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

Gary Gray's picture

Pretty much agree with this.

I've never found HDR useful for anything, including good results.

Leigh Smith's picture

The example you give is not HDR. You may have used multiple exposures, but the processing you did crushed all that back down to over contrasted over sharpened mud.

Scott Mason's picture

It was HDR, and it was an example of poor HDR processing to prove a point. If you keep reading, you'll find my argument that it can be done properly.

Leigh Smith's picture

My point is that the issue with the image was that it had nothing to do with HDR. It was crap because of the post processing. I see images like this all the time that didn't even use bracketed exposure. Also the final image can no longer be considered HDR it you contrast the hell out of it, therefor complete nullifying the exposures anyway. The title should read "How I Improved My Photography by Ditching My Post Processing."

Scott Mason's picture

It has everything to do with HDR, since it's so easy to go overboard in HDR software. Have you ever looked at Photomatix's presets? Most of them look horrifically over-processed, and people today still use them. Yes you can overprocess a single image. But the potential to go overboard with HDR is far higher than with RAW sliders.

My hope was to turn those people on to something new. If you process your images correctly in HDR, then keep at it.

Maybe it should be titled "Learn to process HDR the right way or composite instead."

OK, so in general I agree most of the HDRs I saw were unreal, but those who do it "right" for landscapes get some really good results.

Also guilty of HDRs, I do get by without it lately by using lightroom with the good exposure and rarely use the bracketed series.

So I'm willing to try your compositing. How do I do that?

Scott Mason's picture

All you need to composite is basic layer mask skills in Photoshop.

Take your bracketed exposures, create layer masks for each of them besides the bottom exposure (which should be your most even exposure, likely at -0+, then selectively mask in the dark and light areas of each frame.

Here's an article that can help further:
https://fstoppers.com/composite/creating-composites-multiple-exposures-1...

Jerome Brill's picture

I did some really bad HDR when I first started like most. First image. Now I rarely do it. As you said there are some applications. I have a recent example of this. This scene was backlit because of the sunset. HDR allowed me to bring out the shadows more on the trees with a lot less compression. I still took well exposed single image but by the time I did shadow recovery there was too much noise, even at ISO 100. This is one of the few times Id use it.

Scott Mason's picture

Thanks for sharing examples, Jerome.

dierk topp's picture

Scott, for your second image of the building I don't see any need for a HDR!?

the best HDR is, when you don't see it!

10 years ago I did a lot of bracketing with my Nikon D3, very often hand held with 10 fps. The DR of the sensor could not see the huge contrast of the Canary Islands. But very often I found one exposure good for my picture. An exception is, when I shoot church interiors with bright sun light through the windows. This may be true for other architecture shots, where the exterior scene shout be visible, but you have to be careful not to make it look unreal. Outdoor must have more light to look ok.

Today with the modern back lit sensor of the Sony A7RII I do only bracketing in situations, where I want to be sure, to get the right exposure. In most cases one of the exposures is ok. and the light and shadows are without problems. I almost never need any HDR processing today.

These overdone so called HDR images in the web just look ugly and over processed. HDR is used as an way, to make an image look like 'art' :-(

one example from 2008 and D3

Scott Mason's picture

It is possible that I didn't need it for the second image, as only some sunsets call for HDR.

But when exposing for a sunset sky you can easily lose some shadow detail in the landscape (bottom) portion. I'll see if I can find a single raw file of that image and link it up to show the difference.

"The best HDR is when you can't see it." Agreed! Subtlety is key.

Thanks for commenting and sharing your work, Dierk.

I photograph a lot of villages in the French countryside. The streets and alleys are narrow, often dark, with a bright sky. So HDR is mandatory otherwise you'll get a blown out sky. And no filter will help, as the part of sky in the photo is rarely horizontal and straight. I've seen people talking about the "HDR look" and how bad it can be, but who has seen it recently ? At least in landscape, to me it feels like people have learned the lesson. The cursor is the other way now : too many composites, and still too much saturation, contrast, and sharpening.

Mark Dolan's picture

I have been using HDR for 6-7 years now. Mostly interior work. No doubt there is a learning curve. If you can't get "natural" looking images, step back and look at your process. First I don't use the presets. If the images needs adjustment, exposure, saturation, etc, I use the sliders. I do run into images that compositing with a luminosity mask works better but most can be done with HDR. As a side, some time back I created 2 versions of the same image. One "natural" and the 2nd with pumped up saturation but not too far. I showed both images to several clients and ask which they liked best. Almost everyone liked the saturated image. Got to communicate with your client and find what suits their taste.

