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).


Greg Butler, Managing Editor of Making Great Photos, is a professional photographer and an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop. He lives in the Myrtle Beach, South Carolina area. His speciality in photography is nature, architecture, and portraiture.

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