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A New Approach to HDR in Photoshop

What is HDR?

High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a set of methods used in imaging and photography to capture a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging methods or photographic methods. HDR images can represent more accurately the range of intensity levels found in real scenes, from direct sunlight to faint starlight, and is often captured by way of a plurality of differently exposed pictures of the same subject matter.
– from Wikipedia.

How can I take an HDR photo?

We’ve already talked about HDR photography in the past and we’ve even shown you the basic Merge to HDR method in Photoshop. For this tutorial, you can use just two images – one which is slightly underexposed and one overexposed. If your camera has a ton of dynamic range, you can use just one image, but I always prefer two, since you can never predict how difficult it may be to handle your lighting.

Merging to HDR

We’ll be using layer masks and some other adjustments to achieve the HDR effect. I have my two photos ready as follows – under and overexposed.

underexposed overesposed photo hdr photoshop merge materials

I’ll drag the first one into Photoshop.

photoshop import drag and drop

And then drag the second (overexposed image) on top of it.

photoshop place over existing photo drag and drop

Press the Enter / Return key to place the image after you see these guides. Make sure the images are placed on top of each other correctly.

guide grid photo place photoshop overlay

From the Layers Panel, make sure that your top layer is the overexposed image. While this is not 100% mandatory, it does make things a bit easier.

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layers panel imported photos photoshop

To begin adding the HDR effect, add a layer mask to your top layer. To do this, have the top layer selected and click the Add Layer Mask button.

add layer mask button layers panel bottom mini shortcut button

You should get something that looks like this.

clipped layer mask new layer mask layers panel photoshop

Now mask out that unwanted overexposed sky and keep the lower part of the image. Begin by selecting a black foreground color and a white background one or vice versa.

black white foreground background colors photoshop

Pick up a Gradient Tool (G) and select the first gradient — Foreground to Background.

gradient tool built in photoshop presets foreground to background color photoshop

Left click on your Layer Mask a single time to make sure it’s still selected.

left click select layer mask photoshop clipped layer and layer mask layers panel photoshop

Then drag out your gradient depending on which areas you want to keep. The black areas of the gradient become transparent, and the white ones remain.

gif animation example dragging out a gradient black to white layer mask effect hdr high dynamic range photoshop technique

Your layer mask will look something like this:

layer mask thumbnail layer clip layer mask clipped photoshop gradient black to white smooth transition

You’re already done! If you like the results, you can stop here and hit up a quick Ctrl + Shift + S to quickly get to the Save As dialog.

example final result photoshop HDR effect two images marge layer masks

If you want to improve your image even further, however, you can use adjustment layers to bring out even more wow-factor out of your image. Try a brightness and contrast layer for starters.

adjustments panel adjustment layer brightness and contrast adjustment photoshop

Pro tip: you can hold the Alt key and click in between the adjustment layer and the layer below it to clip them together. This way, only the clipped layer will be affected by the adjustment.

alt click clip to bottom layer adjustment layer clip photoshop

Here’s how the layers panel looked like for me after my final adjustments.


And here’s the image itself.

hdr photoshop images layer masks merge vibrance contrast brightness adjustment layers layers panel layer masks photoshop guide photography HDR

You can always get creative and try out different looks, effects and filters. But watch out – HDR is tricky to master, so don’t overdo your creativity.

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hdr photoshop final results examples editing

Here’s a look at the step-by-step screencast I created to show you how everything flows:

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