32 bit HDR

When we take a photograph the camera does it’s best to capture the full dynamic range but most cameras only capture a range of around 6 to 10 f-stops at best. On the other hand our eyes are extremely adaptive, they’re more sensitive to intensity rather than colour and it’s estimated that our eye can see over a dynamic range of nearly 24 f-stops. So what the camera captures is not exactly what we are seeing.

Take for example this image. Taken as the sun was setting, I remember that there was colour and definition in the clouds and I could see perfectly clearly the inside of the shelter, including underneath that bench. Yet, the camera struggles to give me what I saw.

The 0 Ev

Our eyes see details in the Shadows as well as the details in the Highlights. But a camera with its limited dynamic range struggles to capture the same amount of detail in the scene. In the end we are left with the choice of – the image (+2 Ev) to get details in the Shadows or under-exposing (-2 Ev) to get details in the Highlights. But we won’t get both the same way our eyes can.

Highlights and Shadows

Alternatively we could try to fix the image by Dodging or Burning but there is simply not enough detail in the picture to cover the whole tonal range.

And this is where HDR or High Dynamic Range comes in. If we could combine all the exposures into one image, using the best detail from both the Shadows and Highlights, we would have enough dynamic range to display the image as we saw it.

Over the years HDR has been used to give those surreal images that many photographers decry with a vengeance. Personally I have nothing against the surreal images, there are some great ones out there, I’ve even done some myself. The way I look at it is, if an HDR image is good enough to be hung in the Smithsonian, and one has, then HDR can’t be all wrong. So much so that many camera manufacturers include HDR settings in their camera menus these days. My Pentax K-30 has four HDR settings, from Natural to Surreal, each setting taking a bracket of three images. However, as I mainly photograph land and seascapes I tend to go for the more natural look in my HDR images.

I have used many of the HDR programs available, some well-known, some not so. PhotoMatix, SNS-HDR Pro, NIK HDR EFEX, Dynamic Photo HDR and currently my main weapon of choice, Machinery HDR Effects. In all cases the programs mentioned can deliver a natural looking HDR image, You just have to make sure that you go easy with the various sliders and settings in each program.

Recently I watched a video about some of the new capabilities of Adobe Lightroom 4.1, which I use to develop all of my RAW files. I don’t really use Photoshop much these days as most of my post processing is also done in Lightroom. One of the great new features is the ability to process 32 bit HDR files directly in Lightroom, just as though we were developing a RAW file, and the great thing is the process is quite simple.

Ashampoo_Snap_2012.10.21_13h21m05s_003_Obviously you need Lightroom 4.1. Adobe would recommend Photoshop to do the HDR bit but not everyone can afford the high cost of Photoshop, including myself. Fortunately the makers of PhotoMatix, HDRSoft have created a low cost plugin for Lightroom that allows you to create the 32 bit file and then bring it back into Lightroom automatically for final editing.

How does it work. First you need some bracketed photographs. Select them all within Lightroom, right click, choose Export and then Merge to 32-bit HDR. Lightroom and the plugin will do their thin and at the end Lightroom will add the new 32 bit file to the catalogue

Ashampoo_Snap_2012.10.21_13h35m33s_005_ViewNow comes the hard bit. Choose the Develop module in Lightroom and do the following;

Highlights –100
Shadows + 100
Clarity + 100

That’s it, nothing else to do. In reality sometimes you don’t need the Clarity set to +100, or the Shadows so high.

The best way to check is with the Histogram to make sure you are getting the full Dynamic Range

Ashampoo_Snap_2012.10.21_13h40m13s_006_ -Bridge View-

So what sort of results do you get.This bracket of 5 images from –2 to +2 was taken at Weston-super-Mare and processed using the Lightroom method. Compare it to the same image at the top of the page which was taken at the same time, but only one photograph was taken.

Beach Shelter

I think you will agree with me that the HDR image shows definition in the Shadows as well as the Highlights and does not resemble the surreal images that are so often associated with HDR Processing.

I’d like to leave you with a couple of more images processed the Lightroom way. The first one is a 3 exposure bracket, –2 to +2 photographed in the cloisters of Gloucester Cathedral. It was early morning (07:30) and very dark outside because of heavy rain. The spotlights were turned on to pick out some of the details in the roof and the alcoves

Cathedral Cloisters

The second one was taken on the beach at Prestatyn just as the sun was setting. Once again it was a bracket of 3 images from –2 to +2.


This process using Lightroom has been getting very good reviews in HDR circles and I can understand why after trying it for myself. I am impressed with the simplicity of the process. I spend less time creating the final image the results look far more natural. Noise levels, which have always been a by-product of HDR processing, are substantially less in the images I have processed so far using this method.

14 replies to “32 bit HDR

  1. It’s not just the noise levels Mike. I really like how ‘natural’ these photos look. I’ve never been a fan of HDR because a lot of people ‘over exaggerate’ the colours which, to me, takes away from the scene. These are gorgeous.


    1. That used to be me. Heavily over-saturated, grungy looking photographs. As most of the work I do nowadays is land or seascapes, you have to make it look natural. I still have an HDR program that will do that but I really do like the Lightroom method for it’s sheer simplicity. There has been a growing tendency among some of the HDR shooters to keep it natural and this method certainly helps.


  2. You do a nice job with your HDR photos. I’m normally not a fan of HDR considering most of them are way to cliche and fake looking, yours are nicely composed and natural looking. Well done.


  3. Never tried HDR photos to tell the truth didn’t know exactly how to do it or what it was about. The last couple of days been reading about it on the internet and now your piece. Them 3 shots are great I love the second one.


  4. Until now I never tried HDR because most of what I’ve seen appeared gaudy to me. But your work here, along with the ‘tutorial’ helps me see the value of HDR. I’ll give it a try. Your photos are beautiful.


  5. These beautiful shots certainly prove the point that a little HDR goes a long way!
    My only HDR experience is with an app on my iphone but I keep hearing so much about Lightroom but I have only recently started using Photoshop (and not having that much fun with it either . . . .)


    1. I have been trying for sometime to get everything looking as natural as possible. As to Photoshop, I no longer use it, instead preferring Elements, it’s far cheaper to buy and easier to handle, besides which I wasn’t using half of the features in Photoshop. Lightroom does all my image management and as I work mainly with RAW files, Lightroom handles them nicely without Photoshop. Then I found I could do a lot of the HDR post processing in Lightroom, so I hardly use Elements now.


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