HDR (high dynamic range techniques) are sometimes necessary to cope with scenes that have a higher dynamic range than the camera’s sensor can cope with. But that’s happening less and less as sensor technology improves. The latest D-SLR sensors don’t just have increased dynamic range, they’re able to capture shadow detail with less noise than before. This means that if you shoot RAW files, which retain a greater brightness range than JPEGs, it’s often possible to capture a scene’s full brightness range even in situations as tricky as this one, and this Lightroom HDR effect can make the most of it.
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These standing stones at Avebury were shot on an overcast day – in these conditions, the difference in brightness between the sky and the ground is often very high indeed. Nevertheless, the histogram suggests the RAW image has managed to hold on to the full range of tones.
The problem is that I’ve got a ‘double-peak’ histogram. The left peak corresponds to the dark stones and grass, the right peak corresponds to the bright sky. I need to find some way to ‘equalise’ these tones and bring them closer together. That’s what HDR tone-mapping software can do, but I think it should also be possible to do this in Lightroom – and get a much more natural-looking result into the bargain.
01 Highlights slider
First, I’m displaying my image in side-by-side view in Lightroom’s Develop module so that I can get a clear idea of how the image is improving with each step. The ‘before’ image is on the left, the ‘after’ image is on the right.
Next, I drag the Highlights slider down to its minimum value. This darkens the highlights (the sky) without affecting the rest of the tones in the image. It’s not a spectacular improvement, but it’s an important one because it gives the rest of the tools more to work with.
02 Shadows slider
Now I brighten up the darker tones by pushing the Shadows slider right up to its maximum. This does lighten the shadows, but it also makes the image quite low in contrast – so fixing that is the next step.
03 Clarity slider
The Lightroom Clarity slider adds a localised contrast effect around object edges but without changing the overall contrast. It’s like sharpening, but on a coarser scale. The effect here is to make the image look punchier and more well-defined, but without losing the sky and shadow detail I’ve just pulled back.
04 Tone Curve adjustment
That last step left the picture looking a little light, and Lightroom 5 doesn’t have a brightness slider, so I’ve swapped to the Tone Curve panel for a moment to add a control point to drag the centre of the curve downwards – this gives me the darkening effect I need.
05 Vibrance increase
I’m going to finish off back in the Basic panel with a Vibrance increase. The difference between this and a regular Saturation increase is that the Vibrance slider has the strongest effect on the weakest colours.
06 Checking for edge effects
There’s one more thing I want to look at. Extreme Shadow and Highlight slider adjustments can introduce edge artefacts where they meet. In this picture, it’s the edges of the standing stones that will be the problem area. Zooming in to 100%, though, shows that the edge effects really aren’t that bad. This is one area in particular where Lightroom 5 marks a big step forward compared to previous versions.
07 The finished photograph
I think this is a pretty good result, given that it’s been achieved without HDR software and without even any localised adjustments. It all depends on whether you want your HDR work to be obvious or subtle. You can use a specialised HDR tool like HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix, but it can be difficult to make the outcome look realistic. Lightroom’s results, while probably not as powerful, are more natural-looking.
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