Realistic HDR with Photomatix Pro
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Realistic HDR images with Photomatix Pro

HDR photography gets a bad rap. Many believe that HDR means over-contrasted, over-saturated, over-sharpened photos. But in reality, HDR is really just blending multiple images together. And by using the technique effectively, you can enhance your images and create a blended photograph that is both natural-looking and more attractive to the viewer.

I was in New York last week for the Out of New York Conference, and without a tripod on hand, I bracketed my images, knowing I could put them together to create a more dynamic photograph.

I spent a lot of time in the 9/11 Memorial area, and photographed the Freedom Tower as well as the fountains where the Twin Towers once stood. It was a completely surreal experience, and I came away with some of the most meaningful personal photographs I’ve ever made.

The sky was a bright blue, and held some amazing clouds. I knew though that if I exposed for the sky, the buildings and other elements would be over exposed. And if I exposed for the buildings, the sky would be under exposed. Bracketing allowed me to expose for both, allowing me to combine the images through post-processing.

Upon my import to Lightroom, I made some standard edits on the first image, which I then copied to the second and third. I decided the third image was a throw away — it wasn’t going to be necessary to use to create what I desired.

Freedom Tower Bracketing

I then brought the two images into Photomatix Pro, and the Default option gave me a dark, yet detailed image that I could start with. While I could’ve used Lightroom’s Photo Merge option, I wanted a little more control over the outcome of my image.

I don’t use presets often personally, so I stuck to the Default option and then adjusted the specific options. I decided to use the Details Enhancer, which gave me a few more options for my finished photo.

Photomatix Default

I started out by bumping the Lighting Adjustments slider all the way up to 6.0. This brightened my image, but the sharpness and contrast was still a bit too much for my liking.

With the image still dark, I bumped up the Micro-smoothing slider significantly as well. This made the sky smoother and less dramatic, but the clouds were still present.

I also slightly increased the Gamma slider, which increased the brightness of my midtones, while toning back on the contrast.

Finally, the green leaves were just too green for me, so I bumped up the Black Point slider so these were darker. I also increased the Smooth Highlights and White Point measurements to make the clouds pop just a bit more, and to make them a more even level throughout the photograph.

Photomatix Adjustments

Photomatix Pro did a great job with my image, but I noticed that I had some bright clouds in the lower frame of the image. To get around this, I brought my image back into Lightroom and created a gradient filter on the bottom third of the image to reduce the exposure slightly and take down the highlights. It made just a slight difference, but enough where the clouds were a bit more leveled out in terms of brightness.

Freedom Tower HDR

By using Photomatix Pro, I was able to create a realistic looking HDR of the Freedom Tower, helping me make a significant difference in the final outcome of my photograph. If you haven’t already checked out the program, visit hdrsoft.com to get started — there’s a free trial available, too!

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