HDR Portrait Tutorial

Picture of New HDR Approach to Shooting People PortraitsImagine shooting a vacation photo similar to this HDR photograph of me in Nevada. Take my word for it, when people see a photo like this they get jealous and that’s what a vacation photo is suppose to do! I was able to shoot this photo using a HDR technique I developed. Yeah… it involves a little more work than your standard point and shoot vacation photo. But you know what… if it makes my friends envious, it’s worth it.

The Standard HDR Look of People

Self Portrait HDR People Old WayPhotographing HDR of people is a little trickier than shooting landscapes. Most HDR photos of people turn out similar to this photo on the right. Notice how blurry the background is because of the depth of field. Blurry and HDR don’t mix well. I’ve experimented with several HDR approach for photographing people, and the traditional approach doesn’t work. People don’t process well in Photomatix. They end up muddy and dirty. That grungy look is cool but not for everything, especially people.

Captain Kimo’s HDR Technique for Portraits

It’s simple really… instead of shooting 3 exposures, I shoot 4.
Below are the first three exposures taken for the background.

Landscape HDR Over Exposure for HDRLandscape HDR Under Exposure for HDRLandcape HDR Over Exposure for HDR
self-portrait-hdr-even-exposureThe photo on the left is the 4th exposure. This photo is focused on me and will be superimposed onto the landscape above. Below are instructions to put it all together.

Software and Plugin Required

  • Photomatix – software for creating HDR
  • Topaz ReMask – plugin used for masking layers
  • Photoshopphoto editing program

Step 1 – Merge Landscape Exposures

The first thing we do is merge the three landscape exposures together to create our HDR photo. We do this by using Photomatix. The benefit of separating the subject from the background is that you can go crazy tone mapping without effecting the subject. Below is the final result of our tone mapping from Photomatix.

Landscape Merge with Photomatix HDR

Step 2 – Processing the Subject

If your subject needs cleaning up, now would be a good time to remove pimples or unwanted blemishes. I use a plugin called Portraiture to do this because it does a fantastic job while saving me lots of time. Below is a screen capture of my Portraiture window. Left image is the original, right image is the filtered result.

HDR Portrait of People Portraiture Sample Captain Kimo

Step 3 – Masking the Subject

Next I begin masking out the background using Topaz ReMask, another time saving plugin! Below is the masking process using ReMask. Please note quality of screen capture program is a little grainy.

Topaz Remask Before MaskPicture Remask ExampleTopaz Remask After Complete

Step 4 – Superimposing Subject with HDR Photo

Pretty straight forward process. Take the photo of your subject and place it on top of your HDR landscape. Below is the result from Step 4.

Captain Kimo Valley of Fire Superimpose

The above image isn’t the final product. There are a few more steps, like applying Topaz Adjust and re-cropping the image, ect… but I won’t get into that. You can read more about that in Chapter 5 of my HDR How-to Guide.

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25 thoughts on “HDR Portrait Tutorial

  1. Richard Niddrie

    Man do I love your photography and tutorials. You ROCK!!! You mention plugins like Topaz…..Is this a plug in for Photomatix or Photoshop?

    Thanks Captain!!


  2. Captain Kimo Post author

    ikeda, I don’t know too many places in Bangkok. I only stop there at my aunts house. But then I usually get out of town. Bangkok is such an amazing place you don’t really have to go anywhere to shoot something cool.

  3. ikeda

    hey kimo,i am currently in thailand. am staying@ a hotel called amari watergate. am free tomorrow and was hoping to get some photos here.any advice where to visit? love ur work!

  4. Captain Kimo Post author

    HDR can be confused with the illustrative/graphic look when a photo is processed to a certain degree. Most likely it’s a lot of Photoshop work that’s been composited together. I would have to see the photo to get a better idea what went on.

  5. TK

    Kimo are you familiar with Howard Huang the photographer? He has a popular book called “Urban Girls”. He seems to use this HDR technique as his signature style. His pictures look very nice with high dynamic ranges and he also seems to do a good job seperating the models from his backgrounds as far as the amount of HDR effect. Do you think that he is using this same technique? Because since he is doing portraiture of models it would seem difficult to get them to stay still for 3 exposures. Any light you can shed on this?

  6. Captain Kimo Post author

    If you plan on doing HDR I would not recommend using the studio or a studio, instead use natural environments, like the park or beach, anywhere were you need to achieve high dynamic range is the best place.

  7. ikeda

    hi there captain, i have just completed putting up my homephoto studio and i want to make a dif here in my country. i want to specialize in glamour and fashion- with hdr as a twist. please advise me on anything u think would make me achieve great photoshoots for my models. ASANTE (thanks in kiswahili)

  8. Richard


    This might be a stupid question. But can’t you just simulate three exposures by taking one picture and just exposure adjust in photoshop?


  9. Captain Kimo Post author

    When I get this ebook done I plan on doing lots of cool stuff, make sure your on the feedburner list, best way to keep updated which new stuff happening from the site.

  10. Captain Kimo Post author

    Thomas, I applied Topaz Adjust slightly to give it that dynamic effect so that it would match the HDR image. I find that without it, the photo looks kinda off… like there’s something wrong but you can’t figure it out. But with a little Topaz Adjust it solves that problem.

    Regards, Kimo

  11. Thomas

    That is an interesting way of adding people into a HDR photo. I’ve had a number of problems with HDR’ing people and they include:

    1) People don’t tend to stay still long enough or still enough for 3 exposures.

    2) Once you obtained getting them still enough, tonemapping generally creates really odd skin tones and a very unnatural appearance.

    HDR is great for inanimate objects (like you implied) but for human beings it makes them look as if they have theatrical make-up on. I’ve actually tried your technique and the one thing I found was that I had to tweak the skin tone of the human beings a bit so that they don’t appear oddly desaturated compared with the rest of the photo.

    However, in your photo example above, you seem to have done a very good job getting the right amount of color saturation for the human being’s skin tone with the rest of the picture. Did you do any tweaking to the fourth photo (the photo with you in it)? Perhaps taken the 4th in RAW and did a HDR for that photo only, to get a slight HDR effect?

  12. KR

    Very insightful.. thank you for the knowledge you’ve shared. i’ve become an HDR photography fan because of people like you. thank you.

  13. Captain Kimo Post author

    LoL… not much of a trick, I wish I had something more worth while for you.

Comments are closed.