to” guide for processing HDR files using just Adobe Photoshop CS3

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