Natural Looking HDR Photography with HDR Expose

A few months ago, I discovered and started using a new HDR tool that I later reviewed on my blog in an article entitled,  HDR Expose 3 – King of Natural Looking HDR. Many of my readers expressed interest in this tool and, as a result, I am releasing a step by step tutorial on how to achieve natural looking HDR images using HDR Expose.

If you want to follow along, please download the fully functional HDR Expose 3 30 day trial here and, in the event you decide to purchase the full version, please use the coupon code PHOTOTRACES at the checkout to receive 10% off.

Make sure you install it as a plug-in for Adobe Lightroom and not as a standalone application.

You will learn following:

  • How to prepare (preprocess) bracketed images before merging them for HDR
  • How to use HDR Expose 3 plugin in Lightroom
  • How to align multiple images in HDR Expose 3
  • How to tone map bracketed photos for HDR
  • How to bring HDR image back to Lightroom
  • How to achieve the desired look in Lightroom and Photoshop

Below you can find my Before&After Widget which illustrates 11 editing steps of my workflow. By clicking through numbers (orange squares) you can see how image transforms from step 1 (original raw image) to step 11 (final published photo).

[meteor_slideshow slideshow=”ba-08-cruise-ship” metadata=”height: 600, width: 800″]

Also, I’ve included the source files with this post (original RAW files, layered Photoshop file (PSD), and Lightroom preset). You can download all the files at the end of the post.

Step 1. Original Image

For today’s tutorial, I selected photos I took in Montreal from the Jacques Cartier Bridge, the tallest bridge in the city. I originally took 5 bracketed shots but +2EV was too overexposed and soft. In my previous post, I discussed the challenges of shooting multiple exposures from the bridge.

Below are 4 bracketed shots (-2, -1, 0, +1) I used to tone map HDR image.

Step 2. Lightroom Preprocessing

This is a very simple and quick step I performed before sending bracketed photos for HDR processing. I checked 2 options in the Lens Correction palette: Enable Profile Correction and Remove Chromatic Aberration.

Step 3. HDR Expose 3

A. Export to HDR Expose 3 from Lightroom

I selected 4 bracketed shots in the Library Module of Lightroom, and using the Export command, sent them to HDR Expose 3. I made sure to select Merge and Edit Images with Lightroom Adjustments to preserve the Lightroom edits I completed in step 2 (see screenshot below).

B. Align and Merge

I could not use the Auto alignment option because I had a large cruise ship changing its position from one image to another. Therefore, I selected the Manual option and clicked Preview

Because of the multiple moving objects in my composition (cruise ship, cars in the background), I had to be fairly aggressive with alignment settings. I increased the Key Frame Tuning value up to 12.00 EV. I clicked the Apply button to generate the preview and, upon seeing the eliminated ghosting effects, was ready to merge 4 bracketed images. I clicked the Merge button.

C. Tone Mapping

In the Tone Mapping module, I did not have to do any advanced editing. I simply applied the OPTIMAL preset and clicked the OK button.

When you explore Tone Mapping in HDR Expose 3, start by clicking Reset preset. It will remove tone mapping and display a merged but not toned mapped image. By applying different Presets you can see how the HDR image looks with different tone mapping edits applied.

Ultimately, you can go for fully manual editing by moving sliders in the Operations palette.

D. Saving and Reimporting

This is the last step of HDR processing. I selected the TIFF option for the file type and clicked OK.

Another option is to check Save BEF Copy of the Image and HDR Expose saves the project file which you can open again and continue editing. I did not have to do this because my edits were very simple – preset based.

Steps 4-7. Lightroom

After I finished with HDR tone mapping and clicked OK in the previous step, HDR Expose 3 saved the new HDR image as a TIFF file and reimported it back into Lightroom, saving it next to the original 4 bracketed images.

Lightroom is where I completed all heavy lifting in order to achieve the desired final look.

Step 4 – Cropping
  • Crop Tool. I changed the aspect ratio from 3×2 to 4×3 to improve composition.
Step 5 – Graduated Filters, Radial Filters, Color Correction
  • 2 Graduated Filters (sky, water)
  • 4 Radial Filters (ship, city, sunset and vignette effect)
  • HSL
Step 6
  • Tone Curve.  I used it to lighten up midtones.
Step 7 – Cross Processing Effect, Noise Reduction
  • Split Toning was used to achieve the cross-processing effect.
  • Detail (noise reduction, mostly for color noise)

Below is the screenshot of all the adjustments I used in Lightroom. You can recreate a similar look by following the image below or you can download source files at the end of the post and apply the Lightroom preset with all editing steps with one click.

Steps 8-11. Photoshop

Final touches were completed in Photoshop. I used the following plugins from Topaz Labs: Topaz Clarity, Topaz DeNoise ( you can find my review here:  Topaz DeNoise Product Review).

Step 9 – Cleaning

I used the Stamp Tool to remove distracting elements from both the water and sky.

Step 9 – Contrast, Noise Reduction, Sharpening

Contrast. I used the Topaz Clarity plugin from Topaz Labs to boost the contrast in the area of the city and the ship. This is an optional step and if you do not have the Topaz Clarity plugin, please skip ahead.

Noise Reduction. I used the Topaz DeNoise filter to reduce digital noise. I applied it to the entire image (Preset: RAW – moderate).


Sharpening. Normally, when I need to apply to sharpen I use another plugin from Topaz Labs – Topaz Detail. However, in this case, I used a different technique without employing any additional software. I described this technique in my recent blog post, Photography Tips (#01): My favorite Way to Sharpen Photos in Photoshop.

Step 10 – Color Cast Removal

This is when I realized that the white cruise ship was not exactly white, but had a yellow color cast. I used the Curves Adjustment Layer to reduce it.

Step 11 – Final Touches

Two small adjustments: I used the Curves Adjustment Layer to make the entire image brighter and Vibrance Adjustment Layer to boost saturation.

Final step: the photo was saved as JPG at full resolution and uploaded to my portfolio at SmugMug for safekeeping, sharing and online sales.

by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.

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