HDR tutorial - Realistic workflow in Photomatix Pro by Example

Note: This is a revised version of the HDR tutorial (last update: Thursday, 12 January 2015) I have posted a few years back on my blog. This version details the HDR processing much more and gives more examples. This version is also updated for Photomatix Pro 5.0. 
Note 2: If you like this tutorial, please share the link to it so more people can read it.
Note 3: You can also download this tutorial as a free PDF eBook here in case you prefer to print or read it offline. German version of this free PDF eBook is available here.

Table of Contents


At this stage you should more less understand what HDR really is and what we will try to achieve. So in this section I will show you how to use Photomatix Pro to load and process photos in it.
Christmas Market in Warsaw


Note: If you would like to follow this tutorial but don't have any bracketed photos yet, you can download example bracketed sequence from here. These photos are used also by me in this tutorial.

Initial screen of Photomatix Pro. There is a Workflow Shortcuts window that provides you with quick access to all important features of Photomatix Pro: from loading your images to using batch.
After starting up Photomatix Pro the first step is to load our bracketed photos. We can do this by either:
  1. Clicking on the Load Bracketed Photos button - top one in the Workflow Shortcuts window and then clicking on the Browse button in window that will appear,
  2. Pressing CTRL + L keyboard shortcut (CMD + L on Mac) and then clicking on the Browse button in window that will appear,
  3. Using File -> Load Bracketed Photos… menu and then clicking on the Browse button in window that will appear,
  4. Dragging the photos to the Photomatix Pro from Windows Explorer (or Adobe Bridge for instance).
  5. If you own Adobe Lightroom you can also install a plugin which comes with Photomatix Pro. Then you will be able to export bracketed photos directly from Lightroom. Just select bracketed files in the library, right-click -> Export To -> Photomatix Pro.
No matter what way of loading your photos you chose, the following window will then appear:

IMG_1339.CR2 to IMG_1338.CR2 in the screenshot above are names of RAW photos from a bracketed sequence taken by me. I used Browse button to load them all. In case you would like to remove a photo from the list, just select it and click on the Remove button.

Also note Show 32-bit unprocessed image checkbox. I have it checked almost all the time. This instructs Photomatix Pro to show you a merged HDR photo before actually tone-mapping it. One of the benefits is that you can save this HDR photo and process it again whenever you want to (with different settings perhaps). This saves a lot of time because merging to HDR can be a pretty time-consuming process (especially when using long sequences like the above one, large RAW files and using options like alignment and deghosting).

After clicking on the OK button another dialog is shown:
In this step we can decide how the photos will be merged into HDR photo. There are quite a lot of options here including alignment, deghosting and white balance amongst others:
  • Align source images - this option enables alignment of photo which are misaligned (due to handshake or tripod shake):
    • Taken on tripod - this option is much faster but it should be used only for the photos taken from a tripod.
    • Hand-held - this option is much slower yet it is very useful when photos were shot hand-held as it tries to match the features in the source photos.
      Tip: despite name of this alignment method suggests it is useful mainly for hand-held shots, the truth is that this method is perfect for any kind of misaligned photos. It is very robuts and can deal with horizontal and vertical movements, rotation and perspective misalignment. I use it all the the time.
    • Crop aligned images - if you check this option output image dimensions might be slightly smaller than source images size. It's because Photomatix will crop parts that couldn't be aligned (because they existed only in one photo for instance).
  • Show options to remove ghosts - do you remember ghost artifacts I mentioned in the Typical Problems section? Well this option enables deghosting algorithm which removes artifacts caused by the subjects which moved across photos of the bracketed sequence.
  • Reduce noise on - enables advanced noise reduction algorithm. In the combobox to the right of this checkbox you can select on which photos denoising will be run.
  • Reduce chromatic aberrations - enables chromatic aberration reduction algorithm.
  • White Balance - white balance (available only for RAW photos).
  • Color primaries based on - color space (available only for RAW photos). You can choose from sRGB, Adobe RGB and ProPhoto.


