Adobe just finished up their annual MAX conference where they demonstrate the latest things their software can do to help content creators. This usually includes major updates to all of the products in their Creative Cloud suite, including Lightroom and Photoshop that photographers tend to care the most about.
One of the features included in the latest release of Lightroom and Photoshop is support for HDR editing. I have to be honest here, I have not yet done any of the HDR editing that is new here in 2023. We’ll get into why I haven’t used it in a minute, but this is why I had to bring Greg Benz on the show. Not only does Greg have experience with this new HDR editing, he has a plugin that can help photographers bridge the gap while not every display can show these new HDR images.
How is HDR editing different from HDR processing that has been available for years?
A lot of you may be thinking that HDR processing has been around for years, how is this new? A perfectly valid question. The old HDR processing we have all been used to using (and seeing – usually overdone so that it looks terrible) is one where we take 3 or more images at different exposures and combine them together into a single image. The idea was to overcome the limitations of our cameras to capture the full dynamic range of the scene and combine them together.
The new HDR editing feature in Photoshop and Lightroom is quite a bit different. It is about leveraging the full dynamic range of the amazing camera sensors we have had for many years with a monitor that can actually show us everything that is there.
The monitors we have been using for a while now, we will call them standard dynamic range (SDR), are capable of showing us 8 stops of lights. The difference between the darkest dark can only be 8 stops of light different from the brightest bright. Digital cameras vary in the dynamic range captured but most have been capturing at least 14 stops of light in a single image for many years.
With SDR monitors, if the scene had more dynamic range than the 8 stops of light, we had to sort of slide those 8 stops around until we got the image where it looked best. Sliding that exposure around with a single image hasn’t been very easy, which led to the HDR processing that so many photographers had gone to when trying to cram the 14 stops of light into something we could see on our monitors showing 8 stops.
HDR monitors change that. It has to truly be an HDR monitor (see below), but they are capable of showing all the stops of light your camera is capturing in a single frame. The update Adobe just released to Lightroom and Photoshop enables editing in HDR, using the full capabilities of an HDR monitor.
What are the advantages to the HDR editing capabilities?
The advantage is that photographers can finally see the full dynamic range captured by the sensor in your digital camera. A sunrise or sunset can now have both color and brightness. Christmas lights will actually glow. Greg tells me that it is a transformative experience that you have to see to believe.
I love the way that Greg explained this with the example of a blue sky. With an SDR monitor as it tries to show a bright sky it will max out the brightness of the blue pixel and need to turn on the red and green pixels a little too so that it can be bright. Doing that means the blue gets duller, most likely looking white.
We have dealt with this by using the highlights slider and lowering them until we see some color come back to the sky. With an HDR screen the blue pixel can get bright enough to show the bright sky without having to turn on the green and red pixels.
Do photographers need a new camera to do HDR editing?
Nope. Greg has tested raw images from as far back as 2008 and has been amazed to see the whites in a blown out shirt suddenly show detail and color. Our cameras have been far more capable of recording the dynamic range of a scene than our monitors have been able to show. It is an eye opening experience to finally see everything your camera can capture.
How can photographers tell if they have a display that supports HDR editing (see some info below)?
All of this sounds great, but the key to it is having a monitor that truly supports HDR. Here is a snippet from a blog post recently published by Adobe called HDR Explained where the requirements for HDR monitors is outlined:
To see the photos in this post in High Dynamic Range, I recommend that you use a macOS or Windows system with Google Chrome or Microsoft Edge version 116 or later and a High Dynamic Range display that supports 1000 nits or brighter. Note that other browsers and platforms may not display the photos on this page in HDR. Recommended displays include Apple XDR displays, such as a MacBook Pro with an XDR display (2021 or later), and any display VESA-certified as DisplayHDR 1000 or DisplayHDR 1400.Eric Chan – Adobe
As Eric pointed out in that blurb, the good news is that if you have an Apple monitor that is newer than 2021 you have a high quality HDR screen that Apple brands as XDR and are good to go. It gets a little tougher with larger, non-Apple monitors.
