Interiors are tough to photograph. With film, windows had to be covered with gray gel (ND) to balance their brightness to the inside lighting. If bulbs were too bright for the rest of the lighting, they had to be turned off part way through the exposure. One of the toughest situations were arched ceilings lit with bulbs or tubes lining its edges. This super bright feature in a hallway or elevator lobby usually didn’t have a way of shutting it off. These features are still quite popular today. Capturing one of these interiors has never been easier thanks to High Dynamic Range processing in Photomatix Pro.

HDR is not a gimmick

High Dynamic Range photography is a tool. It definitely is not, although it can be, a gimmick. Contrary to what many think, espouse, believe, post, blog and / or say, HDR is not a dirty word either. HDR has been labeled as what to do to “save” a photograph by giving it that signature HDR “illustrative” look and calling it “art.” In my business HDR is another tool in my photographic kit box.

Blown out ceiling

Bright lights shining up into a reflective ceiling.

This is an example of a ceiling cove used to light a common area in a building. The hallway is well lit. The ceiling is almost totally blown out. The two sprinkler heads almost disappear. This is fine in real life. It just doesn’t work for an interior photograph. While making the photograph, I knew this would happen. I also knew that the ceiling could be easily recovered using Photomatix Pro to convert bracketed exposures into a single high dynamic range image. I shot the interior using a single strobe head to light the painting on the wall. I moved the light out of the photograph then made the photograph above. The strobe would be masked out in the final version. The door, camera, exit sign and wall outlet would be retouched out. The series of photographs were made with the camera on a tripod and tethered to my MacBook Pro. I used the Canon EOS Utility software to control the camera’s settings and to shoot the images. I like to think of the computer and tethering cable as the world’s bulkiest, most expensive cable release…

Restoring ceiling detail

All that remained from a shooting standpoint, was to capture the exposure brackets for the ceiling. I took a reflected light reading of the brightest part of the ceiling then added two stops to the exposure. (For more on how this works, read my Photofocus post on exposure.) That would be the normal one for the ceiling. I then made on two stops darker than normal, then another two stops brighter. The bracket is shown below.

Brackets are made by changing the shutter speed.

Photomatix Pro

I selected the three bracketed photographs then dragged them on the the Photomatix Pro icon in my MacPro’s dock to start the process. After telling the software that I had the camera on a tripod and a couple of other self explanatory check boxes, I told Photomatix to make the HDR combination. The dialog below opened up.

The Loupe shows the result that will be in the final HDR.

In the dialog, I tried several of the presets on the right sidebar. I liked “Photographic” which was no surprise. The ceiling needed to be brighter so I moved the brightness slider to the right. There is a loupe tool that shows exactly what the slider result would be. I used the loupe to see exactly what Photomatix Pro would deliver.


There are two photographs that make up the final image. The first is the well lit version with the burned out, too bright ceiling. The other is the Photomatix Pro HDR merged ceiling with detail brought back. In Photoshop, I brought both layers into the same document. I used the Pen tool to make an outline of the ceiling cove. I turned it into a selection, then added a layer mask so only the ceiling with detail showed.

The new ceiling for the interior.
The interior joined with the ceiling made with high dynamic range in Photomatix.


All that was left was to remove the door, camera and exit sign. The original room was masked in to cover the flash head and light stand leaving only the light on the painting.

A last thought

The power of digital photography is having a lot of tools in both your shooting kit and your one for post production. When you come across a scene that might, at first glance, look impossible to realize, take some time to break it down into its parts. Once you understand what elements you’ll want for assembly in Photoshop, shoot those elements separately with the camera mounted on a sturdy tripod. It’s perfectly OK to have lights showing in some of the parts. Just make sure you have one where they aren’t showing. Masking is always easier than cloning or healing.