Are You Wasting Dynamic Range?

[Update 1/15/12: Added tests for Unified Color’s HDR Expose 2]

This is the first in a series of articles abut passing images between Lightroom, Photoshop and various plugins. The other posts include:

The other night at the meeting of our local photo club’s HDR Special Interest Group, we began a discussion about the preservation of the full dynamic range of RAW images when you use plugins, exports and scripts in Lightroom and Photoshop. I made the statement that, for example, when you Export from Lightroom to Photomatix Pro, the default is to pass the source images as TIFF files, which inherently reduces the dynamic range and looses data. A few people challenged that assertion, so I’ve set out to research it in some detail. This post represents the first round of my test results.

Note that this discussion does not apply only to HDR. The principles apply equally to exporting any RAW images to Photoshop or any plugin. [Spoiler: I’m going to demonstrate why you should use Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) file format when exporting images to Photoshop or Photomatix Pro.]

Buzzword Backgrounder

Let’s make sure we understand the classes of image-file formats. Only the RAW file formats (.NEF, .DNG, .CR2, etc.) can preserve the full dynamic range of data captured from your camera’s sensor. Once you convert to any other format (.TIFF, .JPEG, etc.) you will lose dynamic range. It doesn’t matter what colorspace you use (sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto). It doesn’t matter whether you use 8- or 16-bit encoding. And it doesn’t matter whether you select compressed or uncompressed options. All file formats other than RAW (or true HDR, which is rarely used) are designed for viewing or printing and are therefore inherently low dynamic range (LDR) to match the LDR-only capabilities of our displays and printers. If you add bit depth (switching from 8-bit to 16-bit) you’re just increasing the number of colors that can be represented and therefore minimizing banding. You are not significantly increasing the dynamic range of what can be represented.


It’s also important to understand that we don’t have the tools (hardware or software) to view the full dynamic range of a RAW or HDR image. Even if you shoot in RAW format, the image you see on your camera’s display is an LDR derivative. If you open your RAW images in Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW (ACR), you’re again looking at an LDR derivative. And when you merge images in Nik’s HDR Efex Pro, HDRSoft’s Photomatix Pro and Unified Color’s HDR Expose the output is an LDR image. (We often look at an image and say, “It’s an HDR” or “It looks like HDR.” In fact, these are LDR images created from one or more originals or HDR intermediates. The data are only truly HDR while you’re within the HDR apps.)

The RAW File Converters

There’s a class of applications called “RAW file converters” which includes Lightroom, ACR, Phase One’s Capture One Pro, Nikon’s Capture NX2, etc. These apps have one goal: to create an LDR image from a RAW file. In doing so, the dynamic rage of the image will necessarily be reduced and data will be lost. The adjustments (sliders, curves, etc.) within these apps allow you to decide which data are removed and which are preserved, but “preserve all” is not an option. You have to lose something in order to create an image that can be viewed or printed. (Note that Photoshop cannot directly process a RAW image. If you try, Photoshop will first launch ACR and require you to create an LDR image that is then passed into Photoshop.)

The images below help to explain this point. I started with a RAW file that’s just one of a bracketed set. This is the -4EV (ie, most underexposed) of the set of five. I loaded this RAW file into Lightroom and then created the two images shown below. [Click on any image in this post to see a higher-resolution version.]


Yes, both of the above JPEG (ie, LDR) images were created from the same RAW file original. The left one used the default settings in Lightroom’s Develop module. For the right, I used Exposure=+4.00, Fill=70, Recovery=100 and Brightness=0. I could have used Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) instead of Lightroom and achieved the same results because the RAW processing engine of both apps are identical. Note that in order to bring out the detail in the shadows, I had to compromise and let the highlights burn out.

Using LDR file formats it takes multiple images to represent the full dynamic range of even one RAW image. You can’t squeeze all this information into a single TIFF or JPEG even by just reducing the contrast. If you try, you’ll lose too much tonal distinction. That is, levels of brightness will clump together and you’ll end up with tonal banding.

