a27 October 2012

Tutorial: getting realistic results in Photomatix Pro

"HDR is about light, not about colour" - I really like this quote (although I'm not sure who said/wrote it first) and I would like to use it as a summary to this post. In this short tutorial I would like to share my point of view on achieving realistic looking HDR photos. Many people asked me recently how they can get realistic results from Photomatix. As I use Photomatix on a daily basis and also try to achieve realistic looking results I think I can help.

One of the best things I learnt about HDR and tone-mapping in the recent years is that it's the beginning of the process of developing a photo, not the final step. As you might know (if not take a look at my tutorial about HDR) HDR which stays for High Dynamic Range means that a photo has much more information about luminosity than a Low Dynamic Range photo (like a single JPG, TIFF or even RAW file). Luminosity is a characteristic we relate to light, not colour. It does have nothing with colour temperature or saturation.

But you probably also know that it isn't possible to display a HDR photo on a typical monitor without a special conversion step known as tone-mapping. That said what you should primarily use tone-mapping for is making sure that details both in highlights and shadows are preserved. You don't need to care about colour temperature or saturation at this stage that much.

Also if you throw out any details in either highlights or shadows you are questioning sense of using HDR for that particular shot. Why? Because you could as well use a single exposure that lacks those details and you would end up with similar result. Might seem weird but after tone-mapping your photo isn't HDR anymore - it's a typical low dynamic range image.

Therefore, what I do most of the time recently is to use Default preset in Photomatix Pro 4. You might find it boring, colorless etc. Yes, it's quite boring compared to some other presets (especially Grunge or Creative) but it has strong advantage of restoring details perfectly. I do make a few minor changes to it:
  • I lower White Point setting value to much closer to 0 (look at the histogram when doing this because what you should achieve is avoiding highlights clipping) to make sure highlights aren't getting clipped
  • I also increase Detail Contrast (often all the way to 10.0) to enhance details as this setting increases local contrast.
  • I also adjust Lighting Adjustments to get as realistic results as possible (mainly to get rid of any halo arifacts). I use different values depending on a photo so I'm not giving any good or bad values here.
I sometimes also play with Luminosity and Gamma. If you do so, make sure neither highlights nor shadows are getting clipped.

After that I usually hit Process button and end up with a low-contrast image like the one below:
Yes, it's boring but note how well highlights and shadows are preserved and how much detail this image has. Note that there are also no halo artifacts and that in general this image is very realistic (nothing surreal). So it's a great starting point and it doesn't require a lot of work.

Although this image might seem completely different from the one from the beginning of this post it's the same image with 2 more adjustments. After processing in Photomatix I opened it in Photoshop and added some contrast and colours using Topaz Adjust 5 plug-in. I used Brilliant Warm preset with a few small tweaks. And voila! Alternatively to using Topaz you can use Adjustment Layers (especially Hue/Saturation and Vibrance).

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