It is an exciting time for HDR enthusiasts and HDR popularity continues to expand almost to the point of going mainstream. The HDR toolsets are fueling this surge and they evolving at a feverish pace to keep up and quench the thirst of those looking to dive into HDR photography. The first time I saw an HDR image – I thought – wow I sure wish I could afford an HDR camera! I had no idea that an entry level DSLR or even advanced point and shoot cameras like the Panasonic LX3 have the ability to create HDR images with basic auto bracketing support. It wasn’t until I dug into some online HDR tutorials that I realized HDR was a process not a feature within a very expensive high end camera. I’ve since been exploring and experimenting with several exciting HDR toolsets and process tricks. In this tutorial, I’m going to share a neat HDR Panoramic workflow.
Why panoramic instead of a wide angle or fish eye? For me, two primary reasons to shoot a panoramic is:
- Panoramic images provide much more data / pixels thus enabling to very large prints without having to ‘upscale’. For example, the native resolution of 21mp Canon 5D Mark II is 5616 x 3744 at 300 points per inch (PPI) equals a native physical size of 12.48″ x 18.72″. If I want to print lets say a 16″ x 24″, I would need 4800 x 7200 pixel image or risk suffering some impact to print quality. The human eye can generally resolve 300 PPI when examining an image a few inches a away. Most images are viewed a few feet away so we could lower the PPI a tad to help with the resolution but even at 250PPI (standard print resolution for popular print service MPIX) the native resolution required is 4000 x 6000 pixels for a 16″ x 24″ image. In the example image below, I used three HDR images to stitch together a 6401 x 5503 pixel image thus enabling me to print all the way up to 20″ x 24″ without sacrificing print quality.
- Reduce distortion from wide angle and fish eye lenses while still enabling the ability to capture a large scene that otherwise wouldn’t be possible.
HDR Processing Tools Used
- Adobe Lightroom to import and organize the images
- Adobe Photoshop process and merge the HDR images into a Panorama photo
- Photomatix Pro 4.1 plugin for Photoshop to tone-map the HDR images
- Nik Software Color Efex Pro 4.0 plugin to enhance the photo
- Noiseware to remove unwanted noise from the final HDR image
HDR Panorama Example Photo Info
- Canon 5D Mark II
- Canon TS-E24mm
- Induro PHQ-3 Pano Tripod Head
- Induro Carbon CT214 Tripod
- Panosaurus Panoramic Tripod Head
- Lee Foundation Filter Holder with .9 Soft Grad Filter + .9 Solid ND Filter
- Promote Control shutter release controller set to 5 images at 1 stop between each image
- Camera set in manual mode at F8
Ok lets get started!
Step 1 – Render and Align HDR Photos with Adobe Photoshop CS5 HDR Pro
I prefer to generate the HDRs first then merge into the Pano. For this image, I captured 3 sets of 5 bracketed images. To get started, I selected the first set of 5 bracketed images in Lightroom and navigated to “Edit in > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop…” which opened the 5 images up in the HDR tool within Photoshop CS5.
There was a ton of ghosting in the clouds as you could see in the previous image. I decided to use the HDR Pro tool within Photoshop instead of using Photomatix simply because of the simple ‘remove ghosts’ feature within the Photoshop CS5 HDR Pro tool. That one simple click and selecting one of the 5 images to be the source eliminated all of the nasty ghosting. Then I added a slight tweak to the curves tool to bring the shadows down a tad and pop up the highlights just a bit. I left all of the other settings alone.
Step 2 – Photomatix Tone Mapping Plugin
After it completes the HDR render, the image opens up in Photoshop. At this point, I saved and closed the image. Then repeated the same process for the other 2 bracket series.
Next, I used the Photomatix Tone-mapping plugin within Photoshop CS5 on the 3 HDR images.
I prefer to tone-map my HDR images with a more realistic feel. I start by first clicking ‘Default’ to reset all of my settings. Then I will play with the sliders and settings to get the look I’m after. For this image:
I moved strength to 100
Bumped up Saturation to 65
Adjusted the ‘White Point’ until the histogram was close but not clipping on the right “highlights” side.
