The Truth About HDR Photography – Is It Really That Bad?

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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.

bad hdr

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.

Ciudad de las Artes y las Ciencias

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.

 alley small darker 1

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.

subway station seattle

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.

the view through the arch

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

digital blending

The arrows represent areas of the image that were blended to some degree into the normally exposed shot.

Conclusion

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.

About Author

Travel photographer and international trainer, Jimmy McIntyre was voted one of the best photographers to follow on 500px.com by Fstoppers. His free Youtube tutorials and free Easy Panel for Photoshop have helped photographers around the world achieve powerful results in their images. Feel free to visit his blog here: http://throughstrangelenses.com

I usually dofferentiate.
For me there’s HDR and exposure blending.
One is the garish, unreal look while the latter is the tastefully alternative that looks just awesome (when done right – something I haven’t been able to achieve so far)

I just can’t bring myself to associate a well done exposure blend with those garish, overdone HDR images

Why would you pick out one of the worst HDR shots ever and make it look like everyone thinks that what it is? That only the all-knowing few know how to do HDR?

I read somewhere that HDR is a fad and will go the way of the dinosaurs, but surely a well done HDR image is not too dissimilar to what we used to do in a darkroom, control the highlights and shadows by dodging and burning. Except with HDR there are much more possibilities.
An HDR image (or any image for that matter) doesn’t have to have garish super saturated colours.
When the sensor technology gets to the point where it can record all the tones the eye can see we won’t need HDR, but we are not likely to see that for sometime.
I think people aren’t used to seeing detail all the way from shadows to highlights in a photograph, yet we see it in real life.
Like digital imaging as opposed to images shot on film, its just another emerging thing that we will get used to. I guess that there were probably the same arguments by some people when colour film first came out.
Garish images with supersaturated colours tend to be a learning phase just about every photographer goes through in the quest for learning what they like or not. Look back at some of your early HDR images and I am sure you will cringe at the results you thought were great! It is just a learning curve.

Right on, David. I couldn’t have said it better. I am constantly going back to redo some of the several thousand images I have acquired due to my HDR addiction. When I show my pictures, to people, the first response is silence. A lot of folks aren’t used to seeing sunsets/sunrises without dark silhouettes in the foreground. Half of the work is making it as real as you can get without producung over saturated shadows, halos, or unwanted noise. I start with 3 to 5 raw shots, use Photomatix Pro, then to Photishop CS5. Each situation is different. There is a lot you can do with a 100mb hdri file. So many possibilities, so few that I would actually produce. It’s that gem that’s buried inside that makes it all worthwhile, if you get my drift.

Great article! HDR is a fantastic tool for the photographer, especially architectural photographers. Gone are the days of having to gel every window and light every corner. But (like many aspects of photography) there are a boatload of amateurs who don’t know how to use it, that cranking are cranking out the cartoony-looky crap. And all their friends (who also don’t know much about photography are telling them how cool it looks. Producing high quality HDR images is not as simple pulling it into a program and hitting a button. There is a learning curve. Iti s an excellent tool in a photographer’s bag of options.

though it’s hard to process a pic for HDR and capturing it in 3 different exposures… at the end.. it’s really good and the results are impressive. thanks for sharin’..

What a great article, I totally agree with all your points here Jimmy! Been a big fan of your work for a long time now and find your images to be inspirational in the field of HDR.

If you think about it one of histories more notable photographer, Ansil Adams, was a high dynamic range pioneer. His zone system pulled out details in the shadows yet kept the highlights intact – if that’s what he wanted to do. I’m quite certain if he was alive today he’d be a huge proponent of this new creative tool.

HDR is here to stay and with most new cameras adopting some level of in-camera HDR processing I’m certain we’ll see more wonderful photographs with wonderful tonal ranges forever. And while I’m a fan of ‘less is more’ when it comes to my HDR work sometimes a composition or image sequence just screams for and over-the-top richly saturated image. Why not? Why constrain your creativity because of negative feedback or some old school photo pundit poo-poo’ing 21st century photography because their stuck in film. What-ever. 😉

Hey Robert,

Why would I need to start with a brighter one?

The 0 exposure was a perfect transition point between the brighter and lower exposure, which graded edge transition well, leaving me without edging.

Nice article, but you may be hardly scratching the surface!

I found the following article to be of bench mark quality and would like to share it with you and other interested individuals.

WIth Best Wishes,

Maury

http;//super.nova.org/DPR/HDR/

Like anything else, HDR can be used or it can be abused. All too often it is abused.

I know plenty of people who LOVE HDR photography, I just think they are generally quiet about it. Critics love to shoot off at the mouth, others not so much.

My own fiancee always wants me to do every photo I take “HDR style” and it greatly disappoints here when I don’t oblige.

Cheers and thanks for a great article,

Jonathan

Finally, a useful and knowlegeable article on HDR aka blended imagery. There are always going to be folks who slap stuff together. Not only is this informative, it doesnt take cheap shots at lesser humans. thank you!

Wow, great article, but I must take umbrage at some of the commentators. I use HDR, and while I am not a “professional” photographer, neither am I a “horrible amateur” vomiting all over the landscape.
I see HDR as one of my many tools in my tool belt to better my craft. I simply do not understand some photographers that will simply overuse Photoshop and then criticize others for using HDR. Or, how about folks that shoot in infrared, is that natural?
Come on folks, let people use the tools they like, and if you don’t like it, then move on to the next image.

Thanks Jimmy. I’m trying out the luminance masks now.
Funny story, I asked some friends to look at some of my images and let me know which they liked. One told me how she just hated HDR, and let me add that only some of the images included were HDR. I found her statement odd since the majority of the images she liked were, you guessed, HDR.

Goulish HDR images are attractive to some people…so be it…art in the eye of the beholder. Like it or don’t. It used to appeal to me because it was something different. I’ve grown to prefer exposure blending. I use multiple-image blending less often recently and rely more on Camera Raw where I can adjust whites, highlights, darks and shadows within a single image, achieving results similar to blending or HDR. Thanks Jimmy.

Good article but I think the thing that most people still just completely don’t understand is that HDR is just the capture side of the process. Tone mapping, whether it be via specialized software or luminosity selection and blending is where the capture either looks great or looks like a clich

Just stumbled upon this short piece and my voice of dissent is simply that it rarely looks good to me, unless the adjustment is practically imperceptible. I fully understand and appreciate your opinion and practice, but truth be told, I didn’t find a single of those images above all that compelling with the exception of the transit station, though even in that case I’d be interested to see the orginal and the possibilities of with in it and I think I’m reacting to the architectural appeal more than anything. That photo is also (to my eye) the least extreme of all the other examples. The mesa arch needs far more contrast to convey the depth of the scene in my opinion. But aesthetics differ, simple as that… and my taste (quite obviously) is nearly always affected negatively when an image employs enough of this technique to make it at all noticeable, not because I detest the practice, but because it removes depth that light and shadow provide and flattens an image that may formerly have had layers of light. Just my opinion.

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