Scott Steinson's picture

Author should stick to photography. What is compositing? I learned nothing because the author assumed knowledge.

Hi Scott, compositing is not the right term here. You aimed to talk about exposure blend or even luminosity mask for more specific approach in Photoshop.

Scott Mason's picture

What I wrote about is compositing, but it's confusing people because usually that refers to creative compositing, not exposure blending. Though it isn't incorrect, I suppose the terminology should be clearer for this specific use - thanks for your feedback.

news flash: great photography can flourish without hdr OR compositing

I quite often find myself bracketing in the expectation of doing an HDR because I'm worried about blown-out highlights or unrecoverable shadows with a single exposure. But almost invariably I can get almost exactly the same effect as the HDR image using just the 0EV or +1EV image and judicious use of curves or tone sliders. So I guess I'm good at underestimating the dynamic range of my camera!

One time I do find it useful is to produce a particular type of "night-for-day" effect, where I overexpose the main image to make a night time shot look like daylight, and then add some underexposed images to recover the overexposed lights, like this one.

Scott Mason's picture

This is a perfect example of high dynamic range in which one exposure wouldn't cut it. Thanks for sharing Peter.

The day HDR was first introduced with that awful orangey electric looking tonemapping, I said, This fad won't last a year. I'm stunned that people still use it well over a decade after its introduction.

One local real estate photography outfit uses it because they can use a rotating battery of photographers who don't know how to light, and their deliverables to the client will look the same no matter who they send out that day.

I agree that careful compositing can bring about a way more natural look that still holds highlights and shadows vs.HDR. I do it and don't even use a tripod -- I set my exposures in the Custom modes on my Canon, and click through from one to the next. Photoshop does a great job lining them all up after the fact.

Scott Mason's picture

I'm biased against HDR processing with interiors because I started out as a real estate photographer and saw how improperly it was implemented within the genre, just as you state.

Michael Jin's picture

I use HDR all the time in real estate photography and dealing not because I don't know how to light so much as I rarely have the time to light. When homeowners want you in and out of a 6 bedroom house in 30 minutes before they head off for work, you're not going to be screwing around with strobes. 🤷‍♂️

Besides, with plenty of homes selling with nothing other than Street View screenshots or iPhone pics, it's difficult to convince most agents about the value that photography brings anyway. 🙄

Scott Mason's picture

Michael, I'm sympathetic to your situation. I wish it wasn't that way with real estate.

Michael Jin's picture

Ehh.. its the path I chose so no sense whining about it. 😅

Totally agree Michael. In my area realtors aren't paying more than $150-$200 max for a house. I'm not spending hours in the house with strobes and then more hours in front of the computer compositing 25-30 photos for that kind of money. Showing them a TASTEFUL HDR shot and a shot that took strobes and compositing, they can't see enough of difference to warrant a price increase for the extra time involved. It's not art being created - it's to sell a house. Now if you are working for an interior design company or custom home builder that wants to showcase their work for print advertisements or websites, that's different. Much more goes into those type of shoots and accordingly, more money. Just my 2 cents.

Scott Mason's picture

James, that's all totally understandable. If you're doing more volume-based work you need to make every minute count. Best of luck to you and thanks for commenting.

HDR is simply a tool. And like any tool has its place, but also can be abused. We see an over processed image and we blame HDR (we used to blame photoshop for bad composites), However there are many HDR images that are not obviously HDR, because the tool has been used subtlety and sparingly. If you don’t like a muddy picture with halos in the sky, change the settings!

My camera has a dynamic range of 13 stops. My eye, 20. So to get my image to the range I often want to see, I need to do something. I can adjust contrast or levels. I can composite with different exposures. I change blacks, whites, shadows and highlight in RAW, I can blend the image with a contrasty black and white version, and I can use HDR. In reality I do all, and none of these things.

The important thing is not to consider HDR to be your final image. You will still need to adjust, composite or blend that HDR image with the original or different exposures of the RAW file to get the final look you want.

Blame the artist, not the brush.

Bruce Neeka's picture

This reply replaces whole article )))

Scott Mason's picture

That's right, the fault lies in the user and not the software, every time.

Thanks for your comment.

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