Tag Archives: photoshop

High Dynamic Range photography: beyond Photoshop

Have you ever taken a picture where the brightest areas were lost to white and the darkest areas were lost to black? It’s an old photographic challenge with fun new solutions.

For over a century, photographers have used clever techniques to incorporate large brightness ranges in images.  Ansel Adams used dodging and burning to compress the dynamic range of film to the smaller range possible on paper. For challenging scientific shots, scientists produced film with three layers, each capturing a different film speed. Today, given multiple exposures of a scene, computers can auto-merge the best parts of each image in a process called tone mapping. The resulting shot has become known as an HDR or High Dynamic Range image. In just the last decade, the process has become much simpler and more useful.

Photoshop is the most famous of the merging softwares, but it isn’t the best. For years, I wrestled with Photoshop’s clunky and artificial looking HDR outputs. If you think of HDR as a pejorative, Photoshop may be why. Fortunately, there are other pieces of software out there that do a better job. I recently purchased the Nik Software package, which includes HDR Efex 2. I have several hundred old captures that I gave up on in Photoshop that are new and exciting and beautiful again. If you’ve ever tried making HDR images and felt disappointed, you should check out the market again. The results from HDR Efex and Photomatix are glorious. Happy tone mapping!

A note to Mac users: as of March 2016, the HDR Efex plug-in for Lightroom does not always work. I had to email the company and get them to send me a module file. Their email was detailed enough to suggest that this bug is common. With the module file, it was an easy fix, so contact the company if you too encounter this challenge.

HDR Efex (left) and Photoshop (right)

In the case of the cave image, I vastly prefer the HDR Efex image. The Photoshop controls aren’t intuitive, and even their built in presets mostly look awful. Some of the Nik presets are too extreme for my usual preference, but many of them look great immediately. In the case of the waterfall image, I prefer the HDR Efex image, but I don’t dislike the Photoshop image. The light is more exciting in the HDR Efex image, and I did it quickly and easily.

I’ve had HDR Efex for about three weeks. The first two weeks are free with a fully functional trial copy. Below are some of the images I’ve assembled. I’m pretty happy with it so far, especially after years of feeling uninspired by Photoshop’s HDR function. Happy photographing!

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Tutorial: Playing with Fireworks (in Photoshop)

In my last post, I included a composite image of a firework exploding. In today’s post, I’ll explain how I did it. If you’d like to follow along, I’ve included the starting images at the bottom of this post. Simply right-click to download. You can use as few as two images, or all of them, with this method. You will need Adobe Photoshop CC or an extended version of an earlier Photoshop to follow along.


The final product! Read below for my methods!

Step 1: Get photographs to composite

To create a composite image, you first need the images to composite! My images are below, and if you prefer to use them, you can skip this section. If you’d like to use your own images, you’ll have to capture them! In this section, I give all the nitty-gritty shooting details; you can also skip ahead if you know how to shoot an exploding firework.

You will need a DSLR, and you will need to know how to change settings like ISO, aperture, speed, exposure bias and your shooting modes. First, fireworks are dim and you will need to make sure your sensor gets all the light it can; I turned up my ISO to 12800 and opened my aperture all the way to f/2.8. (A side note about ISO: your camera may not go up to ISO 12800. My other camera tops out at 3200, and I find the images unpleasantly noisy above ISO 1600. I’ve still taken good fireworks shots with that camera. You may want to turn down exposure bias more than I have, and a tripod is a great asset.) Second, I turned the exposure bias down for several reasons: (1) to avoid blowing the highlights, (2) to allow a faster shutter speed, and (3) because an image of fireworks against a dark sky is a dark image, and a low exposure bias accurately reflects this. I turned the exposure setting down two brightness stops. I shot in aperture priority mode with a fixed ISO and a camera-calibrated speed. You could also fix the speed and allow the ISO to vary. With the settings above, the exposure times were 1/250 sec and 1/400 sec for the nine images. I shot in speed priority continuous shooting mode. I shoot with a Sony Alpha 7s– when shooting in RAW mode (rather than a compressed JPEG mode), it takes 5 frames per second. I took these shots using a monopod. A tripod can allow you more flexibility with your shot settings. I shot these images at a focal length of 72 mm and the Alpha 7s doesn’t have image stabilization, so I wanted my shutter speed to be 1/100 second or faster.

Phew, got all that?

Step 2: Prepare images for composite

Open your images as layers in Photoshop. (Consult this link if you’re uncertain how to open images in layers.) The order of the layers doesn’t matter at all.

The images must be aligned. If you shot using a tripod, you’re probably good. If not, there are two ways to align your images– the easy way and the hard way. If you are using my images, I have already aligned them for you.

The easy way: Auto-Align Layers Select all your layers. Then go to the edit menu and select “Auto-Align Layers”, as in the image below. Select the “Auto” projection in the dialogue box, then click okay. This method will work if there is an object in all the images that Photoshop can recognize and align, say the corner of a building. Sadly, Auto-Align didn’t work for my images. So it was on to the hard method.


