There are many things you can do in Photoshop to make the most of shadow and highlight detail in images, even if you didn’t bracket exposures for HDR.


Curves, the most precise tool for modifying brightness and contrast, allows you to target and adjust shadows and highlights independently of one another. You can use it to reduce contrast and render more detail in very bright highlights and/or very dark shadows. The Curves interface has a feature (The icon looks like a finger with up and down arrows.) that allows you to click on any area of an image to place a point and adjust those values. If you’re adjusting highlights and shadows, it’s quite likely that you will also have to adjust values in the other end of the tonal scale and possibly midtones to generate the best results. Keep it simple; it’s surprising what you can do with just two or three points. Keep it smooth; avoid posterization by not flattening areas of a curve. The Blend Mode Luminosity can be used to remove any unintended shifts in saturation; more contrasti increases saturation while less contrast decreases saturation.


Curves can be used to lighten shadows and/or darken highlights


Before Curves


After Curves


The Shadow / Highlight feature in Photoshop (Image > Adjustments > Shadow Highlight) can be very useful for more challenging images. It cannot be applied as an adjustment layer but it can be applied as a smart filter. To preserve future flexibility, apply Shadows / Highlights applied to the Background Layer converted to a smart object or to a duplicate Background layer if you plan to use Blend If sliders.

At first glance, Shadows/Highlights appears to offer two simple Amount sliders. Check Show More Options and you’ll find more sliders. The Tonal Width slider specifies which values are and are not affected, similar to a luminance mask. The Radius slider applies a sharpening affect, similar to High Pass filtration, to the affected areas only; this is the slider that does what no other tool does. Additionally, you can apply Color and Midtone adjustments – but there are other better ways to do this.


The Radius slider in Photoshop’s Shadows/Highlights provides affects not found in other tools


Before Shadows/Highlights


After Shadows/Highlights

Screen / Multiply

You can make industrial strength adjustments to an image using the Blend Modes Multiply and Screen found in the Layers palette. (Use the pull down menu that defaults to Normal.) Multiply dramatically darkens an image; it’s like registering two transparencies on a light table. Screen dramatically lightens an image; it’s like registering two projected images on a wall. These effects can be very helpful in making very bright highlight and very dark shadow detail more visible. Blend modes can be applied with any layer. They can be combined with Curves adjustments for even stronger effects. Because their effects are so strong you’ll want to modify their intensity using the Opacity slider or restrict their effects using Blend If sliders or a contrast mask.

Read more about Photoshop Blend Modes here.

Blend If Sliders

To restrict an adjustment to either the shadows, midtones, or highlights, you can use the Blend If sliders found in the Layer Style menu. Double click on the layer (Not the icon or the name, but the area to the right of them.) to activate the Layer Style menu. Then use the sliders in This Layer to remove the effect on the background layer. For smoother transitions, feather the effect by holding the Option/Alt key and splitting the sliders apart.


T Layer Style dialog with Blend If sliders set to target shadows


The Layer Style dialog with Blend If sliders set to target highlights

Luminance Masks

To more precisely target a specific range of the tonal scale, you can quickly make precise luminance masks in Photoshop. Simply go to the Channels palette and Command/Control click on the RGB channel. This will load a selection of the highlights. If you want to create a selection of the shadows go to the Select menu and choose Inverse. Then simply make an adjustment layer and the selection will automatically become a mask or target a layer and click the mask icon at the bottom of the Layer palette. You can further modify the brightness and contrast of the mask by applying Curves to it (Image > Adjust > Curves).


Highlight mask shadowmask

Shadow mask

Read more about luminance masks here.

Blending Channels

Do you still want more? If dynamic range issues persist in one channel (or even two), you can use the information in the other channel(s) to improve it. Use Photoshop’s Channel Mixer or use a duplicate layer’s Layer Styles. It’s a complex technique, but it’s there when you really need it.

Read more about blending channels here.

For even more dramatic effects these methods can be used in combination with one another.

To Merge Or Not To Merge

All of this might make you wonder why you’d ever need to bracket exposures for HDR merges. Actually, there are plenty of times – when the dynamic range of a scene far exceeds the dynamic range of a camera’s sensor. You can use all of these techniques in combination with HDR merges to get optimum results. Knowing why and why not to use HDR merges, when and when not to use them, and how far to go or not go with them will help you master them.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


Two exposures blended


Dark exposure


Light exposure


The layer stack

Sometimes Two Exposures Are Optimum

There are a variety of ways to extend the dynamic range of a camera. The four classic ways are selective adjustment, double processing a single file, layering two exposures, and merging multiple exposures with HDR software routines.

