What do you think of when you think of HDR? Over-sharpened, bright photos? The majority of HDR photos I’ve seen — you know, the ones you always see on real estate sites — are over-contrasted, too bright and just unappealing.

But there’s a different side to HDR, one that’s more realistic to a natural-looking photograph.

Why Use HDR?

HDR is really just the practice of blending photos together. Usually this involves bracketing, taking into account a different shutter speed and exposure settings as you’re shooting. Doing so can boost shadows, help lower bright highlights and overall make for a more appealing photo.

Before I even get started with the blending of my photographs, I apply basic edits to them in Lightroom — mainly boosting the contrast and adjusting white balance if necessary. I also tend to alter my white and black levels ever so slightly. I don’t touch the exposure slider, as I know that Photomatix Pro will take care of that.

Photomatix Pro Processes and Methods

For me, I like ultimate control over the final output of my images. Photomatix Pro has some great presets, but often I like to take things a bit further. I’ve written about using the Details Enhancer method before, which really helps to boost those details while still keeping the reality of the image present. But what I found is that oftentimes, enhancing the details can mean losing a bit of contrast, which makes for somewhat of a flatter image.

Recently though, I’ve started to use two different processes, depending on the type of photograph I’m using. Both tend to boost the details while still keeping the contrast, making for a more artistic and dramatic image (while still looking realistic).

Tone Mapping Process, Tone Compressor Method

The Tone Compressor method really helps in keeping the depth of an image. Out of the box, this method gives you an attractive image, but one that can be taken one step further with just a few tweaks.

The most dramatic changes I make involve the “Tonal Range Compression” and “Contrast Adaptation.” By shifting up the “Tonal Range Compression,” I can shift the shadows and highlights more toward the midtones.

Likewise, by boosting the “Contrast Adaptation,” I can adjust the contrast in relation to the brightness, making for a more even looking photograph. For this slider, I usually boost it as far as it’ll go, at 10.0, or close to it.

From there, my last change is to change the color temperature. In the image above, this starts off with a very blue tone, and by shifting the slider to the right, I lessen that cool look and make the image warmer.

Exposure Fusion Process, Fusion/Interior Method

The name of the process is key here — this really helps you in a pinch when you’re dealing with exposure problems. Say you forgot your neutral density filter, polarizer, and tripod, and it’s a super bright, sunny day.

Talk about being unprepared, right? Well, not quite.

By bracketing this shot, I was able to capture different exposures. While this series was altogether three photos, I only brought two into Photomatix Pro, as the brightest exposure was way too bright to use.

In this case, I lowered the “Highlights” slider as much as it would go, to -10. I slid “Local Contrast” down to 0 as well. These two steps made a dramatic difference in the photo, but to me, the sky and white building still looked over-exposed.

From there, I slid the “Brightness” slider down to -8, which created a lot of shadows on the black building. To get around this, I bumped up the “Shadows” slider to 5, which seemed to level out the shadows while not taking away the contrast.

With the sky still being too bright for my liking, I bumped up the “Highlights Depth” slider to 5. This brought back a lot of blue in the sky, enough where I was satisfied.

For me, when I look to an HDR program like Photomatix Pro, I aim for realism. I don’t want harsh colors, contrast and sharpness…I’m looking for that program to replicate my in-camera vision. And by focusing on highlights and shadows, rather than “effect,” you can bring an otherwise lost photograph back to life.