HDR Photography and More by Dave DiCello

HDR Efex Tutorial

So I thought that it might be time to do an HDR Efex tutorial since I have been processing all my photos through that software now and love it.  Yep, Photomatix, it was a great run, we had some nice times together, you opened my eyes to the world of HDR and its endless possibilities, but I’ve moved on.  There was nothing you could have done.  Except maybe become HDR Efex.  In which case I still wouldn’t have stayed.

Ok, while Photomatix cries in the corner, let’s take a step back just for one second and talk about why we need HDR.  (For those of your well versed on HDR and what it is, or if you don’t care, just skip ahead to the good stuff.)  I know, I know, I’ve covered this 100 times before, but I just feel like I need to reiterate it this one last time.  HDR (or high dynamic range) imaging refers to the ability to help show the viewer some of those details that may have been lost with a single exposure, be it in blown out highlights or darkened shadows.  Do you have to have a scene with a strong light source to make a freakin’ cool HDR?  Nope.  Absolutely not.  You can HDR whatever your little heart desires, from a city skyline to a beach scene to a bottle of tequila to your cat.  And if you have a 1,000 pictures of your cat in your portfolio, you may want to HDR one or two to keep it interesting.

How do we get this high dynamic range of light in an image.  Well, you start by taking multiple exposures of a whatever scene you wish to present in HDR.  Stuff that helps to make this easier.  A tripod.  A camera that you can change exposure manually.  More importantly a camera that autobrackets.  If not, no big deal…I had a D40X for years that didn’t autobracket.  D700 though.  D700=Awesomeness.  A cable or remote release helps.  I use the self timer on the D700.  I set it to 1 second and it takes the full bracketed range.  Pretty cool.

I don’t want to get too much into the details of HDR because you can read that in my first HDR Tutorial.  This tutorial is geared more towards those of your who use HDR Efex.  And I don’t think I’ve said it yet, but if you don’t have it yet, at least download the free trial.  You will fall in love at your first HDR.  I promise.

Let’s first get into why I don’t love HDR Efex.  Yep, that’s right, going over the bad stuff first.  Get it out of the way that way we can focus on the fun stuff.  What I don’t like is that it takes really long to generate the HDR, in the neighborhood of 30 seconds to a little over a minute if you are using 9 RAW exposures.  That’s it.  Seriously.  That’s all I don’t like about it.  Now how about the positive stuff.

  • Integrated perfectly in Photoshop.  I had the standalone Photomatix and had to have that and Photoshop running at the same time.  Now, I can generate an HDR and start editing right away.
  • Much more flexibility.  As you will see later on, you are able to see all the presets to build off of at once.  And with 31 (yep, 31!!) of them, it’s a breeze to get the look you want
  • More natural looking, yet heavy handed HDRs. I can get the closer to the limit HDRs that I like, but keep a bit more natural of an element
  • Better controls and more of them. I like all the different options you have. I have a few presets saved, but with all the different tweaks you can make, you can achieve any look you want
  • The best noise control I’ve seen in any HDR program. Even on night shots, I have little to no noise, and it doesn’t make it look all smudged out like noise reduction software
  • Halos? What halos? Ok, yes, they are still there, HOWEVER, with the tonemapping process you can all but eliminate them, and get awesome looking, over the top HDRs. I still do my standard halo reduction process, but I find it takes me 2 minutes and it’s a lot easier than before.
  • Very intutive ghost removal. I still have to do a bit PP work to get them out, but for the most part, it handles it very well

That’s what I like.  Now on to the tutorial.

I’ll be processing a shot that I took on our recent trip to New York just to show you various aspects of my workflow, with some illustrative examples from Jamaica as well.  I’ve chosen to use two different pictures to give you a better picture of some of the settings in HDR Efex.

To set the stage for the New York shot, let’s look at the 5 exposures I used.

You’ll notice the sweet motion blur in the last one, the +2 exposure.  I wish that I would take credit in trying to get that, but that was pure luck.  Turned out perfectly though.  The EXIF data for these are f4 at 16mm and ISO 400.  I open up HDR Efex, select the 5 files, select Ghost Reduction and leave it at Adaptive and Normal, and hit Merge.  Now comes the fun part.

