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Adding Tone and Contrast to a Single Image

I’m a big fan of details… I often like my images to feel a bit “gritty” and “deep.” Sure, it doesn’t work for every subject, but there are plenty where a little “pop” goes a long way.

One of my favorite ways to do this is HDR toning. This isn’t the traditional HDR you’ve heard of. You don’t need multiple exposures or anything else… just a piece of software. I prefer Photomatix Pro ($99 US), but you can get the same results with Photomatix Essentials ($39 US). The Pro version has other benefits we’ll explore later. Both versions work well. You’ll also find an HDR toning option available in some of the other HDR plugins on the market.

Consider this image.

Skull

On the left is the original photo, shot handheld. On the right is the same image with a HDR tone map applied.

  1. Launch Photomatix (you can get a free trial here).
  2. Choose File > Open and navigate and select image you want to use.
  3. Choose Edit > Tone Map.
  4. Photomatix gives you the option to reduce noise… click Yes.
  5. Click the Method pop-up menu and choose a method. I prefer the new Contrast Optimizer method which is subtle, but effective. You can also try the Details Enhancer mode.
  6. Adjust the sliders to taste (I prefer the Strength, Lighting Effect, Black Clip, and Color Saturation sliders).
  7. Click Apply when done.
  8. Use the Finishing Touch sliders to enhance contrast and color balance.

toning2

Besides the ability to add pop to a regular photo… I also love the technique to make great black and white images. In the image below, I love how some of the details in the background and along the left edge are restored. This subject just called for the rust and texture to show through.

Pump

Using the Details Enhancer and pulling out the saturation, I made a high impact black and white photo. In both cases, these images were processed from single exposures. In fact I used 8-bit RGB TIFF files for each. While a raw image or better yet a series of bracketed raw photos would be ideal, I still achieved dramatic improvement with no change to my shooting style.

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