HDR Panoramic Workflow – Step By Step Tutorial

Today I want to share my photography workflow when it is necessary to combine two different processing techniques: HDR photography and panorama stitching.

Canada. Ontario

I used to be a big fan of panorama photography, but with the popularity of social media platforms like Google Plus and Instagram, as well as with the widespread of mobile devices, photos with wide panoramic orientation have become less and less popular. They just look too small in social media feeds and on small mobile screens.

These days, I only do panoramas when I intend to print my work.

But in the case of this featured photo, the reason for using this panorama technique was different. When I was scouting a location at Niagara Falls at night, I had no intention of shooting panoramas. The plan was to photograph at sunrise directly into the sun through the mist, thereby featuring three main elements of the composition: the falls, sun and Rainbow Bridge. Understanding that shooting directly into the sun would produce photos with an extreme dynamic range of 22-24 stops, I intended to use HDR photography processing to compensate for it.

What I did not realize was that the scene was a bit too wide and there was no way I could accomplish my plan with my 10mm lens on a Canon 60D cropped sensor. The only solution I saw was to use panorama techniques.

I shot 2 sets of bracketed photos sequences, five frames each, with an exposure ranging from -2 to +2 (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2). Later, I merged two sets of bracketed shots as HDR in Photomatix and then stitched two HDR images in Photoshop. See my detailed steps below.

The main difference in my workflow was the minimal use of Lightroom. I am a big proponent of Lightroom and I always try to stay in a non-destructive editing environment of Lightroom for as long as possible. As a result, in recent years my use of Photoshop was dramatically reduced in favor of Lightroom. But when I was processing this Niagara Falls panorama, I hardly used Lightroom at all. I used Lightroom to import photos from my SD card, exported bracketed images to Photomatix, and then later exported two HDR tone mapped images for editing in Photoshop.

I did all the heavy lifting in Photoshop.

Step 1 – 4

Producing HDR images in Photomatix

First, I imported all my Niagara Falls photos into Lightroom. When I was shooting the sunset at Niagara Falls, I set my bracketing to five exposures (-2, -1, 0, +1, +2) but I only used four images for HDR processing, +2 shots were way too overexposed.

I exported my first set of bracketed shots (Left Panel) from Lightroom to Photomatix.

Here is the tricky part. In order to create seamless panoramas, all images you intend to stich have to be edited identically. When I merged the first set of images in Photomatix, I spent some time trying to find the optimal settings and configuration to achieve my desired look and when I was happy with the result, I hit Save and Re-Import button to bring HDR image back to Lightroom.

Then I exported my second set of bracketed shots (Right Panel) from Lightroom to Photomatix. This time, I did not have to do any adjustments or tweaking. All I did was press the Save and Re-Import button and second HDR image, which was sent back to Lightroom with identical editing. (Photomatix always opens the new image with settings saved from the previous session).

Set 1 (Left Panel)

Set 2 (Right Panel)

In Photomatix, I used the following settings:  Process – Tone Mapping and Method – Tone Compressor (see image for detailed settings)

Steps 5-7

Photoshop Editing

Step 5 – Panorama Stitching
Normally, when I create panoramas, I use the Photoshop Photomerge tool. But in this case, Photomerge didn’t do a good job. It could not find key points to align two images properly. My guess is that the blurry mist confused Photoshop.

I had to rely on old and proven masking and brushing. Since my panorama had only two images and not ten, it was not a complicated task.

Step 6 – Content Aware Fill
My intention was to produce the final image with an aspect ratio of 16×9. When I stitched two images, I had a big empty gap at the top of the image. I used one of my favorite Photoshop tools (it is almost magical) called, Content Aware Fill.

Edit > Fill, Use:Content Aware
And magically, Photoshop extended the sky all the way to the top.

Step 7 – Straightening 
I used the Edit > Transform > Warp tool with the main goal to make the horizon more horizontal. My secondary goal was to hide the tree branches at the right corner of the image.

Step 8 – Cleaning
I used Clone Stamp Tool (S) and Spot Healing Brush Tool (J) to:

  • cover the rest of the tree in the bottom right corner
  • clean sky ( Content Aware Tool produced unwanted repetitive patterns)
  • cover a distracting structure over the falls

Step 9 – Color Adjustment
I added two fill layers with different Color Modes to make the area around the sun richer in color.

Step 10 – Overall Contrast
I used the Curves Adjustment Layer to increase the overall contrast and applied a fancy luminance mask to prevent dark areas from getting too dark.

Step 11 – Vignetting
I added two Curves Adjustment Layers to create a Vignetting effect

Step 12 – Noise Reduction
I used my favorite noise reduction plugin Topaz DeNoise (check my Topaz DeNoise Product Review) to eliminate noise (Preset: RAW – moderate).

When I thought the editing is done and I was ready to save the final image I realized that the entire scene was a bit too dark for my liking and I added another Curves Adjustment Layer to make the entire image lighter.

Final step: 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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