How to Work With A Blown Out HDR Image

By Dolf DeRovira

So, you tried either one of the HDR programs or let Photoshop do it on its own and you like some of it, but see that it fails on other levels.  HDR is an interesting treatment.  It stands for High Dynamic Range and basically uses bracketed images to bring out the highlights in the underexposed shot, the details in the shadows in the overexposed shot and leaves the middle properly exposed shot as the basis for the mid-tones.  Some people like it and others seem to hate it.  Personally I like Colors, no I love colors and think HDR gives an interesting almost surrealistic effect.  But it can go overboard.  The effect can also be achieved without the use of the three exposures by either going into Lightroom and raising the clarity slider all the way up.  This can even be further accentuated by using the adjustment brush and painting the entire photo or portions thereof and raising the clarity slider to max.  You can even copy this over and over again to make the most (at this point I have to say) ridiculously enhanced color scheme possible.  But, art has its place and even though I cannot imagine where a photo like that could be good, I am not so closed minded as to think it is impossible.

When in Puerto Rico, we visited a cave east of San Juan at a little town called Loiza.  Cueva de la Maria de La Cruz is a collapsed cave, is easy to find and get around.  Information is readily available at sites like:

My photo of the cave as an HDR is this:

As you can see the HDR gave great texture in the rocks, not easily seen in the dim light, However, it also gave a weird almost surrealistic purple glow to the sky, with halos around the trees leaves and some rocks.

As mentioned before, there are many ways to achieve the same result in both Photoshop and Lightroom.  What I am going to explain is just one way I do it.

I opened up the HDR image above in Photoshop.  I brought in the original raw image into Photoshop as is with no adjustments.

I then went into File, Automate, Automerge as discussed before.  This way by deleting the layer masks everything is in alignment.

Going into the layer blending options with the HDR image on top, I selected each one to see what was the most pleasing to me.  In this case “lighten” was my favorite choice.  This procedure came up with this image:

You see some of the color and texture in the rocks to the right came through better as did the foliage and left rock structures.  The sky now has a more natural look to it.

But now we need to bring out the best of the shot by using an interesting brush effect I like to use all the time.  You can also do this in Lightroom by selecting the adjustment brush coloring in areas and then using all of the choices available such as clarity, contrast, exposure, temperature, tint, highlight, just to name a few. In photoshop these can be effected by using the selective mask tool, and the various adjustments throughout the Program.  I like to paint black, grey or white on a different layer and then choose the overlay layer adjustment.  I can mask out mistakes, copy what I like to another layer to intensify the effect, and much more as we will see.

The first Adjustment layer will be a straight addition of darkness as an overlay layer adjustment on a different layer as follows:

I actually did two passes and adjusted the fill percentage transparency…

Now for the final touches.  I wanted to fix the slight grouping error at the very left top and bring in the image from the right to accentuate the rock at the lower right of the cave mouth.  Bringing it in just a bit we get this:

Not too much difference, but just enough to make the image interesting.

Let’s try to highlight the edges so that we have interesting leading lines.  I will instead use a white brush as a separate overlay layer.  Like the black brush before, we will use the softest brush.  But instead of adjusting the layer itself, we will use a brush that has its opacity and flow down to 12%.  This way we can go over the areas we want to highlight and brush others just once for a slighter effect.

It gives us some leading lines to focus our interest throughout the picture but it comes across a bit unnatural.  Now we can make things a bit interesting by masking off areas.

Selecting a mask on this area, and clicking on that mask selection we will dapple black areas on the whites we did so it has a more pleasing effect.  Using a click and drag motion and increasing the flow and opacity as I add the strokes gives a more random appearance.  Zooming in and then hitting fit to screen helps assess what was accomplished as follows:

By using the eyedropper tool I selected the light brown of the rock and painted the grayish boulder and very light rock to the right.  Using the layer setting Hue and raising the flow and opacity all the way up I achieved the following subtle effect.

I wanted to bring back some of the sharpness of the trees so I went back to the HDR image, used the lasso tool to select it copied, pasted and brought it to the top.  Added a mask and using a soft brush feathered in the edges to make it seamless, and brought out some of the sky back to the softer non HDR blue, like this:

Now for the tree trunks. using masks , overlay brush I brought some color back to the trunks.  Then using an overlay black brush brought some detail back into selected areas.  The sand is still a bit blown out, so I will add a bit of Photoshop magic to it.

Using the lasso again, and zooming in on the sand I chose the area and then with the black on the background selecting Ctrl (Cmd on Mac) delete filled it in with the brown color.  Then using the strokes, filter nose add noise gaussian and monochromatic, and add it as darken in the layer adjustments and 24% opacity, I then added a mask and painted in black until it looked realistic.  The brush was a t 35% and Opacity at 45% to make the touch ups look more natural.

Touch ups with the black overlay brush and a bit of vignetting yields the final image:

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