My Gallery | HDR Tutorials | Home | Store | Links | Contact | About

Creating an HDR with 5 images
& How to control noise with a bright image

There are times when you need more than 3 images.

Shooting indoor photography can be a real pain. There are often very bright areas such as windows. And at the same time, very dark shadows.  

An HDR image requires at least 3 images to be successful. However sometimes that doesn't cut it either. In the image below for example there was a HUGE 8' window. The sky was a bit overcast, and the light was pouring in. Despite that, the lighting itself was rather poor, and the light really only lit the table. The overhead lights were merely decoration for the ceiling. If you look in the third frame (2 images below), that was the bright shot. The window underexposed the image, and the result was a detailed window, but very little detail in the shadow areas. Making for a poor looking HDR.

Additional frames are needed, and sometimes I wish my camera could either figure out the range that's needed on it's own. Or have the option of shooting 5 frames instead of the default 3. If you don't shoot extra frames to make it brighter in the darker areas, there may be a lot of noise. The brighter exposures helps eliminate that noise. 

Back in the days of Yesterday - by Mike Savad
Back in the days of Yesterday - by Mike Savad
Can be purchased as a print or a gift

Original 5 Images - Un-processed
orginal 5 images with exif
These are the original 5 images, shown with their respective information, I used Auto ISO.

Lighting included those large windows you see, matching ones on the other side of the room, and pathetic ceiling lights. I shot this hand held, and while a tripod would be very nice to use in situations like this, many places condone tripods, so your kind of stuck with what you have. This room was nearly impossible to shoot in, It was actually one of the brighter areas of the room, it still had some very dark areas to work with.

It just so happened that my camera was brand new when I photographed this building. I really didn't know what it was capable of, or how well it dealt with noise. Given the opportunity, if I came back here, I would have no problem using a higher ISO to get the detail. It would result in a sharper image.

The first 3 images were taken aiming at the center, probably at the window. When I saw the last frame was so dark I shot another 3 aiming at that machine on the right. The +2 on the original set must have looked either soft or looked the same as the other set. So I got rid of that, you can see the file size is quite large, I don't keep the odd ones any more.

Getting Started

The first step is to load all 5 images into Photoshop (or a raw editor).

While it would be nice to show you each of the steps I do in the RAW editor, I would rather explain it in words.

To get a successful image, you need as much detail as possible. Each image you use should have the best color and sharpness you can get out of it. You'll want to adjust the exposure of each image as bright as you can (without destroying other detail), for today's lesson  for example:

The first image which is the darkest frame only holds enough detail for the window to come out really well.

The second image, has more detail in other places, and since I already have the texture for the window from the last image, it won't be a problem if I push the exposure brightness a little more than I should. Instead I can concentrate on the walls and overhead lights.

The third image, The tools on the desk look properly exposed, and look sharp. The lamps also have good color and shape. The punch clock retains a lot of detail as well. So this image will focus on those areas, as well as some of the machinery on the right. This particular image is also sharper than the second image, so it will be crucial to keeping other elements in focus.

The last 2 images one will add a little more light on the right, shows the ceiling better and the clock better. Later this or the fourth  layer will be used as a noise control layer.

Now we can adjust each image. The boxes below describe what you should see when you edit a RAW file. 

Editing Raw Files - Preview
After editing in raw
Compared to the original 5 files, you can see it's a little different looking. This probably won't be the last time you'll use the Raw editor in this picture. I load it up again for noise control, or to adjust one area of the picture. For example, the clock might not be clear enough, or the words might not be readable. I'll adjust one image to fix that.

