HDR Merge in Lightroom: First Thoughts

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HDR merge in Lightroom

One of the headline features in Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC is HDR merge.

In older versions of Lightroom the only way to merge two or more images together to create a high dynamic range (HDR) photo is to export the task to Photoshop or a plug-in.

In Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC you can do it from right within Lightroom. But are there any advantages to this method? After a little experimentation I believe there are.

Anybody who has read much of my work will be aware of my disdain for HDR photography in general. My belief is that it is overused and has become known for the garish, cartoon like effects that we all know and hate (admittedly some of us like it or no-one would do it!).

My issue with HDR in general is that the technique has become a substitute for seeing, and that the so called limited dynamic range of digital cameras is often little more than an excuse to use HDR techniques.

Let me give you an example. If you turn up to a location to take landscape photos on a grey cloudy day then you’re probably going to struggle to take a decent image. The best way to get a better photo is to come back when the light is beautiful. If you resort to HDR just to try and make the scene look interesting, it’s the wrong solution. The photographer who makes the effort to return when the light is beautiful will create the most beautiful images. End of story.

HDR merge in Lightroom

A HDR image produced in HDR Efex Pro 2 using the End of the Road preset. It’s an extreme example (you can create natural looking HDR images in this plug-in too) but it represents all that is wrong with HDR photography. Thankfully, you can’t do this with Lightroom’s HDR merge.

Lightroom HDR merge

So, having said all that, why bother with HDR merge in Lightroom?

The reason is that HDR merge in Lightroom is set up to give a natural looking result, rather than the aforementioned completely unrealistic effects some people use HDR to obtain.

HDR merge in Lightroom is a genuinely useful tool for taking photos of scenes with extreme brightness ranges, such as landscapes where the sky is much brighter than the land or areas in shade.

So that’s the first advantage – natural looking results. Not everyone will see this as a benefit, I know, but there are still plenty of HDR plug-ins for you to use if this is the case.

The second advantage is that you don’t have to leave Lightroom to create a HDR file. When you leave Lightroom to go to a plug-in, Lightroom converts your Raw files to the TIFF format first. 16 bit TIFF files are huge – they can easily be over 100 MB and soon eat into your hard drive space.

But with HDR merge Lightroom reads data from the original Raw files (not TIFF files) then saves the result in a new DNG file that can be processed in exactly the same way as any other Raw file.

Not only does this save you a ton of hard drive space (the DNG files are still fairly large, but measure around two-thirds the size of the equivalent TIFF file) but it means that you can take advantage of every bit of Lightroom’s processing power to process the new HDR file. That includes using all your Develop Presets, White Balance and Camera Calibration profiles. You certainly can’t do that with TIFF files.

The third advantage of using Lightroom is that the program doesn’t need many bracketed photos. Two seems to be enough, one exposed at -1 or -2 stops, the other at +1 or +2 stops. That gives you a lot of freedom when taking the photos in the first place. If you think you may like to use HDR merge, all you have to do is take three photos, one at the optimum exposure, one underexposed and the other overexposed. It only takes a few seconds to set up and you can always delete the extra frames if it turns you don’t need them.

Lightroom HDR merge in action

Let’s look at an example to see how it performs.

Start by selecting the two images you want to merge. You can do this in either Grid View (pictured) or from the Filmstrip in any merge. Right-click on one of the selected photos and select Photo Merge >HDR.

HDR merge in Lightroom

The HDR Merge Preview window opens, displaying a preview of the merged HDR image. As you can see there are not many controls, and no presets. I find it best to tick the Auto Align and Auto Tone boxes. If there is subject movement between frames you can set Deghost Amount to Low, Medium or High (trial and error is the only way to see what works best).

HDR merge in Lightroom

Click Merge when you’re done and Lightroom saves the result as DNG file in the same folder as the original Raw files. The new file has has the suffix -HDR.

HDR merge in Lightroom

As you can see the result looks quite natural. As a comparison, here’s the version taken without any exposure compensation. It hasn’t had any processing either, but it shows how the HDR version has brought out a lot more detail in the shadows and the tree on the right, and made the sky darker. Of course, you can darken these areas in the HDR file if you want if you feel that Lightroom has lightened them too much.

HDR merge in Lightroom

I think this technique has a lot of potential for processing black and white images as it brings out the texture in shaded areas. I converted the HDR photo to black and white to try it out, increasing both Clarity (to bring out the texture) and Contrast (to add punch).

HDR merge in Lightroom

Further reading

You can learn more about Lightroom by reading these articles.

Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC Launched

Video Tutorial: Environmental Portrait in Lightroom

Video Tutorial: Black & White in Lightroom

A Short Guide to Using Smart Previews in Lightoom 5

Portrait Processing in Lightroom

How to Uncrop Square Format Images in Lightroom

How to Show the Focus Points in Lightroom

Converting Photos to Black & White with Tonality Pro

How to Create the Black & White Matte Look in Lightroom

Use Lightroom Better with the Amazing Alt/Option Key

How to Improve the Speed and Performance of Lightroom

Lightgram Presets for Creative Photographers

Mastering Lightroom

Mastering Lightroom ebooks

My Mastering Lightroom ebooks will teach you how to get the most out of Lightroom. They are written for Lightroom 4, Lightroom 5, Lightroom 6 and Lightroom 6 and cover the entire workflow process, including post-processing in the Develop module.




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2 Responses to “HDR Merge in Lightroom: First Thoughts”

  1. J. Ross says:

    In making the comment:

    “The photographer who makes the effort to return when the light is beautiful will create the most beautiful images. End of story.”

    There appears to be in implied expectation that everyone has the time and resources to return to a particular location if photographic conditions are not perfect on any given day.

    What happens to those of us who are in the midst of a once-in-a-lifetime photo experience and there is no opportunity to return? In that case, we need to make the best of the situation. Not every vacation/travel day is going to be sunny with nice textures in the sky,

    As you indicate, some people like HDR (no matter what their HDR style is) and some don’t. Let everyone create as they feel is appropriate and the “audience” will separate the wheat from the chaff.

    • That’s exactly what makes landscape photography so hard – the photographer is dependent on weather and light conditions and if it doesn’t fall into place when you’re there then there’s not much you can do about it. You can maximise your chances by planning your visit when the lighting conditions are most likely to be good, but there’s still an element of chance. That’s why the best landscape photos are often taken by photographers who either live in the area (and can get out when the light is good) or who have planned extensive stays.

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