To HDR or Not to HDR?

30 Nov

…That is the question.  As High Dynamic Range photography continues to grow in popularity, “To HDR or Not?” becomes an important question for several reasons.

First…what is HDR? The short, layman’s term answer is a process meant to create an image with tonal range that is more comparable to what the human eye can see, as compared to an image captured with standard digital techniques. Often, with standard digital techniques, it is difficult to expose all parts of a scene properly at the time of image capture. For example, without filters or some sort of post processing, a landscape shot taken on a sunny day would likely have either areas that were blown out or under-exposed.

The process of HDR photography combines multiple images of the same scene, all with different exposures, through use of an algorithm that pulls the best pixels from each image to create a composite that has a greater tonal range than any of its individual components. That’s a checkmark for the ‘pro’ column!

Non-HDR vs HDR

Non-HDR vs HDR

Now for the ‘cons’…  In my mind, most photos are improved by a wider tonal range. In fact, the problem many people seem to have with HDR images is not the concept of a more dynamic range, but rather, it’s the individual artist’s application of the process. 

The major complaint I’ve heard time and again is that often HDR images, as a result of tone-mapping and color saturation decisions, look “fake”.  Tone-mapping is a process of compressing the brights and darks of an HDR composite image, and as one photographer put it, over-compression makes the image look like “HDR on drugs”.  Along those same lines, some artists over-saturate the already-wider range of tones to create images with colors that seem unnatural.  Truly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and every photographer must create images that are true to their style…but if the intent is to create a photo that is closer to what the human eye can see, then over-compression and saturation misses the mark.

While there will forever be disagreement between traditionalists and non-traditionalists, there are arguments to be made for HDR beyond that of greater tonal range.  From a marketing perspective, HDR is growing in popularity.  Whether you embrace the change or not, our current consumers are showing appreciation for HDR and while it may not become your signature style, it wouldn’t hurt to have some knowledge of the process.

Furthermore, if you are the sort to plan for the long term, HDR images often have an appearance that is similar to the computer generated images seen in video games and movies.  That means that the younger generations (AKA future consumers) will easily identify with HDR images, and in time, may even prefer them to images processed with traditional techniques.

That being said, at this time, while I often bracket when shooting, I treat every photo as an individual during the editing process.  Many times, my personal preference is to try to create images that have greater tonal range but have a more natural feel than something that has been noticeably tone-mapped and has heavy saturation.  If I can accomplish that with layers and masks, I will.

Layers and Masking

Layers and Masking

On the other hand, if the photo calls for HDR, then so be it.  I’m an equal opportunity photographer!  But that’s just me…  What I want to know is, how do you feel?

To HDR or not to HDR…?  That is the question.

4 Responses to “To HDR or Not to HDR?”

  1. Jeremy April 16, 2012 at 6:58 pm #

    I’ve been curious to try it but have heard it is a fairly involved process, after the shoot and to get a quality image I would need PS after I use an HDR program; what are your thoughts/experiences?

    • seeingspotsphoto April 17, 2012 at 12:43 am #

      It has a number of steps, but once you develop a workflow, its not bad. You’ll need a tripod, to know how to bracket exposures, you can get free trial HDR software to see if you like it (rather than investing in Photomatix without knwoing if you’ll enjoy it), and generally some editing software to put the finishing touches on the image.

      If you want to try it, I can help walk you through it. Just shoot me an email. =)

      • Jeremy April 17, 2012 at 10:34 pm #

        I might just have to give it a shot! Thanks!


  1. Long Exposures | - May 21, 2012

    […] and creates a composite final image. (Phew! Mouthful! And confusing. You can read more about that here.) Lost in the […]

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