Like I said, there are 31 (actually 33) different presets in HDR Efex.  The two I will not be showing you here are the single exposure one, even though I will be tonemapping a single exposure.  I’m not a big fan of them, and you can get better results if you just use the standard presets.  Ok, so I guess that makes two things I don’t like, but that doesn’t really count.

First, I’ll be showing you all 31 presets.  You can see the preset name below each shot.  And here we go.


Realistic Subtle

Realistic Balanced

Realistic Strong

Realistic Gradiants 1

Realistic Gradiants 2

Fine Structures

Subdued Contrasts

Structured Skies

Vibrant Textures

Vibrant Details and Colors

Monochrome Contrasty

Monochrome Soft

The Old Cottage

Night on Earth

Vintage Colors

Granny's Attic

End of the Road

Bleach Bypass

Full Scene Compression

Vibrant Scenery

Gradual Contrasts 1

Gradual Contrasts 2

Postcard Paradise

Clean City 1

Clean City 2

Friendly Scenery

Bright Room 1

Bright Room 2

Strong Counterlight

Very Low Compression

And there ya have it.  Thanks for stopping by.  Nah, just kidding, not done yet!  The preset that I use the most and then build off of is the Vibrant Textures.  The reason that I use this one is that it gives me the most detail, the best colors (not oversaturated) and a nice white/black level.  Why start from scratch when you can have something to build from?

You will notice on the right hand side are all the various sliders.  Let’s take a little walk through them and I will share what I typically keep them at.

Tone Compression – This is similar to the luminosity slider on Photomatix, though it doesn’t produce such dramatic effects.  I typically keep this around 80.
Exposure – Pretty self explanatory, controls the exposure of the HDR.  I usually keep this at 0.
Contrast – Again, pretty easy.  Adjusts the contrast…usually between 0-10.
Saturation – Controls the colors in the image.  HDR Efex tends to be a little heavy on the colors, so I usually put this at -10.
Structure – This is similar to the structure or clarity feature in Lightroom, Photoshop or iPhoto.  I’ve found that with most scenes, 10 will do, but you don’t have a lot of intricate detail then you can probably get away with up to 30-40.  I wouldn’t go much higher than that, as you will being to lose detail.
Blacks – Controls the black levels of the scene.  I typically keep this at  -50.
Whites – Controls the (you guessed it) white levels of the scene.  This one I keep at around -40, however, if I need to lighten the scene, I will use the white slider instead othe exposure slider.
Warmth – HDR Efex does like to give the pictures a bit more blue than I like to see on a consistent basis, so I will bump this one up to around 10.
HDR Method – This is what gives you the “HDR Feel” of the shot.  There are 20 different presets to choose from, some similar, some give you pretty dramatic results.  There will be examples later on, but the five that I use the most though are Clean, Sharp and any of the three “Softs”.
Method Strength
– Controls the strength of the HDR Method you’ve chosen above.  This one shouldn’t be set much above 50, as the results get a bit too crazy even for someone like me!
Control Points
– I don’t typically do a lot with control points (although I probably should).  The option is there for you if you do use them though.
Vignette – Built into HDR Efex is a vignetting feature.  Again, something I use sparingly.
Levels and Curves – One more thing that I don’t mess with too often, as I will do my curves tweaking in Photoshop if I need to.  I will typically set this to “Photographic 2” and move on.

I’d like to go into a little more detail on the HDR Methods.  Below you will see an example of each of the 20 from a single exposure I took in Jamaica.  I chose to use this shot because of its simplicity to better illustrate the different methods.  I’ve chosen the “Realistic Balanced” preset and left all the sliders where they were, except I adjusted the Strength to 50% so that you could really see the effect.




Halo Reduction









Bright Soft

Dark Soft

Dark Textures

Bright Textures

Gradual Medium

Gradual Large

Harsh Details

Whew!  Anyone tired yet?  I know I am!  So there are all 20 HDR Methods.  A word of caution: if you decided that you like any of the Textured ones, I wouldn’t move the strength past 25 or so.  It can bring out noise very easily as well as give your picture a very grainy look.  Like everything in life, it is good in moderation!  The Soft settings work really well for landscapes, and can give your shots a great dreamy feel to them.

