Creating “Faux-DRs” From Single RAW Files In Lightroom (Or Any Other RAW Software)

In his recent post on HDR photography, Andy mentions the possibility to create HDR images from single RAW files by developing them with different exposure levels. This way, an image with enhanced dynamic range can be achieved from a single exposure — which is handy when you don’t have a tripod with you, or your scene features moving objects. But you still need an HDR software to merge the three files you get from your original RAW image. This made me think: isn’t there an easier way? Why yes, there is. I call it “faux-DR” (from French “faux” = false), and it is a simple technique that can be done with most RAW developing softwares — in this post, I will use Adobe Lightroom exemplary.

The Dynamic-Range-Dilemma

Digital pictures that come straight out of the camera often have limited dynamic range. This is due to two facts:

  1. A single pixel on a digital imaging sensor can only take up so many photons. Once it’s full, it’s full. The longer your exposure, and/or the more intense the light in the scene you photograph, the bigger the chances more pixels will reach their limit before the exposure is done. This is why highlights often appear “clipped”. A way to work around this is to underexpose, at the expense of useful information in the shadows.
  2. Most cameras’ JPEG engines aren’t very sophisticated. Unless you use specific scene presets, the engine will treat each exposure alike and apply the same processing settings to every picture you take. The result is that pictures that are taken in difficult lighting situations look flat straight out of camera. That’s why you shoot RAW and process yourself.

But even when loading your RAW files into your favorite processing software, the settings applied to the pictures by default don’t do justice to the many different shooting scenarios a photographer can possibly encounter. You will always have to tweak the setting individually for each picture, especially if you’re out and about on the streets, in nature, on vacation etc. where light changes with each perspective.

What I often encounter in scenic shots, cityscapes, nature closeups or even pictures I take indoors, is that there are some parts in the image that are too dark, while others are too bright — simply because most of the time during the day, the light is rather harsh — unless you only shoot in the morning or in the evening. Moreover, I don’t use a flash since I like to make the best use of the light available. A flash can help to brighten the darker areas of a scene, if you know how to use it correctly.

Take this example for instance. This is a picture of a duck at a pond somewhere in my neighborhood. It was taken with my Olympus E-P1, which has limited DR to begin with, due to its sensor and pixel size. Secondly, even Olympus’ sophisticated JPEG engine isn’t up to the task of dealing with such contrasty scenes. The result looks flat and uninspiring. (Note: click on any picture in this post to view a larger version!)

What you surely noticed right away is the severely overexposed area in the water. This is what I was talking about in the beginning. The camera measured the exposure according to the overall scene. The light reflected back from the water in this area was so bright that the pixels in the according area of the sensor had reached their maximum capacity long before the shutter had closed again. On the other hand, the shadows around the larger stone in the left part of the image are so dark that you can hardly make out any detail in the picture that comes straight out of the camera. But with a few tweaks using Lightroom’s various processing tools, I was able to come up with this:

Notice how much more detail is visible now? How much more definition there is in the various textures in the image, and how much more pleasing it looks overall? So, what did I do?

In essence, all I did was to pull the highlights and lift the shadows a bit. Take a look at the bright area in the water: it has considerably more detail in the processed than in the original image, although some parts of it were beyond rescue. Next, take a look at the shadows around the big stone: they’re much brighter and show much more fine detail. Finally, while the colours of duck’s feathers were dark, muted and hardly distinguishable in the original file, they are bright, clear and much more vivid in the processed version.

How to achieve a balanced look

But it’s not done with simply moving around the highlights and shadows sliders — there’s a bit more work to be done to arrive at a pleasing result. In essence, here’s what you have to take care of:

  • Preserve the highlights. Do this by either using the recovery slider in Lightroom, or by pulling the exposure. I find that pulling the exposure works better, but your mileage may vary.
  • Push the shadows. After pulling the exposure, use the shadows slider in order to brighten the darker areas of the image.
  • Adjust the tone curve. In order to arrive at a pleasing overall look, you will have to play with the tone curves. It’s not done with simply pulling the highlights and pushing the shadows.
  • Enhance the colours. Brighten or darken specific colors. I found that brightening yellow, orange and green and darkening red and blue gives an image more pop. But be careful not to make it look too processed or unrealistic.
  • Use noise reduction. Pushing the shadows will exaggerate noise. Use noise reduction, but use it wisely. Too much of it, and you lose fine detail.

A practical example of how to improve dynamic range

To give you an idea of what exactly you have to do, here’s a step-by-step demonstration using a different picture: a shot of a church spire against the light — something you learn you’re not supposed to do … But sometimes there’s no other way than breaking the rules. This is the picture as Lightroom processes it with its default settings:

All I did to this picture was tweaking the white balance and cropping it slightly. The overall contrast is far too high, while the micro contrast (local contrast in the fine details) is far too low. The highlights in the sky are partially clipped, whereas the church is so dark you can hardly make it out. The picture can’t be use for anything this way. However, once we’re through with tweaking, we will be rewarded with a file worth sharing, printing or even selling.

The first thing I do when processing to achieve a “faux-DR” look is to work on the highlights and shadows. In this case, I pulled the exposure by 0.5 EV and pushed the shadows by an amount of 50.

Already, the highlight clipping in the sky is eliminated and the church appears much brighter. But still, the picture lacks vividness and clarity. The next step is to work on the tone curve. If possible, I try to darken the darkest parts of the shadows and lift the medium shadows and midtones even more.

In this particular case, brightening the midtones (and subsequently also the medium highlights) any more would’ve made the sky appear far too bright, so I only lifted the shadows. The church now shows even more definition and looks much better than before. In order to make the sky appear a little darker, and to give the church even more local contrast, I apply a custom colour preset that darkens the blues and reds and brightens the yellows and oranges.

The change to the previous image is only slight, but it is there and it adds to the overall more pleasing appearance of the final image. In a last step, I will get rid of any residual shadow noise that I have caused to appear by lifting the shadows. Take a look at the amount of chroma noise in the image the way it is now:

And this is how it looks like after carefully applying Lighroom’s noise reduction routines:

I used a slight bit of luminance noise reduction to remove grain, but not without pushing the detail slider to the far side in order not to smear any fine details. Likewise with the chroma noise reduction, although I had to be a bit more aggressive here. Finally, I pushed the shadows a little more as I found the picture still a bit too dark, and added some clarity and vibrance to give it some more pop. This is the result:

A nice image of a beautiful church spire that I took on a late summer afternoon when there was no way to get around to the sunlit opposite side. A flash wouldn’t have worked here anyway. I admit, this is far from a perfect picture. But it is pleasing to look at, and it has much more definition than what we started with. This way, I can at least show it to friends and family — or feature it in an online article 😉

There are of course a great number of other scenarios where you would want to create a faux-DR file. One could be street photography, another one could be landscape photography. To give you an impression of what else can be achieved by faux-DR processing, below are two more side-by-side examples of pictures taken under difficult lighting and their faux-DR counterparts. This is a quick and easy technique to enhance your images in a way that will not give them that overly processed and fake look you can quickly get with HDR processing, but a pleasing result with the most possible detail in both highlights and shadows — and all that without having to use a tripod, bracketing and extra software.

Additional faux-DR examples

Example 1 — original:

Example 1 — faux-DR:

Example 2 — original:

Example 2 — faux-DR:

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All pictures in this article are © by Felix L. Esser / efix:photography.