Today’s Question: Do you get better results with HDR (high dynamic range) software or with manual blending such as in Photoshop?
Tim’s Quick Answer: Generally speaking, you will get better results using HDR (high dynamic range) software rather than manually blending exposures. However, in some special cases you may find that you must resort to manual blending of photos.
More Detail: With very few exceptions, you will find that using software specially designed for creating HDR images provides a better overall result compared to manually blending exposures, such as through the use of layer masking in Photoshop.
HDR software accounts for minor differences in framing, such as when the bracketed exposures are captured hand-held. In addition, HDR software can compensate for movement within the frame from one capture to the next, such as when a tree branch is moving in a breeze. As a result, using HDR software will generally provide better results (and much faster results) than could be achieved with manual blending.
The software I prefer for assembling HDR images is Aurora HDR, which you can learn more about by following this link:
Note that there can certainly be situations were even advanced software such as Aurora HDR is unable to assemble a great HDR image. For example, when photographing the full moon at sunrise I have found that HDR software generally struggles (or fails) with the changes in the moon from one frame to the next.
In the case of the moon, the problem is often twofold. First, depending on the exposure times, there can be enough movement of the moon within the frame to cause problems from one exposure to the next in terms of assembling the final result. Second, at different exposures the halo around the moon may appear with a different intensity and size, which can lead to challenges in combining multiple exposures with HDR software.
In situations where HDR software is not able to create an image you are happy with, you may need to resort to manually blending multiple exposures, such as through the use of layer masks in Photoshop. However, I find that you will generally get the best results using good HDR software, such as Aurora HDR (https://timgrey.me/hdrtrial).