Adobe Lightroom – HDR to the max

Totally uninteresting

In this Lightroom article, we’ll be creating an extremely strong HDR effect. You know, the kind of painting-like one with all those strong midtones, loved by many in landscape and city photos.

Still don’t know what we’re talking about? Just look at the picture at the very bottom of the page. If you’re into it, let’s make something like that out of this rather boring city shot. Actually, this won’t be a HDR photo—we’ll apply simple tone mapping—, but it is quite widely known as HDR.

In newer Lightroom versions, you can edit not only RAW images, but even JPG as well. The above photo is one. After importing, we wandered to the Develop section, where we could find all the editing options normally available for RAW images.

First of all

Before we actually begin, a few preparations won’t hurt. The image looks too blue, and as we’ll be strongly increasing saturation, this would make the final result an orgy of blues. Therefore, we increased the color temperature (Temp) slider to get more yellowish colors.

You may also want to decrease Exposure quite a lot. Never mind if the photo becomes too dark, we’ll lighten the shadows a great deal.

Devoid of shadows

Most of the work will be done using the Recovery and Fill Light sliders. The former is for soothing overly light areas, while the latter lightens up shadows. We set both of them to pretty high values to get the above picture. Not bad for a start, but we miss the blacks a lot—the image is too dull.

Enter the blacks!

They will be recovered using the Blacks slider. The “HDR” feel will remain, as only the darkest areas will revert to black indeed. On the other hand, this lends loads of contrast to the image.

“Wow!” colors

The Vibrance slider will get you breathtaking colors, and Clarity will further enhance the contrast of details. Take care with the latter though, as low values will make the picture dull, while too high ones turn it into a drawing.

Separating the skies…

Applying gradient darkening to the sky will produce a dramatic effect. Lightroom offers the necessary tool also when dealing with JPG images. Click its button, the drag a line from the top of the picture to the bottom of the sky. On the dialog displayed under the button, set Exposure to -2 to conjure a nearly black sky into the photo.

…and the waters

Without leaving the gradient tool, repeat the previous step at the bottom of the picture, with the water surface.

In this case, we used only -1 for exposure decrease. This time, we increased contrast, but decreased the water’s saturation (-50). We set Clarity to the maximum to enhance the shape of the waves. Decreasing Sharpness also reduces potential noise, and a water surface doesn’t need to be sharp anyway. If you have a clear sky such as this, you can also reduce sharpness for that gradient.

Click the gradient button again to switch back to the standard editor view.

Like a painting

We’re done. Bring the mouse pointer above the picture to see the original state. The difference is pretty dramatic.

When handling JPG images, keep in mind that such drastic changes can invoke lots of noise, the details coming forth from the shadows can often be blurred. You may want to carry out the procedure on the full-size photo and then downsize it. Size reduction blissfully conceals a lot.