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Lightroom HDR – An alternative, not a game changer

Lightroom6Trafalgar Photography websites and twitter feeds have been going crazy over the last 48 hours with the release of Lightroom CC (or 6). I’ve seen a few videos already on Lightroom’s new features and without wanting to burst the party bubble, I can’t find anything new that’s really that revolutionary. Yes there are a couple of additions that will make things a bit easier, and it’s faster (if you say so), but the headlines seem to be ‘merge to panorama’ (I wasn’t aware Lightroom didn’t do this already) and ‘merge to HDR’. The latter is of course of particular interest to me.

Now for the record, let me put it out there that I love Lightroom. It was my favourite photography program for many years and helped further my passion with photography. Now that I am a bit more skilled in photoshop, I tend to use that a lot more, simply because it can basically do everything Lightroom can do (in the development sense) and a whole lot more. Yes organisation is important, and all of my photos still live, begin and end in Lightroom, but for me the real magic these days lies in Photoshop.

That said, there is still lots I love about Lightroom and was eager to test out the new HDR feature, as soon as I heard Lightroom was implementing this. First of all, I genuinely did question if Lightroom really needs this. With other specialised HDR software out there like Photomatix, which Lightroom has made it very easy to export to, I can only think that Adobe are trying to make it slightly quicker, and push Lightroom to being a one-stop shop for all photographic processes. The problem with that though, is nearly every photography program has it’s particular strength, and Lightroom’s is raw processing. Photomatix’s is HDR. For Lightroom to compete any where near on the same level as Photomatix, it would have to have many variable options, and tone-mapping processes that can lead to varying HDR ‘looks’. It does not have any of these. When you select a group of photographs and select ‘merge to HDR’, you get 3 options for creating the HDR – Auto-align (click on or off), Auto-tone (click on or off) and the level of ghost reduction. It then produces the merged HDR image, which also contains some pre-processing involving my least favourite method of creating an HDR image, by pushing the highlights slider to 0 and the shadows slider to max (or near enough). You can then process the image as you would any other Lightroom image. You obviously cannot layer mask different photographs, meaning one of the fundamental aspects of HDR is lost, which is to process the tone-mapped image with features from the original bracketed photos.

I created the photograph above using the HDR process in Lightroom, and I think it shows what Lightroom HDR can do pretty well, that is producing natural looking HDR pictures. I think this is perhaps its intended field. I was underwhelmed at first with the HDR picture that Lightroom produced after the merge, but I soon got underway, transforming the image into the best result I could. The thing that impressed me the most actually was the sharpening aspect, which seems to work really well with the HDR images Lightroom creates. The sharpening slider in general seems improved in Lightroom. So the details and the sharpening look great for a natural image, but I can’t really see how you can push the HDR harder, should you wish to do. I won’t rule out using HDR in Lightroom in future, but can see myself using perhaps it for the interior photography work I do, which calls for a more realistic look.

Photomatix vs Lightroom

I also went back and created a new Lightroom HDR of a previous picture I had initially processed in Photomatix (with additional post processing achieved in Photoshop). The top picture was created in Photomatix, and though I created it a few years ago now (and would not exactly be the result I would aim for today), you can see the small details (especially in shadow areas) miles better than in Lightroom’s HDR image below it. The whole photograph itself gives a much more interesting and atmospheric look than the Lightroom version. It just evokes the scene to a far greater degree for myself as the photographer. This is where I worry that one of the main points with HDR is lost, that photography programs want to create natural HDR looks, which would always have been possible with exposure blending and layer masking anyway. HDR does have a look that people associate with it, which largely derives from the tone-mapping process but it’s a look that lends itself to creating an image a bit more artistic and punchier than a stander photograph.

Rural Poland by Pete Halewood

LightroomCCRuralPoland

Conclusion

As the title states, HDR processing in Lightroom is an alternative method of creating HDR images, but I doubt HDR lovers like myself will be skipping Photomatix to settle for Lightroom’s HDR processing. It is not revolutionary in any way. In Lightroom, there simply aren’t the options to create diverse and unique HDR images, and it’s strength lies in more natural images, for which I can see it being used quite extensively for.

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