How to Create That Surreal HDR Photo Look using Photomatix Software

In this article, we talk about how to create amazing HDR photos using Photomatix to get that highly stylized HDR look.

Bonjour! Hello! It seems that destiny has reunited us once again, here, on my blog, where slightly irreverent humor and magical Lightroom techniques collide to create amazing or at the very least slightly interesting results. But I always go for amazing, because that’s better than a loaf of bread with no butter. I’m sure you get the idea, but even if you don’t that’s ok, this is about photography, not my command of English.

HDR photographs can be a powerful photographic tool. But if you don’t know how to take HDR photographs it can seem to be complex or arcane and if there is one thing I can assure you of my friends it is that it is not. In other words, it is easy peasy. Allow me to demonstrate how you can get this kind of a result:

As usual, if you want the RAW files for this tutorial and all my other free presets and goodies, just subscribe to my newsletter here. You can also follow along on my video tutorial for this lesson here.

So the story behind this photo is that there was a restaurant near Paris, which had been renovated by my friend, he went to the flea market to get vintage furniture and old objects to decorate his restaurant and give a 1960 Paris look. So he asked me to take the photos of his restaurant and I decided to do some HDR to make the vintage objects stand out with an illustrative, semi-surreal look.

Step 1: Shoot the Photo for HDR. I took three shots, one overexposed, one underexposed and a good exposed one. With those three shots I will be able to put them together into Photomatix and create the HDR.

Now as many of you know, Lightroom can now process HDR photographs right inside of Lightroom. That being said, Photomatix was always my software of choice and really an amazing piece of software to do HDR because there are some things you can’t do inside of Lightroom yet. But before we go into Photomatix, I am going to retouch the photo with the normal exposure in Lightroom.

Step 2. Adjust the Highlights and Shadow. First I brought the Highlights to -59 to not have the lights burn out and look weird and the Shadows to +100. (If you’ve read my tutorials or watched my videos, you know this is part of my workflow. You can get a more complete statement on why I do this in almost all my photographs by reading this how to article here. )

Step 3. Adjust the Whites and the Blacks. Next I will increase my Whites to +10 and my Blacks to -35. (If you’ve read my tutorials or watched my videos, you know this is part of my workflow. You can get a more complete statement on why I do this in almost all my photographs by reading this how to article here.)

Step 4. Adjust White Balance.For interior design the lights are often yellow so I usually use the white balance tool so Lightroom detect the correct balance, on this photo it looks too blue and green:

So I add a bit of yellow and magenta to warm things up:

Step 5. Exposure adjustments. I want to boost the exposure to make the overall photo brighter.

Step 6. Adding Clarity. I put clarity at + 51 it is going to define the edges and give the illustrative look we want to get:

Step 7: Apply some Noise Reduction. Go to the Lightroom Detail panel and adjust Noise Reduction by bringing the Luminance to 15 and then in Sharpening Amount adjust it up to 85 this is my formula, the addition of the Noise Reduction and Sharpening has to be equal at 100:

Step 8. Adding initial Vibrance adjustments. To make the photo more warm and pop I set the Vibrance at +32:

Step 9: Enable Profile Corrections. Go to the Lightroom Lens Corrections panel and choose Enable Profile Corrections. It is a simple thing that can remove distortion caused by the spherical nature of the lens glass, I was shooting on the corner with a wide lens so you easily have distortions.

In this panel I also check to remove chromatic aberration. For anyone who doesn’t know, chromatic aberrations are those slight fringe colors you can get on your photo. You often can’t see them when the photo is small on your screen, but when you are going to print them at 100 percent it is a disaster. Thank goodness that Lightroom can easily fix it because this is really a detail that can change the quality of your photo:

I tried the Upright function but it didn’t do much and I like the framing the way it is so I press upright off, it is better to keep the upright off if you don’t use it or it doesn’t make much of a change.

Step 10. Apply these settings to the other photo. Now that I have a nice photo retouched I want to apply the same settings on the other photos and I can do that very simply because all the shot have the same exposure. So I select all the photos and press Sync> Check All> Synchronize:

VERY IMPORTANT: lower the noise reduction on the underexposed photo because it is more noisy than the other exposures:

Step 11. Create the HDR with Panoramix. I select all the photos, right click and choose Export> Export it in Photomatix Pro:

So you are going to get a pop-up window that comes up and there are a number of settings. Now I make sure that the image is aligned by selecting “Align Images,” I have “Crop Aligned Result” selected which will ensure that if there are any edges which need to be trimmed that it will do so, I also have “Reduce noise only on the underexposed photo,” also selected to help clean up any other noise and then I also have “Automatically re-import into Lightroom,” with TIFF 16-bit and “Stack with selected photo” also selected and I renamed the photo: RestaurantHDR:

What it is going to do is, it is going to create TIFF files with all the retouch.

Now as it is creating the TIFF images sometimes you will get a message that one photo is smaller than another photo and it’s going to crop it. Just choose ok. When you receive this message you can just click on continue sometimes when you use the lens correction it lose some pixels on the edges, no big deal:

So here we are in Photomatix and I don’t use the look I am going to show you often because it’s a bit surreal, but I know a lot of people like it and I want to show you how I give this illustrative vintage look, right now the photo looks very low resolution because it is just a preview:

Over on the sliders on the left, I set the details Contrast at 100:

I go to lighting effects and make sure that I select Natural:

I boost the Strength to around 80:

I go to Gamma and lower it. Gamma is the mid tones:

To counter that I bring back some Luminance because when you bring down the mid tones the whole photo get darker:

Step 12. Save it and go back into Lightroom. I click Close and then select save in the pop-up window and now I am back in Lightroom!

Because I created a collection for this episode I don’t have the photo in it so I right click on the first photo and > Go to Folder in Library. It will show you the last imported photo and the grey one is the one that we just imported:

So I drag the photo into the collection:

Step 13. Adding contrast. I want to go even crazier on the illustrative look so I set the contrast at +48:

Step 14. Double processing. I like to retouch the photo into Lightroom a second time so I open up the Shadows and bring down the Highlights a little bit and now the photo is really going zoooooom with that look:

Step 15. Adjust the Whites and the Blacks. For the Whites and the Blacks I didn’t touch the Whites and I brought the Blacks down a little bit:

Step 16. Exposure adjustments. I want to boost the exposure to make the overall photo brighter let’s say around +0.40 and oooh la la! This photo is starting to look good!:

Step 17. Vignetting. Now a lot of times the very old photos had that vignetting around the sides so let’s add some strong vignetting to get even more grungy! I go to the Effects panel and I add some mid point to around 59 and I lower the Amount to -40 and I have to say, I really love this effect and it does well with this photograph:

This is the before photo:

And this is the after photo:

And here is an interesting thing, which is that I did a test with this photo. I showed this photo amongst other non-HDR photos to a bunch of people who weren’t photographers and they love this photo, it was easily their favorite. But then, I showed this photo amongst other photos to professional photographers and that was their least favorite photo because the HDR look is an easy trick that will impress people but not the photographer. A lot of us feel that it is gimmicky, but then you have to remember that the client is trying to attract attention and you sometimes have to use methods which may feel a bit gimmicky but which the public at large respond to. Anyway, I though that was an interesting way of looking at it.

Hope you guys liked it and you learned a lot! If you haven’t already, don’t forget to sign up for my newsletter here to get all the RAW files and other free goodies! Thank you for your support and au revoir.

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