Mastering Tonal Mapping and Faux HDR Effects in Photoshop Elements 9: A Comprehensive Guide


Photoshop Elements 9, while a slightly older version, is a robust tool that offers a range of features for image editing and manipulation. In this extensive guide, we will explore the techniques of tonal mapping and creating faux High Dynamic Range (HDR) effects in Photoshop Elements 9. These techniques allow photographers and digital artists to enhance the dynamic range of their images, bringing out details in both highlights and shadows. Follow this comprehensive tutorial to unlock the potential of Photoshop Elements 9 for creating stunning, dynamic images.

Section 1: Understanding Tonal Mapping and Faux HDR

Tonal mapping involves adjusting the tones in an image to achieve a balanced distribution of light and dark areas, enhancing the overall dynamic range. Faux HDR effects simulate the appearance of true HDR images by mimicking the tonal enhancements typically associated with multiple exposures.

Subsection 1.1: Benefits of Tonal Mapping and Faux HDR in Photoshop Elements 9

  • Enhanced Details: Tonal mapping brings out finer details in both bright and dark areas, contributing to a visually appealing image.
  • Creative Control: Faux HDR effects provide creative control over the tonal values, allowing for a more dramatic or natural appearance.
  • Single Exposure Enhancement: Unlike true HDR, tonal mapping and faux HDR effects can be applied to a single exposure, making them accessible for a broader range of images.

Section 2: Importing the Image into Photoshop Elements 9

Begin the tonal mapping and faux HDR process by importing the image into Photoshop Elements 9. Ensure that the image is in a suitable resolution for detailed editing.

Section 3: Adjusting Exposure and Contrast

Subsection 3.1: Basic Adjustments in Quick Edit

In the Quick Edit mode of Photoshop Elements 9, navigate to the Adjustments panel. Use the Exposure and Contrast sliders to make initial adjustments. This step sets the foundation for tonal mapping.

Subsection 3.2: Fine-Tuning in Full Edit Mode

For more precise adjustments, switch to Full Edit mode. In the Enhance menu, select Adjust Lighting and explore options like Levels or Curves. Fine-tune the exposure and contrast to achieve the desired tonal balance.

Section 4: Applying Tonal Mapping Effects

Explore tonal mapping effects available in Photoshop Elements 9 to further enhance the dynamic range of the image.

Subsection 4.1: Using the High Pass Filter

In Full Edit mode, duplicate the background layer and apply the High Pass filter (Filter > Other > High Pass). Adjust the radius to emphasize details without introducing artifacts. Change the blending mode to Overlay or Soft Light to integrate the effect.

Subsection 4.2: Utilizing the Shadows/Highlights Adjustment

Access the Shadows/Highlights adjustment (Enhance > Adjust Lighting > Shadows/Highlights) to selectively brighten shadows and recover highlights. Adjust the sliders to achieve a balanced tonal range.

Subsection 4.3: Exploring HDR Toning

In the Enhance menu, select Adjust Color > Adjust Hue/Saturation. Click on the “More Options” button and explore the HDR Toning options. Adjust parameters like Radius, Strength, and Detail for a faux HDR effect.

Section 5: Adding Gradient Maps for Tonal Variation

Gradient maps offer a creative way to introduce tonal variation and enhance the faux HDR effect.

Subsection 5.1: Creating a Gradient Map Adjustment Layer

In the Layers panel, add a Gradient Map adjustment layer. Choose a gradient that complements the image’s color scheme. Experiment with different gradient maps to achieve unique tonal variations.

Subsection 5.2: Adjusting Blend Modes and Opacity

Modify the blend mode and opacity of the Gradient Map adjustment layer to control its impact on the image. Overlay and Soft Light are often suitable blend modes for tonal mapping effects.

Section 6: Fine-Tuning Color Balance

Maintain a balanced and natural color palette by fine-tuning color balance in the image.

Subsection 6.1: Using the Color Balance Adjustment

Access the Color Balance adjustment (Enhance > Adjust Color > Adjust Color Balance). Adjust sliders for Shadows, Midtones, and Highlights to achieve a harmonious color balance. This step contributes to a visually pleasing faux HDR effect.

Subsection 6.2: Applying Vibrance and Saturation

Enhance color vibrancy with the Vibrance and Saturation adjustments. Use Vibrance to boost muted colors selectively, avoiding over-saturation. Adjust the overall saturation for additional color richness.

Section 7: Introducing Faux HDR Effects with Filters

Experiment with filters to add a faux HDR look to the image in Photoshop Elements 9.

Subsection 7.1: Using the Filter Gallery

Access the Filter Gallery (Filter > Filter Gallery) and explore artistic filters such as Poster Edges, Oil Paint, or Watercolor. Adjust parameters to achieve a stylized effect that mimics the appearance of HDR processing.

Subsection 7.2: Applying a Custom Filter Stack

Combine multiple filters to create a custom filter stack. Experiment with combinations of filters, adjusting their order and settings to achieve a unique faux HDR effect.

Section 8: Final Adjustments and Refinements

Subsection 8.1: Sharpening Details

Apply sharpening selectively to enhance finer details in the image. Use the Unsharp Mask filter (Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask) and adjust parameters like Amount, Radius, and Threshold.

Subsection 8.2: Noise Reduction

Address any noise introduced during the tonal mapping and faux HDR process. Use noise reduction tools available in Photoshop Elements 9 to maintain a clean and polished appearance.

Section 9: Exporting the Enhanced Image

Once satisfied with the tonal mapping and faux HDR effects, export the final enhanced image from Photoshop Elements 9.

Subsection 9.1: Saving in a Suitable Format

Choose an appropriate file format such as JPEG or PNG for the final export. Consider the intended use, whether it’s for web sharing, printing, or further editing in other applications.

Subsection 9.2: Maintaining Resolution and Quality

Pay attention to resolution and quality settings during export. Strike a balance to ensure a visually pleasing image without unnecessary file size.

Section 10: Showcasing Your Tonal Mapping and Faux HDR Creations

Celebrate your mastery of tonal mapping and faux HDR effects by showcasing your final images. Share your work on photography platforms, social media, or incorporate it into your portfolio. Engage with the digital art community, seek constructive feedback, and let your faux HDR creations stand as a testament to your creativity and skill in image manipulation.


Photoshop Elements 9 may be a slightly older version, but its capabilities for tonal mapping and creating faux HDR effects are still potent. By following the comprehensive steps outlined in this guide, you can confidently explore the creative possibilities within Photoshop Elements 9, breathing new life into your images with enhanced dynamic range and stylized effects. May your tonal-mapped and faux HDR creations captivate viewers with their visual richness and artistic flair.