The hard way: manually aligning layers This method is more slow than hard. (Still harder than the easy way, though!) Change the opacity of the second layer, and visually align it to the bottom layer using the move tool. You can get the move tool by pressing “v”. I’ve circled it on the tool panel in the image below. On the layer panel, I’ve circled the opacity settings too. I set the blend mode to “Difference”, which makes the differences between the two layers the brightest. Then I visually lined up the center of the explosion, as I show in the first image below. The second image shows the same view before manual alignment.

If you have more than two layers, as I do in the full-sized image, work your way up from the bottom, and use the “Difference” blending mode to align each layer to the bottom layer. Remember to put all your blending modes back to “Normal”!

After manipulation:manual-align

Before manipulation:manual-align-begin

Step 3: Creating the composite

Now that your layers are aligned, it’s time to put them together! Woo! This is a two-step process. First, create a Smart Object from your layers, and then set the Smart Object Stack Mode to “Maximum.”

Creating a Smart Object Select all your layers. Then go to the Layer menu, go down to Smart Objects, and select “Convert to Smart Object.” (See the first image below.) A Smart Object is a kind of envelope Photoshop uses to perform certain tasks. They’re great! You can read more about them here. Here, we need to make a Smart Object so we can use the Smart Object Stack Modes. After you create the Smart Object, you will only see one layer, and it will have the page icon that I’ve circled in red in the second image below. If you ever want to interact with the layers again, say to change the alignment, you just double-click on the Smart Object. We’ll do just that in Step 4 of this tutorial.

Before making the Smart Object:make-smart-object

After making the Smart Object:smart-object

Setting the Smart Object Stack Mode Now you have a Smart Object! In Photoshop CC and in the extended versions of previous Photoshops, you have access to a number of Stack Modes. As in the first image below, go to the Layer menu, then Smart Object, the Stack Mode, then Maximum. (Later, you can play with other Stack Modes, but for now, choose Maximum.) The Maximum Stack Mode looks at each pixel of the image and selects the highest luminance value for that pixel amongst all the images in the stack.


When you use all 9 images that I provide (rather than 2, as above), you’ll get the image below. Which is pretty fun! Because each pixel is the brightest of all the 9 layers, we get a sort of stop motion slo-mo image. And we can make it even better!



Step 4: Refining the composite

I think the middle of the fireworks is too muddled in the image above. I can’t do anything to alter the Stack Mode logic, but I can change the layers that it makes its choices from. And that’s exactly what I’m going to do!

Double click on the Smart Object image to open the contents of the Smart Object in another tab. You can change the Blending Modes and Opacity (green circle), or you can reduce the opacity of certain parts of each image using Layer Masks. You can create a Layer Mask by clicking the icon in the yellow circle. The Layer Mask for one layer is shown in the red circle on the bottom right. Click it to select it, which allows you to paint into the Layer Mask. Where you paint in darker colors, the image will become more transparent. Learn more about Layer Masks here. You can also perform other layer adjustments, such as Levels or Exposure. I prefer to do such adjustments in Lightroom before I even go to Photoshop, but there are no wrong answers.

If you ever want to see the effects of your changes on the final product, simply save your changes to the content of the Smart Object, and go back to the tab that shows the Smart Object. in-smart-object


Click here to go to the Flickr folder of full-sized images, or use the smaller images below.

layer1 layer2 layer3 layer4 layer5 layer6 layer7 layer8 layer9

Merging photographs

Lately I’ve been improving my Photoshop skills with courses from Lynda.com. If you want to learn a design program, I strongly recommend them. In a year, I’ve learned so much about Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign, Lightroom, JavaScript, CSS, photography, and more. In Photoshop alone, I learned way more than I figured out in 15 years of experimentation.

With my new learning, I’ve been able to breathe new life into old photos. Over the past several years, I took numerous sets of photos that I intended to turn into panoramas and HDRs, but then I could never get them to look right. With newfound skills come newfound confidence. Check out these beautiful images!



American Southwest near Moab, Utah at sunset. Assembled from 40 24-megapixel images captured with a Sony Alpha 100. When it was assembling, it tied up over 100 gigs of space. This version is 1500×557 pixels; the full size is 19,000 x 7,000!


Detail from above photo, center-left at horizon.


Mount Saint Helen’s in Washington state. Assembled from 6 24-megapixel images from a Sony Alpha 100.


Detail from above photo, center left.


Waterfall in Central Virginia along the Blue Ridge Parkway. High dynamic range image assembled from five slow-exposures. Smart sharpen and high pass filters to add sharpness and clarity.


Rainforest in Olympic National Park. Before assembly, I reduced noise and applied lens corrections. High dynamic range image assembled from five exposures. Smart sharpen and high pass filters to add sharpness and clarity.