The High Dynamic Range (HDR) effect has long been a very popular technique amongst photographers and digital artists. Ever see a photo where the contrast, colors, and overall sharpness are so enhanced that it looks like you’re looking at a super high definition image? Chances are, that’s a version of an HDR effect.
When Photoshop first introduced the automatic HDR filter back in CS5, it instantly became one of the most popular effects in the Photoshop arsenal. With the click of a button, a Photoshop user could create an effect that could otherwise potentially take hours to achieve. For many, the introduction of this feature was on par with the advent of sliced bread. Unfortunately, when something becomes popular, it often gets ineffectively used. More often than not, you’ll see a photo that looks so supercharged that it appears ‘amateurish’ – similar to when a bevel effect at default settings is used. It’s not that a commonly used effect is inherently “bad”, it’s just it’s no longer as unique or impressive as it could be.
The HDR process is a grand tool for giving photographs an invaluable fusion of life, vibrance, and visual appeal. It’s a detailed technique that done properly involves fine-tuning to the utmost degree. But not everyone has the time or know-how to do these things. The purpose of this tutorial is to provide an easy way to apply the HDR effect in a controlled and professional manner.
Ironically, this is one of the entries where the intro is probably longer than the actual tutorial itself. To start, you’ll need Photoshop CS5 or higher to follow this tutorial. Select an image to which you want the effect applied. It’s preferable to work with a high quality photograph so the HDR filter ultimately has more pixels to work with. The first thing you’ll want to do is copy the image (Control + C). You don’t need to paste it yet, just keep it stored in the virtual clipboard.
Go to Image > Adjustments > HDR Toning
You’ll be prompted with a settings box that controls various elements of how the effect is applied. For the sake of brevity, we won’t be going through each one. Every photo is different so try experimenting with different settings to achieve the desired effect. I’d add that playing around especially with the “Detail” setting can give you some very cool effects. At this stage, there’s nothing wrong with going overboard with some of the effects since we’ll be able to fine-tune them in the next step. Once you’re happy with the look and feel of the image, click OK.
Next, paste the original image (Control + V) on top of the HDR image. Add a layer mask to the original image layer. By strategically using the mask, you can hide, show, strengthen, or weaken the HDR effect to your liking. This has many useful applications for accenting different areas of a photograph. For example, if you want to bring out the color of someone’s eyes, you can apply the mask accordingly to allow the HDR effect to show only in the designated area. Similarly, you can also reduce the opacity of the original image layer to uniformly show the HDR effect in different degrees of strength.
And that’s it. In a few quick steps, you can easily create a professional and customized HDR effect that brings new life to your photos. Admittedly, in my example, the “before and after” may not appear monumental. But that’s kind of the point. You can make the effect as dramatic or subtle as you want depending on how you apply your mask. In my case, I deliberately isolated the HDR effect to slightly show near the airplane’s turbine and wing while leaving the rest relatively untouched. Like I said earlier, every photo is different so the best way to utilize this technique is experiment to your heart’s content. Happy HDRing 🙂
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