Step 1: Basic Settings
RAW Editor
  1. Use the eye dropper to find a gray point in the scene. You'll want to neutralize the color so each image looks nice. In this example I used the Window towards the bottom as my neutral point. It washed the sky a little, but I can blue that up later if needed. As I moved on in images, the window was too far blown out to get a good reading, I took the point on the reflection of that clock on the left. You might notice that as you extend the range of light, that the original point that you chose may not be good enough anymore. As I edited the fourth image the scene still looked too blue, I chose the grey on the machine instead (and then did so for the rest). 
  2. Adjust the exposure make it brighter, but not to bright, there's no need to push the noise if we don't have to, you'll have to remove it later. 
  3. Use fill light sparingly, it can wash details away if you use it heavily, but I've found that if you don't fill some light, Photoshop can't align it properly. However oddly, the fill light can brighten parts of the image where exposure cannot. If you add too much fill you can wash out contrast. 
  4. Contrast should be set a little lower, we can fix the contrast later when the image is complete. For now we want to focus on detail. By lowering contrast you can resolve a little more detail. If you use contrast on brighter images, bringing it up a bit can prevent some blow outs. Lowering contrast can create a slight haze over the image. Bright images inherently has more light in the image, and often a haze. Increasing contrast on those types of images will help keep the haze down. However you might lose some detail.
  5. Vibrance can be bumped a little bit, better used on the brighter images. This will warm the image a bit and make the colors a little stronger.
  6. Pushing clarity will help edge contrasts a bit, pulling it back will make it glow a bit, but can give a more realistic look around windows and helps to control some noise. I try it on each image, and often find that pulling it on the brighter images looks better. And pushing it a little on a image that is already sharp, helps clean up glowing contrast edges that you might get if it was in front of a bright window. On the fifth image,  the scene is a little soft, so pushing both contrast and clarity made some of the smaller detail more relevant. If for example, I had bottles in the scene, pushing the clarity to the right would help make the words on the bottle easier to read. Bringing it to the left would make the glass look better.
  7. Saturation I ignore, it an be adjusted later. 
  8. Brightness,  sometimes I'll tweak that as well. It really depends how dark the scene is, and how desperate I am for the light. In this sequence it's doubtful I'll need to to that. Because When I shot this I remained conscience about the last image and shot another set just in case.

Step 2 :Tone Curve
RAW Editor
  • Each control corresponds with a tone. Slide the controller to see what looks best. I usually push the lights, while pushing down the shadow. However if over done you could blow out highlights or add to much contrast in the shadow. 
In this image I used the following settings:
  • Picture 1:
    • Highlights were pushed down a bit to give me more detail in the upper part of the frame. 
    • Lights were pushed up a bit to increase the range of the window.
    • Darks were pushed up a bit to extend the range of the lower window
    • Shadows were also pushed to increase the range of light in the arches of the window.
  • Picture 2:
    • Highlights didn't make much difference but I moved them up a bit anyway.
    • Lights brightened some of the wall and the arches
    • Darks and Shadows were increased and gave me a little more detail in the wood areas.
  • Picture 3:
    • Highlights I decreased it here as it helped with the clarity in the arch, there should be less noise in this image.
    • Lights were darkened for the same reason
    • Darks were pushed quite a bit as it helped give me more definition in the wood.
    • Shadows were pushed slightly, too much would have washed out shadow (I wanted to retain contrast).
  • Picture 4:
    • Highlights when moved didn't do much, I went down a little bit to increase contrast in some spots.
    • Lights did the same thing.
    • Darks and Shadows were decreased a bit to improve on contrast in the shadow area. 
  • Picture 5:
    • Highlights and Lights, I want to control the lighting in the rightmost area of the image. I pushed it quite a bit as I wanted to increase the surface reflection on some of the parts. It will increase the effect later on. I'm mostly focusing on that machine on the right center.
    • Darks I increased the darks to add some light in the shadow
    • Shadows I, however decreased this to improve the contrast near the shadows (or it would look too bright). 

Step 3
Controlling Luminance in the HSL tab
RAW Editor
Each of these sliders will increase or decrease the tone of the color. While you could also adjust the saturation, it's not worth doing here unless it's so underwhelming that you need to push it now. I usually don't bother with the HUE controllers. Some of the sliders won't appear like they are doing anything. The darker the scene the less color, and the less color, well, you won't see it because it's not there. Adjust the color luminance in each image. An interesting note: sliding the colors up can often reveal details in areas that the other settings couldn't touch. You might be able to control the light better using this part of the editor.

There is no right way to do this. Higher or lower will not hurt the image. In the brighter images, the blue slider helped the arches in the back. Magenta almost never does anything unless it's a flower, shadow, or noise. Red, yellows, oranges, often control the tone of wood and light itself. Green almost never does anything, usually yellow controls green colors. Try not to add a color tint, it may be hard to remove later on.

Step 4: Chromatic Aberrations
RAW Editor
Chromatic Aberrations are those little colorful lines alongside of edge contrast. Usually a dark to light image has these. You've probably seen them around a leaf against the sky.

