June 1, 2015
If you use Lightroom and love to shoot in high-contrast light, like I do, then you should definitely upgrade to the latest version, Lightroom CC. To understand why, you need a little background.
DSLRs have gotten better and better at capturing all the highlight and shadow detail you want in a single frame, but you’ll still run into many situations where they fall short. In those situations, the best solution, if your subject is stationary, is to shoot a bracketed series of exposures, usually covering the range from -2 to +2 exposure compensation. Download the images to your computer. Next, use some suitable software to combine the properly exposed portions of each image into a single high-dynamic-range file. The final step is to “tone-map” (a fancy word for edit) the HDR image to reveal the highlight and shadow density you want.
In HDR’s infancy, that two-step process required dedicated HDR software such as Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro 2. Then Lightroom 4.1 came along. Lightroom couldn’t handle the first step—combining the bracketed images, which still required additional software—but it could handle the second step beautifully, and do so with all the ease of use, flexibility, and familiarity of the Lightroom interface.
Lightroom CC can handle both steps in the HDR process: combining the bracketed frames and tone-mapping them to create an evocative image. Here’s another plus: the resulting HDR file is a 16-bit floating-point DNG file. That means it’s still a raw file, with all the editing flexibility that implies. And better still, Lightroom CC can now stitch floating-point DNGs into panoramas which are still in raw format.
The procedure is simple: first, select all the images in your bracketed set. Don’t waste time adjusting the exposure or contrast of the component images, or making localized adjustments using the Graduated Filter or Adjustment Brush. Lightroom will ignore those changes when merging your raw files. Lightroom will respect your settings for sharpening, lens corrections, B&W conversions, and vignetting, but you can also apply those changes to the merged file.
With all the images in your bracketed set selected, right-click and choose Photo Merge>HDR. In the next dialog box, choose Auto Align if your images were handheld. I check Auto Tone just to see how the software thinks the image should look, but all the edits Lightroom makes are completely non-destructive; you can change any parameter once you begin editing the file in Lightroom. You can try one of the Deghosting options if some part of the subject, such as branches or flowers, moved in between frames. Check Show Deghost Overlay to see areas where the software detects ghosting, an unnatural-looking artifact where two translucent versions of the same object are visibly misaligned. After you click Merge, the 16-bit floating-point DNG file is returned automatically to Lightroom with –hdr added to the file name. You can start merging the next bracketed set before the first operation finishes; both operations will occur in the background, allowing you to work on other images at the same time.
If you’re working on a panorama, start by shooting one bracketed set of images at each camera position, rotating the camera enough between bracketed sets to create a 30 percent overlap between adjacent frames. Next, create an HDR DNG file from each bracketed set of images. Don’t make any edits to these files; wait to make adjustments until the panorama has been stitched. Select all the HDR images, right-click on one and choose Photo Merge>Panorama. Lightroom will automatically apply lens corrections. In the Panorama Merge Preview dialog box, choose the panorama projection you find gives you the most pleasing result: spherical, cylindrical, or rectilinear, or choose Auto. Check Auto Crop to get rid of the white border around the image, or leave it unchecked and crop it later. Either way, it’s non-destructive. Once you click Merge, Lightroom will stitch the panorama and add it to your Lightroom catalog automatically. The completed panorama is still a 16-bit floating-point raw file. Edit the image to taste, and you’re done.
Using the Lightroom approach to HDR will let you recover much more clean, usable detail, even in the darkest shadows and brightest highlights, than you can from a single raw file. This approach comes closer than any method I’ve tried to achieving the goal of creating evocative, lifelike renderings of the high-contrast scenes that often yield the best landscape images.
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