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From the Design Toolbox: HDR Toning

June 18, 2013

Dog Ear Consultants

Today’s post is aimed at the art directors, graphic designers, and photographers out there. We’ll be taking look at a useful Photoshop effect called HDR toning, or “high dynamic range” toning. Adobe first introduced it in CS5, and it allows you to mimic the effects of piecing together photos with multiple exposures by instead manipulating one photo with a single effect.

But first, a disclaimer. Some photography purists will cringe at HDR toning effects, maybe even pen a scornful blog post or two about it being a novice’s shortcut. To be clear: HDR toning is not a substitute for paying close attention to things like lighting, framing and contrast when shooting, nor is it a quick fix for bad photos. Any photo that’s attractive with HDR toning should be attractive without it, too. But when executed with discretion and taste, the effect is a helpful tool that can give, say, shots of campus locales or portraits of researchers a little more pop for your magazine’s readers.

Take, for instance, a shot of a campus building with and without HDR toning:


The original image isn’t unattractive. But the image on the right is more eye-catching because the detail is sharper, the contrast is intensified, and the colors are louder. Here’s a quick, simple tutorial (among many, more detailed tutorials available online) to get you generally familiar with HDR toning effects and how to utilize them for your mag’s photos.

Start by opening your image in Photoshop, and under the Image menu, select Adjustments—>HDR Toning. (Two prerequisites: Your image needs to be flattened and in RGB mode.)


You can certainly go the easy route by simply adjusting the radius, strength, and detail controls until you find a balance you’re happy with, and, boom, you’re finished…


…but like many Photoshop effects, it’s not a perfect science. And the easy route will most likely end up in bad HDR results that can actually make your photo look worse. (Google “bad HDR” and see for yourself.)  It’s best to give yourself more control and flexibility in the effect’s details and intensity, and because HDR toning is a  destructive effect, you’ll need to take a few more steps to do so.

With your image open in Photoshop, right click on the background layer in your layers palette, select “Duplicate Layer” and set your destination to “Document: New.” That will duplicate the image and open it in a new, separate document to be edited while leaving the original image untouched.


In your duplicate, launch the the HDR Toning window (Image—>Adjustments—>HDR Toning). Set your radius to about 120, your strength to about .95, your detail  to around 100, and your saturation to -100, then click OK. (Decreasing the saturation will make the image appear grayscale, but read on…)

HDR_Toning_4Copy/paste the newly HDR toned image back into your original document (making sure the layer is arranged above the original background layer), and set the layer transparency to “Luminosity,” which will allow the original image to show through from behind.


Add a layer mask to the top layer by clicking the layer mask button, and use a paintbrush set at an opacity of 25% to gradually paint out any areas of the HDR toned layer where the effect is too intense.


And what the heck—let’s add a vignette around the edges, just to give the image a more dramatic feel. Voila—you now have an attractive HDR-toned photo.


Depending on the photo, this effect can also work well for portraiture by utilizing the same technique described above. In the example below, we went for a more surreal look by significantly increasing the strength and detail of the effect. That may be too extreme for some tastes, but it illustrates another example of what you can achieve with HDR toning. (There also are a variety of other techniques that can work in conjunction with HDR toning to tweak your images even further, but we’ll save that for another post on another day.)


One final word of caution here: Once you get a feel for manipulating the nuances of the effect, it’s easy to get carried away with it. Because, well, it’s fun. If you like the look of HDR toning, do yourself and your readers a favor by exercising discretion, educating yourself further with other free tutorials online, and making trial runs with the technique before going live with it in the pages of your magazine.

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