HDR Guide

Tutorial: How to Create Stunning HDR Photos in Photoshop, part 2 – Fine Tuning Contrast, Color, and Sharpness

Final HDR

Welcome back!

For those who are not sure whats going on, please go ahead and take a look at the Part 1 of this tutorial. In that article, I went through the workflow of taking the brackets of a scene in the camera and creating an HDR photo using Nik Software HDR Efex Pro 2. Why this software? The control is quite intuitive, the functionalities are very helpful and most importantly, the result are quite realistic. Thanks a lot to the guys at Nik Software for creating a pretty amazing photo app.

In this article, I will take you through my second part of the workflow. You see, tonemapping software is only the first step to post processing – it creates a base photo for you to work on. Although software like HDR Efex Pro 2 has very good local adjustment tools, it cannot beat the fine tuning and flexibility that Photoshop provides. Do bear in mind that this tutorial assumes that you have a bit of understanding and proficiency in using Photoshop,  especially Layer Masking. If you are not too familiar, there are lots of great tutorials on the internet, especially on YouTube.

I have devised a 3 step approach to Post Processing and enhancing a photograph. The steps are: Contrast, Color and Sharpness.

So, lets begin.

I will begin by loading my tonemapped photo from HDR Efex Pro 2 to Photoshop. In this case I will be using Photoshop CS5. Please note that the version that I will be using here is the tonemapped image before applying the global and local adjustment in HDR Efex Pro 2 (again please read the first part of the tutorial first).

Original Tonemapped HDR shot

Original Tonemapped Image Straight Out of HDR Efex Pro 2


One software that I found really amazing is Nik Software’s Color Efex Pro 4 (affiliate link). Currently, at its fourth iteration, it provides many tools that can be used to help enhance your photographs quickly.

Let’s load my favorite filter, Tonal Contrast.

Go To Filter -> Nik Software -> Color Efex Pro 4. You will be taken to the main interface. Select Filter Tonal Contrast. Right away you will see improvement to the photo. Tonal Contrast gives you the ability to enhance a photo’s contrast based on its tones (Highlights, Midtones and Shadows).

In this photo, I decided to enhance the Midtones more and lessen the effect on the highlight and the shadow – especially the shadow – as it might block up/darken the shadows too much. I also put the Saturation at 20%. Press OK, and you will be returned to Photoshop. The result will be presented as a new layer. It is good practice to rename your layer to something more meaningful just in case you need to come back and reference it later. In this case, I name it Tonal Contrast S0-M40-H25 to remind that I adjusted the Shadow to 0%, Midtones to 40% and Highlight to 25%.

Tonal Contrast Window

Nik Software Color Efex Pro 2 Main Interface showing Tonal Contrast Filter

The photo will now look much better with more ‘contrast’ and ‘depth’.

But as you can see, the filter has created a bit of noise and artifacts in the sky. We wanted to apply this filter selectively, mostly on the foreground and the clouds. What we need to do is create a Layer Mask. This can be done through the Menu Layer -> Layer Mask -> Hide All. This way we are hiding the Tonal Contrast Layer.

Now we want to ‘reveal’ parts of the layer that we want to show as part of the final image. This can be done by selecting a White Soft Brush and painting with it. To help you with the masking, there is shortcut Backslash (\) where it will show the Mask as a Red Overlay on top of the actual image. With this method, you can see which areas you are actually masking. The final mask should look something like below, where the black hides the Tonal Contrast Layer while the white shows it, and shades of grey will only hide/reveal partially.

Tonal Contrast Overlay Mask

Tonal Contrast Layer Overlay/Mask

Now, you might ask me is there any easier way to do this layer masking?” Well, there are entire subsections of Photoshop skills about how to make selections efficiently, but these techniques are beyond this tutorial. Manually is the way to go. A Wacom Pen and Tablet would also be helpful in this instance. Tip: Use Opacity to your advantage, when you’re near the edge, reduce the opacity to make smooth transitions.


