When you’re looking to expand your creative options in photography, HDR tone-mapping can be a great technique. Not only can you create amazing artistic effects, but you can also extend your shooting into places and times of day that might otherwise produce unappealing results. My favorite tone-mapping software is Nik’s HDR Efex Pro. I think it does a great job at producing both “clean” and “artistic” HDR images. It’s controls are relatively intuitive, and you can make local adjustments with Control Points directly on the HDR image without additional software tools. The end result is that it produces images that need little, if any, refinement after tone-mapping. I’ve been using HDR Efex Pro since it was in beta form, and here are some of my favorite tricks for getting the most out of the software.
- Start with low-contrast, low-saturation images. This applies whether you’re processing RAW files or converting your files to TIFF format before merging. Your initial images should look dull; make your contrast and color adjustments to the tone-mapped images in the plug-in.
- Apply a mild round of low-radius “capture” sharpening to your RAW images. Use settings that don’t introduce halos, but are ever so slightly sharpened. This helps both with image alignment and makes the final image look crisp. If you use USM, use a radius of less than 1 pixel.
- Experiment with both increasing and decreasing Tone Compression. Some of the HDR Methods can actually be used at fairly strong settings when you use negative Tone Compression!
- Be careful when applying the global Structure slider. As this control affects local contrast, it can have undesirable effects on clouds and skies if used aggressively. Consider adding local Structure with Control Points.
- Always preview your image at 100% before saving it. I’ve found that the “fit to window” view in the HDR Efex Pro interface delivers an image that’s a little softer than what you’ll actually get. Use any of the preset magnification values (25, 50, 100%) to see a sharper version in the preview window and avoid settings that are too strong.
- For serious work, consider a creating master version of the tone-mapped file as a 32-bit Smart Object in Photoshop. This will let you go back and re-tonemap your image without having to go through the entire image merge process again. It also lets you save your Control Points and other adjustments non-destructively.