How to Create High Dynamic Range and Panoramic Images in Adobe Lightroom

With the release of Adobe Lightroom CC, (also called Adobe Lightroom 6 when sold separately from Creative Cloud) two highly requested features were added to Adobe's all-in-one photo management tool. The Photo Merge feature now adds high dynamic range (HDR) and panorama capabilities directly to Lightroom.
Photo Merge brings the power of high dynamic range (HDR) and panorama directly to Lightroom - no third party plugins needed.
For photographers, this is great news. Prior to this version, these features required third party plugins or external applications. With these features added to Lightroom, images can be merged and still retain the power for further modification in theDevelop module. This means that we can still apply all of the standard sliders and modify the image non-destructively. 
In this tutorial you will learn how to use Lightroom's new HDR and panoramic stitching features.
High dynamic range images combine several images to capture more lighting data than a single image can capture. Our camera sensors are limited in how much exposure can be captured in a single frame; this is known as the camera's dynamic range.

Dynamic Range - Two frames
This frame shows the exposure difference in two images I captured from the same location. In the top image, I exposed to capture all of the detail of a stormy sky. At bottom, I have exposed to capture the detail of the foreground. The best possibility is to combine these two images for a single, high dynamic range image.

Traditionally, HDR plugins or applications require 3-5 (or more) images to capture enough dynamic range. However, Lightroom's HDR feature requires just two images. I've used two images, exposed at +2 EV and -2 EV (two stops overexposed, and underexposed, respectively), to create my HDR image. Lightroom works with RAW images natively and that decreases the number of frames required.
To create an HDR image, enter the Develop module. Select all frames that you wish to include on the filmstrip. You can multi-select images by holding Control and clicking on all images you wish to include (or Command-click on Mac). Then, right click (Alt-click on Mac)  and choose Photo Merge > HDR.

Photo Merge HDR

After you've entered the Photo Merge dialog, Lightroom will generate a preview of the merged HDR image. There are several options on this screen that may vary with your individual image:
  • Auto Align: if your images aren't perfectly aligned, you'll want to keep this ticked. Lightroom will line them up automatically.
  • Auto Tone: applies a default toning for the HDR style. You can leave this ticked at all times.
  • Deghosting: when you have moving subjects in the image, the various levels of deghosting can compensate for this issue. 

HDR Merge Options
HDR Merge Options include auto aligning, auto tone, and the option to tweak the deghost amount. The default options are typically good enough, although you may need to adjust the deghosting amount depending upon the amount of subject movement.

Click Merge to complete the process.
When you create an HDR image with Photo Merge, Lightroom creates a separate and new .DNG file. The file is created in the same folder as the original images, and you can always right click it in the film strip.
After you've finished merging your frames to an HDR image you can edit the image just as you would any other image. Lightroom allows you to use the full set of sliders to adjust exposure, color, and detail.
You can also easily open the new file in Photoshop to continue working with it there.

Finished Lightroom HDR
My finished image after the black and white processing combines high detail in the sky and plenty of detail in the foreground as well. The flexibility of Lightroom's HDR processing is that we can merge, and then apply all of the same sliders we're accustomed to using.

HDR images elicit a variety of reactions from photographers. Sometimes, the effect is applied in a way that makes the image appear unnatural and have a "cartoon" style effect. I'm glad to report that Lightroom's application of HDR is very natural in style and is more geared to increase dynamic range than apply an artistic effect.
Panorama images are formed by stitching together multiple images into a single larger frame. The idea is that the photographer can capture multiple images, showing a wide perspective of an area, and then combine the frames into a single large frame with extremely high resolution.

6 image Pano
This 6 image panorama created in Lightroom is a great way to showcase how smart the app is at lining frames up. The lines of this photo were essential to align, and Lightroom nailed it. Photo by Forrest Lane.

The process to create panoramas is very similar to high dynamic range images. First, multi-select the images you want to include in your panorama. In this tutorial, I'll combine 13 images into a single, high resolution finished product.

Photo Merge Panorama
Multi-select your images by ctrl + clicking on all images to include, and then right click to choose Photo Merge -> Panorama.

The panorama preview features a number of options to adjust the final product, but the default options are generally correct. If your preview looks odd in any way, try another projection to correct the stitching. Auto Crop is a great option that trims the edges from your panorama.

Panorama Merge Preview
Much like the HDR options, I typically leave these set to default. Leaving "Auto Crop" enabled will trim any edges of the image

As the following imageshows, Lightroom's panorama feature is far from perfect. The feature is designed to take a "best guess" at how to align images, but unfortunately doesn't always get it right. While some editors allow for manual alignment, Lightroom doesn't offer this option.

Almost, but not exactly.

Many photographers will welcome the addition of these merge options to Adobe Lightroom. The addition of HDR and panorama merging brings a more comprehensive feel to Lightroom, causing users to rely less on plugins and other applications. Don't forget to give these features a try next time you want to merge your images. Lightroom's implementation is robust enough for most photographers.


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