Layering two exposures produces the best results when a scene has areas of dramatically different brightness separated by clear contours, like but not limited to horizons. For these types of scenes, layering two exposures avoids artifacts that are common in HDR merges, such as saturation distortions, midtone compression, localized vignetting, and detail / noise exaggeration artifacts.

Make Two Exposures Each Optimized For Select Areas

To exceed the dynamic range of a camera’s sensor (or film) you need to make at least two exposures. During exposure(s), rather than rather than striking a compromise between very different brightness values, instead optimize one exposure for each area of brightness, the highlights and the shadows. For each area, expose to the right. Monitor clipping differently. The exposure for the highlights will be clipped in the shadows. The exposure for the shadows will be clipped in the highlights. (If this is not the case, then you may be able to use a simpler technique such as selective adjustement or double processing.)

For this technique you only need two exposures, a very dark and a very light one, but to be on the safe side, make additional exposures in between them. It doesn’t matter which end of the tonal scale (dark or light) you start with. Simply work your way up or down from one to the other. Remember, using a tripod, locking down zoom lenses, and turning off auto focus will all help you register the two exposures more easily.

Process the Two Files Independently

Process the two exposures independently to optimize brightness and contrast separately. In most cases, you’ll want to render color temperature and saturation consistently between the two versions.

Make Each Exposure A Photoshop Layer In A Single File

You can use layers in Photoshop to combine the best information from both light and dark files. Simultaneously highlight the two files you want to use and create layers in Photoshop. Using Lightroom, go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Layers in Photoshop. Using Bridge, go to Tools > Photoshop > Load Files Into Photoshop Layers.

If you want to use Smart Objects, using Lightroom or Camera Raw, open the files separately as Smart Objects into Photoshop. In Lighroom go to Photo > Edit In > Open as Smart Object in Photoshop. In Camera Raw hold the Option/Alt key to Open Object. Then, holding the Shift key to register them, drag one image into the other. It doesn’t matter which layer you place on top. What matters is how you blend the two.

Registering The Two Layers

If you’ve used a tripod during exposure the two files will register instantly. If you’ve hand-held during exposure, they may not. If the layers don’t register you can highlight both layers and choose Edit > Auto-Align Layers. Alternately, use the Move tool and arrows to align the layers manually. Change the blend mode of the top layer to Difference and you’ll see lines around contours, which will disappear when the two layers are perfectly aligned.

Adjust The Mask

Double click on the layer mask and you’ll be able to access the Properties panel, which will allow you to refine the mask. The Feather slider will allow you to soften the edge, but be cautious if you do this as too high a setting will create a soft-edged halo. Click the Refine : Select and Mask and you’ll reveal more options, including the Shift Edge slide, which will allow you to reposition the mask’s contour.

In some cases, light spill or a soft haze of light may extend over the horizon. This may require selective adjustment. Adjust your mask accordingly.


The layer mask

The Properties panel for the layer mask

Adjust The Mix

Once the best blend is achieved, you can further enhance it with adjustment layers. Curves and Hue/Saturation are the two most useful types of adjustments.

To affect both layers withone adjustment, simply highlight the top layer and create an adjustment layer. To affect the bottom layer only, first highlight it and second create and adjustment layer, above it and below the top layer. To affect the top layer only, first highlight it and when you create the adjustment layer check the box for Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask. (If you’re using the adjustment layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel, to access this dialog box, hold the Option/Alt key before creating the adjustment layer.) You can clip or unclip an adjustment layer to a layer at any time by holding down the Option/Alt key and clicking on the line between them in the Layers panel.

Stay Flexible

Use a flexible workflow. Keep your layer stack in tact during editing and when you save your file (as a TIFF or PSD) to preserve your ability to make future improvements. Don’t flatten.

Be As Dramatic As You Want To Be

Using this technique difficult shooting conditions will become much easier for you. Many more image making opportunities will become available to you. It’s well worth investing the time to master these techniques as the versatility they will afford you will be both rewarding and profitable.

