One thing I love about digital photography is the capability to create images that are closer to what we see in the world, rather than being restricted by the technological limitations of the camera sensor. High dynamic range photography, or HDR, has become popular because of its ability to get more detail out of the scene than the camera can capture.
But HDR also has its limitations, not the least of which is that you can only shoot nonmoving subjects. Another limitation is that it applies the effect to the entire image area, and sometimes that’s not the best thing to do for your photo.
Here are two alternate ways of expanding your tonal range, methods you can use regardless if you own any HDR software or not. These are fairly simple to use and don’t require a lot of exposures in the field.
Double-processing RAW brings more detail out of a photograph than standard processing. This can be helpful with subjects that move, such as a street scene, wildlife or a landscape on a windy day. Double-processing relies on the great range of tonality and color that’s available in a RAW file. One advantage to this technique over HDR is that you don’t have to worry about movement in the scene between shots.
The trick to this technique is that you process your single RAW file twice: once to make the highlights look their best and then again to make the shadows look their best. The key is to make one set of tonalities at a time look really good without any compromise (that’s the advantage of this technique over trying to make everything look good in one processing). Here are the steps.
1. Process your file twice. Process your RAW file once for the highlights, making them look as good as possible, ignoring the dark areas and opening it into Photoshop. Then process the same RAW file again for the shadows, making them look as good as possible, ignoring the bright areas and opening it into Photoshop. (Note: You may find a lot of noise as you do this; noise is part of the dark areas of an image.)
This can be done with Adobe Camera Raw that comes with Photoshop and Photoshop Elements. With older versions of Photoshop, you may have to save this file before you can open it a second time into Photoshop.
Lightroom offers a great option that helps the workflow of this technique. Right-click on your file (even if you have a Mac, get a right-click mouse for context-sensitive menus) and select Create Virtual Copy from the menu that appears. Now you have two “copies” of your image so you can quickly process one for the highlights and the other for the shadows. Then select both and right-click on either one. Select Edit In from the menu and Open as Layers in Photoshop (only Edit in Photoshop Elements is available for Elements users).
2. Put the two photos together into one layered file. Lightroom does this automatically for Photoshop. Otherwise, you have to put the two photos together as aligned layers in one file. The images need to float in Photoshop to do this. If they’re tabbed, you need to make them float by either dragging from the tab down or using Window > Arrange > Float All Windows.
Keep the two images visible and overlapping. Choose the Move tool, press Shift, and click on one photo and drag it all the way over onto the other photo. This is important—you must get your cursor all the way over onto the other photo or this won’t work. Release the mouse button first, then the Shift key, and the photos will be lined up with one over the other.