As you can see, there’s a lot more information in the shadows of the original RAW image than you might think if you only saw the first image. The goal I want to explore is how to ensure that all of that information is available within Photoshop or the various plugins and HDR applications.

Some popular HDR tools such as HDRSoft’s Photomatix Pro also can accept and fully exploit RAW images, but if you pass those RAW images to these applications from Photoshop, Lightroom, etc., you may unknowingly be first converting your RAW files into an LDR format and throwing away substantial detail that you cannot ever recover. Lightroom’s export to Unified Color’s HDR Expose is unique in that the default is to pass the full RAW image to the plugin. Because NIK’s HDR Efex Pro apparently cannot process RAW files directly, this is exactly what will happen if you use that plugin.

Exporting from Lightroom

What happens instead if you export the RAW image from Lightroom to Photoshop using the default settings (16-bit Adobe RGB TIFF). This is what you’ll see. It looks pretty much like the default JPEG from Lightroom.

But suppose you then want to use Photoshop to recover that shadow detail? The image below shows what happens when you add an Exposure adjustment layer.

It’s clear that some detail in the dark areas can be recovered, but the image is very contrasty and saturated and the highlights are now even more blown out. Certainly a lot of information has been lost by using a 16-bit TIFF as an intermediate format.

Could the problem be with the choice of the colorspace in the intermediate TIFF image? The images below were created in the same manner as the above image except that I used the sRGB (left) and ProPhoto (right) colorspaces.


None of these images comes close to the JPEG I was able to create directly from Lightroom. Specifically, none of the images made using an intermediate TIFF and Photoshop were as good in recovering shadow details. (Check the area under the statues at the very center/bottom of the image.)

Using DNG as an Intermediate Format

If you want to export images from Lightroom to Photoshop, how can you avoid this loss of data? The simplest solution I know of is to use Adobe’s DNG format for intermediate files. The image below shows that result. When Photoshop opens the DNG, it first launches Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). This gives you the opportunity to extract the extended-range data before creating the LDR image used in Photoshop.

As you can see, this is quite similar to the JPEG created directly in Lightroom. Again, that’s because Lightroom’s Develop module is based on ACR. Like Lightroom, ACR is also a RAW-file converter, which means it generates an LDR image from a RAW file. It’s that LDR image that is passed to Photoshop when you Open a RAW file from ACR. And as with Lightroom, that means there’s the potential for losing even more data.

Exporting for HDR Processing

If DNG is the best intermediate format between Lightroom and Photoshop, what about getting images into our HDR tools such as Photomatix Pro and HDR Efex Pro?

Starting with the same single unmodified RAW file in Lightroom, I ran an Export to Photomatix Pro. Here’s the result using Photomatix Pro’s default settings and three different intermediate options: (1) 16-bit Adobe RGB TIFF (Lightroom’s default); (2) 16-bit ProPhoto RGB TIFF; and (3) DNG.


The DNG version is again quite superior to the TIFFs.

What about exports from Lightroom to HDR Efex Pro Pro? The images below were exported from Lightroom to HDR Efex Pro using: (1) 16-bit Adobe RGB TIFF; and (2) 16-bit ProPhoto RGB TIFF. I had to use some rather extreme settings in HDR Efex Pro to make the images look even this good: Exposure=+1.7EV, Contrast=+25%, Saturation=-45%, Blacks=+85%. As far as I can tell, there is no way to pass an image from Lightroom to HDR Efex Pro as a DNG or other type of RAW file.


And what about the newcomer, Unified Color’s HDR Expose 2? The default export to this plugin apparently passes the RAW file, and the RAW converter is quite good. The image below is the result of the default export from a single RAW image to HDR Expose 2.


I’m going to run a few more tests. In particular, I want to demonstrate how it is possible to use extended-EV TIFF files created from RAW files as intermediates. I first learned this technique from Klaus Herrmann in the section in his excellent online HDR Cookbook entitled Creating HDR Images the Right Way. (Look for the Five TIFFs method.) I also want to get some feedback from other photographers who have studied this. I expect I’ll have to make a few corrections to this post even as far as I’ve gotten so far.

