How to use Photomatix Pro

I use Photomatix Pro in this tutorial. There are other HDR software, that can be used to combine photos into HDR, but Photomatix is the most popular and widely used (and also my favorite). It can create stunning results if used properly. If you don’t have Photomatix, you can get a full featured trial version here or it can be also bought there.

If you want to buy it, don’t forget to use the Photomatix coupon code “HDRSHOOTER” for a 15% discount.

Preparing your shots

So you have your shots, and you have them in Lightroom (you can do this is many other programs, but I use Lighroom 4 here). You need to correct few problems before starting to combine the shots, as tone maping can make the more visible.

To correct the photos, go into develop mode and select all the photos in your series:

tutorial-select photos

Correct chromatic abberations

You want to correct the problems on one of the photos and using sync  copy the same settings to all other photos. You should always correct the chromatic aberrations. This can be done either  manually, or let Lightroom do this for you.

tutorial-lens correction

You can also turn on Enable Profile Correction. Lightroom will then remove some of the distortions in your photos. From my experience it does a really nice job.

(Small update/note: I have found that removing distortion can create color banding in the final HDR. Usually when you have a clear blue sky. It you see this happening, use photos without the profile correction enabled. You still can do the correction on the final HDR.)

tutorial-white balance

Correct white balance

Based on the photo, if you need to correct the white balance, do it now. If you change the temperature in Photomatix,  and then you have to merge your photos with the tone mapping result you color will no longer match up.

If you took shots in multiple series, not in a singe AEB, you also need to check that white balance is same in all photos. It can happen, that the camera meters different shots differently, and you get different temperature and tint on them. I you selected your own white balance on the camera, not AWB, or you already corrected the white balance, you don’t have to check this.


Correct noise

The last thing I do sometimes in Lightroom, is to correct the noise a little. Especially if you used ISO bigger than 400 this can help a lot in the final result. Same as with other problem, the HDR tone maping process will make noise more visible. So not having too much of it to start with makes the whole process easier.

Synchronize settings

After this is all corrected, synchronize the settings to all photos in the series. Just press sync in bottom right, then check all and synchronize.


Export brackets

Now you can export you photos as 100% quality Jpeg files to be used in Photomatix. You can also use Tiff files, but it will take you computer longer time to process and you will see little or no difference in the result. I export the files into a work folder, from where I delete them once I’m done. I really suggest creating a preset for this export, as it’s something you will do a lot.


A plugin can be used to export directly into Photomatix from Lightroom. I don’t use it, as I close Lightroom before I start combining my shots. Lightroom takes really a lot of computer resources, when it’s running.

Combining in Photomatix

Open Photomatix Pro and select Load Bracketed Photos. Drag and drop your exported images into the dialog or browse for them and choose OK.

Now you have preprocessing options in front of you with the following checkers:

  • photomatix-processingalign source images – use the correcting shifts when you used a tripod, use matching features when you shoot handheld. Don’t select that you want to crop. Even when you used tripod, sometimes you have to select to align by matching features. This can be for instance when there was a lot of wind or you were standing on a busy bridge. Also using a bigger maximum shift can help you, if you took handheld brackets with a wide-angle lens. It can deal with the distortion better that way.
  • remove ghosts – turn on when you have moving objects in your photo Always use the first option. It gives you the option to select the areas you want to deghost. The automatic option never worked for me. It always created really strange results, like it didn’t used all of the brackets.
  • reduce noise – you can use this if you have no other options to remove noise. But there are better Photoshop plugins available which do it much better.
  • reduce chromatic aberrations – if you followed this tutorial, you don’t need this to be turned on, if you didn’t, turn this on

Select OK

Tone mapping in Photomatix

Now you have all your options to tone map your HDR photo. I skipped the 32bit view, as it has no real use here.  I always chose Tone Mapping and Details Enhancer as the method.

When your photos are combined, you get your HDR with the default settings. When you are a first time user, its good to start from the default settings. As you get more used to Photomatix, you don’t need to reset anymore, as you will know what to expect.

tutorial-photomatix default

You have the following settings:

  • Strength –  the higher the number, the more HDR look you have. It adds more detail and contrast to your photo. It also gives it a more unnatural feel, so if you like more realistic look, avoid 100 here. I usually use a settings between 70 and 100 here. If you compare the photo at strength 0 and strength 100 you see that a lot of detail is added as you go higher.

tutorial-strength0 tutorial-strength100

  • Color saturation – If you want to have too much colors in you photo, you can add it here. But for most of the times, leaving it at 50 will work nicely. Really move it only when you see the need for it. I stay somewhere between 45 and 65 here.
  • Luminosity – Makes the dark part of your photo lighter. Great to show more details. A high setting can make you photo look a little washed out, but a higher black point or more contrast later on can help a lot here. I usually have this anywhere between 0 and 10, based on the photo. Also note that a high value here can make you photo look more like a drawing than a photo. For a more realistic photo, use a smaller number. If you compare this setting at -10 and at 10 you can see, that there are absolutely no black areas in the +10 image.


