HDR processing can be a great option for creating powerful photographs, but you may not always have multiple bracketed exposures of the same shot. In a case where you don’t have 3, 5, or maybe even 7 different exposures to create a true HDR image, you can still increase the dynamic range and create HDR effects in Lightroom or Photoshop using a single exposure.
We’ll look at the process of creating HDR-like effects in both Lightroom and Photoshop in this article. Lightroom is a little better for this purpose, so I recommend using Lightroom if possible, but for those of you who do not have Lightroom, we’ll also show how it can be done in Photoshop.
Create HDR Effects in Lightroom
Let’s start with Lightroom. The effects we’ll be using in this tutorial are the same settings used by our HDR Strong preset from our set of 40 HDR Lightroom Presets. You can either apply these settings manually or use the presets if you want to save some time.
We’ll be working with this sample photo:
And here is how it will look after our changes in Lightroom:
First, we’ll edit the settings in the Basic section of the Develop Module. Change the contrast slider to +25, highlights to -65, shadows to +70, whites to -35, and blacks to +20. The highlights, shadows, whites, and blacks will form the foundation of the HDR effect by expanding the dynamic range of the image.
Of course, the exact settings that are ideal will vary depending on the photo, so be willing to experiment a little.
Next, set clarity to +75 and vibrance to +35. These settings are pretty strong. If they are too strong for your photo, scale them back a little. Clarity will make the photo look too intense if it is pushed to far, and vibrance will make the colors look unnatural if you’re over-aggressive with it.
That completes our HDR-like effect in Lightroom. Here’s the result:
Create HDR Effects in Photoshop
Photoshop includes the functionality for creating HDR images with multiple exposures of the same photo (HDR Merge), but that’s not what we’ll be using in this tutorial. If you have multiple exposures then by all means create a traditional HDR image if this is the look that you want. But if you only have one exposure, you can still increase the dynamic range by following the steps shown below.
We’ll be using the same sample photo, and here is how it will look after our adjustments in Photoshop.
The steps we’ll be taking here are the same steps used in our HDR Strong Photoshop action that’s part of our set of 30 HDR Photoshop Actions. If you want to create HDR-like effects very easily in Photoshop, please check out these actions.
The first step is to duplicate the photo layer. The reason for doing this is to avoid making any changes to the original layer so you can always revert to it if you don’t like the changes. We’ll be making changes to the duplicated layer, so it’s easy to discard if needed.
Next, convert the duplicated layer into a smart object. We’re going to make some changes to the shadows and highlights as well as apply some sharpening, and by converting this layer to a smart object we will be able to go back and make changes to those settings later if needed.
Go to Image > Adjustments > Shadows/Highlights. Use the shadows and highlights settings shown in the screenshot below. This will lighten the shadows to increase the dynamic range. You can also edit the settings of the highlights if you’d like, but Photoshop tends to do better with shadows than highlights.
Next, go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask and apply the settings shown below. This will add some sharpening to the photo. These settings may not be perfect if you’re using a different photo, so be willing to adjust them as needed.
Next, add a brightness/contrast adjustment layer and set the contrast to 40.
The last step is to add a levels adjustment layer and set the mid-tones input setting to 0.85.
And here is the result: