If you rely heavily on HDR for your image processing, I’ve got some news for you: it can be a lazy approach, and you might 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 create more dynamic range (details and tones) in an image. If you’re new to this process, you can read my article from last month, Bracketing: What It Is And How It’s Done. This article also goes into more detail on HDR versus compositing.
You might be wondering why a photographer is so critical of HDR – to be fair, there are photographers (mainly landscape and travel photographers) for whom HDR processing generally works well.
Despite this, HDR is often overused and abused. It is often applied to images that do not need additional definition in the dynamic range, e.g. B. Evenly lit snapshots or live music photos.
The good, the bad, and the ugly of workmanship
After all, there’s good and bad HDR imaging. After a computer merges your exposures in HDR software, you have the option of tone mapping, which allows you to control the tonal range of the entire image. 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 you can go overboard with.
The resulting 3D effect is interesting at first, but appears gimmicky on closer inspection. Tone mapping this way is a bit like slapping an Instagram filter over your images. Gentle on the curves when tone mapping.
To the untrained eye, an over-processed image can look interesting or even artistic. A small percentage of art buyers might be drawn to this style. Still, I would argue that we photographers often fail to realize that this extreme push processing approach is unflattering and universally 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 overprocessed HDR. This could be likened to a guitarist over-indulging in effects pedals to cover up sloppy playing. The audience initially reacts with jubilation to this novel display of artistic expression, but after a while they lose interest due to the lack of substance and originality. So no one shows up for their next show.
Bad HDR is no different.
Why compositing usually wins
When switching to exposure blending (compositing), I used to create an HDR image and use it in the final composition because I was reluctant to let it go. My fear was that I would miss tonal data.
After lots of experimentation in creating HDR, HDR plus composite and composite only images, I’ve decided that if I avoid HDR, I’m only missing the potential tonal range in sunset or landscape photos. So from time to time I still create an HDR from my shots 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 way to go, but unsure when to use it. Here are the different genres and their uses for different types of image processing that each is good for.
If you’re unfamiliar, compositing exposures involves taking bracketed images of the same scene and masking them on top of each other in Photoshop, allowing you to fill in missing data. This creates a dynamic image that cannot normally be achieved in a single exposure of a high-contrast scene.
Photography genres and their applications for HDR and compositing
Architectural and interior shots are great examples of how useful exposure composition is. Since your camera is on a tripod for these shots, the alignment and blending of your frames is streamlined.
Interior shots need to look realistic, and compositing shots will give you that result. People are less likely to buy a home or hire an architect if the photos don’t look natural and pleasing to the eye. Because of this, HDR just doesn’t cut it when you’re shooting high-end interiors.
Compositing brings out the dark shadows in a room and brings out the blown out lights and windows. HDR can do this too, but the results don’t look as realistic in an architectural setting.
To take it to the next level, you need to spend time compositing your exposures in Photoshop.
Both HDR and compositing are less common in the studio, as most of the time the light is controlled so that a single exposure is enough. Instead of bracketing, focus bracketing is sometimes applied to product images captured in the studio.
Long exposure and landscape
Milky Way landscape photography can be breathtaking. Even more impressive is the result when a photographer strips out a lighter frame for the dark foreground and composites it under the sky.
Long exposures can bring out many details in low light that our own eyes cannot see in the dark. The downside to this is blown out streetlights, the moon, or any other source of bright light. Composite your bracketing fixes this and gives you control over your tonal range.
Color casts, especially incandescent lights at night, can also be difficult to fix in an HDR image.
I’ve used HDR on long exposures with mixed results. What’s frustrating about nighttime scenes is that HDR software often creates ugly aberrations around specular highlights to compensate for exposure.
Portrait, sports, street photography, etc.
These genres and others typically rely on a single exposure without the need for fancy tricks. Although there are exceptions, many genres of photography involve showing action that focuses on a single subject, often requiring only a single exposure.
I have tried here to describe the applications where I feel HDR is being used inappropriately. If you’re not looking for something unique and artistic, either hone your tone mapping skills when creating HDR images, or try composing for a more challenging dynamic range. A single exposure might also be all you need.
Have I missed any arguments for or against HDR? What about different genres of photography? Please leave your feedback in the comment section below.