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Single image HDR: The sundae technique

If you’re just like me, you don’t walk around your photoshoots with a tripod and don’t (or can’t) take multiple images to create a bracketed HDR. Well, good news my friends, we don’t have to do it anymore either! Today, I’m showing how to create kick-ass HDR with single images (while having a little fun on the way). Ready? To your spoons everyone!

HDR editing was originally created by merging multiple images to obtain maximum details from the expanded dynamic range. You know the technique: An underexposed, correctly exposed and overexposed picture get put together. But what happens to us — people photographing sports, weddings, animals, moving subjects in action? We don’t have the luxury of taking three pictures of the same moment and let’s be honest, we sometimes even have difficulty getting a SINGLE ONE of it!

The sundae metaphor

Have you ever gone to a Menchie’s? I have (oooooooh yes I have …). And it’s probably a good thing the one next to my home closed because I’d still be there three days a week. The technique I’m talking about today is kind of like it. But with computers instead of an ice cream cone …

Having a sundae during summer is a regular and popular thing. But who said I couldn’t get one even when if it’s freezing outside? (Don’t you DARE tell me I can’t!) Well, the same thing is true for HDR editing. Even though HDR is meant to merge multiple images, there’s nothing in the US law (or Canadian law for that matter) that prevents us from using it for our single images editing! I’m used to using an HDR software for my “nonconventional HDR” type of photography. I don’t care. It works great and I wish more people know about this technique. So in order to rectify the situation, here’s my homemade recipe for a good single image HDR where I’ll take you into my step byyyyyy step (oh baby) personal editing workflow. I have a simple way to handle my files with a layer stacking logic. Exactly like a sundae where you pile up goodies on top of more goodies.

Before we jump in, let’s take a look at the image straight out of the camera:

Step 1: Start with your favorite ice cream (import the image in Aurora HDR 2019)

It all starts with the base: our favorite ice cream (which in this case happens to be the RAW file).

In Aurora HDR 2019, I simply drag and drop your RAW file into the software — when I use it as a stand-alone — or open it straight from Lightroom or Photoshop — when I use it as a plugin. Aurora will automatically proceed to a first edit with its impressive AI, recovering details in shadows and highlights. Once you see what it looks like, you can modify any filter to your liking. For this first step, I bumped some of the basics exposure settings like so:

Here’s the result after playing only with the exposure:

Step 2: Add bananas (play with colors)

Once my exposure looks fine, I create a layer called “Colors.” For this particular image, I really liked the athlete’s tattoos and chose to bring up colors in it by increasing the Vibrance and multiple sliders in the HSL filter. I then painted this layer on top of my subject.

Here’s the result after the “Colors” layer:

Step 3: Add strawberry sauce (bring out details)

Next, I create a “Details” layer where I bump up the HDR Enhance and HDR Details Boost filters. I paint it once again on top of my subject since I want to keep the background as smooth and blurry as possible.

Here’s the result after the “Detail” layer:

Step 4: Add whipped cream (LUT Mapping)

I like to add another personal touch by stacking a LUT on top of my previous layers. I went for the “Cool” one because I liked the bluish effect it gave to the background and the color contrast it added against the orange tones of the subject’s skin and tattoos.

Here’s the result after the “LUT Mapping” layer:

Step 5: Add sprinkles (create a vignette)

I often like to end my editing by adding a dark vignette around my image, just to isolate and make my subject pop a little more. (This step is, of course, optional, just like all previous layers.)

Here’s what the final result looks like with a before/after slider. You can see how much details and colors I’ve been able to recover in the tattoos of the athlete’s back and arms.

The cherry on top

If you want to add peanuts or more sprinkles, or if you don’t like bananas and would rather have mangos instead, just do it the way it pleases you! Sundaes (and HDR editing) shouldn’t be boring and aren’t meant to be created always the same way! Most people use HDR software to do landscapes, real estate or architecture photography. I’ve been using it for everything but that!

Aurora is one of the many tools I have to edit my pictures and I use it as it pleases me when my images need a little kick. I don’t wait until I have three bracketed exposure images because this is likely never going to happen. Aurora’s technology and the camera’s dynamic range sensors are powerful and efficient enough now to enable us to do it with a single shot. Let’s take advantage of it right now!

If you’re new to Aurora and like this kind of step by step tutorial, you might also enjoy reading this article. If you’re interested in a free sundae, you can download the 30 day trial version. If you’re looking for buying a whole Munchie’s for yourself, you can grab your own version of the software for $89 USD with the promo code PHOTOFOCUS.

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