Looking the photo, I feel that the sky is not deep blue enough. We can rectify this by applying a new adjustment layer by selecting Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Hue/Saturation. Lets name this Adjustment Layer “Blue”. Then Select Blues from the drop down box and increase the Saturation to +30. This will only affect the blue colors. The downside of this is there will be a blue cast on the road and the pavement. This is not desirable and should be removed. By applying a layer mask again, we can ‘hide’ the effect of the adjustment layer from the road and the pavement. These should be painted black. See the final mask below:

Blue Saturation

Hue Saturation Adjustment Layer Setting

Blue Saturation Overlay

Blue Saturation Layer Overlay/Mask

Next we want to increase the saturation of the Yellow Color. This works well in this photo as the setting sun, the color of the Westminster Abbey and the street light in the foreground are the same. And since there are no strong yellow color anywhere else in the photo, no masking is required. Apply a new adjustment layer by selecting Layer -> New Adjustment Layer -> Hue/Saturation. Lets name this Adjustment Layer “Yellow”. Then Select the color Yellow from the drop down box and increase the Saturation to +30.


Now looking at the photo, it seems that there is not enough sharpness to it.  Again, sometime the negative effect of the HDR tonemapping process is that the results tend to be soft and not sharp.  This is where we are going to rectify it. 

First of all merge all the layers which we have already have into one layer.  This is done by selecting Layer -> Merge Visible.  You will be left with only one layer. 

There is a quick and easy way to sharpen your image which works quite effectively.  Its called the High Pass Method.  First, select the current layer, duplicate it first so you are working on a new layer by going to Layer -> Duplicate Layer.  Then, select the new layer and go to Filter -> Other -> High Pass.   There is only one control here: the Radius.  it controls how much of the edges will be affected.  I usually go between 2 to 5 pixels.  You can try to go higher but make sure that you keep the edges as a sharp line and not turn them into halos in the preview.  For this image, 2.5 pixels works best.  Then change the blending mode to either Soft Light, Overlay or Hard Light.  Those are listed in the order of their strength and each have a slightly different effect on the photo.  Hard Light seems to work very well for this photo.  What seems to work best with this method is that it only sharpens the outline.  This way, there is no noise introduced – especially in the sky or other smooth parts of the photo.

High Pass Filter

High Pass Filter

As a last step, we need to sharpen the light post in the foreground, as well as the bridge leading to the Westminster Abbey. Again, this is to accentuate that those are the subjects of the photograph. We can do this easily by duplicating the High Pass Layer which we did previously and then creating a layer mask and applying that layer selectively. The mask should look like the one below:

High Pass Layer Overlay

INSERT 07 High Pass Layer Overlay/Mask

As a final final step, I did some perspective correction to the image. I will not be discussing this topic here as it is a separate article onto itself.

So here’s the final image. Remember subtlety is the key. Small, incremental changes are better than strong across-the-board ones.

Here’s the original tonemapped image and the final one – for comparison.

Original Tonemapped HDR shot

Final HDR

Thank you for reading, I hope that this article is useful to you.

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch with me. If you have any requests for a particular kind of tutorial please feel free to leave a comment and I will try to write about it.

Posted 4 years ago on 13 April 2013

Franciscus Tan

About Franciscus Tan

Behind his trusted Nikon, stands Franciscus Tan: a self-taught photographer. What started out as a hobby in late 2011 quickly developed into a passion where he can make excuses to travel to far and exotic location just to take a photograph. He created the label, Trinity to showcase his photography to the world. A peek into Franciscus’ memory cards shows his subjects are mainly landscape/cityscape and HDR (High Dyanamic Range) photos.  He is also in the never ending journey to learn and understand different post processing technique to enhance his photography to the next level. Find me on:  Facebook (Trinity) | Google Plus | 500px | Flickr | new Myspace

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