1. Merge Your Shots
I recommend taking Automatic Exposure Bracketing (AEB) photos, which takes five photos instead of just one. Two will be underexposed to include more details in the highlights (the sky for example) and two will be overexposed to include more details in the shadows. Now Lightroom has this handy option to merge those five photos together into one HDR photo. It samples the best areas from all five photos, so you’ll end up with a photo that has all the detail you want in the highlights and also in the shadows. That’s what they call having a “maximal dynamic range.”
Now how do we do this? Very simple, you select all five RAW photos with ctrl +, clicking them individually or selecting the first one and then holding ctrl + and tapping the right arrow key. This will include the photo on the right into the selection. Do this until all the desired photos are selected (the background will light up grey). Then you right-click anywhere in the selection and chose “Photo merge” – “HDR … .” A pop-up will open and Lightroom will create a preview.
In almost all cases you’ll want to have the Autoalign and Auto-settings checked. Below those are some buttons to play with the ghosting. Imagine a photo where a person or object (like a boat or car) was moving while you took that shot. As those five photos were taken at like a millisecond apart, if you line them up, the moving object will not be in the exact same spot. Depending on its speed, it will create a little or a lot of ghosting in your preview. Meaning it will become a little bit see-through, leave a trace or a person might appear to have four arms. You can get rid of this by adjusting the deghosting level. I tend to keep mine on medium. If there is no movement, it will not hurt your image in any way. If there is movement, the medium option will get rid of most of it.
PRO TIP: Be sure to turn on the de-ghosting mask (shows as a big red spot on your preview), so you can see which areas are affected. Play around a bit and if you’re happy, click on the “merge” button.
2. Crop for the Perfect Composition
The next step in my workflow is usually to look at the overall composition. Click on the square box icon in the right menu (be sure you’re in the “Develop” panel in the top menu) to activate the “Crop overlay” tool. A new workspace will open and you’ll have the option to manually re-crop your image or use one of the predefined aspect ratios on the right. Depending on where you want to use your image, you can select different aspect ratios.
I’ll use the example of Instagram here. The original format for Instagram used to be square (so 1:1 ratio; now they allow more formats). Generally speaking, I would advise using the portrait mode (4:5 ratio) because mobile screens are portrait oriented, your photo will take up more screen space and look more pleasing. When you select this, you’ll see an overlay on your image with the 4:5 format ratio. However, you’ll notice it is still in landscape mode. Click “X” on your keyboard to change the orientation. That’s better, right? I always have my third gridlines activated as well. To toggle to the other gridlines, just click “O.” These gridlines can help you crop to the right composition.
PRO TIP: Usually less is more in your composition. So sometimes zooming into your image will reveal a much better composition. Less distracting items and more focus on your subject. If you are unsure what to do, try to position your subject or any major lines in your photo onto those third-lines. It will look so much better. A horizon is a good example. Position the horizon onto the top third line to balance the image. When you’re happy with the composition, hit “enter” on your keyboard and it will take you back to the editing workspace.
3. Use Auto Settings to Stretch Your Histogram
The next step in my workflow is to sort of reset the image to its maximum values. I open the “Basic” panel and click “Auto.” This usually does a great job. It will adjust your exposure, lower the highlights and move up the shadows to reveal more details.
Look at your histogram while you do this. It will stretch out the histogram all the way to the left and right. The only thing you want to watch out for is clipping. That means when either the highlights (the right part of the histogram) or the shadows (left part of the histogram) will go outside of the little box. That means you’re losing information and you’re either getting over- or underexposed.
Now you can still tweak the auto settings a little bit. When you’re finished, it’s time to look at the “Curves” box right below it.
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