Tutorial: HDR Shadowmapping   31 comments


This tutorial has been updated, Feb. 09, 2011 to reflect changes in Photomatix Pro options. These changes are in bold text below.

Specific recipes for tonemapping HDR images come up in conversation with friends, which alone tells you that I’m pretty much a photo-dork. While I almost always freely share the little that I know, there is one “secret” technique that I’ve held close to the chest.  Until now.  A friend of mine and a talented photographer, Reid Mason, passed along the words of a teacher he once had, “When you give away your very best secret weapon, you are forced to go find a new one.”

So be it, then. It’s a technique that I call “Shadowmapping”, and I’ve had good success with it. Credit and thanks go to Christian Bloch for this technique, although I’ve made a few subtle changes to the original recipe.

Since this gets a little involved and screen shots are required, I’ll get right to it with minimum verbiage.  You can always contact me or leave comments if you have further questions.

For this example, we’re going to tonemap a single RAW image that you may recognize as one of my favorites, Flagstaff Lake Sunrise, but there is no reason not to use multiple bracketed shots.  In fact, it would be better to do so. Here is the original RAW image, rendered to JPG for this blog:

Some may say that it’s good enough, or that with a little tweaking in Photoshop it could be great.  For the post-processing addicted, however, it’s never good enough!

This tutorial uses multiple tonemaps of the same image, so it’s necessary to have an HDR file that you can go back to several times to create the different tonemaps. When using only one RAW image as your source, there is a difference in how Photomatix Pro 3 and Photomatix Pro 4 operate.

Pre-Photomatix Pro 4.0 – The first thing we’ll do is to use Photomatix Pro to create a psuedo-HDR out of this file.  Use the “Batch Single Files” function for this, and do not perform any tonemapping — just save the new radiance (.hdr) file in a folder. If you’re using multiple brackets, create a radiance file in the usual way by merging the multiple exposures.

Post-Photomatix Pro 4.0 (Updated information)

With the release of Photomatix Pro 4.0, you can no longer use the ‘Batch Single  Files’ option to create a ‘pseudo’-HDR file from a single RAW file. At least, I haven’t been able to find a way to do so.  If you’re using Photomatix Pro 4.0 or later, you now have two options for passing a single RAW file through the program:

1) Do a File -> Open command to open up your RAW file. This will bring you straight to the tonemapping dialogue after Photomatix converts your RAW file. From here, you can adjust tonemapping settings and generate a tonemap file that you can save as a TIF. To create other tonemaps, simply go back and do another File -> Open command on the RAW file, changing the tonemapping settings, saving it off. Rinse and repeat for each tonemap you want to create.

2) Open the single RAW file in Adobe Camera Raw and save it without adjustments, naming it “file-0.tif” Then, adjust the exposure setting to -2EV, and save the file with an appropriate file name such as “file-2.tif”. Do this once again, but adjust the exposure to +2EV, and save as “file+2.tif”.  When all three versions are saved, merge the three in Photomatix as you would for a ‘normal’ HDR.  Be sure to view and save the intermediate HDR file. After that, you can open the HDR and save multiple tonemaps as per the tutorial.

Some would argue that the second option isn’t a true HDR, and while that’s true, most people get good results from ACR-adjusted images, so it’s certainly worth a try. Of course, the absolute BEST solution is to always start with multiple exposure brackets, not a single RAW file.

Note: For any of the images in this blog, you can click for a larger view.

The next step is to create several different tonemaps from that psuedo-HDR.

I always start with a tonemap at the Default settings, just to get a baseline for the image. It may not be necessary, but it only takes a few moments:

These settings result in:

The next tonemap is what I usually label as “Vivid.” On this one, try cranking up Saturation, Luminosity, and Microcontrast.  You really want it to be colorful, sharp, and wild.  (Note: Please don’t ever publish one of these as a standalone image! Your friends will stop talking to you.) Exact slider settings depend on the image, so feel free to play around.  In this example, I raised Micro-smoothing in order to avoid grainy clouds.

From these settings, the Vivid output is:

Now comes the “secret” Shadowmap iteration.

Send the (pseudo)HDR through tonemapping again, but drop the Saturation to 0, lower the Strength a bit, and set the White Point and Black Point to the maximum. You could also adjust the Black Clipping point. Tinker around with other settings at will; the intent is to get a super-high-contrast, black & white version of your image, highlighting all the shadows and highlights.

The resulting Shadowmap looks like:

Come to think of it, that would make a decent B&W version.  Run with it, if that’s where your artistic sensibilities take you.

Now comes the fun part: Load all three tonemaps — Default, Vivid, and Shadowmap — into Photoshop. While you’re at it, you might want to call in the original RAW file in case you need some bits of it. (We won’t for this example.) You could also include other tonemaps generated in order to highlight specific details.  I prefer to load these images into separate tabs, rather than as layers… sometimes you won’t even choose to use a given file once you see where things are going.

Moving to the Shadowmap file, copy the entire image (Cmd-A/Cmd-C on the Mac), the go to the Vivid tab and and paste it as a new layer over the Vivid tonemap (Cmd-V).  Change the blending mode of the new Shadowmap layer to Hard Light and set the opacity of the that layer to about 40%.  Clearly, no two images are alike, so you should feel free to play around with different blending modes and opacity settings.

This is where we’re at with the above layer settings of Hard Light at 40%:

Again, we could probably stop there and have a decent image, but I think this one has a bit too much contrast, so we’ll dial it back. This could probably be done by adjusting the opacity of the Shadowmap layer, but for illustrative purposes, I’ll go get the Default tonemap by copying and pasting it as a new layer on top of the other two. Use Normal blending mode, and bring the Opacity down to about 30%.  After that, we have:

The effect is subtle here, but the contrast is diminished a bit, and there’s a bit more overall softness.

You should feel free to call in other files, or use other blending modes and opacities.  You could even run your stacked image through other filters such as NIK Color Efex Pro, OnOne Phototools, or Topaz Adjust.  It’s your free time, after all.

Now all that is left are the finishing touches. When you get the image pretty much where you’d like it to be, run a noise-reduction pass (I use Imagenomic’s Noiseware.)  It could be argued that noise-reduction should have been done to each tonemap as a first step so as not to multiply artifacts. That, too, is your choice. Crop, if needed. Add any other adjustment layers such as Curves or Hue/Saturation to bring up or knock back specific colors, and then employ the Low Amount/High Radius Sharpening techniques that I wrote about in my previous post. In this case, both LAHR and then HALR settings were used to produce this “final” version:

So, there you have it. I would probably work this image a bit further in order to galvanize a few details (and indeed I did in my first version), but this is essentially the “Shadowmapping” technique.  A far cry from the original RAW file, I’d say.

Please feel free to add to the discussion.  If you decide to use this technique, I’d love to see the results you’ve had with it. As we all know, there is no “one size” for HDR, tonemapping, or post-processing, but this does illustrate a flow that I use frequently for those special images.

Live strong!

Posted July 25, 2010 by Rob Hanson Photography

31 responses to “Tutorial: HDR Shadowmapping

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  1. Very cool tutorial Rob! I’ll have to try this out sometime.

  2. This is one of my favorite images, awesome job!! Thank you for sharing your work flow!!

  3. Now this I’ve got to try Rob. I’ve got free play time tomorrow…..

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  5. wow! its really hard to find out a work flow of picture what i really liked. Thanks a lot of showing this! Im going to try this way, i hope that result will be finally exactly what i want 🙂 I have to tell you, your works are just awesome. I just – Don’t you think it would look more clear without that distraction at the top? i mean that pine tree. But perfect work and keep up! Best wishes from Slovak republic! 🙂

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  14. Rob, just found this tutorial (actually through a link from Scotty Wyden) and it’s great! Thanks for publishing it! Ima try this out this weekend!

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  20. never heard of this but certainly going to try it, thank you so much 🙂

  21. Great. Thanks Rob!

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  24. This is a great place to start out into the wonderful world of HDR. I have added a luminosity layer to my workflow as recommended by everydayhdr, but your 2 (or 3) layer system is a remarkable backbone to any HDR workflow.

  25. Thanks for dropping by, Jack. I’m glad you found the tutorial to be useful.

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  28. love it

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