Photoshop CS5 and HDR

Sunrise in Lightroom

I’ve had a quick play with the new HDR toning feature in Photoshop CS5 and I’m not really that impressed. The new feature isn’t found next to the old one, its tucked away on the image adjustment menu called “HDR Toning”. When you click on this you get a window with similar options for HDR editing to the other method. The other method being merging to HDR from 3 or more photos. As with the “Merge to HDR” feature the method you use is “local adaption” and its automatically selected. You get various controls for edge glow, tone and detail, colour and a toning curve to play with. You also get some presets. Now I’m yet to get my head around all the options to produce a stunning HDR processed photo but what I have done is try out the presets to get a flavour of the new feature. They suck.

For this quick test I loaded a RAW file into Photoshop and tweaked it a bit in ACR. I added a bit of fill light and some recovery just to get the best I could from this image.

First up we have a few black and white presets.

Monochromatic Artistic

“Monochromatic Artistic”

“Monochromatic High Contrast”

Monochromatic Low Contrast

“Monochromatic Low Contrast”



More Saturated

“More Saturated”

Photorealistic High Contrast

“Photorealistic High Contrast”

Photorealistic Low Contrast

“Photorealistic Low Contrast”





Surrealistic High Contrast

“Surrealistic High Contrast”

Surrealistic Low Contrast

“Surrealistic Low Contrast”



Looking at these photos makes me wonder why Adobe would have included such presets, and also why anyone would use them. Many of them show classic signs of “Bad HDR”. I’ve put it in quotes there because bad HDR is subjective. You’ll see many photos similar to these on Flickr. Its quite popular to over process this way. So bad is subjective. That aside there are many images here with halos which is something you should try and avoid in HDR. Normally halos occur when buildings are backlight by the sun. The sky is brighter than the buildings as there is no light on them and you can get a halo around the building. The thing is that in this instance the sun was further down the river so there shouldn’t be halos at all. I’m not sure why they’ve appeared. Either way its a bad thing imho.

Some of the presets completely blow out the highlights. I’m a fan of using HDR to avoid just that. It is essentially why its in our toolbox after all. The surrealistic low contrast one looks like someone smeared vaseline on the lens. Whats up with that? “More saturated” looks very wrong. I’m not even sure why theres a saturation slider there when you could do it after with an adjustment layer.

Another problem is that this process isn’t non-destructive like the majority of the other adjustments. So if you adjust the saturation in the “HDR Toning” you can’t easily undo it. If you use HDR Toning to convert to black and white you’ll also have no control after to tweak it. My advice would be to simply “HDR” it and then use adjustment layers to tinker with the saturation and convert to black and white. I’d definitely say so for black and white because all HDR Toning is doing is reducing the saturation. Really good black and white is achieved by adjusting various colour channels to create a beautiful contrast of tones. Desaturating an image means you have no control over that. Its just an absence of colour. But I’m being picky here.

All in all I don’t like this new HDR feature. Its one of the big new reasons to buy CS5. I’m sure in time people will be able to get good results from it but not with the presets that ship. They’re just awful. Its like they took a look at some of the worst HDR on Flickr and said “Ok lets make it easy for people to do that.” Personally I’d say use the “Merge-to-HDR” feature in Photoshop or Photomatix. I quite like that the merge to HDR feature forces you to take 3 or more photos. It doesn’t let you cheat. It seems really odd that Adobe would promote this option as “HDR Toning” since theres no real HDR about it.

If you want to learn more about doing HDR with Photomatix take a look at my rather popular tutorial on the subject.

Finally, this is the image processed in Lightroom. Works for me.

Sunrise in Lightroom

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6 responses

  1. Is that last shot just processed in Lightroom? or Photomatix then Lightroom? – as for the rest of it I have to agree, I have tried a few different images and played around with the settings and really struggled to get anything remotely pleasing 🙁

    1. Its just Lightroom.

  2. surrealistic low contrast – so cool – I’m gonna do all my HDRs with this preset from now on

  3. Pete,

    As an ex-pat living in Colorado i have recently taken up learning HDR. Your HDR Photo Workshop book is spot on, easy to understand and a great reference guide. Just wanted to say thank you for helping me to better understand HDR. Oh and some outstanding pictures by you!

  4. I partly agree. The presets are naturally totally crap, of course. However, I don’t expect anybody worth their salt is going to consider using them anyway. It doesn’t make a lot of sense to – the radius at which the effect applies, and secondarily the strength at which to apply it, are entirely dependent on typical feature-sizes in the image at hand.
    About all you can say is that “very small” and “very large” are meaningful, but if you have a scene with a variety of sizes of object, you’ll find quite a complex interaction as you slide the radius along.

    On a recent trip, I took about 45 HDR scenes and as many panoramas in a week. For many of the HDRs, I favour enfuse: far from being “poor man’s” HDR, it seems logical and simple and the results are gorgeous and natural and what I want (and it’s bulk-scriptable). For most of the panoramas, I ended up using hugin(+enfuse) to EXR then using CS5 for a “natural” HDR rendering (but always custom parameters, not a preset in sight).

  5. I’ve never met a pre-set that I liked, to be honest. It’s a lot more fun to play and meddle with the settings and sliders and get a far more unique outcome. I too was kind of confused by CS5’s HDR functions. Since the beginning in my opinion, Photomatix is the go-to for HDR and tone mapping, and I think they keep improving it with each release.