The Fake HDR Portrait Technique, Revealed

As those of you who know a thing or two about what goes on ‘round here know, last week’s dekePod was devoted to the topic of faking an HDR portrait. As usual, the technique flew by in the blink of a bug’s eye. A really scary, creepy bug’s eye. Which is the idea, of course. Few know this, but dekePod won this year’s Nobel Prize in Subliminal Anti-Training. (They give out that particular award in a tiny, dimly lit room off the janitor’s closet, so it’s not widely covered.)

But anti-training doesn’t always work. In fact, one study suggests it kills roughly 1 out every of 16 lab rats. (Thankfully, we haven’t heard of any human fatalities—yet.) Which is why I offer this traditional step-by-step description, as it applies to my youngest son, Sammy, who quite obviously really enjoys his ice cream.

Sam becomes HDR

Happily, while I consider this a relatively advanced technique, it’s not an elaborate one. It involves just three effects—Shadows/Highlights, Curves, and High Pass—applied to a smart object in the Lab mode. In fact, the actual technique, from beginning to end, takes up just 2 minutes of a 6 and a half-minute video. The rest is setup, context, and goodbye. (I probably shouldn’t be telling you this, but very little of any given dekePod is cluttered with conventional instruction. That would rather defeat the purpose. Let the lure be long and the katch be kwick.) Meaning that once you understand how the technique works, you can race through it in a matter of minutes.

Step one: Open an image. Choose Image > Mode > Lab Color. That converts the RGB image to Lab, where a mere 8 bits per channel goes an awfully long way.

Step two: Normally, it’s nice to keep things nondestructive. For this technique, it’s absolutely essential, In the video, I go to the Layers palette flyout menu and choose Convert to Smart Object (below). But you could just as easily choose Filter > Convert for Smart Filters. Either delivers a smart object, which protects the image from all earthly harm.

Step three: HDR is largely about bringing the invisible into the visible range. Which means calming down the highlights and waking up the shadows. In other words, tugging the extreme colors into the mainstream of the midtones. To do this, choose Image > Adjustments and then choose the only command available (below), Shadow/Highlight. In Lab, Shadow/Highlight can’t harm the colors (as it does in RGB) because it affects just the luminance information.

Step four: My dark areas of the image are hideously filled in, so I raise the Shadows value radically, to 90 percent. The light areas need less work, so I scoot the Highlights value up less dramatically, to 30 percent, as shown below.

Step five: The result is actually remarkably ugly. To gain better control over the process, I turn on the Show More Options check box (above) to reveal several technical looking options that make an enormous difference in the command’s performance. Here are the values I set, and their results:

In the Shadows area, I lowered the Tonal Width to 30, which limits the shadows to the darkest 3 percent of the colors, and left the Radius at 30 pixels, which keeps the halos from growing so large that they fill in the eyes.

In the Highlights area, I lowered the Tonal Width value to 40 percent, so the lightest 40 percent of the colors are affected, and raised the Radius to 90 pixels, which diffuses the effect and all but eliminates halos in the bright areas.

In the Adjustments area, I took the ineffective Color Correction value down to and raised the Midtone Contrast value to +35, which prevents the image from flattening out.

Step six: After making the changes you deem appropriate (because you’re working with a smart object, you can always change your mind later), click the OK button. In my case, the new image contains newly wakened details, including much brighter irises in my son’s eyes.

Step seven: This image has sufficient luminance problems that the only viable solution is Curves. So I add a Curves adjustment layer. In Lab, you can edit just one channel at a time, and the Curves dialog box starts off set to the Lightness channel. I lock down the quartertones (just north of the shadows) at Input and Output values of 31 each. Then I set a point at Input: 11, Output: 6 to plunge the shadows and another at Input: 75, Output: 92 to brighten the highlights (see below).

Step eight: To raise the saturation values, I set symmetrical points at Input: -128, Output -67 and Input: 127, Output: 67 in both the a and b channels. The image needs more pink, so I nudge the light point in the a channel to Input: 127, Output: 64. Then I infuse the image with yellow by adding a point to the middle of the b curve at Input: -13, Output: -3 (see below).

Step nine: When you are satisfied by your adjustments, click OK. If you feel like you might have gone too far (in my case, Sammy verges on jaundiced), then back off the Opacity value in the Layers palette. For my part, I took the Opacity value down to 60 percent.

Step ten: Now to sharpen the image. The best way to sharpen a low-frequency portrait shot is with the High Pass filter. So click on the smart object layer to make it active. Choose Filter > Other > High Pass. And set the Radius value to something that’ll translate well to print, such as 3.0 pixels, and click OK. That leaves the image looking nearly completely gray. So double-click on the tiny settings icon to the right of the words High Pass in the Layers palette and change the blend mode to Linear Light (below). Click OK to accept the most intense sharpening effect you can achieve with High Pass.

That’s it. You are done. The final fake HDR portrait appears below. Check out the blades of hair, the healing scab, the threads of fabric, the fuzz and the wrinkles (on a 6-year-old!) and the bumps, the definition around the jawline and ears. This is a portrait with real tangible, textural, tactile depth.