If in the previous step Show options to remove ghosts was checked now you will be presented with tool allowing you to remove ghosts.
Manual deghosting in Photomatix Pro
In the top left corner you can select deghosting mode:
  • Selective Deghosting - powerful tool that allows you to select regions that are ghosted using lasso tool and replace them with one of your source images.
  • Automatic Deghosting - fully automatic tool that lets you specify strength and base photo used by deghosting to remove any ghosts in your image. In this case you don't have to indicate that any region is ghosted.
Whatever mode you will select (they are described just below) once you're done click on the OK button to proceed.

Both modes share a few GUI elements:
  • Preview image - shows effect of deghosting and lets you compare deghosting with the original image.
  • Brightness slider - allows you to brighten (or darken) the preview image so it's easier to see effect of deghosting. Note that changing this value doesn't affect your HDR image in any way - its exposure won't change.
  • Zoom - you can zoom in too see more details or zoom out to see whole image.

Selective Deghosting mode

Selective Deghosting mode in Photomatix Pro is about selecting ghosted regions by drawing selections around them using lasso tool and then replacing these regions with one of the source images.

After selecting with a lasso tool the region will be surrounded with dashed line:

Next right-click on the selected region and select Mark selection as ghosted area item as shown in the image below. This will mark region as ghost:
Manual deghosting in Photomatix Pro

After marking the region as ghosted its border will become solid and option to select source photo to replace this ghosted region will become available after right-clicking this region. Replacing region with source photo will effectively remove ghost.

At any time you can preview ghost removal by clicking on the Preview Deghosting button in the left side of the window.

Tip: if Quick selection mode box is checked, you won't need to mark region as ghosted after drawing it with lasso tool - as soon as you release mouse button, region will be already marked as ghosted.

Click OK button to accept your changes and move to the next step.

Automatic Deghosting mode

Now onto another mode - Automatic Deghosting.

As it was said earlier this mode tries to remove ghosts automatically. As soon as you switch to it you will notice that interface changes a little bit:
Automatic deghosting in Photomatix Pro

Deghosting slider allows you to specify strength of deghosting. By default it's set to None. As soon as you start moving this slider you will notice that ghosts start to disappear. Now the thing is that moving the slider too far might in fact introduce new artifacts. It's because deghosting algorithm might detect that something is ghost while it might not be one. So my advice is to try avoiding maximum values most of the time. If you need very high values of Deghosting, I would suggest using Selective Deghosting instead.

Under Deghosting slider there is a list of all your images. The image which is selected is used as a Base Photo by deghosting algorithm. It means that any ghosts found will be replaced with pixels from that image.

And finally Preview Deghosting checkbox allows you to see your original image. This makes it easier to compare what effect deghosting has on your image. Just uncheck it to see before, and check it again to see after.


When Show 32-bit unprocessed image in Load Bracketed Photos dialog was checked Photomatix Pro will show it at this stage:

At this stage the photo doesn’'t look quite good as it's full of very deep shadows and overexposed areas at the same time. But this is true HDR photo - your monitor simply cannot display it, however, so it shows only the part of the available exposure. You can use F11 key to decrease preview exposure and F12 to increase it.

At this stage you can use File -> Save to save this unprocessed 32-bit image to EXR, HDR or floating-point TIFF file. This is especially useful if you want to process your photos in some other application supporting this formats or want to go back to this photo later in Photomatix Pro. I do this often when I think that I will use several different settings on a given photo - this way I can save some time as merging to HDR can sometimes be lengthy process.


So click on the Tone Map / Fuse button to go to the tone-mapping tool. Thanks to tone-mapping we can map our high dynamic range photo to limited capabilities of a monitor.

