Shooting a set of pictures with bracketed exposures and combining them in HDR software is the best way to record all the details in a scene, even in very dark and very bright areas. The software, like Photomatix, does a great job of making all the details visible. However, there are times when the details included with the HDR are not what you want in your finished photograph. HDR photos of people are often not flattering because there’s too much skin detail, and even landscape details may not be what you wanted to emphasize in your finished picture. In these cases, we can use Photoshop to combine pictures and create the perfect combination of exposure and detail. It’s simple to do, and I’ll use this photograph of Punch Bowl Falls to show you how.
First, I made three panoramas of the falls. Each panorama is one stop different in brightness (done by changing the shutter speed). Then I combined these in Photomatix using the Natural preset. (I tried making the HDR’s first then merging the panos in Lightroom, but Lightroom couldn’t handle the big files.) The HDR version keeps the waterfall from being too bright, but it lacks the smoothness and star-like water pattern of the brightest picture, which also had the longest exposure. Let’s bring that smoothness back and show that radial pattern in the water.
Simply open the HDR and the brightest pano together as layers in Photoshop, and put the HDR layer on the bottom. Next, add a black Layer Mask to the top layer by holding the alt/option key while clicking the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette; this hides the top layer. Choose the Brush tool and press D to set the colors to black and white, and press X to set white as the foreground color. In the brush settings at the top of the screen, make the edges of the brush very soft so it blends easily, and reduce the flow to something like 5% so you can build up the effect very gradually. Lastly, set the Layer Blend Mode to Screen which will help ease the edges and brighten each stroke.
Now the brush is setup. Simply start painting over the water to reveal the top layer’s radial pattern on the layer below. If you reveal too much, press X to switch the foreground color to Black and paint again, which will conceal the top layer. When I work like this, I’m constantly changing the brush size with the bracket keys and switching from black to white with the X key as I paint.
With the radial water pattern added back in, you can now apply the finishing touches. In Lightroom, I adjusted color and contrast, cropped, and used the Radial Filter to customize a vignette.
Using HDR, I was able to record the detail in the upper part of the falls as well as the shadows under the rim of the bowl. Using a Layer Mask in Photoshop, I blended the radial pattern and softness of the longest exposure back into the pool. You can use this same technique in your work to bring certain details back into an HDR. this would work well to bring a person’s original skin back into a striking HDR environmental portrait. If you use this technique on your photos, I’d love to see your results on the Photofocus Facebook group.