Final fake HDR Sammy

If you look closely, you’ll see a light halo rising up from Sammy’s shirt. That’s a function of combining a high Amount value (90 percent) with a low Radius value (30 pixels)in the Shadows area back in Step Five. Undesirable. However, had we done otherwise, we wouldn’t have had a chance of brightening the eyes. I could mask this away, of course. But here’s my point: There are tradeoffs. Even so, it’s better to go “fake HDR” than try to shoot an authentic multi-exposure HDR portrait, which would require locking down the model in some kind of Clockwork Orange-style body brace.

It’s a trick that’s also a treat. And what could be better this time of year?

For a detailed examination of the Lab mode including this very technique—examined in luxurious, real-time detail, replete with sample image and everything—check out my video series Photoshop CS3 Mastering Lab Color, available exclusively from the excellent folks at

Next entry:CS4 Videos @

Previous entry:Pathetic Attempt to Keep My Job Subsidized (or WWSD?)


  • as advertised

    Thanks Deke,

    You’re always pulling for us lab rats. Your fake hdr tutorial in its step by step, do this do that goodness.

    Congrats on your NPAT award. But beware of awards that are handed out near dimly lit janitorial closets.


  • This makes your son look

    This makes your son look rather sick and veiny and…. well… like he has peach-skin? Ahem…. Very cool effect though.

  • Fun, Fast, and a Little Bit Scary

    Well, I tried it out, and this is a really cool technique. It’s so memorable that the second photo I worked on, I didn’t really need to reference the tutorial.

    I think my nephew already looked a bit like Dr. Horrible, but now he looks really cool (and I guess all kids faces are always dirty!).


    Dylan Laughing in His Goggles


    Goggled Dylan HDR Portrait

  • Love it!

    Finally, images of Dr. Horrible as a toddler.

    Really helps fill in the gaps.

  • HDR

    It makes my photo to dark, can you help?

  • Thanks!!

    Signed up to your blog after downloading your Dekepod on iTunes. You make learning Photoshop fun and easy.


    Mexico City, México

  • Always wanted to know this tech.

    This will really bring depth to the photo manipulation i do. Thanks for the great Tut.

  • Adobe Lightroom

    You might be able to get some great color from Adobe Lightroom: here is a link and a quick tutorial how to bring out the color in some of your photos, and a trial version of Adobe Lightroom… : Hope this helps.

    (i donno if this goes against Deke’s policy on comments, to upload a link to another website… So Deke if this violates anything please feel free to delete this post)

  • Thanks for the tutorial

    Thanks for the tutorial link. I need a bit of help with my learning curve.

  • Thanks for this

    great tutorial.

  • re:

    I tried the technique, but could not do it :( Final result was no way near yours.


  • i love this, thank you SO

    i love this, thank you SO much!


    You either got a RETARD or a bot on your board… delete him before he does anything more stupid… (I doubt that’s possible but well wouldn’t be the first time I got surprised)

    Durr ...


    “Isn’t it enough to see that a garden is beautiful without having to believe that there are fairies at the bottom of it too?”

    - Douglas Adams

  • Consider it deleted

    Your help in keeping this site spam-free is greatly appreciated.


  • Just doing my civil duty…

    Just doing my civil duty… or something ... raspberry

    You’re welcome.

  • The Fake HDR Portrait Technique, Revealed

    The Fake HDR Portrait Technique, Revealed is the best idea.

  • It’s possible to use HDR

    It’s possible to use HDR Photoshop techniques to create fake HDR photographs ... Any photo can be used although a portrait photo will often look the best. no win no fee solicitors

  • If you look closely, you’ll

    If you look closely, you’ll see a light halo rising up from Sammy’s shirt. That’s a function of combining a high Amount value writing (90 percent) with a low leather pea coat Radius value (30 pixels)in the Shadows area back in Step Five. Undesirable. However, had we done otherwise, we wouldn’t have had a chance of brightening the eyes. I could mask this away, shoot an authentic of course. But here’s my point: There are tradeoffs. Even so, it’s better to go “fake HDR” than try to shoot an authentic multi-exposure HDR portrait, which skinny leather trousers would require locking down the model in some kind of Clockwork Orange-style body brace.

  • Greetings! This is my first

    Greetings! This is my first visit to your blog! We are a collection of volunteers and starting a new project in a community in the same niche. Your blog provided us useful information to work on. You have done a wonderful job! Tony Turbeville

  • Info palette

    Hey Deke-

    It’s been a long time and I’ve read so much, watched so many vids etc, etc that I’m just gonna ask here.

    Why the heck hasn’t adobe realized the ‘info’ palette in Photoshop is one of the most fundamental palettes in color correction, web work and etc, etc…and stuck a small version up in all the extra space in the interface…like to the right of the “print size” button?

    I have not (whispering….) upgraded to CS6 yet, but I’m guessing it’s still an option to view and can’t be moved.

    HOWEVER… can it be moved or hacked somehow?


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