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Getting started with Adobe Lightroom HDR panoramas

A few months ago I traveled to Knoxville, TN for my niece’s graduation. I took an afternoon to take a side trip down to the World’s Fair Expo center to do some architectural and travel photography.

It was an overcast day and the afternoon thunderstorms started to roll in, but I wanted to photograph this really interesting outdoor amphitheater and noticed that I need to create a panorama in order to capture the entire structure from left to right. After metering the scene on my Nikon D850 I noticed that the contrast range was too great to capture in a single exposure because of the bright clouds and dark interior. To correct for this disparity between inside and outside, I knew I’d have to bracket each composition that went into the panorama.

If you’ve ever tried to create a bracketed HDR (high dynamic range) panorama before, then you know that it takes a lot of effort. You have to create both the bracketed compositions and then merge them into the panorama. This multi-step process can sometimes take hours to do well.

In the newest version of Lightroom Classic CC released in October, Adobe has produced a new feature called HDR Panoramas. This great new tool dramatically simplifies the process of merging bracketed images into finished panoramas.

For the images used in this tutorial, I used a Nikon D850 and bracketed the sequence at “5F 2.0.” Translated into English, that means five frames, separated by two stops of exposure per frame. Even though I took a total of 40 images, this was effectively eight compositions, with each composition consisting of five bracketed images. In other words, I took five bracketed images for each camera position in the panorama.

Here’s the step-by-step process for using the new HDR Panorama tool in Lightroom Classic CC.

Field Technique

  1. Set the camera for bracketing. I recommend a minimum of 5 frames at 1 stop per frame. Or, if your camera can do it, then 5 frames at 2 stops per frame.
  2. Compose camera on one side of the scene (i.e. left side)
  3. Take a bracketed sequence while holding the camera steady. Preferably, using a tripod.
  4. Rotate the camera to the next segment of the scene, be sure to overlap anywhere between 30% to 50% of the frame with the previous composition.
  5. Take the bracketed sequence.
  6. Repeat steps two through five until you’ve captured the entire scene.

Lightroom Technique

1. Import images into Lightroom Classic CC

2. Select the entire group of bracketed images. For the example shown here, this included 40 images total (8 compositions with 5 bracketed images per composition).

3. Right-click one of the images and choose Photo Merge, HDR Panorama…

4. Wait for the HDR Panorama Merge Preview interface to render the image. Depending on the file sizes from your camera and the speed of your computer, this process can take anywhere from one minute to 30 minutes. For the example here, I used a Nikon D850 that produces 46 MP RAW files. Even though I have a very fast 2017 iMac with lots of RAM, this photo merge took about 30 minutes.

5. After the preview is complete, make any adjustments necessary from the dialog tools. I suggest using the boundary warp tool to clean up the edges of the image, especially if you took the panorama with an ultra-wide lens. I used a Nikon 14-24mm f/2.8 for this shot, so I needed to set the boundary warp to 100 in order to tame the warping and wide-angle distortion that always happens in panorama merges.

6. Click the Merge button and wait while Lightroom finalizes the merging process. In the upper left of the Lightroom screen, you’ll see a progress bar. Again, depending on the size of the file, this process can be pretty quick or can take a long time.

7. After the merge is complete, Lightroom will produce a new RAW DNG (Adobe Digital Negative) file. This allows full and complete post-processing control in the Develop module of Lightroom CC.

8. Develop the image as you see fit. For graphic, high-contrast images, you might also consider converting the image to black and white.

I hope you enjoy the new HDR Panorama tool in Lightroom Classic CC. I know it is going to save Lightroom users a ton of work! If you’ve found the tool to be helpful (or otherwise), then leave a comment below. I’d love to hear what you think.

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