a30 December 2012

Tutorial: MagicLantern + Lightroom + Photomatix + Topaz = Perfect HDR Workflow

I prefer not to repost images but end of year is a great occasion to look back. I took this image in 2011 in Rome and it's still amongst my favourite photos.
Back in April 2012 I posted details on my HDR workflow. However, I always try to make my workflow better and more effective. My seek to improve it resulted in quite a lot of changes in recent weeks and months, mainly addition of two new tools: MagicLantern and Topaz filters which now became essential to me. So below you will find details on my updated workflow:

  1. I normally start by using MagicLantern. It's a tool that greatly extends capabilities of Canon DSLRs. You can read more about its advantages here. Most of the time I use its HDR bracketing feature to set 5 to 9 brackets. Great thing is that I can do this even when shooting hand-held (Photomatix doesn't usually have problems with aligning the images). When I work with shallow depth of field I also use its other feature: Focus Stacking.
  2. Then I head to Lightroom where I organize my photos and apply some preliminary processing.
    1. Regarding organizing my photos I first go through whole folder and mark best photos as picks and worst as rejected. Then I go through it another time, repeating this process, and probably once more. After that I go through my folder and group similarly looking images into Stacks. I usually process only 1 photo (or bracketed sequence) from each Stack and reject the rest. This results in about 90 - 95% of all photos being rejected.
    2. Concerning processing. Most of the time this is limited to setting correct white balance (I use Cloudy or Shadow for sunsets and sunrises), applying lens correction and reducing chromatic aberrations. In case of photos taken with high ISO I can also apply noise reduction at this stage. I often apply some small sharpening here but this isn't a recommended practice :)
  3. Open images in Photomatix Pro using a Lightroom plugin (which comes for free with your Photomatix Pro copy) making sure the Auto Re-Import option is checked. In Photomatix Pro my target is to restore as many details in highlights and shadows as possible. At this stage I don't care about colour temperature or saturation. Therefore, what I do most of the time recently is to use Default preset in Photomatix Pro 4.2.5. 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. You can read more about my reasons here. I do make a few minor changes to it (looking at the histogram all the time to make sure neither highlights nor shadows get clipped):
    1. 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
    2. I also increase Detail Contrast (often all the way to 10.0) to enhance details as this setting increases local contrast.
    3. 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.
    4. Sometimes I may also adjust Luminosity or Gamma.
  4. I save the image as 16-bit TIFF. Saving to 8-bit TIFF or JPEG has the effect of reducing quality and the colour gradients aren't that smooth anymore.
  5. As I use Auto Re-Import feature when exporting from Lightroom to Photomatix I can now go back to Lightroom and my tone-mapped image will be right there. There I adjust settings like:
    1. Vibrance (I often decide to reduce it to to the value between -5 to -20),
    2. Clarity (I often increase it to a value between 15 and 50),
    3. Contrast (just a little bit at this stage),
    4. Highlights and Shadows (to restore them).
    5. If necessary I also correct colour balance at this step (especially greens as I have some problems capturing them properly or when I want warmer look for sunrises or sunsets). I often use presets at this step to make my work faster.
  6. Export image to Photoshop... and now the real fun begins :) Yeah, I'm a great fan of Photoshop. I prefer to edit my photos in it and not in Lightroom. However, my editing in Photoshop is also quite simple... and yes I do use presets (Actions in this case) to make it even simpler :) :
    1. I start with denoising my image using Topaz Denoise 5. I generally start by selecting a preset which removes all the noise and then select preset which is by a step weaker and make adjustments to it. Sometimes I apply different denoising to different parts of the image.
    2. After that I usually add some details using Topaz Detail 3 (new version really rocks!). This adds some clarity and visual sharpness to the image.
    3. Next step is to play with colours. I use three tools for it:
      1. Topaz Adjust - I use Topaz Adjust to make colours warmer and also to add some clarity and vibrance to the image.
      2. Colour balance adjustment layer - I might use this tool when I want to give specific look to the image, eg. to make it more purple for sunrises. I usually make only subtle changes with it but enough to make the image nicer.
      3. Hue/Saturation adjustment layer - I use it when some colours (eg. greens or blues) are oversaturated. I then reduce their saturation to make them look more naturally.
    4. After that I might add a bit of contrast using Curves adjustment layer. Most of the time I use Linear Contrast preset.
    5. Finally I apply sharpening. Most of the time I do it using Smart Sharpen or Unsharp Mask. However, recently I started to sharpen with High-pass filter and I'm pretty satisfied with the results. As I often do have sky in my photos I often sharpen selectively. Sometimes I create Layer Mask and paint on it manually with a very soft brush. Often, however, I generate it automatically by finding edges in the image and applying sharpening only to them.
  7. Finally I save my image as a JPEG with a maximum quality.

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