HDR Photography Without Using Photoshop or Photomatix Pro

There’s No Photoshop in The Perfect HDR Workflow

no photoshop needed iconEvery HDR photographer has their own way of doing things.  Whatever works, works. I tend to like “easy”… and also “quick” … and how about “inexpensive” too? When Photoshop enters a workflow, all three of those attributes go out the window. Photoshop is not quick, easy, or inexpensive.  So let’s not use it.

Today I’m going to talk about this cool workflow that makes stunning HDR images in less than 5 minutes that anybody can learn in a day and be making beautiful HDR’s tonight. No animals were harmed and no Photoshop was used in the creation of the photo above.

The Perfect HDR Workflow

The entire HDR process is done totally inside of Adobe Lightroom.  Photos are not tonemapped in Photomatix Pro 5 or any other similar stand-alone product. It’s all Lightroom. You see, Lightroom has some special sauce in it and is able to fantastically develop 32 bit files without any outside help.  This makes it the only software available today that supports the Perfect HDR Workflow.

Even a Caveman…?

My intention is to demonstrate how you can create stunning HDR quickly, easily, and cheaply. It can be learned by anyone in just a few minutes! Even a Caveman? You betcha!

Tonemapping vs. 32 Bit HDR Processing

Without trying to scare off anybody, the workflow I use for HDR boils down to, what is known as, 32 bit HDR processing.  You don’t need to know what that means right now.  Soon enough it will be clear.  The other commonly used method of producing HDR is Tonemapping. Even though tonemapping is far from ideal, it’s what most HDR photographers use because it’s the way they learned…. and change is hard.

Tonemapping to Create HDR

The tonemapping method is the way I learned HDR years ago.  That’s what was being taught in all the online tutorials and is “just the way it’s done.” Using a tonemapping product like Photomatix Pro 5  is the first step. Simply dump your bracketed photo files into Photomatix Pro and go nuts playing with the funny named sliders. Some photographers consider their HDR images as finished after only this step. The resulting images are not really technically very good, although they look fun because they are very different so they get posted online for our… um, enjoyment.

The HDR Pros NEVER leave an image at this step because they always need more work.

The Tonemapping Bugaboo

Tonemapping is an extreme process and bends your pixels in un-natural ways which always leaves parts of an image so far out of whack that it looks very unreal and unattractive.  No judgment here at all, much of my HDR career I was making them too, thinking they were fine. Examples of some of these gremlins are; halos along lines of high contrast, dirty looking and noisy sky, black clouds on sunny days, over-saturation, etc. To clean up these and other faults, we always have to go to step two.

Step two consists of taking the tonemapped image into Photoshop for polishing.  Okay, now it’s time to lay out some serious bucks on Photoshop, then learn it.  Skillful layer masking and blending are Photoshop skills you don’t learn overnight.  Long story short, lots of HDR photos are still being published online today having gone through the traditional HDR process, yet, the guys at HDR Quality Control aren’t happy yet.

It’s painful to watch. Photographers spending a lot of money on software, then a lot of time to learn how to use it, and still end up with images that are not always that great to look at.  My feeling is that HDR just shouldn’t be that hard. I’m taking a stand for taking the pain out of HDR for everybody!

Here’s how I propose doing that.

The 32 Bit HDR Process

This turns out to be a very painless way to make seriously stunning HDR photos.  It’s painless for several reasons; it’s inexpensive, it’s fast, and it produces technically perfect HDR first time, every time!

It’s a one-step process with everything being done right inside of Adobe Lightroom 4 or 5.  The ONLY other thing you need is the Photomatix merge to 32 bit HDR plugin for Lightroom. Thirty nine bucks.  Done.

There are two ways to get the plugin.  Either get it by itself for $39 or it also comes as part of the Photomatix Pro bundle which sells for $119.  In the bundle you get everything, and, if you think you may like doing HDR on a regular basis, you eventually may want to get Photomatix Pro.  You’ll have to decide for yourself between the plugin only or the bundle. There are free downloads of both so feel free to try this out and see if it’s for you. When you figure it out, remember that you can save 15% on your purchase if you use the discount code PerfectHDR when you buy.

I have a video here on the blog showing how easy it is to use the plugin with Lightroom.  It’s just better to show you than to try to tell you.

What About Ghosting?

Here’s a problem that comes up sometimes. When you take multiple exposures to create your HDR, sometimes things your camera is pointed at move during the time between frames.  Tree leaves, people, cars, ocean waves, & clouds.  The catch-all term for this is called “ghosting.”  When it’s people in the frame moving, they look like ghosts because you can sort of see right through them.  Many times we don’t want that in our photos.

The Photomatix merge to 32 bit HDR plugin has a method to reduce ghosting.  Sorry to say it’s not perfect. It works only sometimes.  However, the de-ghosting tool in the standalone product, Photomatix Pro 5, does a fabulous job getting rid of those pesky ghosts!

dialog box of photomatix pro

Check this box in Photomatix Pro to save the 32 bit file we need.

You can also get rid of ghosts in Photoshop with the layer masking process. But we’re talking today about doing HDR without Photoshop, so that option is off the table.  Anyway, it’s easier to do it in Photomatix Pro than in Photoshpp anyway.  The de-ghosting feature in Photomatix Pro is the one feature that I do use regularly when I need ghosting control.  On those occasions, I can do the de-ghosting in Photomatix Pro and, at the same time, merge my files into that 32 bit  HDR file we need.

