Enhance detail with HDR Toning

Peter Fenech

HDR still divides opinion amongst photographers – some love it, some hate it, siting the often over-processed look the technique can produce

Enhance detail with HDR Toning
Pexels 161758

HDR still divides opinion amongst photographers – some love it, some hate it, siting the often over-processed look the technique can produce. When HDR is not applied with care and restraint, it can certainly create unsightly halos and noise, but when used with precision it can be a powerful method of enhancing fine detail in images.

Introduced in Photoshop CS5, the ability to apply an HDR effect to single images (rather than tone-mapping multiple shots of different exposures) was made available with the HDR Toning feature. This utilises a similar window to Photoshop’s own HDR processor, but allows the photographer to bring out detail and balance exposure by lifting shadows in individual images, within the main Photoshop workspace. Here are some steps to show the usual workflow.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

1. Open HDR Toning

Go Image > Adjustments > HDR Toning to bring up the HDR Toning Dialogue box.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

2. Tone it down

The default toning settings are usually unsuitable for most images, with the effect far too strong. The aim is to simply enhance shadows and accentuate detail subtly, so we need to customise the settings. The actual settings will differ from image to image.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

3. Radius and Strength

Begin by altering the top two sliders. Radius affects the size of the HDR glow effect – essentially controlling of much that HDR look you want to show up in your shot. A low radius creates a very artistic look – a more noticeable HDR appearance, whereas a higher setting spreads the glow further away from edges in your scene, making it less obvious. Strength influences how much contrast the effect has by deepening blacks and brightening whites. Be careful with higher settings as this can often result in blown highlights.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

4. Control tone and detail emhancement

The next panel has three sliders for altering tonality, exposure and detail. Gamma has a global effect on contrast, with low settings generating high contrast (bright highlights, deep shadows) and high settings producing a flatter and more HDR look. High Gamma often turns whites grey, so avoid these values if this occurs in your image. Exposure is a simple slider for controlling overall image brightness. The Detail slider enhances detail slightly by default, but by moving it to the right, you can increase micro-contrast and bring out fine, high-frequency features, such as the lines in the wood floor in this image.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

5. Adjust shadows and highlights

One of the main reasons for employing HDR is to balance exposure, which can be done in this panel, using dedicated Shadow and Highlight sliders. Rather than brightening shadows and darkening highlights as you might do in other Photoshop tools or Lightroom, due to the HDR effect applied by nature of using this filter, it is often necessary to further tone down the effect by adding some shadows and highlights back in to your shot. It is also advisable to turn down Saturation and instead use some added Vibrance to ensure your shot doesn’t have that over-saturated look many HDR shots aquire.

Advanced control

For more professional control over the effect and your exposure, HDR Toning comes with it’s own Curves control. This can be used to generate highly customised exposure tweaks and changes to contrast, to produce an image that has better detail and balanced tones  – the benefit of the filter – without the flat, cartoon-like feel for which HDR is often criticised.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning

An optional step is to then use Photoshop to further edit exposure or colour to minimise any colour shifts that may have been caused by using HDR Toning. A common necessity is to remove dust spots and noise which may have been enhanced along with other detail.

Enhance detail with HDR Toning
The Spot Healing Brush Tool is useful for removing accentuated dust spots






HDR Toning can’t be applied on a layer, so consider duplicating your file, toning that image and then copying the duplicate back on top of your original image. This will put HDR Toning on a separate layer, which can be masked, blended or have it’s opacity altered for a reduced-strength effect




Enhance detail with HDR Toning
Enhance detail with HDR Toning
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