Good HDR Bad HDR

Love it. Hate it. Photographers seem to be divided on HDRs.

I remember reading three or four years ago a few “professional” outdoor photographer’s blogs. They were on the hate bandwagon. One even had a comparison of the same scene done with a filter and then a bracketed set of exposures tonemapped in an HDR program. The HDR was softer. The HDR’s tones were garish and exaggerated.

One of the photographers is now offering workshops in using HDR. Why the change of opinion? It’s not like the programs have changed that much in a short span? I think it’s probably because a good HDR is indistinguishable from a properly lit, well exposed and processed image.
To look at a properly done HDR you aren’t supposed to know that it’s an HDR.

Why process images as HDRs then? If you shoot landscapes where the range of highlight and detail isn’t extreme, that is, one exposure can capture most of the important detail, HDR processing and bracketing isn’t necessary. Below are three bracketed exposures from a few days ago.

The middle of the three is the “correct” exposure. At least that is what the camera would have you believe but the truth is, there is no one correct exposure. For some the obvious solution is to use a neutral density graduated filter. There are a few reasons why this is a bad idea. One is that by underexposing the darker areas of the sky noise or grain becomes visible. The other is banding. I get a lot of hits on this blog from people looking to prevent banding in their skies. Most often banding occurs by trying to adjust tones, lightening them and by doing so, introduce banding because there is not enough information for the program to calculate the tones in between tones so instead of having a smooth transition from light to dark, you get steps. That is banding. An HDR won’t have that problem because one of the bracketed exposures will have the detail that I need.

The camera that I now use has a greater dynamic range, 14.4 EV, than any other camera available. Compared to my last camera, this gives me a few extra stops of exposure detail but I still need to bracket. For example, let me photograph one of my daughters with even lighting and the dynamic range of the camera is greater than what is in the scene. Only one exposure is needed.

Most of my landscapes are photographed in very difficult light. I find myself looking into the sun. I can exposure for the highlights and let the shadows go black. I can expose for the shadows and let the highlights wash out or try for a compromise and lose a bit of highlight and shadow.

If I turn the camera away from the sun, suddenly I only need one exposure to get the detail I want.

I currently use Photomatix. I get no kickbacks for mentioning them. There are other good HDR programs out there. I’ve used Photomatix for a few years and because of my familiarity of what it can do and how to do it, it remains my HDR program of choice.

Looking at the presets that come with the program is misleading. I’m not sure why they included some of them because they are downright awful and I think this is where many photographers go wrong.

Two of them, and these are the most tame of the presets, are in the neighborhood. They are starting points only for me. Often times, if I get the sky to look right, the foreground looks bad so I will process once for the sky and save it and then process again for the foreground, save it and paste one image on top of the other. In Photoshop in layers and using image masking, I then paint away detail from the top layer to reveal the “right” look from the layer below.

For starters, the default strength setting is much too high. Waaay too high.

Where I think many photographers go wrong is in looking at tones and sliding the strength slider to the right because they definitely do become more dramatic in appearance and they do to a point. Beyond that point they look surreal.

My goal is to have a believable and realistic landscape. When the viewer sees the image, I want them to be thinking about the story the photo is telling and not how the photographer shot it or what equipment they used or how they processed it. It’s like eating a burger or listening to music, I want to enjoy the experience and not be hung up on the technical details.

Whatever works for you.

Happy shooting,


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~ by Dan Jurak on August 1, 2012.

17 Responses to “Good HDR Bad HDR”

  1. Nice post Dan….. thanks for sharing this one! Your hdr work is very nice!

  2. @ James, thank you. I’ll bet that there are more HDR photos out there than one might imagine.

  3. I agree that the presets are pretty worthless. Also, HDR processing is a good tool when it is used it strict moderation. Thanks for the article and image.

  4. it’s good to share some tips on HDR, Dan! I’ve been using Photomatix for about a year ago. i agree, it’s a great tool… when used with moderation. i find myself using the exposure fusion option more often than the tone mapping one; i find it results in images that look more natural… to me, anyway.

  5. great work, thanks for the info. i think everyone was on the “HDR bad” bandwagon is that there is so much around that is bad. I agree that the viewer should not be able to tell that the photo is an HDR image. I haven’t really work with HDR, because I did’nt like what I saw, but who knows what the future may bring.

  6. Very interesting. After I met you and looked at your work I immediately re-did one of my most promising HDRs in Photomatix. I’d previously stuck close to the defaults but after seeing your results I worked with the sliders and produced a MUCH better result.

  7. @ Bryce, great to hear about your re-worked HDR! Only one of the presets is close to what I would choose to use and even then for only a few of my photos. HDR is a great tool to get the most from your exposures. Good luck on your landscapes!

  8. @ Jmeyersforeman, I think the more you experiment with HDR, the more pleasantly surprised you will be.

  9. @ Steve, sometimes fusion is better, I agree. The key is in experimenting and finding out what works best. It changes from scene to scene. There isn’t one setting that works the best for everything.

  10. Dan, a question on your process: do you convert your Raw files before processing in Photomatix, or import them directly.

    Thank you for your on-going passion for sharing !

  11. @ DaleG, I used to use Photomatix to process my RAWs. That seemed to work for some photos and for some especially where there were lots of dark areas, noise was a problem. I emailed the folks who wrote Photomatix and even they suggest that the best route is to use a RAW converter and then import the resultant TIFFs into their program. If noise is too prominent what I will often do with the TIFF that holds the most shadow information is to process that image for noise, save it and then import my three or four or five images into Photomatix.

    BTW, information should be free. All of what I say is freely available elsewhere on the internet. I’ve never blogged with the intention to make customers of my readers. Feel free to ask and if I can help, I surely will.

    Thank you for visiting and commmenting,

  12. ‘Twas you who inspired me to try HDR and although I haven’t been doing any lately (computer issues), I try to aim for a believable image, or at least to convey the mood of or spectacular, etc. I am completely turned off by badly done HDR, but as you suggest – to each his or her own.

    Thank you for stopping by my blog. Your encouragement means a lot to me.

  13. Thank you for this blog Dan. These tips are very helpful. I have been curious as to how you process your images. Your work is inspiring, it motivates me to keep on working to improve my HDR processing & this blog will be a big help.

  14. @ Cindy, I agreed with most everything you said except for the crooked horizons. LOL Great work!

  15. @ Rob, I hope this helps even if it’s just a little bit. There is no need to pay anyone to teach you this stuff. It’s all readily available. The other side of the coin of this is when I was interested in trying something different, I saw a photog’s great night shots and went to his website to see what I could learn. He was gracious enough to want to charge me forty-five dollars for the privelege of me listening to him. Needless to say, I never visited there again.

    Thanks for visiting and commenting,

  16. Great post on HDR. I also appreciate HDR photos that have a more natural appearance. Have even played with pulling the 32bit tif that is created by photomatix back into Lightroom to do the ‘tonemap’.

  17. @ Gary, thank you. HDR for me anyway is only a tool to achieve what I envision. Trust me, if there were cameras that could capture a greater dynamic range to make it all happen in one exposure, I’d be even more happy. My experience with 32 bit processing is limited. I do everything in 16 bits and find that it really is only noticeable in extreme shadows that i see a difference.

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