Fixing the Most Common HDR Mistake Part 2: HDR Software

Chicago Through the Vortex

I have been wanting to get to this location at Adams Sangamon Park since this was installed. When I got there, I couldn’t come up with anything different. So I pulled out the fisheye to see what that may look like.


This is part two of a five part series. Find the start of the series and the rest of the posts here.


Fixing the Most Common HDR Mistake Part 2: HDR Software


The biggest mistake that people make processing HDR images is that they do not add enough contrast. One way to fix this is by manipulating the image in your HDR software. I use Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro2, so I will share what I do with these two software packages.

For Photomatix, you want to decrease the gamma slider. This will add contrast right in the HDR software as part of the tone mapping process. It took me a long time to realize that this was the magic slider for Photomatix. I disliked the look of my Photomatix images until I figured this out.

For HDR Efex Pro, you can simply add contrast with the contrast slider. You can also drag the black levels down or do a curves adjustment.

No matter which software you use, the goal is to make sure that your blacks are black. Make the darkest parts of your image pure black to give your image the best chance of standing out. You will want to watch the detail in the shadows when you do this. You will need to make a judgement call as to how much contrast you add. It may be just as important to keep lots of detail in the shadows.

When I first learned HDR, these were the methods that I used every time. In the past year though I’ve been producing my HDR shots by creating an intentionally flat image using HDR software and adding contrast in Photoshop or Lightroom. That will be the topic for part three tomorrow.

How do you make sure that there is enough contrast in your images? How do you think I did in today’s image? Enough? Too much? Let me know your opinion.


Ratul Maiti, made a comment on yesterday’s post that raised a good question. How do you deal with the noise in these images? Follow the discussion and add your thoughts, in that post.

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When I’m not staying up all night figuring out the details of our next Out of Chicago Conference, you’ll find me at the park with our son and daughter, playing my guitar, out on the golf course, or following my favorite (Detroit) sports teams. I love Chicago, but I’ll always root for my Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, Michigan sports, and Pistons.

Latest comments
  • I disagree that the Gamma slider primarily controls contrast. I believe the Gamma slider by itself is primarily a brightness slider. Photomatix’ own description says it “adjusts the mid-tone of the tone mapped image, brightening or darkening the image globally.” The Gamma slider tends to move the histogram either right or left, rather than pulling ends of the histogram out (or pinching them in) like a contrast slider will do. Now you can alter the contrast in Photomatix with Gamma in combination with other sliders, such as the black/white points or Luminosity, but I find that to be a difficult process.

    What I definitely agree with is that best way to adjust contrast is to do it outside of Photomatix. I generally think that Photomatix image processing is weak and don’t use Photomatix’ sliders for saturation, temperature, gamma and luminosity. I agree that the best thing is to do minimal processing in Photomatix, create a flat image that is basically just a minimal combining of the multiple exposures and do the real image processing outside of Photomatix in Lightroom4 and Photoshop.

    So I definitely look forward to Part 3!!

    • I will admit that every slider in Photomatix seems like an abstract concept to me. They could just be called “Make it look cool!” and “Awesomeness” and they would have as much meaning to me. I have always thought of gamma as simply the mid-range adjustment, but it’s what saved my butt when I tried to do the adjustments in Photomatix. I’m happy to say that I don’t do much with it anymore because of the editing I do afterward instead. So tomorrow should be good.

      • Do you lean towards one preset over another in Photomatix before working on it in Photoshop?

        • Usually I start with the painterly preset and lower the gamma slider until everything looks under control. Then I do the rest in photoshop. Let me know if that works for you.

  • Using HDR efex pro 2, I find that the contrast is not the same as it was in the first version. It’s micro-contrast and haloing are much better but overall it is more flat. I am adding it back in with LR and PS currently as there are issues with my install of the plugin and i can’t edit smart objects. Otherwise I would be doing it in a second pass on the image in the plugin interface.

    • I’ve been a huge fan of the new version, Jeremiah, but I think you’re right that it seems more flat. I actually don’t use smart objects like I should. I allow it to just burn it into the image.

      • If you have the time to, please try it and let me know if it works. I have used SO’s for all my HDR since v1, then converted the 32bit SO to a new SO, converted the doc to 16bit and then made additional edits (allows for clean work in Lightroom too). In the new version, the image that comes up when re-editing the 32bit SO is all wrong and if you save or commit the changes, it brings them back into PS. I will be upgrading my system in the next few weeks but I am using CS6 and HDR Efex 2 and it seems to be a pretty persistent problem 🙁

        • I’ll try to check that out tonight. What kind of system are you using?

          • MBPro 15″ 2009 w/ 2.53GHz core 2 duo, 10.7.x, 4gb ram. I’ve sent samples and several tix to Nik and they can’t replicate it so I am looking for any kind of feedback either way from actual users to see wtf is going on. I am switching to a Mac Mini quad i7 within the next week or two which, if it is a computer problem, will hopefully resolve the issue.

          • I installed the plugin on another machine and it works fine. It is some kind of corruption in my user account.