Tone Mapping Tutorial for Photomatix Pro

Aug 13, 2010 | articles

I use Photomatix Pro HDR software for tone mapping high dynamic range (HDR) images. It’s the best at tone mapping both realistic and surrealistic images. But for those new to HDR, tone mapping with Photomatix can be a somewhat confusing experience. If you’re one of the frustrated few unable to achieve the HDR results you want from Photomatix, then this tone mapping tutorial is for you.

I’ll admit, when I first started using Photomatix it was a little frustrating trying to produce quality HDR images. But after a few months of tone mapping hundreds of HDR photos the tone mapping controls began to all make sense.

[ad#Google Adsense-3]

This tone mapping tutorial is really more of a guide. Since the actual tone mapping process is easy enough. This tutorial/guide simply explains what each function does and how to use it properly. It was written from personal experience for the novice HDR photographer who needs a better understanding of Photomatix’s tone mapping controls.

Included with this tone mapping tutorial is my default setting I created for Photomatix. I find the original default setting lacks detail and depth, so I created my own default setting. This default setting was designed as a starting point so it might require a little tweaking depending on your image.

Download Captain Kimo’s
Default Tone Mapping Setting for Photomatix Pro.

What is Tone Mapping?

Before we start lets get a better understanding of what tone mapping is and why it’s needed for creating HDR photographs.

Tone mapping is the process of converting a 32bit HDR image to a standard 16bit or 8bit image file. When merging multiple exposures to create a high dynamic range photo, a 32bit file is created. To display this image properly on screen or in any other application, tone mapping must be applied. This is because most software, including hardware like printers and monitors, can only display 8bit or 16bit images. Tone mapping will covert your 32bit HDR image to a 16bit or 8bit LDR (low dynamic range) image. So in reality your HDR photo is not an HDR photo anymore. Instead it’s just a standard LDR image representing more tonal range and detail than your ordinary photo.

Tone mapping also lets you recreate the image as it was seen, or as you see fit. This means tone mapping will allow you to create a realistic photo or a dynamic image with more detail than you could ever imagine. Of course this all depends on the tone mapping options available from your HDR software. Not all HDR programs have the tone mapping ability to achieve super detailed images. Some HDR programs were designed only for tone mapping realistic photographs.

But if you have Photomatix’s than you’re in luck. Photomatix’s tone mapping options allows for the creation of both realistic and surreal images.

You can learn more about the different types of HDR software by reading my post: Top 10 Best HDR Software Review 2010

Photomatix Tone Mapping Methods

Lets begin this tutorial by understanding the 3 different methods available for tone mapping HDR images in Photomatix. Each method will give you different options for tone mapping. Therefore the same image will look different depending on the tone mapping method you use.

  1. Detail Enhancer – This method uses local colors to produce HDR photos. Tone mapping using local colors will allow for better detail. This is the main method I use for all my HDR images. Since Detail Enhancer has all the functions necessary, this will be the tone mapping method covered by this tutorial.
  2. Tone Compressor – This tone mapping method uses global colors to produce HDR photos. With Tone Compressor, Photomatix looks at the entire photograph for tone mapping your HDR image. Global colors allow your HDR to look more natural, it also helps reduce noise and halo. However, the Tone Compressor method produces HDR images which lack detail and depth.
  3. Exposure Blending – Simple and easy to use tone mapping method that’s a cross between Detail Enhancer and Tone Compressor. This method still lacks tone mapping options only available with Detail Enhancer.

Now that we covered the three different tone mapping methods, lets focus on the method I use on all of my HDR photos, which is Detail Enhancer. This method has all the features we’ll need to produce realistic or dynamic HDR images.

Detail Enhancer Method

There is a total of 8 categories and 15 controls available underneath the detail enhancer menu. Below is a list of all the controls as it appears from the menu.