After adjusting these to my liking, these are my final settings:

Time to hit OK and let Photoshop chug through the process.  This is a great chance to go fill that beverage, calm the kids down, or throw some pizza in the microwave for the second half!

All right, so we have our tonemapped HDR, but we have a bit of noise in the sky and all those pesky ghosts.  Time to get rid of them.  First, let’s open up our RAW +2 exposure.  Here are my settings for it.

I bumped up the clarity to give the shot a bit more detail, added a bit of fill light (reason below) and recovered some highlights that were a bit blown out in the signs.  The reason I added the fill light is two fold.  First, we are going to need to tonemap this image to give it an HDR look for when we mask in the car and people.  If we didn’t, it would make our image look flat.  Second, I took to mask in part of the sky to get rid of the noisy look that they HDR processed produced.  Hey, I said I really like HDR Efex and that it helped with Noise, not that it eliminated it.  The reason that I didn’t want to run it through a Noise Reduction program (I use Topaz DeNoise) is that the sky is a bit too light for my liking.  The masking will help to darken it up a bit.

So, let’s click Tone Map in the Nik Window and run the single exposure through HDR Efex.  Below you can see my settings and the single tonemapped image.

Now don’t those cars look a lot better!  You can see I can’t use the sky, because the HDR process on a single image made it even more grainy.  But that’s OK, we have a plan for that.

Let’s take our tonemapped single exposure and copy it on top of our single RAW, then copy our 5 exposure HDR on top of that, giving us 3 layers.  Next, make sure we align them at Edit–>Auto Align Layers.  Once that’s done, let’s get rid of those pesky ghosted cars.  Go to Layer–>Layer Mask–>Reveal All.  I set my brush size to 350, Opacity to 90% and masked in the bottom 1/4 of the shot, basically anywhere that you see movement.  No more spooky cars or people!

You can go ahead and flatten that layer (Control/Command E) and add another layer mask (Layer–>Layer Mask–>Reveal All).  Now I just selected the sky using the Auto Select tool.

Set my Brush to 30% Opacity and ran it over the selected area three or four times, until I was able to darken it up and remove some of the grain.  Merge the layer (Control/Command E) and then it’s onto the fun editing!  I actually didn’t do a whole lot to this shot color-wise.  The contrast was already pretty good so I added a slight S Curve.

And a warming filter…

And finally some High Pass Sharpening.  First I duplicated the layer, you can keep it named whatever, it doesn’t matter.  Go to Filter–>Other–>High Pass, and that will bring you to a new window.  Keep the Radius between 2-5. hit OK, then change your Blending Option from Normal to Overlay.

Merge down one more time, and there you have it!  The final image!

Well, I hope that this tutorial helped those of you who had questions/issues about HDR Efex or HDR in general.  If you have any questions or feel that I missed something, please let me know, and I will answer your questions/add to the tutorial!  Happy editing!

11 responses

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    Im just getting into HDR and have found it to be my new love!
    Im heavy on a lot of the contrast and colors, just cause I can be and man it is great! Anyway just wanted to say thanks for the tuts! great content! Looking forward to more! Hey how about a youtube channel about this. Im totally into watching someone do this on the fly… ????
    Cant wait to see what you come up with next!
    Im going to Africa in 12 days with a non-profit to teach life saving skills. I think with all of those killer colors in Africa I should produce some amazing HDRs! Any thoughts on what I should shoot for sure there for a great HDR??????

    Thanks again!
    LeLinda Bourgeois

    April 27, 2011 at 1:37 am

  6. Hi LeLinda! Thank you so much for stopping by! As for what to shoot in Africa, I would say anything and everything! I find that HDR helps to enhance many scenes that can be otherwise bland and normal. I would definitely try to get the sun just above the horizon over a field with a lone tree. This is a shot that I have always want to get!!

    April 27, 2011 at 6:00 am

  7. christy

    wow, i am still learning some ropes. I just started like two or three months ago. I fell in love with the HDR. I’m excited and I just bumped into your site today. what you explained is really making some sense and I am ALSO learning the tips from you. Keep it up, boy!! 🙂

    May 18, 2011 at 3:54 pm

    • Thanks Christy! I appreciate you stopping by!

      May 19, 2011 at 6:38 am

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