HDR Toy Photography with Lightroom and Photoshop

Following a discussion on Google+ related to the monthly Toy Photographers community challenge, I decided to write this blog post about HDR in toy photography. Here I compare the result of different digital techniques to cope with high contrast scenes such as shooting directly against the sun.

My goal for using HDR is to manage to get details both in the highlights, such as the sky, and the shadows, such as my toy subject or its surrounding landscape. I want the result to be as realistic as possible and avoid the cheesy kitsch look that is often associated with HDR.

What is HDR?

HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is a digital technique used to combine multiple images with a lower dynamic range in order to better deal with important differences in luminance levels (i.e. differences between the highlights and shadows). A digital camera sensor cannot capture those differences as well as the human eye. HDR can be used to overcome that problem and recreate what a human eye can see.

HDR is also known for highly contrasted and saturated unnatural scenes. However, it’s not technically HDR that is responsible for that but the tone mapping algorithm used to compress the HDR image to a lower dynamic range so it can be shown on a computer screen. Wikipedia has some nice examples of the impact of different tone mapping algorithms.

I won’t go into more details of what is HDR. Also, I won’t go into the details of how I created the different HDR photos because there are plenty of good resources online. Just use the Force Google.

The workflow

I will start by editing a single under-exposed photo that will serve as a reference of what I’m aiming for. Then I will use Lightroom HDR photo merge to create a RAW DNG file from five exposure bracketed photos. Finally, I will use Photoshop HDR photo merge and compare it to the result from Lightroom. (Still if you’re looking for more details about how to use these functionalities you might want to check this.)

[Spoiler alert] In this blog post my opinion is highly biased towards Lightroom. It’s the only software I know with HDR capabilities which can create a DNG file that can be manipulated like any other RAW file. Moreover, it’s extremely simple to use and integrates very well in a Lightroom workflow. The result really looks like a regular photo except it can get more details in the highlights, and getting details back in the shadows (almost) doesn’t create any noise. However, I never used Photoshop’s HDR merge before and was curious to see how different would the result be from Lightroom.

Bracketed shots

Here are the five original bracketed shots directly exported from Lightroom without any adjustments other than lens profile correction. I shoot against the sun and used a reflector to get some details on the minifig. However, it wasn’t enough and I knew I would some post-processing to get the result I wanted.

By using auto-bracketing for this kind of situations, I don’t have to worry about using the right exposure compensation parameters. Moreover, it gives me the possibility to go for HDR in case nothing works as I want.

Single photo editing

Because I want to keep as much details as possible in the sky, I use the most under-exposed photo (the third one). Here’s the list of edits I applied to it:

  • Slightly warmer white balance than what the auto WB the camera used
  • Exposure boosted by 1.6 stopsHighlights at -100 and shadows at +100
  • Whites and blacks slightly boosted to increase contrast
  • A little bit of clarity, dehaze and vignetting
  • A radial filter with a strong feather on the minifig and a little boost in the shadows and the whites to make him pop out.
“Reference” image: single edited shot (with -2 stops exposure compensation)

Lightroom HDR photo merge

Here is the image just after having applied Lightroom’s HDR merge with auto-align, auto-exposure, and no deghosting.

HDR merge of the five bracketed shots in Lightroom without specific edits

Here is the result after adding a few other adjustments.

Final result of the HDR merge of the five bracketed shots in Lightroom

It is noteworthy that both the adjustments and the result are very similar to the edited single shot. The major difference is that the single shot has a significant amount of noise when zoomed in, while the HDR version is (almost) noise free.

Photoshop HDR photo merge

I created the photo by using “Edit In -> Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop”. Then followed the instructions from this video:

This is the result with edits in Camera Raw similar to the ones Lightroom used by default.

HDR merge of the five bracketed shots in Photoshop with similar edits in ACR than what Lightroom uses by default

This is the result with edits in Camera Raw similar to my reference/final image.

HDR merge of the five bracketed shots in Photoshop with similar edits in ACR than my final image

To be honest I was afraid the result wouldn’t look good. Many of the examples I saw (like here) with Photoshop were way too kitsch for me.

Lightroom HDR vs. Photosho HDR

While Photoshop’s result is not that bad, it’s certainly more contrasted (and saturated) than what I want my photo to be. Also, the result seems to be more greenish than the one from Lightroom, even though I used the same white balance parameters. These can probably be fixed into Photoshop but I personally think Lightroom is much simpler to use.

Another interesting point is the difference in size between the files created by Lightroom and Photoshop. Although it combines five 20+ MB raw files, Lightroom DNG is only 57 MB. On the other hand Photoshop TIFF file is 1.14 GB. That said, according to what I’ve read, Photoshop is better at handling deghosting. It’s something that can sometimes be a problem in Lightroom. However, for toy photography, my subject is usually not moving and I rarely need to apply any deghosting in Lightroom anyway.

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