How I Improved My Photography by Ditching HDR

How I Improved My Photography by Ditching HDR

If you rely heavily on HDR for your image processing, I have some news for you: It can be a lazy approach, and you may be using it in the wrong applications. It's time to learn about the limitations of HDR and far better alternatives at your disposal.

HDR is a method of merging bracketed exposures to gain a higher dynamic range (detail and tones) in an image. If you're not already familiar with this process, you can read my article from last month, Exposure Bracketing: What It Is and How to Do It. This article goes into more detail on HDR versus compositing as well.

You might be wondering why a photographer would be so critical of HDR - To be fair, there are photographers (primarily landscape and travel photographers) out there for whom HDR processing generally works well .

Even so, HDR is often overused and misused. It's frequently applied to images that need no extra definition in dynamic range, for example snapshots with even lighting or live music photos.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Processing

There is, after all, good and bad HDR imaging. After a computer merges your exposures in HDR software, you are given the option to tone map, which gives you control over the entire image's tonal range. You can gently manipulate the tone curves to bring out more detail or jack them up to create a "hyper real" style. HDR-processing software comes with many presets that allow you to go overboard.

an overly-processed photo of a shipwreck on a beach

An older photo from when I first experimented with HDR. I'll admit this was a "shipwreck of an image".

The resulting 3D-seeming effect is interesting at first, but on further review it looks gimmicky. Tone mapping in this manner is somewhat like slapping an Instagram filter over your images. Go easy on the curves when tone mapping.

To the untrained eye, an over-processed image can look interesting or even artistic. A small percentage of fine art buyers might gravitate towards this style. Still, I'd argue that we photographers often fail to realize is that this extreme push processing approach is unflattering and generally frowned upon.

While some photographers use HDR correctly, others try to cover up their inability to create an interesting image with heavy filters or tricks like over-processed HDR. This could be likened to a guitar player who overindulges in effect pedals to cover up sloppy playing. Listeners first react by cheering on this novel display of artistic expression, but after a while the lack of substance and originality makes them lose interest. So nobody shows up to their next show.

Bad HDR is no different.

Why Compositing Wins, Usually

In the process of switching over to blending (compositing) exposures, I used to create an HDR image and use it in the final composite because I was reluctant to let it go. My fear was that I was going to miss tonal data.

After plenty of experimenting creating HDR, HDR plus composite, and solely composited images, I've decided that the only time I'm missing potential tonal range from avoiding HDR is with sunset or landscape photos. So, once in a while, I'll still make an HDR from my exposures and put that into the final exposure composite of a sunset or sunrise scene.

an HDR photo of an office building at sunsrt

I created this image in the proper context (sunset) with minimal tone mapping to show an example of optimal HDR processing.

At this point you might be convinced that compositing is the route to go but unsure when to use it. Here are the various genres and their applications for different types of image processing for which each is appropriate.

If you're unfamiliar, compositing exposures is taking bracketed images of the same scene and layer masking them over each other in Photoshop, allowing you to blend in missing data. This creates a dynamic image that can't typically be achieved in a single exposure of a high contrast scene.

Photography Genres and Their Applications for HDR and Compositing

Architectural

Architectural and interior photography are great examples of how useful exposure compositing is. Since your camera is settled on a tripod for these shoots, aligning and blending your frames is streamlined.

Interior images need to look realistic, and compositing exposures provides you that result. People are less inclined to buy a home or hire an architect if the photographs don't look natural and pleasing to the eye. For this reason, HDR simply doesn't cut it if you're photographing high-end interior work.

an HDR photo of an office interiora composited interior photo of an office

Compositing brings out the dark shadows in a room as well as brings in the blown-out lights and windows. HDR can also do this, but the results won't look as realistic in an architectural setting.

In order to take it to the next level, you'll need to spend time compositing your exposures in Photoshop.

Studio

Both HDR and compositing are less common in studio since more often than not, the light is controlled enough that a single exposure is all that's needed. Instead of exposure bracketing, focus bracketing is sometimes applied for product images taken in the studio.

Long Exposure and Landscape

Landscape photography of the milky way can be breathtaking. Even more impressive is the result when a photographer brackets a brighter frame for the dark foreground and composites it below the sky.

Long exposures can bring out a great deal of low light detail that our own eyes can't detect in the dark. The downside to this is blown-out streetlights, the Moon, or any source of bright light. Compositing your bracketed exposures will fix this and give you control over your tonal range.

Color casts, specifically incandescent light at night, can also be a pain to fix in an HDR image.

an HDR photo of a tree with lightsa composite photo of a tree at night

I've used HDR on long exposures with mixed results. What's frustrating with nighttime scenes is that HDR software will often create ugly aberrations around specular highlights in an attempt to equalize exposure.

