Landscape Photography Tips

Merge to HDR Pro

In this article, landscape photographer Keith Bozeman explains how to tackle tricky lighting conditions in post-production using Merge to HDR Pro. This article originally featured in Issue 36 of Light & Landscape Magazine.

Tricky Golden Hour Lighting

Each year I conduct workshops for people who are interested in taking their photography to the next level. We visit beautiful locations and learn how to capture images in a variety of conditions. One condition that new photographers struggle with is capturing realistic images at sunrise and sunset. A beginning photographer finds out fairly quickly that shooting into the sun does not produce the well-balanced images that you see online and in magazines. This is because the contrast range between the foreground and background is often too large to be captured in one exposure by most digital cameras.  

This inability to photograph what he or she sees in person can quickly become a frustration to a new photographer. Even if a student is taught how to bracket exposures, the variety of ways available to combine them together can be overwhelming within itself. Fortunately, there are programs available to help aspiring photographers get to the next level. One of the programs that I like to teach my students how to use to combine exposures for dynamic range is the 32 Bit-Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.  

Merge to HDR Pro vs Merge to HDR (Lightroom)

I have always tried to combine exposures in such a way as to produce an image that is as close to real as possible. I believe that Merge to HDR Pro does a great job with that.  Not only does it do a great job with the realism, but it is also fairly easy to use. Merge to HDR Pro is not to be confused with the Merge to HDR in Lightroom. These two programs do not produce the same quality of image. I have found that Merge to HDR in Lightroom produces very noisy images, even if the entire dynamic range is captured. Here are some images that were processed using Merge to HDR Pro.

Key Mill Branch Falls - Post-processed in Merge to HDR Pro

Key Mill Branch Falls

The image above was taken at Key Mill Branch Falls in Bankhead National Forest, Alabama. Even on a cloudy day, the dynamic range was too great to capture it all in one exposure. The main reason for the wide range of contrast is the deep undercut overhangs and the very bright water. Merge to HDR Pro worked well in this situation. The colors look very natural and there is no ghosting. If you were to try to open up the shadows in a normal RAW file, it would bring out a lot of noise. This 32 Bit image processed in Merge to HDR Pro does not have any noise in the shadows.

Zion National Park - Post-processed in Merge to HDR Pro

Zion National Park, Utah

The above image was taken at Zion National Park, Utah. My wife and I had just spent the entire day hiking the Narrows. We were on our way out when I came across this scene. The blue sky contrasted nicely with the red rock, but the range was just too much for the camera to handle. Merge to HDR Pro produced a nice, noise-free image.

Jacob Hamblin Arch - Post-processed in Merge to HDR Pro

Jacob Hamblin Arch

A couple of years ago my wife and I went on a backpacking trip in Utah.  We visited several places, one of which was Coyote Gulch. It was truly an amazing place. This image was taken at Jacob Hamblin Arch. We camped just below the arch. This was taken in the evening, so it was fairly dark in the canyon but bright in the sky. This would have been a difficult image to process without Photoshop skills. Merge to HDR Pro did a great job with the processing.

Mize Mills Falls

Sipsey Wilderness Area, Alabama

I love hiking and shooting in the Sipsey Wilderness Area in Alabama. This was the very first waterfall that I saw when I visited there for the first time years ago. I fell in love with this place. It is a beautiful place to visit but it is a challenge to photograph. The canyon walls are deeply undercut, creating very dark shadows. Here Merge to HDR Pro made processing this image a breeze.

Sunrise at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge.

Wheeler Wildlife Refuge, Limestone County, Alabama

This final image was taken at Wheeler Wildlife Refuge in Limestone County, Alabama. Even with the fog, the light was extremely bright on this particular morning. Contrasted with the summer greens, this made for a difficult exposure. I shot this in manual mode to ensure that I was able to get all of the highlights so that it would process correctly.

Merge to HDR Pro Tutorial

To create a successful HDR image you must capture the entire dynamic range of the scene.  To do this you must first set the camera in either AV mode or manual mode.  Next,  set the exposure compensation to medium exposure (0).  Begin taking exposures  in one stop increments above medium until you capture all of the shadows.  Go back to medium.  Next, take exposures in one stop increments below medium until all the highlights have all been captured.  Once the entire dynamic range has been photographed, then the exposures can be combined using Merge to HDR Pro.  

Here are the steps to combine the images in Merge to HDR Pro:

1.  Load up all the images into either Lightroom or Adobe Bridge.

2.  Select all the images by clicking on the first image, holding down “Shift” key, and then clicking on the last image.

3.  If you are using Lightroom, right-click on the mouse, go up to “Edit in”, and choose “Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop.”

4.  The images will then be loaded up into Merge to HDR Pro.

5.  If you are using Adobe Bridge, select all the images, right-click, and then choose “Open in Camera RAW.”

6.  Once in Camera RAW, select all the images, and then choose “Open.”

7.  The images will open up in Photoshop.  Once they are loaded in Photoshop, then go to “File.”

8.  Choose “Automate” and then choose “Merge to HDR Pro.”

9.  Choose “Add open files”  and check “Attempt to automatically align source images.”

10.  Choose “ok.”

11.  Once you are in Merge to HDR Pro, set the mode to “32-Bit.”

12. Uncheck “Complete Toning in Adobe Camera RAW.”

13.  Check “Remove Ghosts.”

14.  Choose the sharpest image in the group and click on it.  This will be the base image that Merge to HDR Pro will use so that there will not be any ghosting.

15.  Choose, “Ok.”

16.  Once the HDR image opens back up in Photoshop, you will choose “Save” if you are using Lightroom or “Save As” if you are using Adobe Bridge.

17. In Lightroom, your HDR file will show up right next to your original series of files.

18.  In Adobe Bridge, you will have to find your file wherever you saved it.

19.  In Lightroom, you should be able to edit the image in the “Develop” module.

20.  In Adobe Bridge you need to right-click on the image and choose “Open in Camera RAW.”

21.  Once your file is open in Camera RAW, you will see the flexibility a 32-Bit HDR image has.

Merge to HDR Pro screenshot.

If you adjust the exposure you will see that you can go 10 stops below and above medium. The noise should be minimal in the image if you captured the entire dynamic range.

If you have been wanting to take your photography to the next level but are overwhelmed with layers and masking in Photoshop, then Merge to HDR might be the just what you need.  I hope that you found the article interesting and informative.  Happy shooting!

Merge to HDR Pro Video Tutorial

Bio – Keith Bozeman

I am a professional educator, nature photographer, and an avid outdoorsman who is based in Hartelle, Alabama.  I have been doing nature photography for almost 15 years.  Many of my images are featured in national calendars and magazines. I conduct basic principles, digital processing, and travel workshops in the North Alabama area. I love exploring and photographing in the remote areas of Alabama as well as other beautiful places in the continental US.

Bio photo of Keith Bozeman.