Graphical user interface

The graphical user interface of the tone-mapping step looks as shown below:

Below all sections of GUI are briefly described:

1. Panel with choice of processing method. Photomatix Pro offers several different methods of processing photos:
  • Details Enhancer - local tone mapping operator that can be used for any look ranging from realistic to artistic or surreal,
  • Contrast Optimizer - local tone mapping operator that produces very natural looking images,
  • Tone Compressor - global tone mapping operator,
  • Exposure Fusion - fusion of input photos. Exposure fusion is not tone mapping operator nor it produces HDR! Exposure fusion is technique of blending input photos by taking best pixels from each of them (based on some rank) and outputting it in the final result. Photomatix Pro 5.0 offers following exposure fusion algorithms:
    • Natural,
    • Real-Estate,
    • Intensive,
    • 2 Images,
    • Auto,
    • Average.
Wow! So there are quite a few processing methods available in Photomatix Pro. Why so many? Each of them has its strengths and weaknesses (eg. Fusion/Real-Estate is perfect for real-estate photography, while Contrast Optimizer is method of my choice for landscape photography). Having so many methods to choose from might be a little terrifying at first but as the time goes by you will really appreciate such broad selection.

BTW when I decide to use tone mapper for portrait photography it's most often Tone Compresor. Why? Because Details Enhancer, which is local tone mapper, enhances local details and contrast. So it enhances details also in the skin (including all kind of imperfections, wrinkles and blemishes) which is better to remain smooth. Otherwise the model looks as having serious skin diseases and the photo won’t be liked by him or her. However, Details Enhancer is very useful in enhancing eyes to add them some extra depth and magic. To do this multiple tone-mapping should be used which I will describe later in this tutorial.
2. Settings sliders and buttons allowing changing the look of the image. Number and type of the sliders depend on the selected processing method. Details Enhancer have the largest number of them.
3. Additional settings controls:
  • Method Defaults button restores sliders to defaults of a method selected in point 1. For instance if you have Details Enhancer selected clicking this button will revert settings to Default preset and to Balanced preset in case of Contrast Optimizer.
  • Undo and Redo buttons allow you to undo and redo last change of settings. As the history of changes is saved you can go back quite a few steps.
  • Preset combobox allows you to select a preset, save or load one from disk.
4. Apply button. When you consider your image finished, click this button to process the photo. Then you will be able to save it.
5. Contextual help displaying short text about slider over which mouse pointer is currently placed. If you're not sure what a given option is for, just move your mouse over it to see helpful description.
6. Zoom controls allow you to zoom in and out your preview image:
  • Scaling slider is a fast method of increasing/decreasing magnification but it only upsamples/downsamples preview image so quality might be not always best.
  • Magnification buttons allow you to change zoom level at which preview image is displayed. Changing magnification requires refreshing the image but the preview is more accurate than when using Scaling slider.
  • Fit button will change zoom level of preview image in such a way that it occupies whole available space and yet no scrollbars are shown.
  • Preview checkbox - uncheck it to see your original image. It's a good way to compare your original image with tone-mapped one.
7. Preview window - the preview window shows how the final image will look. Preview is already tone-mapped (or fused) so it looks much better than HDR photo you saw earlier in this tutorial.
8. Histogram for currently displayed preview.
9. Presets window. Photomatix Pro offers dozens of ready to use presets out of the box. At the top of this window you will see following controls:

Combo box on the left is a category filter. It offers a lot of options like Realistic, Artistic or Black & White that will narrow the presets number and will show you only the ones that might be interesting to you.
This button allows you to select size of presets thumbnails. Clicking on it will toggle between large and small thumbnail size. In fact I already used large thumbnails in this screenshot.
This button allows you to toggle between one- and two-column view for presets thumbnails. By default only one column is shown but by clicking on this button you can see presets in two columns and thus to see many more presets at once without the need to use scrollbar.
Additionally, at the bottom of this window there are two tabs:
  • Built-In - it shows all presets that come with installation of Photomatix Pro.
  • My Presets - presets that you saved or downloaded from the Internet. If you need some presets make sure to give my free presets collection a try. It features about 70 presets that can be used for all kind of HDR photos ranging from landscape to architecture.