It's usually possible to remove most of it, however not always. You have to get really close to see what your doing. Find an area that has a bright against a dark area. Often when I have words on a can or a box, I'll use the black letters to see where the shift is. Find an area, and get as close as possible. Push the slider in either direction and see if any of it disappears, do it just enough so it looks like a nice line, and not one with color. Zoom out fully afterwards. Note that you will see the noise in all it's glory this close up. We'll fix that later, for now you want clarity and detail. Noise removal will often remove that detail, so leave it noisy for now.

If you don't remove the aberrations, the image won't look as professional, it also interferes with how sharp it looks. They also lessen the effect of it being a painting. 

Chromatic aberration usually occurs with sunlight, find an area that has sunlight and solid color.

Step 5: Camera Calibration
RAW Editor
The icon looks like a little camera

I used to ignore this part of the editor. It lets you balance the color in the image and lets me remove hues of color that can't be removed in any other way. It's best to choose a neutral point first before using it if you haven't already.

Now slide the red HUE in one direction then in the other and see if you removed a tint of color - the idea is you want a  NEUTRAL color, not a tinted on, you can control the tint when it's done. When you find something you like, adjust the saturation of that color to increase or decrease how nice it looks, and continue on with the other colors, then with the other pictures. The darkest image you may not notice much going on. Often the blue slider can control the overall tint to the image, I'm not sure why that is, but it's something to keep in mind.

In the first image, the controls didn't do much. The second one I pushed the red up and kept the saturation lower. The greens and blues were adjusted so the wood on the wall by the clock had a dark woody tone, that didn't looked baked out. It had an orange tone to it before. In a scene like this, I'd rather have a more muted look because it should look like an old photograph. Watch the saturation, you don't want rich color, the stronger the color the less detail will show through.

Open all the images and we can begin

Stack the image
trying to align it
After opening the images, locate the last image opened, select ALL and COPY it. I used to drag the image over, but found it was memory intense, and this way is much faster. Paste it into the first file that opened (usually the darkest one, or the one I added the title too). PASTE the image on top and it will automatically make a new layer, do this for the other images, then close the ones your not using. There is no need to save the extra images. Save the main image.

Then select the line up and use AUTO-ALIGN

Oh Poo! There is always a problem when you shoot more than 3 frames. The main image that has the darkest scene won't line up.

The top layer won't agree, so I lined up the last 4

Use Difference
used differnece to align
Setting the top image to Difference, allows you to see how well it lines up. I use this every time I stack images. While Photoshop does a pretty good job lining things up, it often misses it by a bit. Use the move tool to push the layers underneath to where you want it to be. The image should look flat, and shouldn't have that white outline as it does above.

However this image didn't quite line up. I had to use TRANSFORM on it, and pull the corners until it lined up better. This about the best I can do. The brighter areas are highlights, or at least should be.

Look at the difference!
look at the difference
Difference allows you to see what looks different. If you see a white line like above, it may mean it's not aligned. the darker areas look aligned. The image should look flat looking. Compare the tail end of the vise, or the wire to the one on the right. It shouldn't glow.

Keep it on DIFFERENCE, and adjust the other layers with the move tool. Turn on and off the layer until you can see everything registers properly. As the scene becomes brighter as you move down the list, you may need to set another layer to difference. It's very important to make sure this step is done. It's tedious, but necessary. You'll get ghosts other wsie. When your done with your alignments, make sure you set DIFFERENCE back to NORMAL. 

Let's get started
Layer 1
starting with layer 1
Darkest layer on the top.

Place a mask on the first image, I chose the SPONGE brush (I don't remember what I called it in the pack you can download.

The soft brush will allow for detail, while smoothing it in a bit at a time. You don't want hard edges. You do however want to get as much detail as you can in each layer.

Layer 2
layer 2 has more detail
Layer 1 - The best detail is the top of the window (though it looks bright in this image, there is enough detail that you can see the embedded wire in the glass.

Layer 2 - Has more detail in the walls and a bit of the table.

Merging Images 1 and 2
1st done
So I between these two layers I want to get all the detail I can.

 1st layer is now done. There's a bit more detail in the walls and lights. You can see the clock and outlines of machines, which in itself lends to a certain ambiance. I had some problems with the line up towards the back which I had to correct.

Showing just the mask
1st mask
This is the same layer as above showing just the mask and what was removed This is just for general interest.

Editing the next layer
next done
So we move onto the next layer.... Boy I seem to always choose the hardest ones to do for a tutorial. Nothing is lining up as it should, this is mostly because I re-braced on each shot. If shot with a tripod this wouldn't have happened, but I had no other choice, especially since I didn't bring one.

