Improving Interior Photographs with HDR in Photoshop

Excerpted fromThe HDR Book, 2nd Edition (Peachpit Press)

By Rafael Concepcion


There’s something about dimly lit interiors that really does well when making an HDR image. That’s why I always make sure that I attempt to make a picture inside of churches, as well as the front lobbies of hotels. Both are always in pristine condition to make an impression (or show respect, in a church scenario), and both have great attention to detail.

Being on the road a lot allows me plenty of opportunities to test my theory out in hotel lobbies. I usually check into my room first, striking up a conversation with the front desk person. I’ll tell them I’m a photographer and that I would like to possibly come back and make a picture of the interior of the hotel. While I believe that they usually really don’t mind, I think it’s a good idea to make sure that they are saying yes to a “guest” rather than someone who just walked in off the street.

Once I have permission, I try to return to the lobby area well after I think traffic has stopped (usually after midnight). This allows me to set up my tripod, use a low ISO, use a high f-stop, and ensure no one is going to mess up my shot.

Once I have the image completed, I immediately go upstairs and work on the file. Having a good image set, I’ll transfer it to my smartphone and make my best attempt to talk to someone in a management position at the hotel to show them the image. There have been times that this exchange has got me in contact with a corporate office of a hotel, and given me opportunities to shoot interiors as a job or (in some cases) a trade. Hey, you need to travel to get great pictures. At the bare minimum, a few free nights is worth the time you put into a shot many would dismiss.

Tone Mapping the Image

You can download the files for this tutorial in the Chapter 7 folder here. One of the first things that I did when I was working on this image was to use the Selective Deghosting feature in Photomatix to straighten out the chandelier in the center (a free trial of Photomatix is available). It looks like, at some point in the bracketing series, the camera moved a little bit and it caused a little bit of blur in the chandelier. So, using Selective Deghosting, trace the area around the chandelier, then Right-click inside your selection and choose Mark Selection as Ghosted Area. That’ll snap everything right into place.

Right off the bat I know that I’m going to want to have a lot of detail in this image, so I’m going to increase the Strength to 100 and I’m also going to increase the Detail Contrast to 10. That will bring out the most amount of detail that you’ll see inside of the chandeliers. From here, I want to make sure that I don’t miss any detail, so I’m going to decrease the Micro-smoothing (under Advanced Options) to 0. You’ll automatically see that we have a lot of tonality and a lot of detail inside of those chandeliers.

Next, I’ll go ahead and bring my Lighting Adjustments over to the right a little bit to 3.3, keeping it a little bit natural. I’ll also drag the Color Saturation slider about three-quarters of the way to the right to 68. Then, I’ll drag the Tone Compression slider over to the right to 5.2, and you’ll notice that you’ll get even more detail inside of those chandeliers. We’ll finish it off by increasing the White Point a little bit to 0.503 to make the area brighter, and decreasing the Gamma to 1.07, so that we can get some nice shadows inside of the image.

It’s important to note that you’re not going to be able to solve every single problem with this HDR file. You’re going to notice that there are going to be light sources to the left and to the right that are going to get blown out. When working with an HDR file, this is another hidden secret: HDR does not solve everything. You’re going to need to go back and get some of the original files and overlay them on top of this tone-mapped image to be able to provide a really nice transition between those lights and the environment around them.

Finally, you’re also going to want to make sure you decrease the Temperature a little bit here (to –4.1) because this room is a little yellow, and you don’t want to introduce too much into it.

Post-processing in Photoshop

The first thing that we’re going to need to do here is take one of the underexposed shots of the bracketed series and place it on top of the tone-mapped file in Photoshop. Here, I took the shot that was 1-stop underexposed and, with the Move tool (V), clicked-and-dragged it on top of the tone-mapped image. You’re going to notice that they don’t necessarily align with one another, so Shift-click on the Background layer to select both layers. With both layers selected, click on the Auto-Align Layers icon in the Options Bar. In the resulting dialog, leave the Projection set to Auto and click OK.

