How to Use HDR Merge in Lightroom: A Step-By-Step Guide

The post How to Use HDR Merge in Lightroom: A Step-By-Step Guide appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Andrew S. Gibson.

How to effectively use HDR merge in Lightroom

HDR techniques are a great way to maintain plenty of detail in both the highlights and shadows of your photos, especially when dealing with high-contrast scenes (e.g., a landscape at sunset).

However, once you’ve captured several bracketed files in the field, you’ll need to merge them in post-processing.

Now, there are a lot of plugins that you can use with Lightroom to create high-quality HDR photos, but the truth is that Lightroom’s own HDR Merge feature does an excellent job. With HDR Merge, you can create HDR files right within Lightroom, and you won’t have to pay for any plugins or extras.

In this article, I’ll explain why I recommend Lightroom’s HDR Merge feature for blending your files, and I’ll share my step-by-step process for getting a great final image (using several of my own HDR landscape photoshoots as examples).

Let’s dive right in!

Advantages to using Lightroom’s built-in HDR Merge feature

HDR merge in Lightroom

If you talk to other photographers who use HDR techniques, you might find that everyone has different software preferences. Some use Photoshop, others swear by Luminar Neo’s HDR Merge extension, and still others rely on dedicated HDR programs like Photomatix Pro.

But while all of the above options can certainly get the job done, there are several advantages to using Lightroom for your HDR conversions:

  1. You save money. Most HDR plug-ins are not free, and if you rely on a different editor or a dedicated HDR program for your workflow, you can expect to pay a significant fee. But if you already own a Lightroom subscription, the HDR Merge functionality is built in.
  2. Lightroom’s HDR merge creates natural-looking HDR images. Not everybody will see this as an advantage, but Lightroom does a great job of avoiding garish, over-saturated HDR photos.
  3. You don’t need a lot of bracketed images. In my experience, two are enough for a good result: one exposed at -2 stops, the other at +2 stops. (You can use more bracketed files if you want, and this is probably a good idea if you have a really contrasty scene – but in general, two should work well.)
  4. The final HDR image is saved as a DNG file. Not only is a DNG file smaller than a TIFF file, but you can process it in Lightroom the same way you process any other DNG or RAW file. The main difference is that the Exposure slider runs from -10 to + 10 stops, rather than the normal -4 to +4. There is also much more information in the file for Lightroom to work with when you make adjustments with the Shadows and Highlights sliders (as well as when applying targeted adjustments using Lightroom’s masking tools).
  5. You can take bracketed sequences hand-held, and Lightroom will align them automatically. Lightroom’s Auto Align option lets you work with several bracketed photos that don’t feature identical framing. Having said that, I’ve found the best results do come from bracketed photos captured with a tripod-mounted camera!

How to combine bracketed photos using HDR Merge in Lightroom

Working with Lightroom’s built-in HDR tool is extremely easy – so even if you’re not an experienced photo editor, you shouldn’t run into any problems! Just follow these instructions:

Start in Grid View in the Library module, and select the images you want to merge. Alternatively, you can select the images in the Develop module Filmstrip.

Right-click on your selected images, then select Photo Merge>HDR. (You can also choose Photo>Photo Merge>HDR in the main menu.)

HDR merge in Lightroom
Once you’ve selected your bracketed files, opening the HDR dialog is easy.

The HDR Merge Preview window should open, and you’ll see Lightroom’s preview of the HDR image. Note that it may take some time for the preview to load, especially if you’ve selected a lot of images for merging.

You may be surprised to see that there aren’t many settings to adjust. This is deliberate – the aim is to let Lightroom produce a natural-looking HDR image, which you can then process in the Develop module to achieve your desired look. But you do have a few options:

The Auto Align and Auto Settings boxes will be ticked by default, and the Deghost Amount will be set to None. (If you change the settings, Lightroom remembers your last inputs, so always make sure you’re using the right settings before continuing!)

What do these HDR Merge settings do?

Auto Align is useful if the camera moved between exposures, which generally happens when handholding. If this box is checked, Lightroom will work to line up your different images so the blended file looks natural.

And Auto Settings performs a similar function to the Auto settings in the Basic Panel of the Develop module.

I find HDR Merge works best with the Auto Align and Auto Settings boxes ticked (see below). There’s also the option to change the Deghost Amount – here, the goal is to prevent any artifacts (such as lines or blur) caused by subject movement between frames. If your scene was completely still, just leave the setting at None; however, if there was movement from shot to shot, such as a tree waving in the wind or a person trotting across the landscape, you can set the Deghost Amount to Low, Medium, or High.

You can’t zoom in to 100% in the HDR Merge Preview window, so you may only become aware of ghosting once you move on to the Develop module and zoom in to 1:1. If you notice ghosting at that stage, you can always go back and reprocess the images. And you can tick the Show Deghost Overlay box to reveal the areas where Lightroom has detected ghosting.

