It is often challenging to take one photo and have darks, mid-tones, and highlights well balanced. Many photographers are shooting in bracketing mode to get more exposures of the same photo. Then they merge it in Photoshop.
Here are the steps to be done to merge bracketed photos in Photoshop:
- Open Photoshop
- Navigate to File-Automate->Merge to HDR Pro
- Select 32bit mode and click Tone in ACR
- Enhance merged photo in Adobe Camera RAW
- Make final touches in Photoshop
- Crop, Sharpen & Share
I started to shoot with bracketing. It gives you a confidence you can get most out of your images in postprocessing. It is not necessary to take five or seven bracketed photos. It is pretty enough to have three exposure variants. This tutorial describes how to utilize the HDR Pro feature in Photoshop while having the freedom to make manual enhancements at the end.
Let’s have a look at each step in more detail.
Open selected files in Photoshop
The very first operation is to select your bracketed photos to be merged in Photoshop. You can do it directly in Photoshop and open each picture as a separate file in Photoshop.
As we work with RAW images, it is more convenient to see it in a visual browser. For this purpose, we can use Adobe Bridge. I will merge three bracketed images in Photoshop.
Another option is to make the selection process and opening the files from Adobe Lightroom.
It is essential not to retouch or edit these images before applying the HDR Pro feature in Photoshop.
Apply HDR Pro to selected images
So we have opened all three bracketed photos with different exposures as separate files in Photoshop. Now navigate to File->Automate->Merge to HDR Pro …
Now a new screen appears, and you can define which files you want to add to HDR Pro. As we already opened our three source files/photos let’s select Add Open Files. As you can see our three files are now loaded and ready to be opened. So let’s click OK.
Another screen will appear. You can decide which source images will be used to generate the merged HDR photo. Just click or unclick a particular source image to include/exclude. Here we have more options. We can use default settings and go with 16bit mode. You have even the possibility to choose from more presets to be applied.
Additional fine-tuning settings are available. Radius and Strenght are the main sliders influencing the strength of the final HDR effect. Further Advanced settings allow you to enhance the Shadow, Highlight, Vibrance, and Saturation.
In the top is a field named Remove Ghosts. You should click it. This feature fixes the problem of ghosts. What is it suitable for? You might have some objects on the image that could be moving while taking the bracketed photos. So, for example, on each bracketed photo, you could have leaves or branches of a tree moved to different positions due to wind.
Photoshop can fix it for you. By clicking Remove Ghosts ticker will be selected automatically the most appropriate image, and these moving objects (ghosts) will be taken from it without movement.
You can even choose manually select which of three images will be used for removing the ghosts.
But I’d like to have more control over the merging process. So instead of standard proposed 16bit mode option let’s select 32bit mode. The menu changes and is quite simple with no more sliders and options.
So do not change anything here and go down to the bottom right corner and press Tone in ACR. You will get to the Adobe Camera Raw settings and make all needed image enhancements as it was a standard RAW image.
Enhance merged photo in Adobe Camera RAW
As you can see the merged image is now prepared to be edited in Adobe Camera RAW. And it doesn’t look awesome. But that is fine. All we wanted from the HDR Pro function is to collect all possible data from all three exposures and merge it together into one consolidated image.
Most visible change is usually visible in the sky part of the image. As you can see we have much more information here awe can work with it and enhance it even more. It is because we do not have blown out white parts of the sky anymore.
So let’s start to make some retouching here. In this particular image I would start with basic light enhancements.
The sky is the most impactful part of the image when we are merging photos into one HDR image. In my case, I want to make the sky even more dramatic. That means I need to make it a bit darker.
The first thing is to decrease Highlights to bring back the beautiful dark structure of the clouds. In my case, I need to pull the Highlights slider almost all the way to the left.
If needed, let’s go to Dehaze slider and increase the darkening effect even more by increasing the contrast in the sky part of the image mainly.
And the last step is to go to Color Mixer settings and adjust the HSL settings. We have to decrease the Luminance of the Blue color tone. That will darken the sky as we need.
In the case I am working with dark skies, I don’t like it too saturated. So let’s switch to the Saturation tab in the HSL settings and decrease the Blue tone saturation. You might have to desaturate sometimes also other near tones like Aquas or Purples to reach the final effect.
In this particular image, we see the autumn mood, and that is what we want to emphasize. So let’s increase the saturation of the typical colors. It means Yellows, Oranges, and Reds. Let’s play a little bit with the Hue sliders to achieve the right tone for each color tone.
Then switch to Saturation Tab and increase the saturation of all these warm autumn colors. Lastly, switch to the Luminance tab and rise luminance, especially of Yellows and Oranges, to pop up these colors even more.
Now let’s finish the overall enhancements. Set the final Exposure. I usually increase the contrast a bit when all color toning is done. Whites and Blacks sliders help to tune the edges of the tonal interval.
Move the Texture slider a little bit to increase the micro sharpening. It has to be enhanced very subtly as we will make the final sharpening in Photoshop after cropping.
Clarity allows you to increase the macro sharpening. Use it very carefully, even less comparing to the Texture.
Increase the Vibrance to strengthen the overall color saturation. I usually do not use the Saturation slider in the Camera RAW processing, only the vibrance.
Try to zoom the image at 100% and evaluate the level of the noise. HDR effects usually increase the noise in the overall photo. So if this is the case, use the Noise Reduction slider and move it to the right to reduce the noise. Be careful and don’t overdo it.
Make final touches in Photoshop
OK, Adobe Camera RAW processing is done. Let’s click the OK button and return to Photoshop. Now we have one layer with the edited picture. Let’s take a break for a couple of minutes. After returning, try to evaluate the whole image and decide what other enhancements are needed.
Final color tuning
I’d like to boost the colors even more, using Camera Raw Filter’s Calibration functionality. So let’s convert the layer to a Smart Object first. Then apply the Camera Raw Filter and navigate to the Calibration part of the enhancement tab.
Move the Blue Primary Saturation tab to the right. I also increase Green Primary Saturation and change the Hue a bit towards the right side. Red Primary saturation in my case is raised just a bit, and the Hue is moved a bit to the Orange tone.
Finally, decide what will be the image usage. In my case, I want to place it on my website. So let me crop the image with the following settings:
After cropping, you can sharpen the image. But I decided to apply a little vignetting to my photo before that. You have more possibilities here, as usual in Photoshop. I will go again with the Camera Raw Filter. As you remember, before applying the first Camera Raw Filter, we have converted the layer to the Smart Object. Now we can simply return to Camera RAW filter settings and set the vignette there:
And now, you can apply the final sharpening. I’ve used the Smart Sharpen function in Photoshop.
So let’s have a look at how we ended up with the whole process of merging bracketed photos in Photoshop