The images you create with this technique can be quite dramatic. They can exceed the dynamic range of cameras and sometimes even the human eye. You’ll be challenged to see in new ways. It’s your choice to render realistic or hyper-realistic results. Whatever you choose, your images will provide you and your viewers with a new window on the world.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.

Condensation X - Prelude

1 exposure – scenes like this won’t benefit from HDR

Incubation II

3 exposures – scenes like this may be made with 1 exposure but benefit from more

Antarctica CXXX

5 exposures – scenes like this require HDR

How many exposures do you need for HDR images?

It depends.

It depends on the contrast ratio of the scene you’re photographing.

Ideally, you’d make one exposure per stop of dynamic range in the scene. In your first exposure place the shadows in the top stop of the histogram (to the right), without clipping. Then in subsequent exposures reduce exposure in one stop increments, making a new exposure each time, until the highlights are placed in the top stop without any clipping. Then stop. Making more exposures is unnecessary and won’t improve image quality.

1_sequence 2_sequence 3_sequence 4_sequence 5_sequence 6_sequence 7_sequence copy

Some scenes have so little dynamic range (one, two or three stops) that you only need one exposure. (Remember to expose to the right to get the best bit depth.) For these types of images, using more exposures and processing them with HDR software routines may actually cause problems like posterization.

Surprisingly, some images that look ‘normal’ and don’t need HDR can actually benefit from additional exposures; images where shadows are close to the left of the histogram; the last three stops to the left have dramatically less data to render tonal values and are prone to excess noise and posterization.

For scenes that exceed the dynamic range of a camera sensor and can’t be captured without clipping in a single exposure, the number of exposures needed to render them depends on the contrast ratio of the scene – some need two, some three, some four, some five …   

The number of exposures you need also depends on the number of stops of difference you choose between exposures. Using exposures one and a half stops apart usually produces results just as good as those made with one stop apart.  Using exposures with two or more stops of difference between them may cause posterization, which is most visible in smooth gradations, like skies. Using exposures less than one stop apart usually does not produce better results and in a few cases using too many exposures can produce artifacts similar to using two few exposures.

In the end the number of exposures you use matters because if exposures are too close or too far apart results will not be optimal, nevertheless the final number of exposures you need depends on the scene you’re photographing.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


image without HDR software processing


image with HDR processing in sky only


image blending 50% normal and 50% HDR processing


image with heavy HDR processing using Photomatix

HDR imagery is expanding today’s photographic aesthetics. Identifying the characteristics of contemporary HDR images will help classicists and pioneers alike. The basic ingredients are desirable for both sensibilities, but in varying combinations and to different degrees.

Pronounced Shadow and Highlight Detail

Preserving significant amounts of shadow and highlight detail even in images containing extreme contrast ranges is something long sought after and continually improving in photography. Prior limitations in the medium have established a conventional appearance for photographs than now needs to be reconsidered, first in light of the way the eye sees at a glance, second in light of the way the eye sees adaptively over time, and third in light of the way we might like to represent a scene expressively. Excessive recovery can alter large-scale contrast ratios unnaturally and in extreme cases may yield localized solarization.

Accentuated Edge Contrast

In an effort to preserve midtone separation after extreme dynamic range compression edge contrast is accentuated. This produces dark lines and bright halos, typically feathered rather than hard edged. As they intensify they begin to drive images away from a classic smooth continuous tone appearance.

Accentuated Texture

Boosting midtone contrast, in addition to contouring and haloing, also brings an exaggeration of texture. This tends to be particularly pronounced in shadows and highlights but it can be found in midtones as well. What was initially low contrast with little separation can become more contrasty with significant texture.

Increased Noise

Separating signal (texture) from noise (grain or noise) can challenge even the most sophisticated software. When texture is increased, very often noise also becomes pronounced.

Smoothed Texture

Aggressive attempts to subdue noise may leave transitions between closely matched tones excessively smooth with a significant reduction in texture. Some applications make real world or captured information look synthetic or rendered.

Saturation Distortions

Brightness changes bring saturation shifts with them. When shadows and highlights are significantly compressed saturation also shifts, sometimes yielding an unnatural appearance, typically but not exclusively oversaturated.