If you want to do that, in the very first dialog box where you choose your bracketed files to merge, check the box that says “show intermediary 32 bit HDR image.”  Then click “OK” and in the last dialog box , just check the box called “remove ghosts with selective deghosting tool.”

Click “Preprocess” and Photomatix Pro will merge your files and present a screen for the deghosting. All you need to do on this screen is draw a line with your mouse around the area that needs deghosting. Then you can preview what it will look like and make any changes until you are satisfied.  If it doesn’t look right, it allows you to go back and either re-draw your border or choose a different exposure to use. It’s pretty east to get it right the first time so don’t stress if the way I describe it sounds complicated.  It isn’t.  When you like the de-ghosting results, continue to process the merging of your files.

In a few seconds when the intermediary 32 bit HDR file pops up, save it to your hard drive and open it in Lightroom. From there, the Perfect HDR Workflow is exactly the same as with the plugin alone.

photomatix pro dialog box for deghosting

Photomatix Pro dialog box for deghosting


I have a short wishlist to improve how we can do deghosting. If the folks at HDRSoft would simply include the manual deghosting feature of Photomatix Pro in their merge to 32 bit HDR Lightroom plugin, we would have it all the tools we need conveniently in one place and avoid the workaround of using Photomatix Pro for deghosting as I’ve just described.

No Photoshop… Really?!

no photoshop needed iconNo need for it.  Lightroom 4 and 5 can do all the fancy stuff to stylize your HDR into anything you want.  Deghosting can be done easily in Photomatix Pro, if you own it, in cases where deghosting doesn’t work as well as you want it to using the plugin.

As an aside, Adobe just announced a couple weeks ago that Photoshop is now only available as part of their Creative Cloud subscription based software.  No longer will you be able to buy it and own it.  Conversely, Lightroom is to remain a standalone product you can buy and own without forever monthly subscription fees you pay whether you use Photoshop or not.  I’m not a fan of creative cloud anyway.

Final Thoughts on HDR Without Photoshop

Up until Lightroom 4, using Photoshop in your HDR workflow was a requirement if you wanted great images. I think everybody got used to it and might not be open to learning a new way, even if that new way is advantageous in every way. I’m not here to convert anybody who uses Photoshop successfully.

The reason I’m a proponent of 32 bit processing is that it allows millions more photographers into the HDR scene and these new HDR artists are now able to make their art without being stifled with the process.  The 32 bit process is easy and consistently delivers outstanding image quality. Who doesn’t want that? HDR used to be hard, now it isn’t and there is no reason for anybody to be afraid of it anymore.

Are you on my private list yet? I send out random emails 3 or four times a month with special HDR information, unpublished photos and special deals I run across.  If you like HDR, I think the info that goes out to my private list will add great value for you.  Sign up for my private list now!

Showing 5 comments
  • Betty J Savers

    That’s an interesting technique. I never though of using lightroom but it looks like it gives pretty decent results. Will have to try it out. thanks.

    • Captain Photo

      It gives stunning results actually, Betty. People who try this method usually are quick to adopt it for that reason and because it’s so darn fast & easy.

  • Rob and Bea

    Awesome site, thanks so much. I believe I read on your site (somewhere) where you state that Photomatrix Pro and Lightroom can be purchased together for around $150. Is that correct, or did I imagine it? I don’t have photoshop and don’t want to have to learn it. But when I Google Lightroom, I’m seeing a price of $299. Would you be so kind to point us in the right direction? Looking forward to continue reading the rest of your site to keep on learning. Thanks very much. P.S. I have to buy a new camera, neither of mine will create raw images. As you probably know, Trey Ratcliff highly recommends the Sony NEX-7. The Sony NEX-6 seems to be quite a bit less expensive. Can you comment on either or recommend the camera I need. I don’t want to spend less if it means not being able to get the job done, so I need something (affordable) that is more than adequate. If I sound confused, I am, my apologies, just trying to glean some knowledge from your experience. Your guidance is very much appreciated.

    • Captain Photo

      Hi and thanks… is it Rob?!

      The $150 figure is for Lightroom and the Photomatix merge to 32 bit plugin. That’s the software combo I use for my HDR. Their other HDR software, Photomatix Pro is $99 and the Pro bundle is $119. The new Photomatix Pro 5 just came out about a week ago and it’s got some nice new features but still requires more work and more money than what I recommend. The easy, quick and pretty awesome results beginners can get by using the Perfect HDR workflow is a great way to break into and learn HDR photography. Then, you can grow into more complicated things if you find out that you really like it. If you decide to buy any Photomatix product, you can save 15% if you remember to use the gift code, “PerfectHDR”. But please try it out for free first. Just go get the a trial download of any Photomatix software now.

      Cameras are too much to go into here. NEX 6 & 7 are both wonderful and also over a year old. There are probably better options for you. I would definitely steer you to the best gear review guy I know of, Gordon Laing at CameraLabs.com Thanks to his very thorough no-nonsense reviews I was able to make a decision on my new camera, which I only bought 2 days ago! I wrote a little about that decision to go mirror-less and ditch my Nikon and posted it on the The Captain’s blog earlier so please check that out and also go see what Gordon has for you. He’s a great guy.

      I hang out on Google + and I’ll leave you with this invitation to come chat with me there.

  • Rob and Bea

    Thank you Captain for the lightning fast reply. I am assembling more comments about your site, my research on cameras, and a whole lot more if you have time to indulge me. Thanks so very much, very, very impressive goodies you have. Rob

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