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I've heard that it's possible to create an HDR image from a single RAW file. (Obviously, it won't be as good as using multiple bracketed RAW files; I know that much.)

Every time I try — using Photomatix with the default settings -- the results are truly awful. I'm not even trying for something printable, I mean it's too noisy, blotchy and generally horrible even for viewing onscreen.

Does anyone have any tips — either about what kind of RAW files will work well, or about how to tweak the Photomatix settings for this case, or about other software which will do this better?

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Keep in mind that many lowend DSLRs simply doesn't have enough dynamic range for a single frame HDR. My Nikon D60 didn't, but it works fine with Nikon D300. I assume the same is true for Canons comparable cameras as well. – Emil H Jul 16 '10 at 21:07
What is the dynamic range of your camera's sensor (how many bits per pixel)? Can you adjust the pixel format of the raw file? – Danny Varod Jul 17 '10 at 14:18
Here's the shocker: only a single exposure can be considered HDR, as your sensor has a higher dynamic range than the output (JPEG or print). Taking multiple exposures to achieve the same result is pseudo-HDR. – Dave Van den Eynde Jul 18 '10 at 8:53
Split up the questions and the answer: Can you show us an example (including exposure and Photomatix settings)? What processing do you do on the single RAW to get the 3(?) exposures? – Marc Jul 18 '10 at 15:11
The sensor is 24-bit, I believe. I've stopped using the Photomatix pseudo-HDR-from-single-file thing, and instead started creating 3 distinct exposures as per Alan's answer, below - this has already improved the results. Basically, I was just being too lazy... – Matt Bishop Jul 18 '10 at 22:12

11 Answers 11

up vote 14 down vote accepted

Ideally you want to capture at least 3 distinct images, but the more properly exposed your single raw image is, the better the outcome.

By proper exposure (a subjective term), I mean to expose to the right. You want to capture as much detail in the shadow areas of your image, without blowing out the highlights. The way dSLR CMOS sensors work, they do a much better job capturing information in an image that is slightly overexposed, than with an image that is underexposed (shadow areas will have more noise).

When you have your single RAW file, you want to hopefully create at least three images with varying exposure levels. Depending on your base image, these exposures may be -2/0/+2 EV or -1/0/+1 EV (as Marc's answer (and image shows)), or some variation of three exposure values--one that is less than your base image, and one that is more than your base image. You will need to play with the EV values until you get the intuition on what EV values will work with your base image.

When using Photomatix, try playing with the settings, the default values were never good. IIRC, bumping up the strength to full, and then tweaking from there produced good results.

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+1 Good answer but sometimes the 2EV difference might already be too much if the image is not well exposed. – Marc Jul 16 '10 at 20:18
@Marc: Yeah I edited my answer to point that out, after I saw your answer :D – Alan Jul 16 '10 at 20:22
Thanks for this; it was very helpful. Things are already looking better... – Matt Bishop Jul 16 '10 at 22:35

I usually export a single RAW three times by only changing the exposure (0, -1, +1).

You might be using too extreme exposure settings for your shots. Or the Photomatix settings are far from optimal. The Light Smooting setting should be quite high to achieve a realistic result.

This shot is a HDR from one RAW file, it worked fine for me so I'm sure you can do it too.

Scotland - RGB

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@marc - nice shot! – reuscam Jul 16 '10 at 20:16
+1, because I see two comments above that could be considered answers. 1) +1, 0, -1, and 2) extreme photomatix settings. – reuscam Jul 16 '10 at 20:25
Great work: it doesn't look so obviously HDRed! Not a fan of the haloey, greyed out, flat, hyper-real look. – Jared Updike Jul 16 '10 at 20:35
@Jared Updike: HDR is just a type image which allows a high dynamic range. It's the "Tone Mapping" that people abuse to create craptacular images that is destroying photography. Damn kids and their damn rap music. – Alan Jul 16 '10 at 20:40

I use TuFuse to create good-looking HDR images. I shoot into RAW and check the histogram immediately to have no overexposures. Then I develop two pictures - one with nice bright parts and the second with nice dark parts:

Next, I run TuFuse with standard parameters:

tufuse.exe -o out.tif im1.tif im2.tif

It produces quite a nice image (using standard exposure weight curve):

If I am not satisfied, I change the curve with some parameters:

tufuse.exe --cCo 0.6 --cBr 0.5 -o out1.tif im1.tif im2.tif

--cCo 0.6 narrows curve by 0.6, --cBr 0.5 moves it to the right by 0.5. The result image is brighter:

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Wow this TuFuse is a very interesting thing. Is there a more user friendly and up to date alternative? – Robert Koritnik Mar 23 '11 at 8:21
That would depend on the dynamic range of the image - if you try to photograph say the interior of a church you have a dynamic range that exceeds the dynamic range of the sensor and an HDR technique is a must. (I used around 40 exposures on one occasion, from 15s to 1/15s) – DetlevCM May 7 '13 at 8:35

The short answer is no it's not possible to create an HDR image from a single raw file.

