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Get the Most Dynamic Range from a Single Raw File

Do you like dynamic range?  Let’s put it this way, are you a fan of the Shadows and Highlights sliders?  Getting great tonal definition is a big part of making an excellent photo.

Pushing the Limits with HDR

Most people have mixed thoughts about HDR.  Some resist because of the extra steps of shooting bracketed photos.  Others had the over-the-top look practiced by some artists and abused by many.  Don’t worry, neither of those problems exist in this workflow.  I’m going to show you how to get the most out of a single raw file.

What You Need

There’s not much you’ll need to pull this off.

  1. A camera that can shoot raw photos or a raw image you already captured.
  2. HDRsoft’s Photomatix Pro or Photomatix Essentials.  You can get a free trial here (
  3. A Mac or PC.
One look from Photomatix Pro
One look from Photomatix Pro

The Workflow for Photomatix Pro

Photomatix Pro is the big brother and powerhouse from HDRsoft.  It has a ton of tools for professionals working with HDR images…  but the workflow from a single raw photo is a snap.

  1. Launch Photomatix Pro
  2. Choose File > Open and select a single raw photo.
  3. In the Raw Processing dialog choose to reduce noise and enable Exposure Fusion.  It’s also a good idea to set your white balance (I usually use what I shot).
  4. Click OK to convert the raw file.
  5. In the upper-right corner choose the Realistic preset category.
  6. Experiment with presets to find one you like.
  7. Refine the controls for the tone mapping to refine your dynamic range.
  8. Click Apply.
  9. Use the Finishing Touches options if you’d like to refine the image (Utilities > Finishing Touches).
  10. Choose File>Save when finished.
One look from Photomatix Essentials
One look from Photomatix Essentials

The Workflow for Photomatix Essentials

Working in Photomatix Essentials is quite easy.  It takes a guided workflow for a less experienced user.

  1. Launch Photomatix Essentials
  2. Drag and Drop the file in the window or click the Browse button to choose a photo.
  3. Click the Next:Adjust & Preview button.
  4. Experiment with the presets in the right column or clicking the presets buttons in the upper left. Experiment with presets to find one you like.
  5. Refine the Settings for the tone mapping to refine your dynamic range.
  6. Click Next:Finish & Save.
  7. Click Yes to reduce noise in the raw file.
  8. Use the Finishing Touches to Sharpen and add Contrast.
  9. Click Save when finished.

Evaluating the Results

Whether you love or loathe HDR, you can’t argue with the results.  HDRsoft does a superior job of maximizing the details in a single raw file.  The exposure fusion options in Photomatix Pro are my favorite, but both tools did a great job.  Remember there are a wealth of options available inside, so you can choose your own version of dynamic range.  If you’re into black and white photography, its an excellent tool too (but more on that another day).


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