HDR photography has evolved tremendously over the years. Some time ago, HDR photos did not have a good reputation because they usually looked overprocessed and unrealistic. But nowadays, there are plenty of tools to get professional, natural-looking results. Lightroom’s Photo Merge HDR feature is one of them.
In short, this feature blends multiple exposures to create HDR images in seconds. It is quick, easy to use, and effective— in most situations. But, to truly get the best out of it, you should know how and when to use the Deghost amount function. For now, we can tell you that it is crucial to deal with unwanted movement, but we will talk more about it later.
If you have never used Adobe Lightroom HDR tools before, don’t worry! In this post, you will learn how to make stunning, ghost-free HDR photos with our simple, step-by-step guide.
Let’s start from the basics:
How do you create an HDR image?
First of all, remember that high-dynamic-range photography is about expanding the luminosity range in a photo to show more details between the shadows and highlights. So, to create an HDR photo, you need to merge multiple exposures of the same scene to reproduce more information than what would be possible in a single frame. This process is called bracketing.
There are many ways to do exposure bracketing. Most cameras have an automatic bracketing function to create the HDR image in-camera. Yet, if you want more control over the final shot, it is always best to do the process yourself. That way, you can customize your camera settings to take all the images you want and apply targeted adjustments in post-processing.
When to use HDR photography
Merged HDR photos are used to capture scenes with a large dynamic range that exceeds your sensor capabilities. Think of high-contrast situations such as sunsets, nightscapes, and cityscapes. In these cases, the foreground looks very dark compared to the background, and it is impossible to get a balanced exposure in a single RAW file. You will either lose detail in the shadows or the highlights.
HDR is also useful for real estate photography, especially when shooting a room with a window in the background.
How many photos do you need for optimal HDR merge?
To create a merged HDR image, you should take at least three photos: one underexposed, one overexposed, and one right in the middle of the exposure meter. Ideally, you should use a 2 or 3 stop separation between each shot.
Three shots are more than enough for more scenarios. However, there are no strict rules about the number of exposures needed. You can take 2, 4, or 5 photos to merge, as long as you use the same exposure separation between the images.
5 quick tips for capturing good photos for HDR merge
- Use a tripod. That will make it easier to align the bracketed images later.
- Shoot RAW.
- Use manual mode.
- Keep the same aperture for all images. Use only the shutter speed to adjust the exposure for each frame.
- Set the lowest ISO you can to avoid noise.
Once you have the number of photos you need, it is time for the fun part:
How to use Lightroom HDR Photo Merge – HDR tutorial
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is one of the most comprehensive programs for editing and organizing your photos. You can buy it in a bundle with Photoshop as part of the Creative Cloud Photography Plan for $9.99 per month. Yet, if you want to compare other Adobe Creative Cloud plans and prices, check all their subscription plans available.
Since the release of Lightroom 6 —and now with the latest version of Lightroom Classic CC— you can use the HDR Photo Merge feature to blend multiple exposures easily without leaving Lightroom.
Here is the step-by-step process:
1. Select the bracketed exposures
You can select the source images from the Grid View in the Library module or the filmstrip in the Develop module. Make sure the photos have different exposure values but the same exposure offset pattern.
2. Open the HDR Merge Preview dialog box
Once you have selected all the images you want, there are three ways to access the HDR photo merge tool:
- In the top menu, go to Photo, select Photo Merge, and then HDR.
- Right-click, choose Photo Merge > HDR.
- Press Ctrl + H (Windows) or Command + H (Mac).
Now, you will see an HDR merge preview and a few options for customization. Here is what you should know about each one:
Auto Align and Auto Tone (Auto Settings)
As the name implies, the auto-align function aligns all the images correcting any slight movement between frames. It is useful if you captured the photos handheld. But, if you regularly use a tripod, you don’t need to activate this option.
On the other hand, the auto-settings (or auto-tone) function applies general adjustments to get an evenly-toned merged image. It provides a great starting point for your editing process, and you can preview the result right in the dialog box.
The deghosting function in Lightroom is crucial to make a clear HDR photo, but you need to understand how it works. So, first, let’s define what are ghosts in HDR images:
Simply put, ghosts are weird artifacts that may appear anywhere around a merged image. These flaws arise when some element within the composition moves while you are shooting your bracketed exposures. Think of water, clouds, people, and trees, for example. Luckily, the Deghost Amount feature fixes all these issues automatically.
You can choose among various levels of deghosting: None, Low, Medium, or High. Note that this is a smart tool that works differently depending on the image, so you must try every option to see which one works best. For most cases, the Medium level is fine, but if there is too much movement in the shot, try the higher level.
Select the Show deghost overlay box to reveal the areas where Lightroom detected and corrected ghosting. You will notice a semi-transparent red surface across the preview photo. Additionally, you can zoom in before clicking the merge button to take a closer look at the final shot.
3. Merge the photos
When you are satisfied with the preview, click Merge and let Lightroom do all the magic. The result will be a 32-bit DNG file next to the original images with the suffix -HDR at the end of the filename.
Now, you can edit and process the merged HDR image like another regular RAW file in your Lightroom catalog.
What to keep in mind
- When you capture photos for HDR merge, remember that your main goal is to show detail in every part of the frame. With that in mind, avoid badly overexposed or underexposed images. After all, these shots don’t add much information to the final image.
- Check your camera manual to use the automatic exposure bracketing function.
- Combine the bracketed images before making any editing tweaks. Otherwise, when you merge the photos, you will lose any adjustments you have made.
- If you want to get high-quality results, use the original RAW files instead of JPG images.
- Lightroom can’t make an HDR photo from smart previews.
- You don’t have much control when using the HDR Photo Merge feature, so you will have to fine-tune more details later.
- To save you some time, you can press Shift + Command/Ctrl + H to skip the HDR merge preview window and let Lightroom create the HDR photo in the background.
Best alternatives to Lightroom for HDR merge
In general, Adobe Lightroom does a great job blending RAW files into a single HDR image, but it is still pretty basic. So, if you are a regular HDR shooter, you might want a more advanced tool that gives you extra control.
Aurora HDR is the best alternative to Lightroom if you want to create beautiful, tone-mapped HDR images. With it, you can apply more precise adjustments to enhance your high-dynamic-range photos and get more accurate results. Alternatively, Photomatix Pro and Luminance HDR also offer great features for experienced photographers.
If you want to know more details about these and other excellent HDR programs, check out our 7 best HDR software options for photographers.
Overall, the HDR photo merge feature in Adobe Lightroom is the perfect tool for making HDR images from time to time. It provides good results in a few seconds, but it might be a bit limited for some expert HDR photographers.
That aside, the deghosting function is essential for getting a clean HDR file with no flaws caused by motion. Be sure to activate this option whenever you shoot any scene with movement, no matter how subtle it may be.
Now, all that is left is for you to take your camera and start creating HDR photography!