Usually, HDR images are pretty obvious. The technique is part of the ‘look’. But it’s also possible to use HDR to enhance regular images to add depth and drama, but winding the effect back just a little so that it’s no longer center stage.
So for this shot I used DxO PhotoLab and HDR Efex Pro, the HDR plug-in in the Nik Collection. PhotoLab was ideal for preparing the photo to make sure it had the maximum tonal range (no highlight or shadow clipping), and HDR Efex Pro added the stormy sky and enhanced structure.
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This is the original photo. I liked the simple, minimal composition in this scene. It works well as a high-contrast black and white image with an almost white sky and simple graphic shapes, but for this version I wanted to see if I could create a much stormier feel.
You don’t need to shoot and merge bracketed exposures to use HDR techniques. It may give you better quality, but it also brings potential ghosting and alignment issues. The point of merging exposures is to capture a wider range of brightness values than the can capture with a single exposure, and there are times you need to do that. Very often, though, there is enough dynamic range in a single RAW file if it’s processed carefully, and that’s what I’ve used as the starting point here.
DxO PhotoLab and the Nik Collection are designed to work together. You can buy PhotoLab separately and add the Nik Collection later, but if you get the Nik Collection it comes with PhotoLab Essential anyway – you can upgrade to the Elite version later if you need to.
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I have PhotoLab 3, the Nik Collection, DxO ViewPoint and DxO FilmPack installed – the full DxO suite. It’s the expensive route (obviously), but it’s the one I’d recommend.
Step 1: Maximum tonal range
Here’s the original RAW file opened in DxO PhotoLab. I’ve used the split-screen view so that you can compare the slightly overexposed original (left) with the corrected version. All I’ve done is to use the Highlight Priority – Slight exposure compensation option to bring the highlights back in range, and DxO Smart Lighting set to Slight to keep the shadows from going too dark.
2. Send the file to HDR Efex Pro 2
That’s all I need to do in PhotoLab. Now I need to send it to HDR Efex Pro, and that’s easy. There’s a button in the bottom right corner of the screen to launch the Nik Collection. This displays the Plugin Selector panel seen here in the middle of the screen. You just click the plugin you want to use from the list and PhotoLab will send it a processed 16-bit TIFF version of the RAW file. It’s important that it’s a 16-bit TIFF – HDR Efex Pro in particular will use every ounce of the image’s tonal range, often stretching the contrast so far that a regular 8-bit image would show serious banding and posterisation.
3. HDR Efex Pro 03 – Deep 1 preset
HDR Efex Pro has so many settings and possible permutations that it could take an age to build an effect manually, so I usually start with the preset that’s closest to the look I want and then work backwards with the manual controls to fine-tune it. For this I’m using the 03 – Deep 1 preset. It gives a natural yet dramatic look which I keep coming back to. The initial effect is a little soft, but that’s easy enough to work on.
4. Graduated Neutral Density adjustment
HDR images benefit as much manual adjustment as regular images, so although the right tone mapping and HDR algorithm will give you a good starting point, you’ll need to do some more adjustments of your own. HDR Efex Pro comes with a selection of tools you might need, and I’ve started out by collapsing all of these in the right toolbar and only opening those being used for the current adjustment.
So first, I wanted to make the sky a lot darker, and HDR Efex Pro has a Graduated Neutral Density tool specifically for that. In fact, it’s applied with a fairly light setting as part of the 03 – Deep 1 preset. I’ve reduced the Upper Tonality value to make the sky a lot darker, raised the Lower Tonality to lighten the foreground and adjusted the Blend and Vertical Shift sliders to position the gradation a little way above the horizon, so that it’s only the top of the sky that gets really dark.
5. Levels and Curves
I’ve noticed something in this image that you see a lot with HDR processes – the highlights have been pulled back so far that they don’t reach the right edge of the histogram. The image does not have a full tonal range and the highlights have lost their sparkle. The solution is the Levels & Curves panel, where you can adjust both levels and curves at the same time. I’ve dragged the top curve point to the left while keeping it tight up against the top of the scale – this is effectively the same as dragging the white point slider in a regular levels dialog. I watch the histogram as I do it and stop right at the point where the highlights might start to become clipped.
6. Nik control points
I’ve noticed something else. The graduated filter over the sky has also darkened the top of the wooden sculpture in the foreground. It’s not disastrous, but it is a bit of a giveaway that the sky has been darkened. The solution is to open the Selective Adjustments panel and click to add a control point in the center of the post. I can then use this control point’s Exposure slider to brighten the post where the graduated filter effect has darkened it.
In fact, this takes more than one control point. It’s best to keep the control point radius no larger than necessary to reduce any ‘spill’ into adjacent areas, so I’ve done that and then duplicated the control point twice and dragged the duplicates to different positions on the wooden sculpture to lighten it more evenly.
The Nik control points create a mask automatically based on the tones under the point, but you can still get some spillage. Here, the sky was starting to lighten around the post. The solution is quick, dirty but effective. You can just add unadjusted control points in these areas to cancel out the effect of the other control points. It’s an extremely effective way of confining adjustments to exactly the areas you want them.
7. Adding Structure
There’s one more thing I want to do. That ‘soft’ effect created by the preset I used can be counteracted with the Structure slider in the Tonality panel. This slider adds strong micro-contrast to details in the image, and in this instance it gives the clouds the high-contrast ‘feathery’ texture I was looking for, as well as enhancing the detail in the ground and the stone wall.
8. Saving the image
Now I’m ready to hit the Save button in the bottom right corner to commit to those changes and send the edited TIFF image back to PhotoLab, where it will be saved alongside the original RAW file. It’s worth stressing one point. PhotoLab is a non-destructive editor but the Nik Collection plug-ins are not. Once you save the image, there’s no going back to tweak the settings if you decide it’s not quite right.
HDR Efex Pro is a very good HDR tool. I think Aurora HDR 2019 is even better, but it’s much more expensive, whereas HDR Efex Pro is simply one of a number of plug-ins in the DxO Nik Collection – HDR Efex Pro 2 is good AND it’s great value.
It’s not entirely artefact free. There is a slight outline artefect around the post in my finished image about half the post width outside it and showing faintly against the sky. This doesn’t affect every image or even very many, but it does appear now and again.
HDR Efex Pro will also exaggerate any chromatic aberration (all HDR tools do this) so you should try to remove it as far as possible before the HDR process. There’s still some left around the top edge of the post here – but then this picture was shot with a Canon 18-135mm zoom, a model which is optically below average.
Finally, HDR processes this strong will exaggerate noise. It’s become pretty prominent it the darkest parts of the sky in this shot. A little noise doesn’t bother me too much – better that than glassy smoothness – but it wouldn’t be too difficult to remove or suppress it later, either with the remarkable DxO PRIME Desnoise process (Elite edition only) or with the Nik Dfine plugin.