(How do you know which Deghost Amount is best? Honestly, you’ll just need to use trial and error – it’s different for each set of images.)

HDR merge in Lightroom
One of my landscape images in the HDR Merge dialog box. Note that more recent versions of Lightroom will display “Auto Settings” instead of “Auto Tone,” but the effect is the same!

Once you’re done tweaking the settings, go ahead and click the Merge button at the bottom. Lightroom will save the merged image as a DNG file with the suffix -HDR appended to the file name. It’ll also take you back to the module where you started. From there, you can edit the image as normal in the Develop module.

This is the result of my HDR merge. I used two photos, bracketed one stop apart. That’s not a lot of bracketing, but it was a cloudy day and what I wanted was a photo that captured detail in both the landscape and the sky. On a sunny day, the light is higher contrast, so you generally need to use images bracketed further apart.

HDR merge in Lightroom
My merged HDR image!

You’ve merged your images – what now?

Your HDR file should be treated as a starting point in your processing. It’s a new RAW file that you can then edit in the Develop module to achieve the desired effect. 

In my case, I thought the merged photo was too light, so I darkened it in the Develop module. I also made some tonal adjustments and increased the Clarity. Here’s the same image, but after those edits have been applied:

HDR merge in Lightroom
I started by merging my bracketed files. I then added some tonal adjustments and boosted the Clarity. This is the result.

The screenshot below shows a comparison between the HDR image (right) and the same photo taken without any exposure compensation (left). As you can see, merging two exposures has allowed me to capture the details in the gray clouds.

HDR merge in Lightroom

Note: If after merging your files, you think the image has too much of an HDR feel, you can use the Basic Panel sliders or local adjustments to alter the tonal values. For example, you can increase Shadows or the Blacks setting to add contrast, so you don’t have the “unnatural detail in every shadow” effect typical of overdone HDR.

Here’s another example, this time with photos taken in the sun that have a much greater brightness range. The two photos were taken at +1 and -1 stops, respectively:

HDR merge in Lightroom

This is the result that Lightroom gave after the HDR merge process:

HDR merge in Lightroom

And this is how it looks after editing in the Develop module:

HDR merge in Lightroom

The differences are subtle; I just made the image a little darker and moved the Highlights slider to zero to bring out as much detail in the clouds as possible.

High-contrast examples

So far, I’ve shown you how Lightroom’s HDR Merge handles files that encompass moderate tonal ranges. But what if the scene has a huge tonal range, forcing you to created three or more bracketed images?

This next example involves three photos with a total of seven stops difference in exposure. You probably won’t need to make the exposure differences that drastic in your everyday shooting, but it’s always interesting to try.

HDR merge in Lightroom

Here’s the result:

HDR merge in Lightroom

The water looks different in each version of the photo, so I set the Deghost Amount to High. Note that the deghosted area (shown in red below) covers all of the water – when I compare the three original images, I can see that Lightroom has used the water from the first photo in the sequence, avoiding the ghosting that would be caused by merging three photos with a different level of water in each shot.

HDR merge in Lightroom

Let me share one more example sequence, just so you can see how Lightroom handles another high-contrast scene. First, we have four separate images covering a wide tonal range:

Here's an extreme contrast example
Here’s an extreme contrast example. I created four images covering a total of five stops bracketed to keep details in the buildings outside and to capture some detail inside.

And here’s the final shot after applying HDR Merge and doing a bit of editing:

The final HDR merged and edited version.
The final version!

Can’t find your new HDR file?

If you’re not sure where to find the newly created HDR file, set Sort to File Name in the Grid View, and it will appear next to the first image in the sequence (but make sure you are in the folder of originals, not inside a collection).

HDR merge in Lightroom

Final notes

It’s best to carry out the HDR Merge process with files that haven’t yet been edited in the Develop module, as Lightroom only retains some of your adjusted settings in the final file.

These are taken from one of your images and applied to the HDR file. They are listed below (all other settings are returned to their default):

  • Presence sliders
  • The Color Mixer panel
  • The Color Grading panel
  • The Detail panel
  • The Lens Corrections panel

Lightroom also requires access to the original photo files. It can’t create an HDR image from Smart Previews alone.

Create some amazing HDR photos with Lightroom!

Hopefully, you can now see just how powerful HDR Merge is – and why you don’t need to spend extra money on a dedicated HDR program.

The best way to get familiar with HDR Merge is to head into Lightroom and play around. Run a few merges using the process I shared above, and when you’re done, do a bit of editing to get the best possible results.

Now over to you:

Have you tried Lightroom’s HDR merge tool? If so, what do you think? Is it a worthwhile addition to Lightroom’s toolkit, or do you prefer a different solution? Please let us know in the comments below.

The post How to Use HDR Merge in Lightroom: A Step-By-Step Guide appeared first on Digital Photography School. It was authored by Andrew S. Gibson.

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