Why I choose HDR over filters for my landscapes

Some people swear by ‘em. I swear at ‘em. Filters have their place in photography. In landscape photography, at least how I do it, they have NO place.

When I got back into shooting landscapes after an almost thirty year absence, I plunked down a few hundred dollars for a set of graduated filters, both neutral density and colored. The more I used them, the more I found that they were ruining my photos. I experimented with them from summer to winter. By the middle of winter they had a permanent place in the glove compartment of my vehicle, never to be taken out.

If you read the testimonials of “photographers” over at a  blogvertisement for a popular brand of filters in the states you’d mistakenly believe that you can shoot in any conditions and come away with spectacular images. Take a close look at the very same images that many of the photographers there are boasting about and you’ll see many reasons why you don’t want to have them in your camera bag.

Everything I shoot outdoors I bracket. I stopped metering ages ago. If you plan your brackets properly, one of the exposures that you take will be on the button. There is almost always the problem though of lost highlight or shadow detail. That’s supposed to be one of the saving graces of graduated neutral density filters. It might be if you shoot the ocean and have nothing breaking above the horizon. Here on the flat Alberta prairie there is always something that pops up. In the pic at the top it’s the fence post. Try and capture this scene in one exposure by using a graduated neutral density filter and what happens ALL the time is that the sky will darken but it will darken the top of the post too and that looks unnatural. All those beautiful mountain shots that I see on the blogvertorial have portions of mountains that the graduated ND filter has over darkened. Sure the skies look great but the mountains don’t.

Above are the three bracketed exposures that went into making my final image. Each one of them by themselves has important image detail. There is no way that a single exposure could capture the great range from highlight to shadow. This is where HDR comes in.

After having tried almost every HDR program out there I settled on one program that does it all for me. The only problem that I have with it is that the presets as they come with the program are AWFUL! If you use them, you’ll probably end up hating HDR because almost all of the presets have an awful, garish, haloish look to them. The secret in using this program is to go to the strength slider while tonemapping and pulling them to the left until the tones look more normal.

When I have a finished photo the last thing that I want is for someone to be thinking, oh that’s an HDR or I know how he did that. Instead, I want the final image to stand on it’s own and have the viewer think, hey, that’s a lovely place.

BTW, speaking of lovely places, I walk my dog every day near where this was taken. Right now there is a ditch almost forty feet deep where sewer pipes are being laid and where the horizon is on the top photo is a pile of clay a couple of city blocks long and as tall as two houses. This was taken on the outskirts of Edmonton. That’s why you see the yellow weeds in the photo. A farmer would have used a herbicide to kill them. The hill that is covered with the weeds is actually a pile of clay from when local construction trucks were dumping fill here. I wrote yesterday that you needn’t travel the world to get nice shots. This one was taken three city blocks north of where I live in a city of almost one million people.

Keep your money in your pockets when it comes to special effects filters for landscape photography. If you really have to have a set of high quality Lee filters, let me sell you mine. LOL

Happy shooting,


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~ by Dan Jurak on April 4, 2012.

19 Responses to “Why I choose HDR over filters for my landscapes”

  1. very nice.

  2. Hello Dan, I am enjoying all of your posts. This one is especially interesting because it appears to me to be twist on conventional thinking that using filters to capture a better image, in camera, is preferable to HDR and other forms of post processing. I agree with your analysis.

    Why did you choose not to name the HDR software you finally went with?

  3. @ David, thank you for visiting and commenting. There are instances where a filter would do a great job on a landscape but in my opinion those are very limited. HDR is not without limitations. Motion between exposures used to be a major problem, today not so much.
    The HDR program that I settled on is Photomatix. I usually don’t mention brands of camera equipment or software because I feel that what works for me might not be the best for the next person. Part of the fun of the arts is exploration and discovery. Trying out different programs and forming my own opinion is I think better for me in the long run than reading someone say brand X is the best and me never trying anything else.

    I have no secrets in my photography or my processing. By sharing what I know, the people around me become better and the better my neighbors are the more likely I am to try harder.


