Photography tutorial: How to Create an HDR Portrait

Struggling with blown out skies or underexposed subject? Why not try creating an HDR image with this helpful tutorial.

Struggling with blown out skies or underexposed subject? Why not try creating an HDR image. Short for High Dynamic Range, a HDR image does what it says on the tin, going beyond the dynamic range of the camera by merging together two or more source images, taken of the same scene, at different exposure levels, to capture more detail within the highlights and shadows.

The technique used to capture these source images is known as bracketing and, in this tutorial, photographer Tigz Rice will explain how to set up and shoot a series of bracketed stills and then merge them into a HDR image, using an example shot from a recent shoot with model Blossom And Buttercups.


First, you’ll need to set up your camera ready to take a series of bracketed images to create your HDR image from.

This will be different on all cameras, so refer to your camera’s user manual. I’ve set my Canon 5D MK III up to shoot +/-1.

As you’ll be shooting across a couple of seconds, it’s important to make sure both your model and camera are as still as possible during the capture. If you have a tripod handy, use it. A remote trigger may also be useful to remove camera shake.


One you’ve got your images, transfer them onto your computer. In Photoshop, go to File > Automate > Merge to HDR Pro… and click on Browse to locate your images. Highlight your chosen image files and add them into your selection.

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If you shot your images without a tripod, you may want to tick the Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images check box before pressing OK to start your HDR merge.


Photoshop will then create a new HDR image, as well as opening up the HDR Pro dialog box, where we have a series of options to fine-tune our HDR image.

At this point, check that your image Mode is set 16 Bit, which is the highest setting that Photoshop fully supports. You may also wish to choose a preset to work from. Here, I’m starting with the Default setting.


Click on Remove Ghosts checkbox to get rid of any halo effects around areas of sharp contrast.

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The next option we have is Edge Glow, which allows us to control the Radius (size) and Strength of the glow created by areas of short contrast.

I’m not really a fan of this look – especially when working with skin tones in the image – so I’ve chosen to turn it all the way down and will add contrast in later non-destructively.


Skipping down to the bottom Advanced option quickly, I’m also going to reset the Saturation slider to zero, as I don’t want this on either.


Moving into the Tone and Detail section of the HDR Pro options, I’m also going to pull the Gamma slider to the left to increase the contrast between highlights and shadows throughout the HDR image.

I don’t want to go too overboard as I will work on this non-destructively later – and I can see even a small increase is affecting the sky already.

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To balance out the Gamma, use the Exposure slider to adjust the overall exposure levels of the image.

Here, I’ve brought the Exposure down a little to avoid blowing out the sky.


At the bottom of the HDR Pro panel, you also have the option to play with Advanced or Curve tabs, giving you fine control over the tonal range of your HDR image.

While I do want to work on the tone curve of the image, I’m going to instead choose to do this non-destructively in the main Photoshop window instead.

When you’re done with the HDR Pro panel, press OK to go to Photoshop proper.


Back in the main Photoshop window, head over to the Adjustments panel and add a Curves layer. This will allow us to do exactly the same process as the Curve controls in HDR Pro, but here we can work non-destructively – allowing us to make changes as many times as needed without having to start the HDR process again.

Manipulate the curve to bring in a little more contrast as needed.

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Then, add a Colour Balance adjustment layer.

Starting with the Midtones, use the sliders to remove any noticeable colour casts. You should only need to tweak by one or two points per slider.


Repeat the previous step – but this time apply the changes to the Highlights, then the Shadows as required.


Finally continue to edit your image as normal. Here, I’ve used the Upright tool in Camera Raw filter to straighten up the image and correct the perspective on the window.

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