To correct it (sort of), I used the new Puppet warp tool in the new photoshop. It took a while but I did get something I liked, but will have to redo certain areas like the clock because it doesn't at all line up.I'll have to watch out for ghosts big time on this layer. Hopefully the other layers will line up better.

It seems that it doesn't line up at all on the big machines. But because it is brighter than the layer before it, it doesn't matter. I simply apply more pressure on the brush and mask out the old version entirely.

I had some problems with the belts not lining up, along with a few other areas. I took in what I could, leaving some areas in shadows, I may have to touch that up by hand later on. Be sure to get in really close to remove any ghosting, you'll only have that chance once on each layer. And you don't want to find some later on.

Noisy Shadows
I moved in real close this is about a 150% to show what kind of noise you will see when it's this dark. Any time you push the exposure in Photoshop, it also increases the noise level.

As the images become brighter, the noise should diminish. However in case it doesn't, I'll use the brightest, clearest image to control noise.

Next mask done
almost done with the shading
I want to aim only for the shadow areas in the next layer. Areas such as the machine in the front. It's too bad about the belt, I was able to restore some of the original color on the right side of it, but the left is in shadow. The image didn't line up, or maybe the belt moved. It's hard to say, but I do have a trick up my sleeve that will fix that, or well, hide it.

As for the rest of the image it's much brighter now. Though the color did change a little bit, it's not a biggie. You can see the clock better, and the ceiling. There is less noise in the machines, and you can see more detail under the bench. 

All the layers blended
sort of complete
All the layers are now merged. Yet I don't like parts of it.

The clock looks washed out and pasted in. And the rest lacks a certain depth.

The Phases of time
3 clocks
The clock looks washed out, but this can be improved.

First find the best of the (in this case), 5 images you took, and find a version that has the clock looking it's best. Then I edited the file, focusing in on ONLY the clock. I increased the contrast a bit, pushed the shadows in a bit for better depth. The image I chose was the 4th one in the set, it seemed to have the most contrast and looked the sharpest.

The First image on the left, is the original.
The Second image shows the newer version of the clock with better contrast, and even tones.

The Third image is another processed image, only in this one I made it brighter, then masked it out to highlight only parts of it. This provided me with more depth than I had with either of the other two. I used a smaller brush to add some of the finer details.

Removing some noise
noise cleanup
Theory in motion: The brighter the image, the less noise it has overall. This is true for any type of shot. Some photographers over expose the image by a little bit, darkening it when they edit. They get a very clean image afterwards. Of course the downside is that the exposure time would have to increase as well, causing subjects to be blurry... Sorry my mind is wandering...

Find the Brightest Sharpest image of the lot. Edit that file in the Raw editor, and push the exposure down a bit, adjust each of the controls to your liking. If you still see some noise, use the noise remover before opening.

Align it carefully, then use a mask to remove the noise in areas that have noise (just as you would if it were another exposure).

Noise Detail - Before
some noise
It's kind of hard to see the noise in here. There's a bit of noise on that can, some in the clock, a bit on the machine in the center.

Noise Detail - After
done noise
After editing, you can see a bit of a difference. The can is a bit lighterbut cleaner. And the other noise is less too.

Straighten it
This project is becoming more complex then I intended. Normally things line up the first time. But you might run into the same problems as me.

The next step is to straighten and clone out stuff. Note that I made the rule lines green, I found it contrasts better then the default or the blue I was using before. While I can rotate this, I usually just transform it to get it to look straight. Note where I put the lines, mostly against the window frames, and a quick one for horizontal. 

cropped cleaned
Here it is, cropped, cleaned, straightened. I cropped it so I could keep the oil can on the right, and the entire door of the clock on the left.Not much needed to be cloned out.

Lets do magic
Hard Light - Windows
hard light windows
Now we can finally do the magic. Adding light streaks to the windows, darkening some of the brighter parts, adding highlights, etc.

Click on the action called LIGHTER HDR OVERLAY. This will give you 4 control boxes:

I want to add light to the windows, to create a rather smoky and dusty atmosphere that is familiar with places like these. It also allows me to control the depth and help break up the image a bit. Compare the two images above one has light the other doesn't. The second one draws you into the scene.

To create the sunlight yourself:

There is no real rule where the light should point, as the sun chooses the angle, so if the angle changes a bit, it's ok.

I chose the layer marked HARD LIGHT I used a sponge brush set to white, and lightly went in a direction diagonally, starting in the back. As I got the front, I made the brush bigger. This creates a soft glow and adds a little more ambiance.