  4. I support all of this but I do enjoy slowing down time for some motion blur. It’s the only time I take mine out and everything I have is neutral – no special colouring.

  5. @ Stephen, I agree 100% with you. The solid ND filters are great for that.

  6. I have never tried using all of these filters — I see other use them, and they always look like more of a bother than I wanted to deal with, especially when I can add the filter effect (selectively) in post-processing.

    I like what you did with this image. I have just started trying to process HDR in Photoshop, and I have not liked the results all that much. May be time to give Photomatix a go. Thanks!!

  7. You must read my mine.

  8. @ Dan, I’ve used the HDR function in Photoshop and can get good results but Photomatix offers me more control. It’s whatever works best for you. BTW Google Photomatix. They have a free trial download that I think is worth checking out.

  9. I think you make a good point David, although filters can be of use in super bright conditions like we have in the mediterranean, but as far as i can tell,if bracketing, filters are completely unnecessary-great if you want to slow down the action e.g waterfalls, waves Etc. but if there´s no action, no point in filters-period!

  10. Hi Dan, While i’ve not tried HDR, mainly because of the “unnatural” appearance of many images that I have seen, which, in my opinion, have been “overprocessed”, thats not to say I won’t try it at some future time.

    The question is, as the photographer, do you try to capture and process to create an image of what you see and “feel” about the scene or what you’ d like to see?

    Personally I try to create as “natural” an image as possible and find that ND grad filters allow me to do this with the minimum of post processing in CS5 or LR3.

    Good camera sensors can see ~6 stops of light, while the human eye can “see” ~12 stops.
    I see post processing as a means of developing the digital “negative” and
    as a tool to expand the camera sensors capability to ~12 stops.

    Hey, but does it really matter whether you use HDR, blending, ND grads or any combination, surely it is what works best for you?

  11. @ Jim, I would bet that for every 5 unnatural appearing HDRs you might be seeing at least that many that are HDRs and you would never know. Visit my website and tell me how many of the photos in one of my galleries are HDR and I’ll tell you how close you are.

    I stopped trying to recreate what I see ages ago. I think that’s too limiting. For some photographers they want to wait for the perfect light and weather and capture as close to what they saw as possible. There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s not for me.

    I think all of the technical stuff is irrelevant when viewing the resulting image. Nobody cares or needs to know, filter or not, Canon or Nikon, post processed or not. It’s all about the final image.


  12. Dan, Your right, it’s all about the final image.
    I thought I said it’s what works best for you, and clearly HDR does work best for you.

  13. Good article. I’ve only carried 2 filters: Circular polarizer and ND. Photomatix is really works well for HDR. For the photographer, HDR offers a range of application, from the subtle to the very artzy. The latter is not my cup of tea.

  14. My father, pioneer landscape photographer Philip Hyde, never used filters on camera. He used them on the enlarger. This is parallel in my opinion to what you are doing with bracketing and combining in post-processing. You make a good case. As I think about it now, I feel your approach is closer to the more traditional masters who started color landscape photography, rather than those who appeared on the scene in the 1980s and 1990s.

  15. I guess I have one question to your photographing style. You say you are bracketing and you do not meter. But even for bracketing you need to have a starting point, some overall correct exposure. Unless you shoot in one of automatic modes, like Aperture Priority. So which mode is your favorite?

  16. Another side comment. It is the first time I commented on your blog, not because it is the first time i have something to add. You are not making it easy for people to comment. I do not have the WordPress account (I self host my blog) and I do not wish to comment using Twitter or Facebook. Why not include things like Open ID or just let people enter e-mail and web site?

  17. @ Iza, By not metering, I mean that I never look to see what the exposure it. My camera is set to center weighted metering, aperture priority and I then bracket anywhere from three to five exposures.

  18. @ Iza, I haven’t changed those settings since I first started blogging a few years back. I’ll look into it today. Thank you for the suggestion and thank yo for visiting and commenting,

  19. You describe the general fear I have with HDR very nicely. It is the artificial look. Some strange glow in areas that shouldn’t glow, overexposed flowers or water in front of dark areas. With your description and your images, you show, how it can be done. Thanks!

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