32bit editing the future of HDR Photography?

HDR photography is not loved by all and HDR images can take quite a lot of flak for being over processed. The dislike stems from “Bad HDR”, which if you google you can find some prime examples. For me HDR is a tool to take the camera beyond its limitations, extending the tones and colours that normally are clipped. Listening to the “Jpeg 2 Raw” podcast a few weeks ago there was an urbex (urban explorer) photographer called Andy Wheeler who said he was editing his HDR photography in 32bit. This piqued my interest as I have always believed you should shoot with the highest image settings you can, because if you start with the best quality image you are more likely to finish with a high quality image. In part I reiterated this last week, when I wrote about bit depth in digital. The question I had was how to edit in 32bit?

To create a 32bit image you need to a start in the same way you process a HDR image with at least three bracketed exposures. You can do this with the likes of Photomatix (which now offers a plugin just for creating 32bit images) or Photoshop (cs6 or above). I gave it ago in Photoshop as Photomatix really was having problems saving my images for some reason. I have never really used Photoshop’s merge to HDR, because I’ve had bad results in the past. I will say it has improved a lot in Photoshop CC. I sent three shots to Photoshop from Lightroom, using merge to HDR option. Once you get the dialogue box you need to select 32bit editing and then you can choose to edit the image in Adobe Camera Raw or uncheck this and once you click next save the image and edit in Lightroom.

32 bit edit One of the three pigs

32 bit edited image of One of the three pigs.

In Lightroom you have all the tools available to you to edit the image, you can use presets, adjustment brushes, gradients ect. Since the image has such a wide dynamic range small adjustments have a huge effect and some of the tools like sharpening and clarity haveslightly different effects on the image. I used a lot of adjustment brushes to selectively edit areas of the image. It really reminded me of editing in the dark room when you made a base exposure and contrast settings and then made a sketch and noted areas to dodge, burn as well as increase contrast or even decrease contrast.

I did notice that with the 32 bit editing is that you don’t get the texture feel you normally associate with HDR images created through the micro contrast of the tone mapping process. This could be because I didn’t have enough exposures as well to spread the dynamic range even further. I felt that my 32bit image was lacking something. If I was to export the image to plugins or even Photoshop the image would be taken down to 16 bit.
In the end I came to the conclusion that the 32bit editing was similar to the tone mapping in HDR Efex or Photomatix and then final tweaking could be done in 16 bit. I wanted a bit of micro contrast to give a bit of depth to the image and exported the 32 bit image to Nik Color Efex, and used the detail extractor.

One of the Three Pigs

32 bit image now 16bit with detail extractor to add some micro contrast

To see a real comparison in the outcomes of the different processes I took the same image and processed it as I would in Photomatix and did some basic tweaks in Lightroom.
Although I am used to looking at the Photomatix style of image; the soft yet still contrasted image looks great, but artificial. The clouds are more contrasted and there seems to be a bit more noise and digital artefacts in the image. The 32bit image, although less textured, looks natural and pleasing to the eye.
Editing in 32bit is more time consuming as you are not just flicking sliders and have to edit the image zone by zone. But the quality of the image surpasses that of Photomatix as well as being non-destructive.  You can always go back through the Lightroom history and correct mistakes.

For comparison HDR via Photomatix

For comparison HDR via Photomatix

Is it the future of HDR? For those who want surreal images, tone mapping will still be a good way to go, but for more natural high dynamic range images 32bit editing I believe will be the future. 32bit editing has been available since CS6 and Lightroom 4.1 but no one has made a huge deal about it, apart from some Adobe blog posts. This was my first attempt at 32 bit editing and I feel I have just scratched the surface of what I could do. I have a feeling I am going to be editing a lot more landscapes this way.

What do you think, which image do you prefer; The HDR in Photomatix or the 32bit edited version? Let me know in the comment box below.

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8 thoughts on “32bit editing the future of HDR Photography?

  1. I prefer the 32 bit edited version. The photomatix version appears to have less detail and also appears darker. Nice tutorial – friends have mentioned this technique to me but I have never bothered – maybe I will have a go. I always like simply blending different exposure together.

  2. Nice article Benjamin, I like the results you are getting. Like you, I have not tried PS’s HDR function in a long time. Looks like I need to give them a try again. Also glad you liked the show. Andy was a great guest and we hope to have him back soon.

    • Thanks for popping by mike photoshops hdr function seems a lot better than when I first used it in Cs2. I stumbled on the Jpeg 2 Raw podcast a few months ago on youtube and although I thought I wouldn’t find topics like “train photography” interesting there was a lot that I did learn .

  3. Great post Ben! I gave up on bracketing my shots long ago because I didn’t like the HDR look but bracketing for the purpose of 32 bit editing seems like a good way to go. I do not have PS or Photomatix anymore, just LR, so I’m wondering if there are any other ways to create a 32 bit file with the bracketed shots. Guess it’s time to do some research. 🙂

    • I did a very quick search and I couldn’t see other alternatives. The only possibility was the LR/Enfuse plugin and I emailed the creator to see if that will create a 32bit file or if it is just an exposure fusion at 16 bits.

      I don’t know when you got rid of Photoshop but if you had a stand alone of CS5 or up it could be worth installing it for this feature.

      • I never had PS, just Photomatix. But I see that you only need a LR plugin for Photomatix, not the whole application, which is only $39 so that’s not too bad. Better than the $99 for the pro version. Might be something I’ll look into but with the dynamic range the D610 is able to get I haven’t really felt the need for bracketed shots for anything I’ve done so far. I’d like to have PS CC just for the ability to work with layers but can’t justify the cost for it right now. I might install Gimp and play around with it once I get more time to do editing. I’ve used Gimp for work in the past for working with website images but not for my personal photo editing so at least I have a bit of experience with it.

        I think the only shots I tend to get that would be worth the 32 bit editing with bracketed shots would be sunsets and sunrises but lately I’ve either just been using the color to photograph objects or taking more silhouette photos because they have more of an artistic look than having the entire dynamic range to see all the elements. In any case it would be nice to play around with it though just to see what it can do. I would think for B&W photos you could get higher contrast photos with more detail.

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