Below is a shot I took at the Hoover Dam in September, 2015. The original image was a bracketed image of five shots. I used Photoshop's Merge to HDR Pro to make a 32-bit TIFF file, and processed that file. The resulting original image was flat, even with contrast added.
There were absolutely zero colors in the sunset, and just warming the image up did little to nothing to add any pop to the image. Using luminosity masks, I was able to basically paint my sunset colors in a very controlled way. Below are the screenshots, and a bit of explaining of the steps that I am doing.
I will start with the processed image, using only Camera RAW sliders. It has zero life!
Here is the final product:
First, you need to blend the images in Merge to HDR Pro. This method only works with Photoshop CS6 or Creative Cloud. I think it may work for CS5, but I will need to open my version of CS5 to confirm. You can either open them up via Adobe Bridge, or Photoshop - whichever works best for you.
After you send them to Merge to HDR Pro, it will take a couple of minutes to give you this screen. Make sure the 32-bit box is checked. I checked Remove Ghosts, and clicked on the neutral image. Any movement will be restricted to that one image. There is nothing else you need to do here, so click on OK. Some versions may have a link to open directly into Photoshop.
After you pressed OK in the previous section, you are now brought back to Photoshop, and you have this TIFF file sitting in front of you. Save that file as a 32-Bit TIFF file.
Now, open the TIFF file in Camera RAW. You may need to configure Photoshop to automatically open all TIFF files in Camera RAW. Click on Photoshop / Preferences / Camera RAW. At the bottom for JPG and TIFF handling, click and select "Automatically open all supported TIFFs." Drag the TIFF file from where you saved it onto the PS icon, and Camera RAW should open.
This is the image after I adjusted some of the sliders to my liking. What you have to remember here is that you don't have just one RAW file, but as many as your bracketed for. So, I have five files worth of shadow and highlight detail. You also have 10 stops of exposure to play with now. On the color screen, click the box to remove chromatic aberration, and drag the purple slider to about 5 or 6. This will hide the purple lines that form on contrasty edges in a photo.Using the Luminosity MasksYou can manually create these masks for each image, but that would take a long time. I would highly recommend downloading and installing Jimmy McIntyre's action panel. It will create an action for you, and you just click one button to run the masks on each image. You can get it here: http://www.throughstrangelenses.com/easy-panel-download-for-photoshop/
I now have my 'tonemapped' image that I did in Camera RAW. I will click on my Play Button to bring up my action sets, and I will click on Generate Luminosity Masks, and click the play button at the bottom. The screen will flicker. The masks will now be loaded into the channels section.Before doing any edits, make sure you duplicate your layer!
Clicking on your channels panel, you will see 21 different masks. The first three are standard in all images (Red, Blue, Green). The next 18 are from the action set panel. The way they work is they select areas of an image based on light values. In this screenshot, I have selected Brights 2. This is selecting highlights in the sky. The whiter the pixel, the stronger the selection. The black pixels are not selected at all, and grey shades are very weak selection. If I were to go down the line to Brights 3, 4, etc..the highlight selection would get very narrow, probably to the brightest part of the sky.
But, I want to process the entire sky, so I chose Brights 2. It also leaves the mountains on the horizon with a shade of grey. This is perfect, because it will subtly blend in what I am going to be doing with no harsh lines. First, I will use the luminosity masks to further bring down the highlights, and recover some of the detail in the sky. After that, I will use the masks to color the sky with more appealing sunset colors.
To select a mask, click on it. Hold control, or command (mac) and click on the mask you want. You will see those marching ants appear. Don't worry about where they are. Just keep in mind that any white pixel is fully selected, black pixels are not selected, and grey pixels are partially selected. You can always press command or control+H to hide them.
Finally, when you run the luminosity mask on the base layer, any changes you make going forward will not change the luminosity values of those masks. So, I always run the masks first, then duplicate the original layer before continuing.
After I selected my Brights 2 mask, I clicked back on the 'Layers' panel. Working on my duplicated layer (always), I want to pull back the highlights. I will add a curves adjustment layer. You can click the little curves icon under the histogram, or go to Image / Adjustments / Curves. You will notice right away when you click on it, the layer mask will take on the appearance of the Brights 2 mask. As I pull down the curve, my highlights will come down. I will also put a slight upward curve to put some contrast back in.
After you tone down the sky, press Control+D or Command+D (Mac) to deselect your mask selection. Now, click on the duplicated layer, and go back to your channels section. I want to continue working with the sky, so I will once again click on Brights 2.
After you select Brights 2, click back on the Layers channel button. The image now has the marching ants for my selection. Now will paint my sky. I will do this three times with a Pink, Red and Yellow. Select your brush tool (B), and select a bright purple or pink.
Here is the sky after I made my pass, with my brush set to 100% opacity. The intensity of the color reflects the intensity of the mask. The darkest pinks are on the whitest pixels, and the lightest pinks are on the grey pixels. If the pixel was black, it received zero coloring. I painted halfway down the image to give a very smooth gradient blend.
Now, we need to blend this. Click on the 'Add Layer Mask' icon at the bottom of the screen. It is the square with the circle inside of it, next to the Fx button. When you click that, it will clip the pinks into the luminosity mask you selected earlier. How do you like your sunsets? I like mine overcooked!
Now, change the blending mode from Normal to Soft Light.
The Soft Light makes a great blend, and adds just a pinch of overall contrast to the image. Press control+D to deselect your mask selection.Repeat this process with a yellow and an orange. Always make sure you duplicate your original background layer!
I selected Brights 2 again, clicked on Layers channels. Open brush tool, and now I am going to select a red color
Paint red over image
Add layer mask to clip the red
Change blend mode to Soft Light
Press Control+D or Command+D to deselect the maskRepeat for a third time!
Duplicate your bottom layer (background copy), Select Brights 2, click on the layers channel and marching ants are on the image. Open brush tool, and now select a yellow/orange color. Paint over masked area again.
Add a layer mask again, and change the blend mode to 'Soft Light.'
Okay, now the image has been successfully blended with three colors to really give it some life. I am going to take all of my layers, and changes and make them into one composite layer. To do this, click on the uppermost layer. For me, it is the curves layer I made when I brought the highlights down further. Once that layer is highlighted press COMMAND+ALT+SHIFT+E (Mac) or Control+Alt+Shift+E for Windows. You will see a new layer appear on top. This new layer has every change you made below inside of it.
The next step is optional if you have Nik Color Efex Pro. I clicked on my composite layer and opened this add-on. If you don't have it, you can add contrast the traditional way.
I clicked on Pro Contrast, and put my Dynamic Contrast up to 65%, and clicked OK.
Now it is time to focus on the bottom half. I opened up a Selective Color Adjustment Layer. Here, you can fine tune all the color tones and ranges in a particular image. For this one, I focused on the yellows and reds. It is a universal change, since I didn't mask anything for this, but I wanted the sky to be affected as well.
Now I want to focus on the water. I will create another luminosity mask, and go to my midtones. Midtones 3 is a good selection of the water, and it is almost 100%. It also has a ton of other white pixels, but I am only going to paint on the water with my brush tool. Hold Control and click or Command (mac) and click to make the mask selection, and go back to the layers channel.
I did a color sample to see what ones are dominant in the water, then selected just a brighter version of that color.
I then painted over the water area. I did get green on the rocks, and those columns, but I took my eraser tool and cleaned it up.
Change blend mode to soft light.
I then lowered the opacity of the layer to my personal preference.
Finally, I flattened the image and I was done!