"HDR" is far and away the most misused term in photography. Dynamic range is the ratio between the darkest parts you can distinguish and the brightest parts.

A true multi-exposure high dynamic range image with linear tonecurve would actually look very flat and uncontrasty, due to the fact that computer monitors can only display a limited dynamic range so the differences between tones must be made as small as possible. For this reason mankind invented tonemapping. Effectively this boosts the local contrast so the dynamic range for one part of the image is displayed using the full range available to the monitor. This is what is responsible for the HDR "look".

So what you meant to ask was "how do you create a tonemapped image from a single raw", which is possible. I wont go into the how (see the many other answers to this question) but will point out that dynamic range and noise are inversely proportional. So the higher the dynamic range the lower the noise and the higher the noise the lower the dynamic range. The noise floor of an image effectively limits the ability to distinguish between shadow tones and thus affects the dynamic range, also if you have a limited number of bits per pixel the quantisation noise increases.

I mention this because you talked about noise. Unfortunately this is unavoidable. The relationship between noise and dynamic range means that if you apply tonemapping to a single raw image you will get more noise. This is because a single raw image has a limited dynamic range, no matter what you do with it!

I should also add that just because you can, doesn't mean you should! Some of the worst uses of tonemapping I have seen have been used to try and make a boring photo interesting, by going all out in the contrast stakes. I would think very carefully about whether you are using tonemapping because will work with am already strong image to improve the look, or just to make an otherwise dull image look a bit more interesting.

Good luck!

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Here is how I achieve an HDR/tonemapped image using Lightroom and Photomatix:-

  • Choose your original image carefully, you want one where there's not too much in the way of highlights or shadows. ie. not over or underexposed.
  • Right click your original RAW file, and select Create Virtual Copy. Repeat once so that you have 3 copies of the image in your catalogue. (If you like, you can go to 5, 7, or 9, but thats stretching it from a single file).
  • On the first one of the three, select it, hit 'D' to go to Develop mode, then use the 'exposure' slider to underexpose the image by the amount desired. Usually this would be 1 1/3rd stops, or sometimes 2. (But again, 2 stops may be pushing it from a single RAW file).
  • On the third photo, drag the exposure slider to the right to over expose the image by the SAME AMOUNT as the under exposed image (ie, 1 1/3rd stops).
  • Press 'G' to go back to library mode.
  • Provided you installed the Photomatix lightroom plugin you can now select all three images and rightclick, and Export > Export to Photomatix Pro (or something similar to that).
  • When prompted uncheck the ghosting and align images options - as this is from a single file you wont need those! Also, set the option to reimport the result back into your LR catalogue.
  • It will load Photomatix and you then play with it in there as normal until you are happy.
  • When you complete the process and save and tonemap the image, it will go back into your Lightroom catalogue with the name you specified, and with a .TIF extension/file type.
  • You are done! You can now further manipulate it if you wish within Lightroom.

Hope that helps.

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I would thoroughly recommend a read of Trey Ratcliff's excellent HDR tutorial. The bit about post processing with layer masks as a step after all the Photomatix malarky was a real eye-opener for me, and has had a massive effect on my HDR efforts.

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I stopped reading at step one when he says "Speaking of which, Macs are great, and my Mac’s CPU does not melt", completely not relevant to what he was trying to teach. I would never start a photography tutorial with "firstly you should be using a Nikon because Canon are rubbish..." – Matt Grum Sep 25 '10 at 8:14
If that's all it took to stop reading (assuming your're not joking), then its really your loss. The guy imparts some good advice & tips. I can look beyond the Mac vs PC religious wars because, as you rightly say, it has no bearing at all on the tutorial. – Greg Whitfield Sep 26 '10 at 23:02
I'm not a huge fan of HDR photography but I would agree that Trey Ratcliff's HDR Tutorial is about the best you are likely to find. All of the steps you need to get good results are covered in some detail. – Mark J P Jan 23 '12 at 21:39

I didn't even use multiple exposures for this particular result, and it's not the best example because I didn't plan for it, but here it is.

Before & After

enter image description here

The only program I used was Lightroom 3 and I used the single CR2 file. Most of what I did was use the Fill Light and Exposure sliders to pull back the curves-crushed shadows and highlights. Some other tweaks brought the apparent contrast and colour vibrancy back into the image.