  • Detail Contrast – ads more contrast to details in the picture, using higher values here will pull out more contrast in your photo, it also makes the photo darker, so counter it with luminosity or white point. I usually stay anywhere between 0 and 10 here, it really varies.
  • Lighting Adjustments – moves the light in the photo from the light areas to the dark areas. So the lower you go here, the more are the shadows lighter and the light areas darker. So it’s more unnatural (more artistic). The higher you go the more natural the photo looks. I’m usually between -1 and 5 here. I never use the Lighting Effects Mode, as I feel it gives me lees control of the final look. If you compare this setting at -10 and 10, you can see how the bridge becomes lighter and the sky brighter at negative settings. I would never use a very low setting for a photo with a sky in it, but it can work really well for an interior shot, to give ti more detail.


  • Smooth Highlights – rarely used by me, stays at 0. This smooths out the lighter areas in you photo, making them lighter, less noisy, but usually removes a lot of detail. Only sometimes helpful, when you have a lot of halos around objects in your photo.
  • White point – chooses what is still considered as pure white in you photo. If you have a lot of overexposed areas in you photo, use a lower number, if you photo is to dark use a higher one. I stay between 0 and 1 usually. You should check your histogram when changing this, so you don’t loose any detail because of a very high white point.
  • Black point – same as white point, moving changes, what points are considered pure black. This adds  nice contrast to your photo, so it shouldn’t be left at 0. I have it somewhere between 1 and 2. You should check your histogram when changing this, so you don’t loose any detail because of a very high black point.
  • Gama – the overall brightness of the photo. If you photo is too dark, it’s sometime better to change this than luminosity, as it stays more realistic.
  • Temperature – makes your photo cooler or warmer. Quite rarely used by me, as I think it’s better to correct the temperature in Lightroom, before Photomatix.
  • Micro-smoothing – cleans out the photo, smoothing it out on smaller scales. Can help a lot with noise, but can also remove a lot of detail. Keep it low, arount 2 to 4 here.
  • Saturation Highlights – adds more color to the lighter parts of your photo. I have never used this option.
  • Saturation Shadows – adds more color to the darker parts of your photo. I have never used this option.
  • Shadows Smoothness – same as highlight smooth but for shadows. Also this I have never used.
  • Shadows Clipping – cut out dark areas, so can help with too much noise there. I use Photoshop to correct this, so I have never used this option.

The biggest effect on you photo will have strength and lighting adjustment. Other than that, I change only luminosity, detail contrast, black and white point. Most of the time, the other options can stay at default values.

So I set up my settings for this image, to get to the result shown to the right

Be careful with the loupe. It shows you the detail, not the brightness, so it’s not the same as a processed image.

When your done, select process and then save you image as a full quality JPG (you can go with a TIFF if you want, but most of the time you will see no difference)

So my final tone maped image looks like:

It’s already quite good, but still there are few problems which need to be fixed (noise, sharpening, some overexposed areas, movement in the water and similar). This will be covered in the next part of the tutorial.

A note about all the suggested numbers. If you read a tutorial from somebody else, you will get a different set of numbers. This is because everyone likes a different look. You should try them for yourself and see what suits your taste and your photographs.

Double tone mapping

One technique in Photomatix, you can try out, is the double tone mapping. What you have to do is:

  • load you photos into Photomatix
  • do standard tone mapping steps on it
  • process your photo, so you are back in the main selection of Photomatix, but still with the photo open
  • select tone mapping one more time

So you select tone mapping when you are back in the screen shown to the right

When you do this, Photomatix will tone map the already tone mapped image once more. This will give it a very grungy, super detailed look. Now you can again play with all the sliders, to modify it. There are no preferred values, but usually going down with fill light gives a better result.

When you are done here, just click process and then save your final double tone mapped image.  I personaly save both, the normal tone mapped and also the double tone mapped image, and mix them together in Photoshop.

When this photo is double tone mapped with the same settings, you will get this result

This is not a really good example for double tone mapping, as it doesn’t fit this image. A much better use for this technique are images with a lot of detail, like stone wall, church interiors an similar. For instance this one is a much better, an you can see how the stones have much more detail. You can even go further, and give it a more grungy look, but I don’t want to do that.



HDR from a single image

You can use the HDR process on any photo you take. Either it is a multi-bracketed series or a single one. You can even do it on a single photo if taken in JPG format, but the results are not so good, as the information you need is just not there.

