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How to Merge and Edit High Dynamic Range Photos in Adobe Camera Raw

In our last tutorial, we looked at how to use exposure bracketing to make images for high dynamic range photography. In this tutorial we'll show you how to merge those images in Adobe Camera Raw and how to edit them to suit your style.

How to Merge and Edit High Dynamic Range Photos in Adobe Camera Raw

Merge Your Photographs

Let's pick up where we left off: you have a few images, made by bracketing exposures, to merge together.

Open your images in ADCOpen your images in ADCOpen your images in ADC
Open your images in ADC

Open your images in Adobe Camera Raw. Highlight all the images (shift-click or ctrl-click each image) and then right-click on one of them, choosing Merge to HDR.

Highlight your images and right-click Highlight your images and right-click Highlight your images and right-click
Highlight your images and right-click.

You will get a popup box that tells you it’s creating a preview. This won’t take as long as the actual merge will.

HDR previewHDR previewHDR preview
HDR preview

When the preview has finished, you’ll see how your image will look—probably quite high contrast and heavily saturated—with some options:

Align images will need to be ticked in order to match up your photographs and remove any extra overlap that might show at the edges from movement.

This is also where ‘deghost’ comes in. This option will stop the glow that you sometimes see in HDR photographs, where it makes it look a bit soft and strange. You can choose off, low, medium or high deghosting options and as you can’t zoom in on your preview it’s hard to tell how much a particular image will need. There is a mask overlay which can help; it works by shading any areas of ghosting in red (or whichever colour you choose). You’ll find the higher options useful if you’ve shot a lot of images as you’re more likely to have ghosting then.

You can choose to Apply Auto Settings too, which will shift your sliders to the ‘best’ positions for your photograph. It’s fine to tick this as you can change them if they aren’t quite right.

When you’re ready to edit, hit Merge. You’ll be asked to save a new digital negative of the three merged images, which then becomes a file itself that you can edit without needing the original three images.

Edit the Merged Image

Profile Corrections

The first thing to do is to go into Optics and tick Use Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration. Even though your photograph is technically three, all the data has been retained, so ACR will still be able to select your lens and make any corrections for barrelling or vignette etc.

Use the settings in Optics to make profile correctionsUse the settings in Optics to make profile correctionsUse the settings in Optics to make profile corrections
Use the settings in Optics to make profile corrections

It’s worth ticking to remove chromatic aberration (the purple and green haze you can get around edges of your image) as it can be intensified by the HDR merge, particularly around things like trees that have lots of lines against a bright background.

What to Avoid

You should now have quite a bit of flexibility in your other editing options. Getting the most out of highlights/shadows, contrast and detail can seem really exciting, but we’ve all seen photos that look like this:

Too much colour and detail can look garishToo much colour and detail can look garishToo much colour and detail can look garish
Too much colour and detail can look garish

Unless it’s an artistic statement then this is probably way too much. What you should aim for is a photograph that still looks natural, but without either extreme of a loss of detail, or so much detail that it’s a punch in the face.

Basic Edits

Start by making adjustments in Basic. Here we can see what’s in the shadows without losing the nice contrast, and the highlights are all within an acceptable range. I’ve slightly reduced the saturation which affects the overall colour, and increased the vibrance to compensate, which just targets midtones.

Make basic editsMake basic editsMake basic edits
Make basic edits

Colour Mixer

In Colour Mixer you can take the edge off some of the harsher colours and tone down ones that still might look a little HDR luminous. I’ve also slightly shifted the hues to warmer tones, greens towards yellow for example.

Colour MixerColour MixerColour Mixer
Colour Mixer

Local Adjustments

In the Adjustment Brush you can make targeted local adjustments to make the most of all that extra range you have.

Make local adjustments to target specific areas of your pictureMake local adjustments to target specific areas of your pictureMake local adjustments to target specific areas of your picture
Make local adjustments to target specific areas of your picture

LUTs and Actions

If you’ve got your basic edits sorted and you feel like stylising your image a little, you might want to try adding a LUT or action/preset. Here’s one I added from the Street Photography collection on Envato Elements and then tweaked a little to fit the image.

LUTs and ActionsLUTs and ActionsLUTs and Actions
LUTs and Actions

Finished

And you are done!

finished imagefinished imagefinished image

HDR is a great technique for giving yourself more flexibility in difficult situations. Try to use it in a targeted way—if you try to do every image as an HDR you'll soon run out of hard drive space and patience. In particular, HDR is great for bringing details out in architectural shots, and for making landscapes pop with dramatic areas of light and shadow. If you feel like something a little more arty and stylised, the technique is great for that too, so why not have a little fun with it and experiment.

More Adobe Camera Raw Tutorials

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