  1. Strength
  2. Color Saturation
  3. Luminosity
  4. Microcontrast
  5. Smoothing
  6. Tone Settings
    > White Point
    > Black Point
    > Gamma
  7. Color Settings
    > Temperature
    > Saturation Highlights
    > Saturation Shadows
  8. Miscellaneous Settings
    > Micro-smoothing
    > High Smoothness
    > Shadow Smoothness
    > Shadow Clipping

Overview – Tone Mapping Controls

Alright, lets go over what each control does and how it effects your photo. We’ll start with Strength and go down the list from there.


This control brings out the detail in the highlight and shadows. Simply put, if you increase the value, your sky will get darker but the details will be more apparent. However your foreground will become brighter allowing for more detail in the shadows. Keep this value low if you want a more realistic image. Max it out if you want to go crazy with your processing. I usually set this value around 50-75. I try not to go to crazy with this setting as it can do some funky things to the pixels.

Color Saturation

Pretty straight forward. Use this control to make your image more colorful. I try to keep this value around 55-65, and do the rest of my color adjustment in Photoshop.


This control will bring out the details in the shadows. I usually have this value maxed unless I want my image to look more like a natural photograph.


Increasing this value to 10 will give your image more contrast. This control is affected by your Strength. If your Strength is set to zero you won’t see any difference when you adjust this control. I usually have this set around 0-10 to give my HDR image a little edge, or sharpness.


This is the main control for creating detail in your image. With Light Mode checked off, the higher the value, the less detail you gain but the your image will be more realistic and natural. I always have my Light Mode checked and keep my Smoothing value to low. I’m unsure as to what the difference is between Light Mode checked and unchecked, but I do notice a difference.

White Point

Make your white points whiter by increasing this value. 99% of the time I usually have this maxed out. I prefer to pull out as much detail as I can by using this to brighten my image.

Black Point

Photomatix has this default value set to zero. I’m not sure why, I always add some Black Point to all my photos. Not much, usually around 25% of the bar is enough to add depth to the image.


Control the brightness and darkness of your image with this value. I find that setting this value around 25% of the bar is usually the ideal spot.


Adjust this value to make your image cooler or warmer. I keep this setting as and make any major color adjustments in Photoshop. But if I do make any adjustments it’s minimal.

Saturation Highlights

This control will increase or decrease the colors in your highlights. Increasing this value will boost the colors in your sky. Reducing it to zero will make your sky completely black and white.

Saturation Shadows

This has the same effect as Saturation Highlights only difference is it affects your shadows instead of your highlights. I rarely do any adjustments to this value as I see little difference when it is applied. Of course if you decrease the value to zero all your shadows and dark areas will turn into black and white, which sometimes ends up pretty cool.


Micro-smoothing is also another main function for obtaining detail, unfortunately more detail creates more noise. Setting this value to zero will definitely make the details in your image pop. However your image will look very stylized and grungy. Increase this value to 30 and you’ll make your image super smooth but you’ll lose a lot of detail in the process. I usually keep my setting between 6-10 to get the best of both worlds.

Highlights Smoothness

This control will allow you to adjust the smoothness in your light areas. By increasing this value you will also make your image brighter. My value for this control varies dramatically from image to image. If you like having the white areas of your image blown out increase this value.

Shadows Smoothness

Has the same effect as Highlight Smoothness but does the opposite by affecting only the dark areas of your photo. Increasing this value will also make your image darker. I will only increase this vale if I need the shadows of my image to be darker.

Shadows Clipping

If you want to darken the darkest areas of your shadows, this would be the controls to use. Increase this value make your shadows darker. I leave this value at zero for most of my HDR images. I prefer to increase the black areas in Photoshop using the Selective Color tool.

Websites for more Tone Mapping Lessons:


That wraps it up for this tone mapping tutorial/guide. I wish I had more time to post an in depth article with photos and video, but that’s all the time Captain Kimo can spare. Especially since I’m working hard on getting that HDR e-book done!

If you’ld like to be notified about the e-book, sign-up for the monthly newsletter by clicking here.

Of course if you have questions just drop me a comment.

I hope you were able to get something out of all this. Hopefully it didn’t confuse you even more :)


Captain Kimo