Portraiture, Sport, Street Photography, etc.

These genres and others typically rely on a single exposure, with no fancy tricks required. Although there are exceptions, many genres of photography involve showing action focusing on a single subject, which often only calls for a single exposure.

Conclusion

I’ve tried here to describe the applications in which I believe HDR is inappropriately used. Unless you're going for something unique and "out there" artistically, either hone in your tone mapping skills when creating HDR imagery or try compositing for more challenging dynamic range. A single exposure might also be all you need.

Have I missed any arguments for or against HDR? What about various genres of photography? Please leave your feedback in the comments section below.

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50 Comments

Previous comments

Exactly. The key point of the article is to ‘take control’, and that is spot on.

Very much this - "If all you have is a hammer everything starts looking like a nail."

The thing with HDR is imaging software makes it easy nowadays to apply it to almost everything, which is exactly what a beginner will do, I'm guilty of this myself. It's like a "turn-this-crap-into-something-great-button".

As you grow as a photographer, so does the amount of tools and HDR is just one of them. I rarely use it anymore and if I do, it's in small areas of the image where there actually is some clipping.

what's better than an idiotic oversimplification to begin 2019 ?

HDR is not a tool, it's a scene that has a larger dynamic range than the device used to record it and/or the medium used to represent it. The tool is called tonemapping. You have several methods to tonemap : the more simple is global and falls back to Ansel Adams zone system. It's a simple curve with raised midtones.

Then, you have the local tonemapping, the one that produces the ugly halos, because it uses split-frequency and tonemaps only the low frequency (blur layer). The motivation behind is, when you compress global contrast, you also compress the local one, which is the perceptual sharpness. So, compressing only low frequencies protects the details and sharpness. The radius of the blur, when poorly choosen, is responsible for the halos and the oversharpening. But other methods use gaussian or laplacian pyramids (split-frequency with more than 2 layers) and display no halos.

Finally, you have the temporal tonemapping, used in video and in photography, using informations from a stack of pictures at different exposures and blending them in a clever way.

Real-World tonemapping algos use generally 2 of these base technics, and some of them work flawlessly. Check out Mantiuk noise estimation tonemapping or Mertens-Kautz-Van Reeth one, used in Hugin (Free/Libre) software, and see if it has any of the flaws you describe... They don't. Use Google Scholar and search "tonemapping HDR", you get new entries every year. So there is no HdR, there are dozens of tonemapping algorithms.

Also, depending in which colorspace you tonemap (RGB, Lab, IPT...), the results differ vastly, especially regarding color saturation.

So your article sums up at outing photographers using editing tools with no nuance. Well, we could say the same about sharpening, color-grading, split-frequency, saturation, contrast... Thanks for this pile of non-information.

Scott Mason's picture

If you care like to argue semantics, tone mapping is the process and HDR software is a tool. That really doesn't matter though. Anyone who has used the process understands what "HDR" means.

Regardless of the flaws that come with the lesser HDR software, bad HDR or improper tone mapping (which you argue it must always be referred to despite "HDR" being the most common reference) are over used.

Much of the software is superior, that's true. Regardless of that, this is more about the over-use and misuse of tone mapping, not about aberrations. Most people aren't digging deep and using the best standalone software for HDR processing like the ones you mentioned. Perhaps that's part of the issue. The rest is poor understanding of tone mapping.

You clearly have a solid understanding of the process, but maybe you failed to see the theme of the article and instead cherry picked a terminology argument and an insignificant part of the case (aberrations). The nuance was photographers using editing tools improperly.

If everyone had a solid understanding of tone mapping, this article wouldn't need to be written because nobody would be producing bad HDR images.

kim chaney said it best in his comment, overall. However, I take exception to this in the article: "HDR is the method of merging bracketed exposures." I know pros who use HDR software with a single exposure. I have started doing the same and am enjoying the results more than using bracketed.
Yes, of course there's bad examples of HDR where people max out the sliders without regard for reality. I use HDR to achieve a photo of what I remember that scene looked like to my eye. Like I told me boss recently, HDR takes a decent but bland image and adds salt to it. Both pre and post images can be cooked and plated the same exact way, but a little salt will transform it for the better and bring out the flavor.

Scott Mason's picture

Bryan, in theory one can tone map a single exposure but it seems overkill to me. Then again, if you're not overdoing it you are potentially processing a raw image with the same result as the raw sliders in an Adobe program and there's technically nothing wrong with that.

Please share some examples if you can.

HDR with a single exposure is basically luminosity masks. I could be wrong.

David Pavlich's picture

If being a pro means you sell prints, then I'm a 'pro'. But I don't consider myself a pro in the broader sense. However, I've been using one exposure HDR for quite some time. Those of you that hate tone mapped gawdy images, please put on your sunglasses. :-) This is a single shot that was run through Photomatix Pro. I made three virtual copies in LR. For one copy, I set the exposure at +2 stops, one exposure at -2 stops and left the third as is.