Adjusted the ‘Black Point’ until the histogram was close but not clipping on the left “shadows” side
Lastly, I bumped the ‘Luminosity” up just a tad to balance the image exposure.
I repeated the same process for the other 2 HDR images
Step 3 – Panorama Merge with Adobe Photoshop CS5
To render the initial HDR Panorama, I selected the 3 HDR tone-mapped images in Lightroom and navigated to “Edit In > Merge to Panorama in Photoshop…”
After accepting the defaults and clicking OK, the merged panorama image opened up in Photoshop.
Next, I used the crop tool to make my initial crop.
Before executing the crop, I first set my aspect ration to 30in x 10in which is the crop ratio I wanted for my final image and print.
After some hard lessons learned with Photoshop crashing, I saved and closed my cropped image back into Lightroom before continuing with my final edits.
Then I opened the image back up in Photoshop and selected to edit a copy with Lightroom adjustments so I would still have the base HDR Pano image that I could reuse in the future.
Step 4 – Image Clean up with Photoshop
There was one spot in the clouds which just didn’t render very well so I used the ‘Patch’ tool within Photoshop to clean it up. Lastly, I zoomed into 100% and used the spot healing brush to eliminate a few dust spots.
Step 5 – Final Edits with Nik Color Efex Pro 4.0
Once my initial edits were complete, I opened the image up in Nik Color Efex Pro 4.0. The new “add Filter’ feature provides the ability to apply multiple filters at a time which is a huge time saver when post processing my images. To start, I applied a ‘Polarization’ filter which does a great job at giving the color in the image a subtle pop.
Next, I added the ‘Brilliance’ filter to the stack which does an amazing job at adding a little warmth to sunset images.
Then I applied a ‘White Neutralizer’ filter which does a great job adjusting the white balance in the image which I greatly prefer over the sliders in Lightroom.
Next, I added a ‘Pro Contrast’ filter to the stack which does an incredible job at boosting the shadows and blacks in the image. It’s easy to over use this one so I adjusted the sliders while using the ‘before / after’ split screen preview.
Lastly, I applied a ‘Tonal Contrast’ filter which is the most exciting filter in the Nik Color Efex Pro toolset. It does stunning job at bringing out the detail and contrast in the image. I’m finding that I prefer to use the ‘Fine’ Contrast Type instead of the default ‘Standard’ which I feel gives it a more realistic look. The ‘Standard’ Contrast Type boosts the blacks too much for me. I’ve also noticed the Tonal Contrast results in 4.0 do not have as much radical detail compared to the prior 3.0 version. On the flip side, there are a lot less artifacts and ghosting in the 4.0 version thus overall I greatly prefer to use the new 4.0 Tonal Contrast filter.
Next, I created a Layer Mask to selectively blend in the Nik Color Efex Pro filters into the image.
Step 6 – Dodge and Burn Layer
The image needed some dodge and burning to help create a more three dimensional feel in the grand panoramic perspective. I created a Dodge and Burn layer by adding a new layer, set mode to Soft Light, and checked fill with 50% soft-light-neutral color. Then I used the brush tool set to white or black to selectively dodge or burn the image.
I’ve tried all of the major Noise filters on the market and I continue to go back to Noiseware. I know results may vary but it just seems to work the best for my workflow and taste.
Step 7 – Reduce Noise with Noiseware Plugin
I used a Layer Mask to selectively blend the Noiseware filter into the image to ensure I preserved the details in the clouds and grass.
Lastly, I merged all of the layers into a new layer with “command+shift+option+E” (option = alt on a PC) and set the new later to ‘Soft Light’ mode which boosts the contrast in the image. Then I applied a layer mask and adjusted the opacity to selectively blend in the effect.
Step 8 – Final Photo Tweaks in Adobe Lightroom
Once the Photoshop edits were completed, I saved and re-imported the image back into Lightroom. I opened the image up in Lightroom Develop module and noticed some clipping in the horizon. Using the brush tool set to ‘exposure’, I selectively eliminated the clipping in the horizon.
I hope you found this tutorial useful and hopefully some of my lessons learned will save you some time. I’m always interested to hear feedback and questions so please don’t hesitate to share your comments or contact me directly.
Have fun shooting!