You have many choices before you. Experimentation sensitizes you to possibilities. Ultimately, you’ll make your own informed decisions. As with solving any problem, it’s easier if you break it down into it’s component pieces and then learn what each one does and how they interact with one another. First know what to look for. Second, know what a tool can do. Third, know how to apply a tool. Once you’ve done this, you’ll be well along the way to crafting a unique style that’s all your own. Master musicians choose from a host of possibilities (both tools, techniques, and applications) to craft a distinctive style. Visual artists do the same.

Read more on HDR techniques here.

Learn more in my digital printing and digital photography workshops.


final image double processed


image processed light


image processed dark


the Photoshop layer stack used to blend dark and light together

HDR Without Bracketing

If you need to make an image of a relatively high contrast scene that challenges but does not exceed the dynamic range of your camera (or film), consider double processing. Make two derivative files from one original, one dark and one light. Layer the two together. And blend the best information from each. This practice can substantially improve the quality of the information in your file. Even small changes can make a big difference. Remember, this technique is for challenging files, not for every file. If you can achieve ideal results with Raw processing alone or one layer only – do. Keep it simple, when you can.

Get The Best Information – Make Two Files From One

If the dynamic range of an image challenges but doesn’t exceed the dynamic range of your camera (or film), you can process a single RAW file or scan a single piece of film twice. Make one light version for ideal shadow information; don’t worry about clipping highlights. Next, make one dark version for ideal highlight information; don’t worry about clipping shadows. It doesn’t matter which version you start with, light or dark, as long as you end up with two separate files, each with ideal information in opposite ends of the tonal scale.

In addition to good information (detail and expanded tonal structure) in shadows and highlights, be sure to maintain good information in midtones. Avoid posterization and dramatically reduced midtone contrast. Be careful when applying aggressive amounts of tonal compression (Shadows or Highlights) during RAW conversions. Because you are processing two files with the intent of layering them together, you may not need to be as aggressive with these tools as you normally would be. How the two tonal structures meet in the middle is almost as important as maintaining detail at the ends of the tonal scale.

This principle applies to subsequent adjustment of the separate files as well. In general, favor full detail slightly low contrast renditions that you can then adjust further (with adjustment layers). Doing this will help you get better blends.

Combine the Best of Both – Blend the Two Files Into One

So how do you get two versions of one Raw file?

In Lightroom, make a virtual copy (Command ‘) and apply different Develop settings to it. To blend these two versions, go to Photo > Edit In > Open As Layers In Photoshop. (Alternately, open each version independently as a Smart Object and then drag the Background layer of one into the other; this will allow you to edit the Raw develop settings of these layers in Photoshop.)

In Photoshop, first apply one development setting and open the file as a smart object (Hold the Option/Alt key to change Open Copy to Open Object.). Second, in the Layer menu go to Smart Objects > New Smart Object Via Copy. Third, in the Layer palette, double click the new smart object and change its develop settings.

Once you have two versions, one dark and one light) as separate layers in Photoshop, you can use layers to blend the best information from both.

It doesn’t matter which layer you place on top. What matters is how you blend the two.

Create A Good Foundation, Perfect The Mix Later

While blending the two images be mindful of the same concerns during Raw processing; avoid posterization and dramatically reduced midtone contrast; aim for full detail with slightly low contrast but good midtone separation and naturalistic blends between the two versions. This will provide an optimum base image that you can enhance further without encountering undesirable artifacts. Often, it’s best to create a slightly low contrast base with the blended layers and then enhance that with a Curves adjustment layer.


Blend If Sliders

You can use the Blend If sliders found in the Layer Style menu to restrict what values of a layer are visible. Double click on the layer (in the Layer palette, to the right of the layer icon but not on the title) to activate the Layer Style menu. Then use the sliders in This Layer to remove the effect on the Background layer. For smoother transitions, feather the effect by holding the Option key and splitting the sliders apart. Watch for posterization. Avoid it. Use it as a guide to help you determine how to split the sliders. If posterization occurs, you can more precisely blend a specific range of the tonal scale by adding a luminance or contrast mask. If posterization occurs, you can more precisely blend a specific range of the tonal scale by adding a luminance or contrast mask.


Mask The Top Layer

You can use a layer mask to hide information on one layer to reveal information from other layers below it. Add a layer mask by going to Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All or by clicking on the mask icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Then use a black soft-edged Brush at any Opacity to hide the information on the top layer. Use the Gradient brush (linear or radial) for highly regular smooth transitions. If you go to far, you can undo what you did using the History palette or you can manually erase select areas of the mask with a white brush, at any opacity.