Tone-mapping settings

As I already mentioned I use Details Enhancer and Contrast Optimizer quite a lot. As you might remember from the beginning of this tutorial I use Photomatix Pro mainly to preserve details in highlights and shadows as much as possible. At this stage I'm not thinking that much about colour but rather light and detail.

In the next two sections you will find settings I use most of the time for Details Enhancer and Contrast Optimizer together with short description of each setting.

Details Enhancer
  • Basic options:
    • Strength - controls degree of detail and contrast enhancements in the image. Most of the time I use values in the range of 50 - 70. Sometimes I may go beyond 70 but in such a case I lower other settings. Using very large values might result in halo artifacts appearing in the image.
    • Color saturation - controls saturation and vibrance of colours. Most of the time I use 46, which is default value.
    • Tone compression - controls global luminosity level. Most of the time I use 0.
    • Detail contrast - this setting is responsible for enhancing contrast in local details (extremely useful when there are some detailed textures in the picture). I usually use values ranging from 5 to 10 because I like to enhance contrast a little bit.
    • Lighting Adjustments - one of the most important sliders in Photomatix Pro. It controls the general look of the image: natural vs. surreal. Using anything else than Natural+ (or Natural) might result in a very grungy and surreal look with a lot of halo artifacts.
  • Additional options (More Options section):
    • Smooth Highlights - this setting lets you smooth the highlights in the photo. It’s especially useful if you have large areas of blue sky in your shot which often contains a lot of noise. Also use it when you want to prevent white highlights from becoming grey. I use values in range 0 – 20.
    • White Point - allows to set white point. Most of the time I lower it quite a lot to around 0.002% - 0.01%.
    • Black Point - allows to set black point. Most of the time I don’t change it.
    • Gamma – gamma… what to add here. Most of the times I use default value, that is 1.0.
    • Temperature - colour temperature of the photo. Most of the time I don't change it at all (because I prefer to do this in post).
  • Advanced options (Advanced Options section):
    • Microsmoothing - is responsible for smoothing the enhancements done by local details enhancement. One of the effects is that it reduces noise (eg. in the sky). Most often I use default 2.0 value. When I have a lot of tiny details or grain (like snow or sand) I use much lower values like 0.5 – 1.0. For some grainy images I use values around 4 - 5.
    • Saturation Highlights - controls saturation of highlights areas without affecting saturation of shadows. Typically I use default value (0.0).
    • Saturation Shadows - controls saturation of shadows areas without affecting saturation of highlights. Typically I use default value (0.0).
    • Shadows Smoothness - reduces contrast enhancements in the shadows. The only setting I’ve never ever changed from its default value.
    • Shadows Clipping - this setting is especially useful when dealing with noise in the shadows as it clips them. Most of the time I use default 0 value. Sometimes, however, I can increase it even to 20 or more if I have very noisy images.

Contrast Optimizer
Contrast Optimizer became my favourite tone-mapper available in Photomatix Pro 5.0 very quickly. I love its natural and clean results. What's more default settings work well for me of the time and the only sliders I change are usually White Clip and Black Clip.
  • Strength - amount of enhancement given to contrast and detail. Most often I leave this setting at default value (that is 50).
  • Tone Compression - controls dynamic range of the image. Most often I leave this setting at default value (that is 0).
  • Lighting Effect - move this slider to the right to brighten up the shadows and thus make the image look more surreal. Most of the time I use value of 0 to avoid brightening up the shadows.
  • White Clip - tells how much highlights will be clipped (i.e. how much of them will be treated as pure white). I often reduce this slider, looking at the histogram at the same time, to avoid too much highlights to be clipped.
  • Black Clip - tells how much shadows will be clipped (i.e. how much of them will be treated as pure black). Most of the time I use values close to 0.
  • Midtone - controls brightness of midtones. Most of the time I use values ranging 0.5 to 2.0 to brighten up the image a little bit.
  • Color Saturation - saturation of colours in tone-mapped image. I use default value, that is 0.
  • Color Temperature - temperature of colours in tone-mapped image. I use default value, that is 0.


