How to expand your photo’s tonal range when HDR techniques aren’t ideal

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.

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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.

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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
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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

3. Show off the best of both photos. You need to cut a hole in the top photo to reveal the bottom one. If you’re not comfortable with layer masks, use the Eraser tool. Erase the bad parts of your top photo to reveal the good parts of the bottom. Use a soft-edged eraser. If you know layer masks and are working in Photoshop, you can add a layer mask to the top image, then paint in black wherever you want to remove the bad parts of that photo (black blocks the layer).

Play around with different sizes to the eraser or brush to refine the blending of the top and bottom photo, use the Undo command or white in the layer mask to make corrections as needed and when the photo looks good, you’re done! You now have an image with a better and more optimized tonal range.

TWO-EXPOSURE PHOTOS
The two-exposure technique is a very similar one to double-processing, except now you work with two original images. This technique starts when you first take the pictures. Take one exposure of the scene or subject for the highlights so that they’re exposed well, and one exposure for the shadows that exposes them properly. Ignore what’s happening in tones away from the important ones in each photo. You’re not creating a compromise exposure for both, but an optimum exposure for each. Lock your camera down on a tripod.

 

You can do this technique with JPEGs or RAW files. The advantage of RAW is that it has more information in the file so you have more to work with as you further optimize your highlight and shadow images in the computer. Here are the steps for using two exposures for a final shot with more tonal range:TwoExp-Orig-2-lg

1. Take two photos of the scene, one for the highlights and one for the shadows.

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2. Process your photos in Lightroom or Photoshop to get the best highlights in the highlights photo and the best shadows in the shadow photo.

The rest of the process is just like using the two images from double-processing.

3. Put the two photos together as layers in one file. Use Lightroom’s connection to Photoshop as described above or create a layered file from your two images in Photoshop. I’m repeating the following instructions because this is one place where I find photographers get messed up. You need to follow these instructions exactly.

With two images overlapping in Photoshop, choose the Move tool, press Shift, and click on one photo and drag it all the way over onto the other photo. This is critical or you’ll get an error message—you must move your cursor all the way over onto the other photo. The cursor’s appearance actually changes as this happens. Release the mouse button first, then the Shift key, and the photos will be lined up with one over the other.

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4. Combine the best of both photos. Cut a hole in the top photo to reveal the bottom photo. Use a soft-edged eraser tool to remove the bad parts of your top photo and reveal the good parts of the bottom. If you know layer masks, add a layer mask to the top image and paint in black to block the bad parts of that photo.

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Change your eraser or brush size as you go to refine the blending of the top and bottom photo, and you’re done! Once again, you have a photo with a better and more optimized tonal range.

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Rob Sheppard

Rob Sheppard is a naturalist, nature photographer and videographer who says his favorite location is the one he is in at any time. He is the author/photographer of over 40 books, as well as a well-known speaker and workshop leader, and a Fellow with the […]

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