Adobe refines HDR tool with Photoshop CS6

The free beta of Photoshop CS6 has updated algorithms, options, and presets for those who like high-dynamic-range images. But improved standard editing tools encroach on HDR's turf.

HDR lets people combine multiple shots taken at different exposure levels into a single image that better captures highlight and shadow detail, and Adobe's improved HDR in Photoshop CS6. It's also improved its basic editing, though. From left to right are an original image, the same image edited with CS6's new raw tools, and an HDR image created from three shots merged with Scott Kelby's HDR preset in Photoshop CS6.
HDR lets people combine multiple shots taken at different exposure levels into a single image that better captures highlight and shadow detail, and Adobe's improved HDR in Photoshop CS6. It's also improved its basic editing, though. From left to right are an original image, the same image edited with CS6's new raw tools, and an HDR image created from three shots merged with Scott Kelby's HDR preset in Photoshop CS6. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET

Adobe has spruced up Photoshop CS6 's tool for creating HDR images--at the same time that it's updated editing tools with features that make high-dynamic range photos less interesting to me.

HDR images combine multiple shots taken over a range of bright to dark exposures. That means that the shadow detail can be taken from the bright images and the highlight detail from the dark images.

Used in a tame way, an HDR image shows more of the full range of tones the human eye can see. But plenty of people prefer the more unusual or even outrageous effects that can be achieved--making images look grungy, otherwordly, cripsy, or spooky. HDR is a very adjective-intensive situation.

So what's new with Photoshop's HDR tool?

"We improved the algorithm to reduce halos and added an Edge Smoothness check box to suppress the sharpness of the edge to allow higher boost of the texture or detail of the image," said Jeffrey Tranberry, chief customer advocate for Adobe's Digital Imaging group, in a forum post yesterday.

In addition, there are two new presets with particular HDR styles, according to the Adobe Photoshop CS6 just-do-it list. HDR images can be tweaked through tonal adjustments, and the two new presets come from Scott Kelby, president of the National Association of Photoshop Professionals, and Raphael "RC" Concepcion, author of "The HDR Book."

In my experimenting with Photoshop CS6, I found I liked Kelby's preset ("scott5") better than most of the existing presets. Such presets are just a starting point, of course--the process of tone-mapping the underlying HDR data to produce a single image has room for endless fiddling.

But here's the funny thing. At the same time that Adobe gave HDR a bit of a boost, Photoshop CS6 also comes with the new editing controls of Lightroom 4 for raw images . I've been using those tools extensively, and I think there's a lot of truth to Adobe's opinion that they do a much better job pulling out that shadow and highlight detail--especially when you're shooting raw to capture the full range of data from the image sensor.

In other words, I find the new standard editing controls does most of what you'd need HDR for--at least when you're not looking for the more over-the-top HDR style.

There are limits to the standard controls. If you're not shooting HDR, brightening up the shadows can still amplify the noise, and pulling in overexposed highlights can show icky posterization effects. But when I'm shooting raw (which is always), the new Adobe tools let me extract huge amounts more out of a photo.

If you're looking for the more dramatic HDR look, the editing controls combined with the new clarity tool in Photoshop CS6 and Lightroom 4 can get you a long way toward what you'd previously needed dedicated HDR tools for.

But I suspect plenty of HDR fans will want to go farther, combining multiple shots either with Photoshop or with third-party software such as HDRSoft's Photomatix and Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro.

Personally, I'm not an over-the-top HDR person. But I'm not complaining--I like it when people experiment with photography.

About the author

Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and covers browsers, Web development, digital photography and new technology. In the past he has been CNET's beat reporter for Google, Yahoo, Linux, open-source software, servers and supercomputers. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces.

 

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