Written by guest blogger: Klaus Herrmann

Topaz Adjust is used by many HDR photographers to give their images that last punch. While the common belief is that Topaz Adjust is an alternative to real HDR processing (using multiple exposures) the two actually go very well together. But how exactly should you integrate Topaz Adjust into your HDR workflow to make your images really pop?

In a nutshell, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range – a technique for capturing scenes whose dynamic range (difference between the brightest and the darkest areas) is too high for the camera’s sensor. Not all areas of such a the scene can be exposed correctly in a single exposure. An HDR software combines multiple photos of the scene into a single image. Usually, one of the photos is exposed correctly (0EV), one is underexposed (-2EV), and one is overexposed (+2EV) as in the images above. As a result of combining the three, all areas of the image are exposed correctly.

The normal HDR workflow starts by merging the exposures into a single 32-bit image using an HDR software (e.g. Photomatix). This image cannot be properly printed or displayed on a normal monitor due to its high dynamic range. Therefore, it has to be reduced to a 16-bit (or 8-bit) image – a step that is called tone-mapping. The characteristic HDR look is produced by this tone-mapping step, and for many photographers, the HDR workflow ends after this step. However, the resulting images often look flat and have a low contrast.

This is where Topaz Adjust comes in. It can be used to enhance the exposure, give some details back to the image and tune the colors. The goal of this step is not to apply extreme changes but only to enhance the image to give it depth and make it more vivid.

Here is a basic HDR/Topaz Adjust workflow:
Step 1: Load the tone-mapped image into Photoshop.
Step 2: Create a copy of the background layer and start Topaz Adjust on that layer. We apply Topaz Adjust before anything else to get the basic look of the image right.

In Topaz Adjust, you should start from a neutral setting by pressing the Reset All button. Then, work your way gradually towards the desired look by using the Adaptive Exposure slider, the Strength slider in the Details panel, and the Adaptive Saturation slider in the Color panel. Start with the Adaptive Exposure slider and increase it incrementally in steps of about 0.1 until you are pleased with the light in the scene. After that, do the same with the Strength slider and finally with the Adaptive Saturation slider. You can get a basic parameter setting by using only these three sliders and adjusting them incrementally in turn. Verify the results in the preview panel (click on the preview to toggle the preview and original views) while you are applying these small changes. When you have this base setting, you can fine-tune it again in arbitrary ways.

Step 3: After you have completed your work in Topaz Adjust and applied the effect to the image, you can apply some noise reduction (if necessary) and sharpen the image. I usually use Topaz Denoise and Topaz Infocus for these steps. The result could look like the following image. You see that this version has a lot more punch than the tone-mapped version. The sky has a nice contrast and the water got a nice reflective look.

Step 4: After you are done with the basic work in Topaz Adjust, the foundation is made and the key feature of the image are laid out. In this step, you can apply selective processing work to the image to work on those features. In this particular case, I have worked on the colors in the sky, enhancing the contrast between the clouds and the sky even more. I have also applied curves and saturation layers to the water to enhance the nice reflections. The final result looks like this:

Things to Remember
• You should not try to finish your image in your HDR software. For example, do not apply too much color saturation or contrast (white point and black point) to the image. Topaz Adjust and the usual Photoshop tools are much better at doing this.
• Use the incremental method introduced in step 2 to gradually approach the desired look. This gives you optimal control over the final result and keeps the adjustments from getting too extreme.
• Pay attention to what Topaz Adjust does to your image. Often, it develops characteristics that were not obvious before that step. Try to work on these and enhance them.
• You get the best effects, if you avoid extremes. People generally find images interesting that still have a realistic look with a slightly surreal touch. If you overdo it, people cannot relate to it anymore.

Final Thoughts
Topaz Adjust is a vital part of my HDR workflow. Some images really only get their character in Topaz Adjust, and in my subsequent post-processing work, I concentrate on enhancing these characteristics and get a well-balanced result. So it is really the combination of HDR technology, Topaz Adjust and selective adjustments in Photoshop that makes the final HDR image pop.

About the author
Klaus Herrmann holds a PhD in computer science and is the author of over 50 scientific papers and books. Having been a musician for many years, he discovered photography as a hobby some time ago and specialized on HDR photography. He combines creativity and a methodological approach in his photographic work and enjoys sharing the details of his post-processing workflow with others on his blog called “HDR Cookbook” (http://farbspiel.wordpress.com/). Besides diverse detailed post-processing recipes (tutorials), the HDR Cookbook contains the largest collection of before-and-after comparisons and making-of movies of HDR images on the web. Visit Klaus Herrmann on his flickr stream (http://www.flickr.com/photos/farbspiel/) where he shares detailed workflow information for each of his images.

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