The Common Belief About HDR: “I don't usually like HDR images, but yours are great.”
This line has been repeated over and over again to HDR photographers on flickr, facebook, 500px… you name it. People really don't like what they consider to be HDR photography. It seems that the word ‘HDR' conjures to our minds images of cartoony photos, devoid of reality. We regularly see over-saturated shots, blighted with harsh noise, patches of uneven light and halos, none of which do the reputation of HDR any good.
Example of a stereotypical HDR image by Jimmy McIntyre
The Truth About HDR
But, is HDR really that bad? Is HDR a technique that creates messy, uncontrolled images?
The truth is, HDR is none of these things. It has nothing to do with colour or noise. It doesn't mean ‘surreal'.
HDR, as you probably already know, stands for High Dynamic Range. This means it is about one thing – increasing the dynamic range of light in your images in order to overcome the limitations of today's camera technology. The goal is to avoid clipping in both the brightest and darkest areas. Essentially, an HDR image will contain significantly more information than an LDR, or Low Dynamic Range photo.
The meaning of HDR seems, at some point, to have distanced itself to some degree from this very important point.
Valencia at blue hour by Jimmy McIntyre
In the image above, you'll see that both the darkest and brightest areas have detail in them – something that couldn't have been attained using a single image. This particular shot was composed with 4 exposures, ranging from a -4 exposure to a +2 exposure.
Although I said that HDR is about avoiding clipping, I actually believe it is about giving yourself more options. In a huge amount of my HDRs I regularly clip highlights and shadows to affect mood. I love over-exposed sunset shots and suggestive shadows. The great thing about HDR is that I have complete control over the size of the area I wish to over/under-expose.
Prambanan Temple by Jimmy McIntyre
This image encapsulates both ideas which I hoped complimented the already mysterious allure this incredible place has.
If we look at HDR even more closely, we'll discover that some of the photographers against the use of HDR actually produce HDR images themselves. The fact is, there are a large number of ways to blend exposures. Most people use a dedicated HDR program which can produce stunning images, but could just as easily leave you with horrible results. Many others, conversely, use various forms of exposure blending techniques in Photoshop that allow amazing control over your images, and leave you with sharper, more natural results.
Since a lot of these photographers hate the idea of being associated with the term HDR, they refer to their work as Digital Blending.
Digitally Blended HDR by Jimmy McIntyre
If we take the work of the best digital blenders in the world, we'll very quickly begin to realise that HDR has nothing to do with untidy, harsh imagery. HDR techniques can help to create powerfully clean images that would make HDR-haters think twice about their negativity towards the genre.
I personally use Luminance Masks, or sometimes known as Luminosity Masks, to digitally blend my images. With Luminance Masks, everything is done manually in Photoshop. I make advanced selections based on luminosity values in a particular exposure and replace them with that of a preferred exposure. It sounds complicated and at first it can be. But after some practice it becomes automatic.
Mesa Arch (Digitally Blended) by Jimmy McIntyre
With Luminance masks, you do not alter the original exposures. In other words, the image you're initially left with after the blending process should be 100% natural and sharp. And then, depending on your preferences, you may add your own twist to the images.
Before/After Digital Blending
The arrows represent areas of the image that were blended to some degree into the normally exposed shot.
I hope this article showed, in some way, that the poorly tone mapped image, while still common amongst HDR imagery, does not constitute HDR.
As an artist, you will have your own style in how you express your art. It is often more productive to look at how a process or technique can benefit you rather than judging it good or bad. Sometimes we have to look beyond common beliefs to see that there is true value in a particular skill.
HDR, fortunately, is moving in an exciting direction. More and more people are using advanced digital blending techniques and creating stunning images in the process. If you were an HDR hater at the beginning of this article, and still continue to be, then at the very least I hope you realise that HDR encompasses a greater range of processes and results than the stereotypical tone mapped image.