Should I Use Photoshop Elements 11 for HDR Photography?

Photoshop CS6 or Elements 11 for HDR?


Bayon Temple Reflection at Sunrise

HDR photo processed using only Photomatix merge-to-32-bit-HDR plugin for Lightroom. No Photoshop Elements 11 or CS6 needed with this workflow.

Quite a few beginning HDR photographers have been visiting the blog so I want to write this  post today to help beginners avoid confusion about what you really need, software-wise to do HDR photo processing, and what you can do without.

With one exception, no matter what you use to merge your bracketed files into a 32 bit HDR image, you will almost always want to “clean up the grunge” with either Photoshop or Photoshop Elements 11.  Unless you are a graphical designer genius, you don’t need to spend the big bucks on Photoshop CS6.  Instead, just use the latest version of Photoshop Elements 11.  It does layer masking just fine and that’s really what you need.  However, understand that you don’t really NEED to even have Elements 11 to do perfectly beautiful HDR at all!


What’s the Exception?

Photomatix Pro is regarded as the de-facto gold standard in HDR software.  They’ve been at it since day one and continue to lead all other wares in producing the most consistant images. That’s what I learned HDR on.  Photomatix Pro is a standalone program and takes some time to learn and talent to use properly.  There is a lot of control available in that software and that also means there is a lot that can go so wrong. Beginners always push the edges too far and end up creating monstrous images that should not be shared online.  There’s enough bad HDR out there already.  So please, start making your HDR the way I describe here and hold your desire to use Photomatix Pro until later when you have some experience in the world of HDR photography.

I still use Photomatix Pro today sometimes but you just need to know that to make your HDR perfect when using Photomatix Pro, you will almost always need to finish it up in Photoshop or Elemets 11.  There is an easier, faster, less expensive way to make stunning HDR and is what I recommend for new HDR enthusiasts.  Later, you can upgrade to Photomatix Pro. For now, let’s keep it simple.

The Easy Workflow Under $150

More often than not, I now use the Lightroom plugin from Photomatix that costs only $29. It’s called “merge-to-32-bit-HDR plugin for Lightroom.” It’s easy and it makes beautiful & perfect HDR photographs!  Even more appealing for me is that I rarely ever have a need to use Photoshop because this plugin makes images that come out so clean.

This plugin works only with Lightroom 4 or 5.  You cannot use it with Photoshop or Photoshop Elements 11 to make HDR.  If you want to use those programs, then you will need to buy the Photomatix Pro bundle which includes a Photoshop plugin to merge your bracketed photo files.  I never use that plugin though since I love my setup and workflow with Lightroom and the Photomatix merge-to-32-bit-HDR Lightroom plugin. They offer a free trial if you want to try it, just be forewarned that the trial puts an ugly watermark on your images. If you do buy, save 15% on any of their Photomatix HDR products with the promo code “Perfect HDR

Bottom line: What you really need

Lightroom 5 for $149 and The Photomatix Lightroom plugin for $29. That’s it…$178 total cost.  Cheaper if you already own an earlier version of either software and qualify for the upgrade pricing.  That is my recommendation today for the perfect HDR setup. And that works for either Mac or Windows machines.

Update: Amazon now sells Lightroom 5 for just $123.36.  This means that you can get started with HDR for under $150 in software!  Lightroom 4 is just as good for our purpose to make Perfect HDR photos as the new version and it sells for way under $100 now at Amazon, so that’s really the best deal going today.

End of story.

When DO You Need Photoshop Elements 11?

There will be occasions, especially when you have ghosting in your HDR to clean up, that you will want to have a program like Photoshop Elements 11 for putting a nice finishing touch on your HDR work, but that’s really the only case.

buy photoshop elements 11 at Amazon
Ghosting, by the way, is where there is movement in the scene during the time you make your bracketed shots, usually from people or vehicles moving or foliage blowing in the wind. Sometimes the illusion of movement works in the final HDR, often it doesn’t and it needs to be fixed in Photoshop Elements 11 using layer masking.

Elements 11 is also cheaper at Amazon: $65.79


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Do You Like Filters?

I do! I love the Topaz, Nik, and OnOne filters too and use them quite frequently.  Since they all integrate well with Lightroom, again, there is no need to have Photoshop to use them.    So if you start with just Lightroom and the Photomatix plugin, you can always add those later as you expand your exploration of the great world of HDR photography.

Click on the image below to check out Lightroom and Photoshop elements 11.  There are cheaper upgrade prices available here if you own an earlier version of either product and trial versions on everything are available too, so there’s no risk of buying something before giving it a spin and feel that it’s right for you.

Don’t Be Afraid of HDR

Photoshop Elements 11 - License

HDR photography is really so much fun and highly rewarding for me and thousands of other photographers around the world.  I really hope that you’ll go ahead and give it a try. It may seem hard to you, especially if you’ve already tried HDR using inferior products and gotten poor results. My goal is to help you by making it easy and inexpensive for you.  Feel free to contact me or leave a comment below if you have any questions or need some help.


Showing 2 comments
  • Steve Pasqualone

    Great pictures and article. I enjoyed so much, Ill be purchasing the hdr plug0n for lightroom tonight. I did have one question however. My understanding of HDR is it typically requires 3 – 5 exposures of the same scene. Simple enough with a static screen, such as your landscapes. But, how do you capture 3-5 images when an object is moving such as your picture with the “hunting eagle”??

    • Captain Photo

      Hi Steve! Not all my photographs are HDR. The eagle photo is from a single RAW file. Actually RAW files now have quite a lot of light information in them that you can pull out using Lightroom.

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