Once the two layers are aligned, click on the top layer so that only it is active, and then hide that layer with a black layer mask. Get the Brush tool (B) and, with a soft-edged, white brush with a low Flow setting, only paint back in the sections of the lights that you want to make a little bit sharper. You’ll also use it to paint in the lights in the center of the image that were blown out with the overexposure.

Once you finish masking some of the original highlights of the image back into the tone-mapped file, you’re going to need to merge the two together into a new layer so that you can do some additional work to it. So, press Command-Option-Shift-E (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E) to create that merged layer.

From the Filter menu, choose Camera Raw Filter to bring this layer into Camera Raw. Here, you can adjust the Temperature, Tint, Exposure, and Highlights to make a more balanced picture. In this case, I wanted to cool the picture down a little bit to remove some of the yellow color cast (so I decreased the Temperature to –25 and increased the Tint a little to +9). I increased the Exposure a bit (to +0.25), and then I decreased the amount of Highlights (to –18), so that I could see more detail in the chandelier. I also wanted to add a little bit of Vibrance to bring some of the underrepresented colors back into the image (I increased it to +25). I ended up increasing the Clarity just a bit (to +8) while I was here, too. The Detail panel of Camera Raw is also a great place for you to add a little bit of fine detail to the image. Remember, if you’re shooting in RAW, you don’t have sharpening applied to an image by default. You need to add that in post. So, click on the Detail icon (the third icon from the left) beneath the histogram and increase your Sharpening Amount to 60, Radius to 1.2, and Detail to 31. This is going to be a great addition to the file.

Now, it looks like we took a little too much color off the chandeliers to the left and to the right, so let’s add a Photo Filter adjustment layer to warm them up (choose Warming Filter [85]). Immediately after adding the adjustment layer, press Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I) to Invert the layer mask, hiding the adjustment. Then, using a soft-edged, white brush with a low Flow setting, paint the correction back in to the left and right chandeliers, as well as into the lights on the inner columns. You can always control how warm this photo filter is against these lights by adjusting the Density slider in the Properties panel.

Let’s work on giving this image a little extra detail. Press Command-Option-Shift-E (PC: Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E) twice to make two copies of a merged layer. With the top layer active, go under the Filter menu, under Other, and choose High Pass. This will make the entire layer gray and bring up a dialog that allows you to specify how much of an edge you want to see in the image. Move the Radius slider all the way to the left, then slowly drag it to the right to a point where you start seeing a little bit of edge in the picture. Click OK.

Set the blend mode of this gray layer to Soft Light and you’ll instantly get more texture along the edges of the picture. Hide this layer with a black layer mask, then paint with the same brush as before only in the areas where you want the added texture.

Next, let’s add a Curves adjustment layer to darken the entire image. In the Properties panel, click on the center of the curve to add a point, and then drag downward. You’ll see that the entire image gets darker.

Invert the Curves adjustment layer’s layer mask and then paint with the same brush as before to add a little bit more dimension to the picture—darkening specific areas, rather than creating a vingette.

STEP 10:
There are a couple of spots in the image where a hint of blue is appearing, which I want to remove. So, let’s add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to get rid of it. In the Properties panel, click on the Targeted Adjustment tool near the top left (its icon is the little hand). Now, click-and-drag to the left on a blue area, removing that blue from the picture. It will remove the color blue from the image as a whole.

Invert the Hue/Saturation adjustment layer’s layer mask and, again, use a soft-edged, white brush with a low Flow setting to make sure that you’re only removing the blue color in the areas that you need it removed. I would go and make a quick pass at the lights to make sure that there is no blue inside of them, as well. Finally, all we need to do here is choose Flatten Image from the Layers panel’s flyout menu, then get the Crop tool (C) and crop away the little bit of extraneous information on the edges of the picture, and we’re good to go.



Excerpted from The HDR Book: Unlocking the Pros' Hottest Post-Processing Techniques by Rafael Concepcion. Copyright © 2014. Used with permission of Pearson Education, Inc. and Peachpit Press.

Don‘t miss the next Photoshop article on Get the newsletter in your mailbox each week.