It seems DNG is the best format for a simple export from Lightroom to Photoshop or Photomatix. Unfortunately, HDR Efex Pro doesn’t support this. For that application, you should use Klaus’ Five TIFF method, which is a lot more time consuming. If you’re using HDR Expose, you don’t have to worry — the default work well. More to come.

[See also the next post in this series: The “Edit in…” Problem in Lightroom.]

18 thoughts on “Are You Wasting Dynamic Range?

  1. I’ve spent the last 2 hours learning more about HDRI – this is the most useful and relevant advice on the topic I’ve found, I’m ashamed there aren’t two dozen comments.

    All I really wanted is to get my Canon CR2’s into Hugin, which only takes HDR and EXR. In my tests I’ve found that both Photomatrix Pro and chop the dynamic range when converting CR2’s.


  2. I just read through “Are You Wasting Dynamic Range” and subsequent articles and would like to thank you for proving such an excellent exploration of the plugin problem. This is the best thing I have found on the web for this sort of thing, I look forward to further posts on this subject.

    I am wondering if I am using seven to nine exposures to export to say Nik HDR pro, wouldn’t the dynamic range still be intact, but lost when it is dumped back into Lightroom?

    I have noticed that both Photomatics and Nik HDR software seem to have great difficulty in maintaining dynamic highlights, this is something both companies need to address.


  3. Thanks, Edward. When you export to NIK’s HDR Efex Pro, Lightroom sends each image as an LDR TIFF file. That means you’re losing the potential of recovering the darkest part of your most underexposed image and the highlights of your most overexposed image. Now the question is, does it matter? Look at the extreme-EV images in Lightroom. When the Exposure (and other) sliders are at their default values, do you see the detail you want? Does your lightest image show sufficient detail in the shadows? Does your darkest image show adequate details in the highlights? If so, then you’re fine. The TIFFs sent to HDR Efex Pro will contain what you’ve seen. If not, then darken the darkest image. Does that give you highlights you need? Same for the lightest image. Does lightening reveal important shadow detail? If so, them explicitly make TIFF(s) from each of these images using the extra-dark and -light images. Include these TIFF(s) with the seven original exposures. (ie, Send 8 or nine images to HDR EFex Pro.) That way you’ll be sending that “extended data”.

    Alternatively, if you have Lightroom 4 and Photoshop CS6, select your original RAW files and click on Photo -> Edit In -> Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop. Change to 32-bit. Create the HDR then just Save it. Don’t adjust anything! You’ll send back a 32-bit (HDR) TIFF to Lightroom 4, where you can make all the adjustments you need. With LR4 and PS CS6, you don’t really need Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro unless you particularly like the looks they give you or some other features.


  4. Photomatix Pro takes cr2 but can only save as tiff. This is unfortunate because I’d love to be able to subsequently make subtle adjustments to an HDR raw file in ACR. I find that once I’m working with a tiff subtle adjustments to exposure and color are very difficult. It seems like I should make these adjustments before blending in Photomatix.


  5. Anonymous: Yes, Photomatix Pro outputs a tonemapped TIFF. In other words, it first merges the bracketed images to create an HDR image, then (under your control) maps that extended range and color down to an LDR TIFF. You don’t need to do your final exposure and color adjustments in Photomatix, but you do need to get them within the selected RGB colorspace. You can then do your final corrections in PS. It’s no longer a RAW file it so ACR isn’t much help.


  6. At last an expert who knows what he is talking about. You cannot imagine the large amount of sterile forum discussions about this subject with no concrete answers at the end…
    So, thank you mt Kaye !!!


  7. Your short report is very good. I have been shooting RAW and working HDR photographs for some time now in the CS5/ACR/Photomatix/HDR Pro angles as well noting much the same. I almost always shoot the 5 Frames from one RAW file method now for HDR. I have recovered and done a lot with this method. I like multi-image HDR as well but I have found the subject movement issue is pretty limiting for much of my shooting. I am still diving into the details of the different file formats and my workflows as well. Thanks.