After clicking Apply button, final tone-mapped image will appear:
Now you can save it by going to File -> Save As menu (or clicking CTRL + S on Windows or CMD + S on Mac). A new window will appear where you can specify output file name and format (jpg or tiff).

But wait a second - did you notice this very Finishing Touch window in the screen above? As it was stated several times in this tutorial tone-mapping is just a beginning. During tone-mapping phase we wanted to preserve details in highlights and shadows. No w it's time to enhance colours and global contrast of the image.
If you do not own any photo editing application, such as Photoshop, Lightroom or GIMP, there is good news for you - since Photomatix Pro 4.2 it is possible to do basic fine tuning directly inside Photomatix Pro - using this Finishing Touch window! By default this window appears after you click on the Apply button (as in our case) but you can also open it manually by clicking on the Utilities -> Finishing Touch menu item.

Let's take a closer look at this dialog:

There are 3 types of adjustments you can make:
  • Contrast (Contrast tab),
  • Color saturation  (Color tab),
  • Sharpening (Sharpening tab).
They work similar to the tools with same names in Lightroom, Photoshop or GIMP. You just drag slider and preview image is updated to reflect that change. Also the names should be pretty self-explanatory.


In this section I will describe typical adjustments I make to a photo processed in Photomatix.
  1. I start my adjustments by importing a photo processed in Photomatix Pho and then I adjust following settings in Lightroom
    1. Vibrance (I often increase it to around 10 - 20),
    2. Saturation (I often decide to reduce it to to the value between -5 to -20),
    3. Clarity (I often increase it to a value between 15 and 50),
    4. Contrast (just a little bit at this stage),
    5. Highlights and Shadows (to restore them).
    6. 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.
  2. 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:
    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 add some clarity to the image using Topaz Clarity.
    3. Then I start to play with luminosity masks to improve contrast and colours of my photo. This is the most time consuming step of the whole process in my case. It might take just a few minutes but more often than not in takes hours... or even a few days.
    4. Finally I apply sharpening. Most of the time I sharpen my images 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.
Finally I save my image as a JPEG with a maximum quality.


Recently Black & White HDR photos are becoming quite popular. I also try to take some of them and here are some samples:

There are two ways to achieve this effect:
  • Desaturate a photo in Photomatix Pro by setting Saturation slider to 0 in case of Details Enhancer and to minimum value (-10) for other processing methods. In case of Details Enhancer you have to also make sure that both Saturation Highlights and Saturation Shadows are also set to 0.
  • Converting the photo to grayscale in Photoshop or similar program.
It is possible to achieve striking results using any of these methods, however, I prefer to do this in post-production in Photoshop. Most of the time I use Topaz B&W Effects to convert my images to black&white.

After using this plugin from Topaz I usually increase contrast using Levels adjustments layer.


After some time when one gets experienced in tone-mapping HDR photos it becomes clear that no matter what the settings are there are some scenes for which they simply don’'t work - some areas look good with other settings, some look good with different ones, for instance:
  • Eyes and cloth look better when using Details Enhancer but skin and hair look better when using Tone Compressor.
  • Water sometimes looks better at different settings than sky.
There is a simple solution. The HDR photo has to be processed several times with different settings (eg. with eyes looking good and with cloths looking good). Then those photos can be blended in Photoshop (or even in Photomatix) using layer masks.

There are even photographers who blend this way photos from different HDR software. Others blend input photos with the tone-mapped one (I use it occasionally). So there are many options.

Read about Exposure Fusion on next page...

Go back to introduction to HDR photography...

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