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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.