I sent the three images to Photomatix Pro 6 and let it do its thing and the following shot of the Rolls Royce Merlin is what I got. And before you laugh, I've sold three 16X24s of this print.

David Pavlich's picture

As an add on to this, I also used HDR to shoot interior real estate shots. Again, Photomatix Pro has a very nice 'Real Estate' option which renders the image free of any sort of hint that it was produced in an HDR program. It works well because the interior detail is very good and the detail looking through windows is also very good.

So it has its place and used properly, it can yield results that make one happy.

Scott Mason's picture

I won't lie David, I too have created "fake HDR" before by saving a single raw exposure at -1, 0 +1 etc. It worked out fine, but I'm positive the result is better when done conventionally ;)

Hey, if you're selling art and that was your intended outcome, more power to you! Have fun and thanks for sharing.

David Pavlich's picture

You're absolutely right! My typical HDR stuff is done with 5 or 7 exposures. Several years ago, I entered my very first exhibition/contest. A Sunset I did was awarded second place, but the surprise of the exhibit was this shot that received third place. Granted, this was no big exhibit, but considering that it was my very first, I was very happy. Since then, this print has sold fairly well. It's 7 exposures. The purchases were either 'carguys' or wives of 'carguys'. :-)

Duane Klipping's picture

I use HDR a lot. What people need to understand here, readers and writers, is photography is an art form that takes on many faces for those who do it.

Art is subjective and to bash anothers practice and methods over another is wrong in my book. I like HDR and the looks I get from it. My HDR work has been published so it must look natural enough to my editor.

Luminosity masks sou ds intriguing but I do not want to be sitting behind a desktop when I would rather be out shooting. As far as the presets you can create your own and get "natural" looking images.

Composites are used a lot of the time to create fake scenes that never happened like the famous moon view this past year. I can't get beyond that to this day. A millionaire photographer creating fake images through composites and passing it off as truth. I would rather do HDR than that.

Scott Mason's picture

Duane, my goal wasn't to bash anybody but rather raise awareness to the possibility that photographers can achieve better results by trying something new (compositing vs HDR processing).

The purpose of the second HDR image in the article was to illustrate that it's practical in some situations to use HDR correctly. But I totally get not wanting to spend the extra time behind the computer. To each their own.

I should differentiate compositing for artistic creation (like you mentioned) vs exposure compositing. Exposure compositing is practical and realistic - it creates a scene that is closer to what the eye sees.

Placing objects in your frame that weren't there and passing them off as real is bogus, I agree, but has nothing to do with compositing bracketed exposures of one scene together. Please don't conflate the two, there's a world of difference.

Colin Robertson's picture

OOOhhh HDR! Such a dirty, loaded word in photography today. I “use” HDR all the time to create images with more dynamic range than the camera is capable of that I can use when pushing & pulling an image in my post process. A blended exposure bracket was nearly essential when trying to get the best out of my Canon 7D. Modern cameras are much better at noise-free shadow recovery, but HDR is still useful. I use it much in the same way as the author—as a layer in a composite where I have total control.

The key is to not go too far—embrace shadows and blown highlights. You don’t need detail everywhere for a compelling image.

Scott Mason's picture

Thanks for your comments Colin, and thank you especially for actually reading the entire article before responding.

Good point - not every image needs all the data in it. Some high or low key images are alluring because of the missing data. From my perspective as a photographer who tries to make everything look natural though, I have a sort of set way of looking at most photography and am therefore biased.

Rogier Bos's picture

Scott, how do you get the edges so clean in compositing? Do you use luminosity masks? Is that a big part of what you call 'compositing'?

Scott Mason's picture

Rogier, Luminosity masks can be useful but I rarely need to use them. Just make absolute sure your images are aligned, and that starts with using a tripod (if possible) on timer + bracket mode. Implementing remote capture tools like CamRanger helps, too.

When compositing exposures, simply brush in layer masks and take care with the details. Zoom in on masked edges and/or selections, and adjust your brush hardness and opacity to get a smooth transition.

Hope that helps.

Mark Niebauer's picture

I agree. There are many misconceptions about what it is? HDR is just a label put on a process, but the process is much deeper than the label. Contemporary HDR is very abused and used as a band aid for poor exposure many times. I think many people that abuse it are just plain lazy and don't want to spend the time to learn advanced exposure techniques.

@Scott

Can compositing be done well with simple exposure brackets?

One should not identify HDR technique as tone mapping. Tone mapping can be performed on a single exposure in any graphics software. The HDR technique is primarily used to increase the tonal range in shadows and reduce noise.