How to Get Great Sharpening with HDR

Take a look at the details of the images below. You should see significant difference in the level of sharpening and detail (and even color).

Look at the details in the painting and also in the wood grain in the ceiling. The image on the right has more detail, color saturation and dimension than the image on the left. And yet, both HDR images were processed identically with the exception that the one on the right had its sharpening performed on the raw files prior to the HDR merging process. This is what will be explored in this post:

And if you were to look at the raw image with the normal exposure, you would see the red coloring on the fish. The red is not a made up color. But it is an inadvertent subtracted color on the left-side image.

Now there is one negative element to this multi-step sharpening process as far as this image on the right is concerned. If you were able to see the whole image, you would notice that along the edge of the windows, due to the high contrast values of brightness and darkness, we have some purple color aberration in the form of a halo along the edge of the windows. This is more muted on the left hand image.

You can adjust that defect in Photoshop. Or perhaps the easiest solution is to just make two versions of the photos and open them as layers in Photoshop (an easy operation from Lightroom). Then you would simply mask out the window area in the layer that had all the details. So you can have the best of both images. Extra work, but the images will be in the best possible shape.

I am of the opinion that If I didn’t want to make the best possible image, I never would have taken the trouble to make the multiple-exposures and create the HDR image in the first place. 

In case you are wondering what my Lightroom capture sharpening adjustments were that I applied to all the raw images, here they are.

  • Sharpening: 70
  • Radius: 0.5
  • Detail: 55
  • Masking: 45

Here are the Noise Reduction settings:

  • ​Luminance: 20
  • Detail: 50
  • Color: 25
  • Smoothness: 50

These are typical sharpening levels that I use for high-frequency images. As you may know, high frequency images are those with a lot of detail. They require a different kind of sharpening than, say a portrait of a woman, where you would want softer edges.

You can make presets in Adobe Lightroom for all the different type of images you might need to sharpen. At a minimum, you would want a preset for High Frequency, Mid-Range Frequency, and Low Frequency. I'll explain more about this in a future post.

Try these settings on you next HDR project and see if you like results. Let me know how it came out.

Till next time, happy shooting (and processing).

Warning: The HDR Halo Effect

HDR photographs, especially edges in areas of high contrast, tend to have bright halos. You may have done everything correctly but they still appear in your image.

One thing you can try is to eliminate all sharpening on your raw files before you merge them to HDR and apply the sharpening afterwards. That helps if you have a problem image.

But another approach, if you still have the problem, that might not be so obvious is to use the Photoshop blend mode of “Darker Color” on a new layer.,

How this works is that you create a duplicate layer, change its blend mode to “Darker Color,” and use the eye dropper tool to select the color just adjacent to the halo that you want the halo to become. Quite often this will be the color of the sky just before the darker edge.

The image above originally suffered from this problem just below the edge of the deck ceiling. See the detail of the image below, before and after the fix was applied:

It was as simple to fix as using the eye dropper to sample the sky just below the deck ceiling, and then painting in that value with a soft brush. The beauty of this approach is that the brush only paints in areas that are brighter than the sky. And since the ceiling isn’t brighter than the sky, you don’t have to worry about the blue spilling over onto the ceiling.

The vertical columns also had some halos around them. This was a little more involved, as the value of the sky’s luminance is brighter the lower in the sky you go. The solution is to take more eyedropper samples as you go from the top of the column to the bottom. Using a large soft brush made it fairly easy and quick.

Creating HDR Like Ansel Adams

Moonrise over Hernandez photography by Ansel Adams

"Wait a minute!" you say. "Ansel Adams didn't ever shoot HDR. 

Well he did and he didn't. But when you get down to what HDR is really all about (High Dynamic Range) you might realize that he did it better than anyone else, as exemplified by the photography he conceived using his famous Zone System.​

One great example of his use of the Zone System, his famous Moonrise over Hernandez, is explained here in his own words: