Make cool outdoor HDR images

Photo editing: create an outdoor HDR image

High dynamic range effects are hugely popular, and creating an 'arty' HDR image is easy. These images can look like paintings, as they display intricate detail across the tonal range, from the brightest highlights to the dark shadows, for an 'unreal' look you can’t capture in a single photo.

In this project we’ll show you how to create an HDR image by taking three (or more) exposures to capture a scene's tonal range, and combining them. You can buy dedicated HDR software (get a free trial of Photomatix Pro from, but here we’ve used the Merge To HDR Pro option in Photoshop CS6 (this feature is available in Photoshop CS4 and above). There’s also Photomerge Exposure in Elements, but this is better for photorealistic effects than the 'arty' look. Choose a scene with detail in both the highlights and shadows - architecture works well - and ideally with some cloud detail in the sky.

01. Bracketed exposures

Photo editing: create an outdoor HDR image 1

First of all you’ll need to take a bracketed sequence of shots, using your camera's AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) feature. Select Av mode, set the aperture to around f/11, and set the AEB to take three exposures: 'standard', -2 stops and +2 stops. Use a tripod for maximum sharpness, and also so that your HDR software can align the images easier. Shoot Raw for the best results.

02. Three shots become one

Photo editing: create an outdoor HDR image 2

In Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro, select your bracketed exposure and click OK to merge the shots. In the Merge to HDR dialog you can select a preset effect - we chose Surrealist High Contrast - and then fine-tune the effect using sliders; in addition to regular tonal adjustments you can use the Edge Glow, Radius and Strength sliders to control the HDR effect.

03. Final tweaks

Photo editing: create an outdoor HDR image 3

Click OK, and wait for a minute or so for Photoshop to process the HDR image; this will appear in the main Photoshop workspace, named Untitled_HDR image. HDRs can look a bit 'flat' at this stage, so to boost the contrast we created a subtle S-curve in Curves (use Levels in Elements after using Photomerge Exposure or Photomatix Pro.) Sharpen the image to finish.

This tutorial first appeared in PhotoPlus magazine, the only magazine in the newsagent that's 100% dedicated to Canon D-SLRs.

Now check out our massive list of 101 Photoshop tutorials!

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