RAW Image Files for HDR

How to create HDR images with RAW files

Following on from the comments yesterday on my post ‘Get it Right in the Camera’

I said that my aim is always to get the picture composition and exposure right in the camera in order to cut down time and effort spent on the computer – hence, more time to take pictures. This is a view I pass on to the photographers who come on my Photography Holidays & Courses.

However, it is not always possible to get things spot-on in the camera, and in his comment yesterday, Anthony asked if I sometimes exposed for the shadows to prevent losing detail in them.

HDR - retaining detail in shadows

Detail in the shadows has been recovered in this photograph by adjusting the RAW image file after the picture was taken. Exposure was made for the much lighter background. See the original image below. Photograph by Philip Dunn

I rarely expose for the shadows. In situations where there is deep shadow and bright highlights within the composition, I prefer to revert to the RAW file to create an image with High Dynamic Range (HDR).

One of the photographs I took yesterday is a good example of how this can work well. The foreground of this scene was in deep shadow while the background was bathed in bright sunlight. The exposure was made for the background and the shadows allowed to go dark. The finished photograph is above, and the original is below. You can see there is a great deal of difference.

retaining shadow detail in RAW file

This is the original photograph as I took it. Notice that I have exposed for the brighter background and allowed the foreground shadow to go dark. Photograph by Philip Dunn

Sometimes I may copy the RAW file and lighten the shadows on this copy by up to 2 f/stops. I then convert the original and the lightened copy to TIFFs or jpegs.

In Photoshop I then create a layer for each of these two images with the lighter one at the back.

I create a Mask Layer for the front (darker) image.

I then burn gently through the Mask Layer in the shadow areas of the image to lighten them. In other words, to reveal the lighter layer behind.

Sometimes I may create several layers of different tone, colour and exposure and combine these to make the final image. It depends on the scene and what I am trying to achieve from the picture.

A word of caution with this technique – overcook things and the image will appear flat and lack contrast – this is the most common fault when producing HDR images.

You can learn more about the techniques described here on a Photography Course with Philip Dunn

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