  8. I agree completely with your description above, and I process my raws in LR4 as much as possible before exporting to another app such as Hugin, PSE or OnOne. I am getting much better pictures by adjusting the dark and bright areas the way I like them on the raw file. I used Canon DPP for quite a while, but the function of the highlight, shadow and clarity sliders in LR4 produce much better results for me.

    I do have one question:
    If my camera has a 12 bit per pixel/color sensor resolution why can’t that be represented in a 16bit tif? Is it just that there is no appropriate color space to use that preserves the full DR? If so it seems a new ‘HDR’ color space could easily be defined to do it within a tif.


    1. (Sorry to reply so late!)

      I think (although I’m not certain) the 12- or -14-bit RAW values aren’t linear and can therefore represent a much wider range of tonal values than the 16-bit integer values in a TIFF. A 32-bit TIFF uses floating-point numbers on the other hand and can therefore represent a huge range.


  9. Do I need to process bracketed RAW files to TIFF format first?
    The answer depends on your needs and preferences. It is better to first process your bracketed Raw files in your favorite Raw converter, and then combine the converted TIFF or JPEG files in Photomatix, in the following cases:
    · You need lens correction
    · You need fine control over white balance adjustments
    · You are more interested in Photomatix Exposure Fusion than HDR/Tone Mapping.

    When you need to convert your Raw files to TIFF or JPEG before processing in Photomatix, you should systematically disable sharpening (sharpening should be applied on the final HDR processed image, not before) and ensure the Black is set to zero.
    If you are primarily interested in HDR/Tone Mapping, then you should also uncheck all tonal and exposure-related automatic settings. That is, set to zero the Exposure adjustment setting but also adjustments for contrast, shadow and similar.
    If you are only interested in Exposure Fusion, then the reverse applies. It is better in this case to use the auto-settings of the Raw converter, or adjust them to your liking.
    Note that if you have Lightroom and Photomatix Pro, you can directly integrate Lightroom’s Raw conversion with Photomatix via the free Lightroom Export Plug-In to Photomatix Pro (if you are instead using the Photomatix HDR plugin for Aperture, the Raw conversion is done by Aperture when you invoke the plug-in).
    If you need to use the intermediary 32-bit HDR file for image based lighting in 3D or special effects software, then it is better to load Raw files directly in Photomatix. This will ensure a better linearity and accuracy of the intermediary 32-bit HDR file, as data in Raw files represent the linear luminance values captured by the camera sensors, and the exposure information is still reliable when the image has not yet been altered with shadows/highlights type of enhancements.


  10. Hi
    interesting article, thank you.
    BUT: I have no way to set any export options from Lightroom 5 to Photoshop CS6 other than TIF and PSD! In setting, there is a tab for the export options, and on top of that tab, I can choose Photoshop export options. No DNG is offered…
    How did you manage to export as DNG?


  11. I work with high quality scans of 35mm film in the sRGB color space. The scans are done directly into the sRGB color space, as uncompressed RGB in the TIFF file format. Well, I often find lots of hidden detail in the shadows that can be brought out via lightening shadows or brightening mid tones with Photoshop. I also sometimes find hidden detail in highlights, such as white clouds in a blue sky. Hence, I do tons of masking to isolate luminosity adjustments for the final image, in the sRGB color space for the web. No surprise the dynamic range is in the film. No surprise the scanner can pick up the detail in the film. But how can sRGB or TIFF consist of an inherently low dynamic range, as low as our LDR monitors, as you claim, considering they apparently can contain detail that can’t been seen simultaneously. Personally, I have to think the lowly sRGB color space has a range of numbers that accommodates a higher dynamic range than you think.


  12. “The simplest solution I know of is to use Adobe’s DNG format for intermediate files. The image below shows that result. When Photoshop opens the DNG, it first launches Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). This gives you the opportunity to extract the extended-range data before creating the LDR image used in Photoshop.”

    You realise this is pointless right?


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