There are two ways how this can be done. You either:

  • split your photo into three separate ones by changing the exposure to +2,0,2 respectively, and then export each setting as a separate photo. Then continue the same way as having multiple brackets.
  • open the RAW file directly in Photomatix and continue with tone mapping as with multiple brackets

I personally prefer the first option, as it gives me the possibility to do some corrections before tone mapping (chromatic aberrations, noise reduction). There is no other big difference between these two methods.

What to do if you photos don’t align properly

There are multiple approached one can try when the brackets don’t align properly in Photomatix. I use:

  • create the tone mapped HDR from a single raw, usually the middle exposure
  • create the tone mapped HDR from a single raw and correct all problems (like overexposed areas) in photoshop from the remaining brackets
  • combine the brackets in Photoshop and save as a .hdr file, without any tone mapping. You can then open the file in Photomatix and tone map it there.
Continue to the next part, which focuses on problems in HDR photos, and how to correct them.

Returning to old places

Capture HDR photos

So first thing first. If you take a bad photo, HDR will not help you. Composition is really the most important part of a photo. You can have a great subject, with great HDR treatment but without a good composition the photo will not work.

If I want to have better composition I use my tripod. Why? Because it slows me down, and I think more about the photo.  Also I don’t have to crop much, if I take more time to setup my shot.

So always first think about the composition, than about the post processing.

In this HDR tutorial I will show  all the steps on this photo, with few examples from other ones.


My setup

What do you need?

The only thing you really need for HDR photos is a camera. Any camera will do fine. You can use HDR process on any photo you take, even with your phone. But the results may wary based on the camera you use.

So in the best case you need:

  • a camera – any camera with manual mode or AEB (Automatic Exposure Bracketing) will do, if you want to take HDR’s handheld AEB is a must. I will assume you have a DSLR in the tutorial, as there is little to set up on a compact camera. If you want to create HDR’s from a single shot, you can use any camera.
  • tripod – you can make HDR’s handheld, but to get the best results you need a tripod.
  • cable release – not really mandatory, but can help
On the left you can see my setup, but that’s after two years of taking HDR photos, I started with a compact, taking handheld photos.


Taking the shots from a tripod

Bracket settings

So after you set up your composition, you need to set up your camera. Turn on AEB and set it so you take shots at -2,0 and +2 EV (or -2,-1,0,+1,+2 if you have a Nikon camera). Switch your camera to AP mode (aperture priority mode) and using a self timer or a cable release take you shots. On the right is how the AEB setting looks on a 5D mark II, most cameras have a similar menu.

The ISO on your camera should be left as low as possible (100-200) if you want to avoid noise in your final HDR.    Also the aperture should be lower (F5.6 – F11) if you want to have the whole image sharp and in focus. When you set this up you should check the time, the camera shows you for the first shot (0EV). This exposure time should be 8s or below. This is so the brightest shot is still below 30s. If it shows you a longer time, choose a higher aperture or a higher ISO (or both), until you have the required exposure time.

If you need more than three shots, the simplest way is to move you middle exposure. So you can just take shots at -2,0 and +2EV and then underexpose by one stop and take shots at -3,-1 and +1 (or overexpose, based on the situation). Like this you can take quickly quite a lot of shots.

Look at your camera manual, to find out how to turn on AEB and under/over-expose a foto on your camera.

Taking the shots using a Promote Control remote

An advanced way of taking your shots from a tripod, is using the Promote Control remote. Most of the steps are the same, but to take the photos you just set up the starting time and number of shots on the remote, and it does most of the work for you. You can find out more on my Promote Control remote review page.

This is the sample bracket series I took from a tripod, with the help of the Promote. I could have had the same result, if I took three separate series at -3,-1,+1, the second at -2,0,+2 and the third one at -1,+1, +3,  it just takes longer, and you have a much bigger chance, that your photos wont align properly. If I wanted to have a bracket with a time longer than 30s, the only way to get it is by using a Promote.

Taking the shots handheld

You want to get the same result as if taking from a tripod. So you have to have the exposure times as short as possible, so the photos align better. Use burst mode on your camera, this way you can take multiple shots simply by holding the shutter button, use a higher ISO, based on you camera an ISO 400-1600 is still acceptable, use a bigger aperture and try to hold the camera still. Don’t forget, that you can correct noise, but not an out of focus, blurry photo.

A good practice is to lean on something, or to place your camera on an even surface, hold it down and take the photos using a self timer. Also try to have your slowest exposure time faster than 1/the focal length you are using. So if you use a 50mm lens, the slowest exposure should be not more than 1/50s. This is that your shots should be max 1/50s, 1/200s and 1/800s if you take your photos at +2, 0 and -2.

