Using HDR photography to get the perfect sunset

Montvale, VirginiaThe sun setting in Montvale, Virginia / Photo by Joe Newman

Today’s trip down memory lane takes us to the Shenandoah Valley circa 2008. I didn’t have a lot of technical know-how back then (I hadn’t even heard of HDR) but I didn’t need to be a photography expert to realize that I was seeing an incredible sunset.

I had spent nearly two weeks in Salem, Virginia walking several miles a day, knocking on doors and canvassing voters for the Obama campaign during the 2008 election. I think this was the evening before Election Day and I was finally getting some down time with an old college friend who lived in the area.

I was on my friend Mike’s property in Montvale when I snapped the original photograph used to make the HDR composite at the top of the page.

That’s close to what the sky looked liked in my camera that day. Close but not quite.

I used a Nikon D70s — my first DSLR — to capture the image. Shooting at an aperture of f/3.5 and 1/20th of a second exposure, the barn was underexposed. The image below on the left shows the original photo, where the sky is vibrant but the barn is pretty dark. On the right, with the exposure brought up in Lightroom, the details of the barn come out but a lot of the drama in the sky is lost.

montvale sunsets

The image on the left is the original image. In the image on the right, the exposure is brought up +1 in Lightroom

These are two of the five images I merged in Photomatix to get an HDR composite. The result below wasn’t bad — the exposure on the barn is much better but I didn’t really like the sky. The yellow was way over-saturated. I preferred the subtler yellow tones in the original. However, I liked the contrast that Photomatix added to the darker band of clouds at the top of the image.

hdr version

This is the result of merging 5 exposures through HDR processing

But that yellow had to go. I used Photoshop to layer the HDR photo on top of the original image. Using the brush tool, I removed the sky from the HDR version, leaving the sky from the original image. The yellow was definitely more to my liking but the darker clouds were a little flat, lacking the contrast from the HDR version.

original sky

This image has the foreground from the HDR version and the sky from the original image

To get the final image at the top of the page,  I went back to Photoshop and once again layered the HDR version on top of the original. This time, I blended the skies together so that I kept  the contrast in the clouds from the HDR version and the subtler yellow tones from the original image.

None of this is really meant as a tutorial. There may be a much easier way to achieve these results. If you know of a better way to do this or have a critique, please let me know. I’m still a beginner when it comes to this stuff. I just offer this post as some transparency and as notes to other folks who also might be learning HDR processing.

Joe Newman

I'm Joe Newman, multi-media story teller, non-profit do-gooder, international street photographer, serious poker player, intrepid traveler. Bourbon drinker.

  • Jess

    Sunsets seem to be a thing I can never get quite right – which is too bad, because they’re so beautiful!

    • Joe Newman

      That’s the beauty of bracketing. Take five shots at different exposure increments and you’re bound to get one right!

  • Satu VW

    I’m no expert either, but are you still mainly using Photoshop to tweak your photos? I moved to Lightroom some time ago and find it so much more quicker and easier to use, now I only use Photoshop in some special cases (i.e. wanting to combine some shots or add something extra etc).

    • Joe Newman

      Hi Satu,

      If it’s a non-HDR shot then all of my adjustments are made in Lightroom. But for HDR my workflow can vary.

      For HDR, I still import all my raw files into Lightroom first and do initial tweaks there. I then drop the bracketed exposures into Photomatix where the images are merged. I’ll tweak the saturation and contrast and then process the HDR image. At that point, if I’m happy with the image, I’m done. But if not, I’ll load the HDR image back into Lightroom and do additional tweaks.

      For a photo like the one at the top of this post, I’ll then use Adobe Bridge to drop the HDR image and one of the original bracketed exposures into Photoshop. Then I’ll use Photoshop to create a layer mask of the two images, keeping the elements I like from each photo. Lastly, I move that image back into Lightroom, where I upload my raw files and my various work products into my SmugMug vault. Whew.