32bit vs. 16bit HDR, Lightroom, and the HDR Effect

(This is probably a good time for me to point out that you are reading this on my website or G+ post.. and that the positions that are expressed here are completely my own and not from anyone else associated with me)

Was sitting in the Photoshop World Keynote and was listening to the folks at Adobe talk about the new addition to Lightroom:  You can now import 32 bit TIFF images into Lightroom and manipulate High Dynamic Range files to get the most out of the images.

In short, you can take a bracketed series of images and create a big HDR file.  Instead of doing the tonemapping that you would notmally do (in things like Photomatix, HDR Efex Pro, or Photoshop), you just save the TIFF file in 32 bit and bring it back into Lightroom.  Now, when you open the file in Lightroom, your exposure slider can go up and down by about 10 stops.. waaaay more than the 5 you had previously.  This, for some respects sounds like a boon for everyone who works on High Dynamic Range imagery.  Ever since the feature was announced some time ago, I am asked about this feature and how I incorporate it into my workflow.

I usually tell people I don’t – and that its cool that I dont.

As I was watching the presentations on the feature, I was left with this impression that this would be a -new- way for us to work with HDR.  It kinda had this vibe of “Gone are the days when you had to resort to 16bit to do this.. now you can stay in 32 bit.. isnt that great.”

That made me go back to the feature and elaborate on why I feel that this is a feature I dont use entirely.  Moreover, I can share how the position kinda bugged me.

1.  There are lots of people that do HDR for an effect.  Yes, I know -technically- HDR is a High Dynamic Range of a file and that you can use it to create this image of varying exposures in one spot .  That said, there are tons of people that dont care about that.  They want to see the surrealistic, artistic, hyper color (within reason) effect.  These people know HDR to be this, much like really really light seleniums are sometimes called really cool black and white pictures.  The word HDR is synonymous with the effect – as much as the technology.

2.  By putting this new tech in the space of “Gone are the days where you needed to” status, you are pretty much saying “Ok.. all of you that are used to this kind of effect.  Well, you can now do that, with this. ”  There will be people that will merge the brackets, go into Lightroom, Move the exposure, shadow, highlight, and vibrance sliders and not get that effect.  They will get a variation of what you see on the left in the picture above.  They will get an image that will look “Normal”.  Congratulations.. you’ll now have a bunch of ticked off people going “Hey.. I thought I could do this with this technology.  I think this is kinda what happened with Photoshop’s HDR feature.  People went into it with this “I want to do this cool Effect” vibe and then felt frustrated that the dials wouldn’t get them to where they wanted to go.

3.  While making the 32 bit TIFF image is cool – you still need to go to Photoshop to do it.  That’s like saying “Hey.. you can now drive your Porsche around this really cool track at 140 MPH.  All you need is a Porsche.   While I appreciate the technology, the prerequisite for it still feels steep.  Technically, someone could use Lightroom and Photomatix and be done with it.  Not only would they get very realistic (a La Photo Fusion) looks, but the HDR Effect that many people do expect to see.. from an artistic POV>

4.  Working on surrealistic, hyper colored, not quite normal looking images is cool.  It’s Art.  It’s totally OK.  Making super realistic Normal 32 Bit HDR images in Photoshop and Lightroom is wonderful – and it is also OK.  You don’t really have to sacrifice one for the other, and one isn’t really necessary better than another in that space.

If the whole thing was positioned as “Hey.. did you now now you can now make Hyper Processed HDR images in 16 bit -as well as- incredibly photorealistic images in 32 bit mode, all inside of Lightroom/Photoshop etc..”  I think at the end of the day, our tools should allow us to go whichever direction we want to.  In not picking a side, you will make sure that your tool will work for everyone.


  1. When I originally heard about HDR, it was a way to solve an exposure problem, and that’s how I embraced it. Lots of overbaked images made me think poorly of that look, and I didn’t do any of it, because I felt it would be expected of me to produce the hyper version.

    As I have been exposed more (sorry!) to HDR through you, I have come to appreciate the artistic HDR image, to the point where I have one on my wall to inspire me to get my butt to work!

    I guess you could say this is all your fault! And also, thanks!

    I think the 32bit workflow unveiled at the keynote will be a huge benefit to photographers needing to solve that age-old dynamic range issue, but who want the realistic look for fine art. It will be a boon to B & W shooters schooled in the zone system.

  2. I wish that LR would include a version of PS’s HDR, with a exclusive set of sliders/tools for this matter. Although It’s not a big deal to use PS as a merging platform and then back to LR, the inclusion of a tool set inside LR would make photographers workflow much easier. Regardless of the amount of Bit you decide to use, the fact that you could achieve an “decent” looking merged-HDR image inside LR, without the use of third party plug ins is something that every photographer would appreciate. Just my two-off topic-cents!


  3. Just wanted to say that PhotoMatix Pro came out with a “Merge to 32-bit HDR” Lightroom plugin where you do not have to exit Lightroom to process your images into a single TIFF. Just select the images and it will very quickly process them into a TIFF and stack it with the selected images back in Lightroom. It is free if you own PhotoMatix Pro 4. I do agree with your above assessment – I personally like the very clean realistic image look. Keep up the good work!

  4. Ok bruther.. I propose the following:
    A video showing how the extended dynamic range can be utilized by both spectrum’s of users. Those looking to gain more control for the sake of realism… and those hopped up on HDR like its something that Walter White cranked out of one of his tented home ‘cooks’.
    Just a thought. Travel safe. Talk soon.


  5. All great points RC. Point number 1 you make I have been hammering across for months, that yes HDR helps you capture the entire light range of the scene, but it’s main interest to people is the artistic edge it gives to the pictures. I guarantee nearly every HDR enthusiast gone into HDR for this reason and not to solve a technical problem.

  6. RC, the other point is Cost. How much does it cost in software bundles. LR + Photomatix (~$200), LR + HDR Efex (~$200), LR + PS (~$900)!!

  7. I usually want the “realistic” look, and I am very impressed with the results I get processing 32-bit images in Lightroom.

    My workflow is: From Lightroom, Merge to HDR Pro, Save the 32-bit image back to LR, Adjust in LR. If more Photoshop work is needed, open it as a 16-bit with LR adjustments, process in PS and save back to LR.

    This is a new workflow with excellent results for me.

  8. Have you seen the new Merge to 32-bit Lightroom plug-in from the folks who make Photomatix? It lets you create a 32-bit Tiff using the PM merge tools, then bring it back into Lightroom. No Photoshop, no Photomatix tone-mapping, just process the 32-bit file in LR and go from there. I’m liking it so far.

  9. Thanks for your input,
    im a 59 year old guy who took up photography 18 mtgs ago,
    bought a lot gear and thru the help of Kelby training have progressed a bit
    But have had brain overload with trying to keep up
    I hated HDR only because i could not do it lol
    i have the full creative cloud i love LR4 and just purchased the full Niks software
    i see the niks stuff a way for me to HDR easier
    Photoshop is great but take a lot to learn
    i probably sound old and stupid thats because i am lol
    thanks everyone from Kelby i found if i follow your ideas it pretty right
    RC you rock

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