This is a sample series taken handheld. It’s really much simpler when there is enough light. You can see the resulting HDR from these brackets here – Toledo reflection

Taking shots without AEB

When you need more than three brackets or you just don’t have AEB, you can still do it manually. You have to

  • exposureset your camera to manual mode, set your ISO and aperture
  • find the normal (0EV) exposure (half press your shutter button, so the camera meters the scene and then change the time, until the small line is under 0EV, as in the photo on the right)
  • decide what range you want to have, for each step, half the exposure time. If you 0EV is 1s and you want to start with -4EV, your starting time should be (((1s /2) /2) /2) /2 equals 1/15s  (it’s really 1/16, but you can not set it on a camera :) )
  • set up you camera for the darkest shot and take it
  • double the exposure time and take the shot, repeat this until you have all the brackets you need. Each time you double the exposure time, you move your photo by 1EV

A little tip to make this simpler :) A lot of cameras can be set up, so you change your settings in 1/3EV increments or 1/2EV increments. This is usually in custom settings. If you change this from 1/3EV to 1/2EV, you have one step lees between two exposures, so you can change your settings faster. On Canon 5D this setting is called “exposure level increments”

I really suggest doing this only from a very solid tripod, and best with a cable release, so you touch your camera as low as possible. Also you should be really fast, so if there is anything moving, or the light is changing, you have similar condition in all shots.

Don’t forget to align images taken this way, as there can be differences in between them. You should look at them the same way as at your handheld images.

Here is a video showing different ways of taking your brackets

Always shoot in RAW

This is a really important point. There are many reasons, but just to name a few:

  • you don’t have to worry about white balance, you can change it at anytime and as often you want
  • you get better results, when creating a HDR from a single photo. RAW has much more information than a JPG file.
  • even if you have overexposed areas in your darkest photo, you still can recover them if you shot in RAW
The only argument against using RAW is the space it takes on your card and HDD. But with the falling prices per megabyte, this is a very bad reason. And it’s better to be safe than sorry.


How many shots do you need?

This is a very common question. Most of the time you are fine with three shots, at -2, 0 and +2 EV. Taking more can help you to have cleaner color transitions in your photo (for instance in a sunset sky), but most people will never notice the difference. But when you definitively need more brackets, is when you shoot into the sun. Sometimes you can go as low as -4EV and it’s still not enough.

You can simply check your photos directly on your camera. The brightest photo should have no (or very little) complete black areas (histogram doesn’t touch the left side) and the darkest should have no (or very little) overexposed areas (histogram doesn’t touch the right side).

Light Bracket   Dark Bracket 

Organizing your photos

After I’m done taking my photos, I import them into Adobe Lighroom, where I make first few adjustments. I will do a separate tutorial on my organization workflow later on. But for everyone it really depends mostly on what program u use for it.

Lightroom Screenshot


This is all for the first part, the next part will be about preparing your shots in Lightroom and merging them in Photomatix.

Yellow lights

I have a lot of old photos of the Old Bridge and from time to time I edit one of them. Each time I’m quiet amazed how differently the resulting photo looks compared to the ones I edited only a few months ago. As the processing steps change and I learn new techniques, so the resulting images change.

HDR from three shots, taken with Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, from a tripod

Yellow lightsI have a lot of old photos of the Old Bridge and from time to time I edit one of them.  Each time I'm quiet amazed how differently the resulting photo looks compared to the ones I edited only a few months ago. As the processing steps change and I learn new techniques, so the resulting images change.HDR from three shots, taken with Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, from a tripod.

After sunset in the Sunflower field

I really wanted to take a shot with the sun still above the horizon, but we were traveling on a highway, and could not stop by any of the fields, and by the time we reached this one, the sun was already down. But I still like it :). Everything is a little more blue, but still fine :). Photo taken somewhere between Trnava and Bratislava (I have no idea where exactly :))

Looking for Sunflower Field Wallpaper? See this photo in wallpapers section.

HDR from three shots, taken with Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, from a tripod.

After sunset in the Sunflower field  I really wanted to take a show with the sun still above the horizon, but we were traveling on a highway, and could not stop by any of the fields, and by the time we reached this one, the sun was already down. But I still like it :). Everything is a little more blue, but still fine :). Photo taken somewhere between Trnava and Bratislava (I have no idea where exactly :))  HDR from three shots, taken with Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, from a tripod.

Night colors

I processed this photo few months ago, and never got to publishing it :). So here it is now. This was again one of the days, where every single shot is beautiful :) There were such beautiful clouds and sunset that I’m actually sad I didn’t take more.

HDR from three shots, taken with Canon 450D with Sigma 10-20mm lens, from a gorillapod.


Compare to the original 0EV shot:

Where was this photo taken:

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