HDR Efex Pro isn’t just for special effects. It can enhance your images in much more straightforward ways, improving the tonal balance, sky detail and colour saturation.
I like to use it on landscapes, where professionals can wait for hours for the right lighting, but the rest of us have to grab shots when we can. The shot below is a good example. It was the middle of the day, so the light wasn’t very interesting, and I didn’t have any graduated filters with me to tone down the sky.
I could see the picture had potential, though, so the best I could do was shoot in RAW and make sure I used an exposure that would capture the brightest tones in the sky. I’d have to do the rest in software, so here are my tips on how to boost landscapes with HDR Efex Pro…
01 Choosing an HDR Efex Pro preset
HDR Efex Pro presets use your current image for their previews, so you can quickly see which is going to give the most attractive effect. The ‘Deep 1’ preset is one of my favourites for jobs like this, and with one click my image is already 100% better. The foreground is lighter, the sky is darker and the colours are richer.
However, I think I can improve it with some manual adjustments, so I’m going to close the presets sidebar and open the tools panel on the right.
02 More contrast
HDR tools darken light areas and lighten dark ones – that’s their job. What you often don’t notice, though, is that they reduce the overall image contrast. They look fine close up, but from a distance the picture can look flatter than you expect.
My next step, then, is to increase the contrast value in the Tonality section. I’ve been quite aggressive here, pushing it up to 50%, but I think this picture can take it. Pushing up the contrast also helps disguise any ‘HDR effect’ in the image.
03 More structure
Now I use HDR Efex Pro’s secret weapon – the ‘Structure’ slider. (Actually, you’ll find this in many of the Google Nik Collection plug-ins). The Structure slider increases the definition around objects and outlines, but doesn’t have an effect on the overall contrast. Increasing the Structure value to 40% gives this image extra ‘bite’ generally, but works especially well in the sky, where it makes the clouds stand out much more clearly.
04 Warmer colours
Landscapes usually look better in the warm glow of late afternoon sun, but I didn’t have that, so I’m going to try to recreate it with the Color panel. This isn’t easy to get right, and your adjustments can easily end up looking just plain bad. My tip is to increase both the temperature and tint values – but make the tint increase half the size, and keep to relatively low values. I think 10% on the temperature and 5% on the tint is just about right here.
I think the picture can stand a saturation boost too, so I’m pushing the saturation slider up to 30%.
And yes, I have noticed the huge sensor spot at the top of the sky at the upper right! HDR processes tend to make any spots stick out like a sore thumb – I’ll fix this with the Spot and Patch tools in Aperture later.
05 Graduated filter effect
The HDR Efex Pro preset I used already has a slight graduated filter effect applied – you’ll find this in the Finishing panel. I’m going to adjust it to make the sky darker still (to make up for not having any grads with me when I took the shot), so I’ve reduced the ‘Upper Tonality’ value to -1 Stop.
This darkens the sky, but I can see the darkening effect is spreading down over the hills, so I’ve increased the ‘Vertical Shift’ value to push the transition higher up in the picture, and reduced the ‘Blend’ value so that there’s a sharper transition, just above the horizon line.
06 The finished picture
I must admit I’m quite surprised by this myself. I thought I could certainly improve on the original picture with HDR Efex Pro, but this transformation is quite something. I’ve got the warm, rich colours I wanted and a very powerful sky, and while I might have intensified the colours beyond anything nature could have provided, I don’t think this looks like HDR at all.