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HDR Efex Pro: Tone Mapping Secrets


  1. Tone Compression
  2. Global Adjustments
  3. Selective Adjustments
  4. Conclusion

Article Description

Photoshop expert Dan Moughamian, author of Adobe Digital Imaging How-Tos: 100 Essential Techniques for Photoshop CS5, Lightroom 3, and Camera Raw 6, examines the following HDR Efex Pro settings: Tone Compression, Global Adjustments, and Selective Adjustments.
Global Adjustments

Global Adjustments

As noted in the prior article, these adjustments have close analogs with the Lightroom and ACR editing environments. Where the names are the same, you can expect similar functionality, while Structure, Whites, and Warmth provide similar functionality to the Clarity, Recovery, and Temperature controls, respectively. However, also like ACR and Lightroom, we can apply some or all of these settings selectively, to different parts of the image. We’ll get to that in the next section. For now let’s take a look at how we can use these settings globally to improve the image.

Based on the time of day (close to sunset) and the overall brightness that resulted from the Tone Compression (the real value chosen here was -11), a modest bump in Exposure from 0 to .17 helped to brighten the scene and to make the water reflections look a bit more realistic (Figure 2).

Figure 2 A slight Exposure boost can help to recreate the global lighting of the scene, when taken in combination with a Tone Compression edit.

To further enhance the realism of the scene based on the original light, it was necessary to darken the shadow regions on the water and in the small house-like building. To do this I increased the Contrast value to 21, which made the watery shadows almost black and cut some of the “haze” out of the scene as well (Figure 3).

Figure 3 Increasing the contrast can help to reclaim the inky shadow regions of your shot and cut away any perceived “haziness.”

For the Saturation and Structure settings, I decided to make those changes to localized areas within the image. I felt that the sky and water and perhaps the bricks on the building could use more Saturation, while the grass could use a little bit less. Similarly I felt the house and tree could use some added structure, but I did not want to add that same effect to the watery reflections, as it’s not what we would expect to see in the real world.

Next I made a slight modification to the Blacks, reducing them by 3 percent (not perceptible on a compressed screenshot) in order to avoid a slight amount of clipping in the shadows. Each of these settings typically requires a somewhat subjective evaluation, and ultimately (unless there is obvious clipping or temperature shift in the original merged exposure) will boil down to personal taste.

As with most HDR workflows I use, my preference is to err towards a more realistic look, rather than making something that’s very punchy and over the top. Exceptions might include things like urban night scenes, where there are cars illuminated by bright streetlights, exceptionally colorful sunsets, and the like.

To bring back a bit of color and darker tone to the sky and darken down some of the lighter colored stones on the structure, I bump the Whites down to a value of -10. Here again I was keeping in mind the time of day (sunset), realizing that nothing I saw in that moment was likely to have a very bright or whitish appearance.

For the Warmth setting, I watched the grey stones in the middle of the frame as I change its value, to gauge how the global color temperature should look. I wanted to warm things up a bit (again because it was near sunset) but not so much as to create problems in the sky. Using a grey subject like this is helpful in striking the right balance (see Figure 4).

Figure 4 The Whites control, used in tandem with the Warmth control, can help you maintain brighter details and accurate colors.

HDR Method

Though technically part of the Global Adjustments panel, the HDR Method is somewhat a separate animal, just as Tone Compression is. It’s worth looking at separately.

Most HDR applications will have one or two different ways of merging your data, to create different looks. Usually these methods are what determine how many controls are available to you. In HDR Efex Pro, Nik has produced (according to its website) four separate methods or “algorithms” for merging and controlling your image data.

However, instead of giving us four different “modes” of operation or workflows, they’ve created what amounts to “algorithm presets,” where each produces a specific look, the strength of which can be controlled by a few sliders. For example, you can create images that have a very saturated and sharpened look, or images that have a soft glow to them.

You can think of HDR Method as being like an “overlay” setting or adjustment layer in Photoshop, where you control how much of your original photo “shows through,” in order to create your final image. The default method is called “Natural,” and it’s the one I tend to use most often, along with Clean, Illuminate, Diffused, and Gradual Medium. Ultimately, though, to really understand this feature, you have to experiment with different photos and methods to find the combinations you prefer.

Figure 5 shows the options available in the HDR Method popup. Note that in order to compare each option, you first have to increase the Method Strength, and then click each item in the menu. Unlike style pop-ups in other Nik products, you cannot yet preview the look of an HDR Method simply by rolling over each item in the menu. Hopefully this will be added in a future update.

Figure 5 The HDR Method menu in HDR Efex Pro combines different processing algorithms with a “preset” concept in order to add additional HDR styling options.

Figures 6-10 show five examples (at 100% magnification) of the styles you can apply to your photographs using HDR Method, once you’ve made your Global Adjustments. These are also before-after shots, with the after preview shown to the right of the red line in each.

Figure 6 The Natural HDR Method creates a relatively neutral and sharp look.

Figure 7 The Illuminate HDR Method has a similar level of sharpness to the Natural method, but tends to act like a fill light, brightening darker details, while subduing brighter ones.

Figure 8 The Soft HDR Method tends to flatten the contrast in your image, while creating a soft look or “glow” to the details.

Figure 9 The Dark Textures HDR Method is useful when you want to create a more edgy “traditional HDR” look. The fine details become very contrasty, creating an almost weathered appearance.

Figure 10 The Gradual Medium HDR Method seems to brighten up the midtone areas while smoothing out much of the fine detail (such as those seen on the stonework).

For this example, I decided after some experimentation that I would go with the Natural method and a value around 48%, vs. the Gradual Medium option, which brightened things up too much for my liking. You can see the finished result, combining Tone Compression and Global Adjustments only, in Figure 11.

Figure 11 Once completed, you can see the Tone Compression and Global Adjustments have improved the brightness, details, and overall presence of the image.

3. Selective Adjustments | Next Section Previous Section