Stay Flexible

Don’t flatten the layer stack you’ve created. Preserve your ability to make future improvements. Just save your new file as a Photoshop document (.psd).


There are limits to how far you can go with this technique. You can’t exceed the dynamic range of your camera (or film). During exposure, if a histogram is significantly clipped in both the shadows and the highlights, take this same principle to the next level. Use HDR bracketing during exposure. Expose once for the shadows and once more for the highlights then layer the two exposures together. Using this method you can exceed the dynamic range of your camera (or film).

Read more in my HDR photograph resources.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

“Discover how to combine bracketed exposures into a High Dynamic Range image that has all of the editing flexibility of a raw file.”

It’s one of the best new features in Lightroom CC!

View more Lightroom videos here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops here.

“In this episode of The Complete Picture, Julieanne demonstrates how to take multiple exposures and combine them into a single 32-bit HDR file that can then be edited nondestructively using Adobe Camera Raw as a Smart Filter in Photoshop. In addition, you’ll discover how powerful using Camera Raw as a Smart Filter can be when working with layered files.”

View more Photoshop Videos here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

3 Ways To iPhone HDR

October 10, 2013 | 1 Comment |


If you’d like to use HDR techniques for your mobile photographs you’ve got choices. Moving from simple and limited to more complex and robust, consider these three: first, the iPhone Camera app’s built in HDR function; second, the app Pro HDR; and third the app TrueHDR. I use all three, moving from one to another as the contrast of the scene increases.

The strength of HDR renderings and the artifacts they tend to produce can be varied to suit individual tastes. Regardless of whether you favor a light touch or a heavy hand, if you photograph, with or without a smart phone, sooner or later you’ll need HDR. It’s an essential technique …

Read more on The Huffington Post.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

Image by Ragnar th Sigurdsson.

To one degree or another, we’ve all been underexposing our digital photographs, even if we’ve been exposing to the right (ETTR). Imagine a day when every ƒ-stop had as much data as the lightest ƒ-stop. It’s here now. Here’s how.

Make a series of bracketed exposures where each ƒ-stop in a scene is placed in the far right of the histogram or recorded with half the data in a single digital file. Combine all the exposures into a single 32-bit file using either the Merge To HDR Pro feature in Adobe Bridge/Photoshop or Lightroom. Save or import this 32-bit file into Lightroom (4 or higher) and apply adjustments with its Develop module to avoid many common tone-mapping artifacts.

You may be surprised to find that you’ll benefit from using this technique even for images with significantly more restrained dynamic ranges.

Read more on Digital Photo Pro.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

NIK recently announced a new version of their exceptional software for HDR imaging – NIK’s HDR Efex Pro 2. It’s the HDR solution with the best visual interface, one that helps you compare your options at a single glance.

Use the code JPCNIK to get a 15% discount on all NIK software

NAPP’s RC Concepcion (Check out his HDR book here.) demonstrates the latest version in this video.

New features include …

Improved Tone Mapping Engine – Develop superior results with better color rendering and improved natural styles
Interface, Interaction, and Workflow – Benefit from improvements to the merging interface, tone mapping and enhancement controls, visual presets, and more
Depth Control – Enjoy added depth and realism in images with the new and proprietary Depth control, which helps counteract the flattened look commonly associated with HDR images
Full GPU Processing and Multi-Core Optimization – Gain even faster performance with GPU processing that takes full advantage of the processors found on modern display adapters
Ghost Reduction – Improved ghost reduction algorithm ensures that artifacts created by moving objects are removed with a single click
Chromatic Aberration Reduction – Reduce color fringes around objects
Graduated Neutral Density Control – Access the full 32-bit depth of the merged image, providing a natural effect especially on images with a strong horizon line
Full White Balance Control – Take full advantage of the white balance in an image with a new Tint slider, which along with the Temperature slider, can be applied both globally as well as selectively using U Point technology
History Browser – Easily review adjustments and different HDR looks via the History Browser which records every enhancement used in an editing session
Extended Language Support – International users benefit by the addition of Brazilian Portuguese and Chinese (Simplified and Traditional) to a list of languages that includes English, French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Japanese

Find out about even more features here.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.

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