Creating landscapes has just become a lot easier. With version 6 of Lightroom (and updated Lightroom CC), our ability to stitch together panoramas, and blend images to create HDR files, now can all be done without leaving the Lightroom environment. The tool is called Photo Merge, and although it’s new to Lightroom 6 and CC, there’s something about it that changes the foundation of how a panorama or HDR file is generated.
Traditionally, we’ve created HDR files and stitched panoramas by using software other than Lightroom like Photoshop, Photomatix, PTGui or others and, in doing so, have been required to process our files and make TIFFs, PSDs or JPEGs first—but this is no longer the case. Lightroom 6 and CC actually will generate a DNG (Digital
Negative, Adobe’s RAW file) when you create HDR or panoramic files, and this, indeed, is “something new.” The net benefit of this little feature is that we don’t need to worry as much, or at all, about when in our blending-and-stitching workflow we develop our images. Prior, it has made sense to develop first and process second to maximize the benefits of RAW file developing. Stitch now and adjust later, I say!
This doesn’t mean that Photoshop or other programs are valueless. For example, Photoshop can create 32-bit HDR files, while Lightroom’s RAW files are 16-bit. Photomatix has a plethora of familiar presets that can be applied easily to an image, and many photographers may not want to give those up just yet. For me, the benefit of keeping everything in Lightroom while maintaining a RAW file workflow is exciting, even if Photo Merge is a young tool and comparatively unfamiliar. Either way, let’s go through how to use this new tool.
Gathering Your HDR Raw Material
HDR (High Dynamic Range) imagery is a technique for creating one image out of multiple images that are taken at different exposures. For nature and landscape photographers such as myself, this is an invaluable technique because we commonly encounter scenes that have contrast ranges beyond the capabilities of our cameras. The first step in creating an HDR file is to gather the right raw material. Here are a few quick tips for doing just that:
1 | Shoot three to five frames at about 2 stops apart.
2 | Minimize camera shake and use a tripod whenever possible (although Lightroom does a bang-up job at aligning handheld HDR files).
3 | Use shutter speed to create your different exposures instead of aperture. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating your different landscape files with varying ranges of depth of field.
4 | Use auto-bracketing when possible. If you’re shooting scenes quickly, and don’t have time for tripods and studying the details, consider using your camera’s bracketing feature to quickly get through your frames. Most cameras today provide at least 3 stops of exposure difference between bracketed frames.
Blending Images: Step By Step
Step 1: Select a set of images for blending, and open the Photo Merge to HDR dialog. You can right-click on one of the thumbnails to launch a contextual menu and then go to Photo Merge > HDR to launch the Photo Merge dialog. You can also use the keyboard shortcut Control+H, or you can go to the main menu atop your screen and click on Photo > Photo Merge > Merge to HDR.
Step 2: Check or uncheck the Auto Align and Auto Tone checkboxes. Auto-aligning images is a handy technology that allows you to take multiple exposures while just handholding your camera instead of using a tripod, but I suggest that you still use a tripod whenever possible. The second checkbox is the Auto Tone checkbox, which tells Lightroom to adjust your shadows and highlights for you. Check or uncheck this box as you go to see if it’s working to your liking, but I suspect you’ll like the results more often than not. It works well for me.
Step 3: Choose your Deghost amount. Ghosting is an artifact that appears in HDR blending when you’re using photos that have elements in the frame that move around from one frame to the next. Tree branches, leaves or grass in the wind, people walking, or water all can be in different positions with each exposure and thus can misalign when blending. I suggest that the amount of Deghosting you use be based on a little bit of trial and error. Start with a Low amount of Deghosting, and simply look at the overlay mask to analyze whether you think Lightroom is identifying a large enough area to cover the moving elements in your frame.
Gathering Your Panorama-Stitching Raw Materials
Stitching panoramas is a technique that allows you to shoot multiple images across the expanse of a scene that’s too large to capture with one frame. Here are a few quick tips for gathering your raw materials for creating the perfect landscape:
1 | Slightly overlap each frame with about 25% to 30% of overlap.
2 | Shoot in manual mode whenever possible. Unlike HDR, you don’t want any variation in exposure from frame to frame with stitching—your final version could look noticeably stitched together or the seams will be visible.
3 | Avoid moving subjects. Stitching becomes much more challenging if key elements of your scene are moving around.
4 | Keep your panning level.
5 | Try shooting verticals. Verticals allow you to shoot more frames to cover your scene, which makes for more data and detail (and larger file sizes).
Stitching Panoramas: Step By Step
Step 1. Select a set of images for stitching and open the Photo Merge Panorama dialog in the same manner that I previously suggested for opening the HDR dialog.
Step 2. Choose your method of Projection. Your Projection method is the technique by which Lightroom stitches your images together. (If you’re used to stitching panoramas in Photoshop, these different methods are referred to as Layout, and we were given six options as opposed to four, but also like HDR in Lightroom, I suspect we’ll get more tools as this new feature evolves.)
The easiest option for choosing your Projection method is to check the box Auto Select Projection. You can always override Lightroom’s auto-suggestion simply by clicking on one of the buttons to test the look of each, which I think is the best workflow, but you’ll probably find that Lightroom gets it right the vast majority of the time. Perspective generally works best for architectural images or images with a set of clear horizontal or vertical lines. Cylindrical and Spherical are best for images with different kinds of distortion caused by wide-angle lenses or close proximity to your subject matter. Again, just click on each to see what they do to determine which gives you the best look.
Step 3. Check or uncheck Auto Crop. Regardless of the stitching method, you’re always left with some white canvas that extends beyond the edge of your stitched photo. Logically, Auto Crop cuts off the white canvas while preserving as much of the image as possible. This doesn’t take into account the aesthetics of the image, of course, so if Lightroom gets that wrong, you’ll have to manually override the Auto Crop by using your Crop Overlay tool in the
Whether stitching or blending, Lightroom’s new Photo Merge tools are an exciting addition to my workflow. Even if you like your Photoshop, Photomatix or PTGui tools for your landscape workflow and aren’t quite ready to give them up, I encourage you to go through these steps and try what Lightroom now has to offer. I suspect it will make most or all of your landscape workflow faster, and the quality of your final product will possibly look a bit better because you’ve stayed in a RAW developing environment. Happy shooting!
Jason Bradley is a nature and underwater photographer from Monterey, California. He owns and operates Bradley Photographic Print Services and Bradley Photographic Workshops, and has authored the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. To see more of Jason’s work, visit BradleyPhotographic.com.