Then I changed my brush to Brush Stroke Mike Straight (looks like a bunch of dots, it's next to the sponge).

Using the motion as above, with WHITE and a smaller size brush, starting in the back. Use light strokes to give the look of sun rays. The sponge brush gave the ambiance, this brush gives that streaky look. Continue increasing the size of the brush as you move towards the front windows (closest to us). 

Then repeat the same, only this time you'll use BLACK. This is creates the contrast between the light beams. Use it sparingly I used to use a mask to create the shadow detail, but I rather use it to block areas from getting hit. Such as the belts.

When your done, you might want to fade that layer a little bit. I'll usually add a Gaussian blur of about 4, you want it soft but not too soft. Light really doesn't  have hard edges

Hard Light - Belts
hard light belts
Make a new layer, set it to HARD light.

I repaired the belt, choose the brush, then the eye dropper (hold the alt key). and choose the color of the belt. Then go to the color picker (that little set of black and white boxes, and choose something a bit brighter, but directly above the color the eye dropper chose. Then lightly add color to the dark spots. I did this to the belt that was in shadow, the belts in the ceiling. lamps, and a few other spots.

Hard Light - Lights
hard light lights
I added touches of yellow to the lamps, it's subtle but you can see a difference. Oh and be sure to save between each of these steps.

Overlay - Controls the Highlight & Shadow
overlay done
These images, being so small it's hard to see the difference between the two.

The OVERLAY layer brightens the image without burning the image. You want to use it on things that are either lit and you want them brighter. Or things that should be shiny.

If we compare to the image above I added some light to the clock, floor, a few machines, the sides of the desk lamps, and some extra light near the windows.

Vivid Light - Specular Details
vivid done
VIVID LIGHT controls small specular details. Use any place where there could be a highlight or a shiny spot. Use it on a hard edge, brass, glass, mostly on edges.

If you look carefully you can see a little more reflection on the clock, better edge contrast on the tools, oil can, etc. It's hard to tell being the image is so small.

Vivid Light - Clock Details
close up
Here's the final version of the clock. The shine adds a certain touch to the image, almost a little surreal.  Without it, the image would look dull. You can see I added highlights on the curved parts, extended it a bit on the edges, on the knobs and so forth. This is a 75% crop.

Nit Picky
This is the final product, but I don't like parts of it. The floor for example matches the other wood too much for my tastes. And the clock is a bit too bright in there. It's also just too clean looking for a shop.

A touch of texture
For the floor, I lessened the saturation, I also added a touch of soft light to brighten some spots. Now you can see the difference between the boxes, and while The older version probably could have worked, the newer one, makes the machines pop a little more.

I focused on the clock next, it was too bright, contrast a bit dull on the walls. I used a gradient to darken the area (you can see that in the layers). And put different layers of texture in it. I wanted an old grungy, dirty, banged up look. Something you would normally have in shop like this.

Selective Color
selective color
I use SELECTIVE COLOR to tweak the tones of each color in the scene. Often I do this before and after editing. I made some minor adjustments, it has a little more contrast now. I also dulled down some of the hot spots.

But something wasn't right
It just didn't look right to me. A shop like this should be dirty. Factories are never clean, especially not a machine shop. I went through my textures and found this kind of dirty looking thing that had dark corners, set it to multiply, played with curves added a mask. It now has that old factory feel. I also darkened some pots under the table, they were a bit too hot.

This texture gave the edges a little more darkeness, but it added a nice layer of filth to the windows.

Shadows & Highlights
light and shadow
Usually there is a bigger difference then this. The action should be in the pack you downloaded. Separating highlights and shadows. In this I actually darkened the highlights a little bit to get more detail  in the window. If it's too bright the eye will be lead to that and be blinded out. The shadows were darkened a little bit.

Then a slight contrast and curve tweak.


Back in the days of Yesterday - by Mike Savad
Back in the days of Yesterday - by Mike Savad
Can be purchased as a print or a gift

Tin Smith - I make toys for Children - by Mike Savad Metal Worker - Belts and Pullies - by Mike Savad Electrician - The Turbine Station - by Mike Savad Plumber - Bath Day - by Mike Savad Plumber - The bathroom - by Mike Savad

My Gallery HDR Tutorials Home Store Links Contact About

Copyright - Suburban Scenes by Mike Savad 2012

eXTReMe Tracker