In the full resolution image, you can see cleaned up noise in the shadowy areas, but I was otherwise quite impressed with the range of values I pulled out of the single file. This was shot on a Canon EOS 60D (APS-C, 4.3µm pixels, 14-bit).

Actual JPEG

enter image description here

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+1 for revealing the detail it alrady is in the single image. I was recently experimenting to rescue an image of a person under a tree's shadow with a bright sky behind her. I tried both, Photoshop's HDR, And curve editor in Canon Photo Pro. I like the Canon version much more than the HDR version because it had better saturation, more natural color and avoided the halos. – Jahaziel Sep 12 '12 at 16:04

HDR imaging is not a certain look. High Dynamic Range, has a relative term "high" - high compared to what? Compared to the a printer's ability to print? The 8bit monitor? Or the 8bit jpegs? Or the 12-14bit cmos sensor?

If we choose the typical jpg/monitor, then the RAW file IS HDR - and it is a monochrome HDR image even. You don't "make a HDR from it". It already IS. And your RAW converter and the built-in camera software (when storing jpgs on the flashcard) turn this monochrome HDR image into low dynamic range (8bit per channel) through bayer interpolation and (linear and nonlinear dynamic range transformations known as) tonemapping (and other operations, e.g. neighbourhood operations also known as) sharpening, noise reduction, and highlight management. In good converter software, it lets you play around with which details to preserve, compared to the take-it-or-leave-it direct-to-jpeg-one-size-fits-all.

If you consider HDR to be "higher DR than the typical sensor" (which is how industry and researchers see HDR) then you also cannot turn a single RAW into a HDR image. you need the multiple exposures to see more dynamic range (saturation divided by noise floor), which you then combine into a floating point image - or perhaps at 16 bit image. which you cannot see on the monitor without the above mentioned transformations. However, since you have all the dynamic range in the image, you have more choices in the 16bit-2-8bit processing, where you squeeze and expand certain areas of the dynamic range.

If you want higher dynamic range you can also buy machine vision cameras with 100-120 DB (versus ~70 db) that has certain tricks to create 16bit images; multiple readouts, 2 sizes of pixel cells interleaved, one of the green pixels in the bayer pattern being twice as sensitive as the other, etc. They are very expensive though, and have no "photography" branding (features, lingo, only the most simple tonemapping - gain, wb and gamma). Pure dead honest raw imagery (which you then can tone-map as you please).

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If you shoot Canon, and your camera is supported by current builds of Magic Lantern, use Magic Lantern's dual-iso mode.

Magic Lantern

Magic Lantern is a firmware add-on to Canon's DryOS. You load it onto the memory card in the camera, and it runs from there. It does not alter the firmware in your camera, but does require a specific version of firmware to run correctly, so only supported models with supported firmware versions will work. (See also: What are the risks of using Magic Lantern?).


The dual-ISO module is designed to do single-shot HDR or HDR video. The software samples the sensor at two different ISO settings by alternate pairs of lines. You get a striped output file. The lower ISO setting is typically the one you'd use normally, while the higher ISO setting is used for noise reduction in a manner similar to Guillermo Luijk's Zeronoise algorithm. Since noise is a limit on dynamic range, reducing the noise increases the dynamic range. You lose half the vertical resolution in the highlights and shadows (it's interpolated back on midtones) and there may be moire and aliasing in the deep shadows, but you gain roughly 3EV if you use a 4EV ISO interval.

When you use the dual-iso module, you can adjust the interval between the two ISO settings, but you are limited by what ISO levels your camera can do.

cr2hdr Processing

You shoot the image, and then download the RAW file. You then need to run the file through cr2hdr (see: the C source code), a utility that interpolates the lines of data back together to create your HDR image. If you aren't up to compiling cr2hdr :), there are binaries and GUIs, etc. available. I prefer the Lightroom plugin.

The DNG output from cr2hdr will look like the image is underexposed by your iso interval. However, pushing it (increasing the exposure) in post will show very little to no noise.

Because only a single shot is used, there is no chance of ghosts or clones, and this technique can also be used for video footage.


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To get an HDR image from a single shot I recommend to use a camera that has a high dynamic range, so that you have room enough to extract all the information needed for the HDR techniques.

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How can I get a good HDR image from a single RAW file?

You should use a camera with wide dynamic range. Here is a list.

Any camera from the upper part of the list will give you quite good material for tonal manipulation.

You should also try to expose as much as possible without blowing highlights.

P.S. Yes, those measurements are indeed reliable.

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