Unfortunately, it can be a little hard to tell if a monitor has the DisplayHDR 1000 or DisplayHDR 1400 certification. Vesa does have a website where the certification is somewhat explained and more importantly there is a list of monitors or laptop screens that have been certified over at displayhdr.org.
However, it isn’t clear how often that list is updated. It also is clear that the list doesn’t contain every monitor/screen that qualifies as the Apple screens are not on the list. My experience has been that certifications like this often require that a company not only have their product pass the tests but also pay to have Vesa conduct the test. That cost may be enough that some manufacturers won’t certify just because they don’t want to pay the fee for the testing.
There is also a challenge here where HDR being in the name or description of a monitor is very likely to not be enough. Manufacturers aren’t directly lying about their monitor supporting HDR when they put that in the name or description. What they are saying is that when a graphics card sends an HDR signal, something called HDR-10, to the monitor it knows how to dumb that HDR signal down to SDR.
There is a lot to how to pick a monitor for photography. If you want one that truly supports the HDR capabilities needed to use this new HDR editing feature the two things to look for are:
- Peak brightness of 1,000 cd/m2 (also called nits)
- Contrast ratio of 100,000:1 or better
Amazon is useless to try and find monitors this way. I recommend searching for technical specifications on sites like Adorama or B&H first. You can also check out my external monitor recommendations, which includes a couple that would meet the HDR requirements at as reasonable a price as I can find. If you are unsure if your current monitor supports the HDR needed for this new feature, here are two ways to tell:
- Go to Greg’s website at gregbenzphotography.com/hdr and do some testing
- If your monitor is older than about 5 years and/or did not cost at least $1,500 it is very unlikely to support HDR.
What does HDR editing mean for printing?
It is tough to be sure. With SDR monitors we have a struggle to get prints to look as bright and vibrant as images look on our monitors. It takes calibration and managing the color space with soft proofing to do make prints look like they did on your SDR screen, the problem gets significantly worse. I like how Greg described it, in order to get the prints to look like images on HDR screens we would need to use ink that glows.
So what do you do? If you know you are going to print an image the easiest path is to edit the image in SDR, which you can still do on an HDR screen. After you are done with the print you can choose to export the image to an HDR image by checking the “HDR Output” checkbox.
Or, even better, you can head over to Greg’s website and buy his EXCELLENT plugin for Photoshop called Web Sharp Pro. Web Sharp Pro does a lot more than just HDR, but it does a great job of upgrading images (even JPEG) to HDR.
Greg is working on a course for how to handle printing in conjunction with HDR. Follow me on X (Twitter) https://twitter.com/harmon_jeff if you would like to know when something is available here.
How do you share HDR with others?
Just like it takes a pretty expensive HDR capable monitor to edit photos in HDR, it takes that same kind of monitor to see an image in HDR. Even with an HDR monitor, the only way to share you beautiful HDR image is through a portfolio website that won’t process your images. All of the social networks process your images and strip out the HDR content of an image.
The good news is that there are a lot of good things making it possible for those who are using an HDR display to see your beautiful images and still provide a good experience when they do not.
The first thing that helps here is that a huge number of people have at least one HDR screen today. Smartphones have had HDR displays for several years now. If you can send them a link to a web page where your unaltered HDR image can be shown, they can go there on their phone and it will be seen in all it’s HDR glory.
The other thing is something called gain maps. It is relatively new, but it enables a single image to be seen in HDR when the display supports it and uses the gain map to show it in SDR so that it can still look very good. Kind of a graceful downgrade. The gain maps are most prominent in a new file type called AVIF, which is highly likely to take over as the standard file type used on the web. Check out Greg’s website for more information: https://gregbenzphotography.com/hdr/#gainMaps