Is HDR on the way out?

Is HDR on the way out?

HDR, the photography equivalent of glitter in the craft world. HDR, or High Dynamic Range photography is the process of taking three images, bracketing the proper exposure and combining them to produce an image that has more detail in both the highlight and shadow areas. This technique allows you more flexibility when editing your images.  When shooting in certain situations, bright areas in your image, like a sunset can cause the camera to evaluate the light in the scene you are shooting and adjust for the brightness, making it abnormally dark. There are several ways to overcome this problem: Shoot in Manual and learn how exposure works through ISO, Aperture and shutter speed, stop shooting in P for Professional mode, learn about exposure compensation, use spot metering etc. However, since 2009 the process of combining an underexposed, overexposed and properly exposed image to create a Frankenstein’s monster image has become the norm. Many cameras and smartphones (like the iPhone) have settings for HDR right in the camera, it will take the bracketed shots for you and even combine them in camera in you like. In most cases, the in-camera option will increase the range of the image and result in a more natural look. It is where the use of programs like photomatix come into play that things can go horribly wrong, especially for that photographer that has just discovered the wondrous thing that is HDR.

Photography, like every artistic genre goes through phases, and when an artist creates an image that garners a lot of attention others clamor to create similar images. Before programs like Photomatix, the process of combining images of different exposure values used to be done in Photoshop. The images would still have to be shot bracketed, then they would need to be loaded each on a different layer in Photoshop and blended together manually for the final image. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against HDR, to the contrary I use HDR when I need to in order to expand the range of my image if that is the look I am going for. That is the real crux of the discussion here though isn’t it? The photographer is taking a moment in time and capturing it to show their vision or impression of what they saw to others. Some photographers are purists, and only show images right out of the camera with no adjustments while others like myself believe that some adjustments are needed for any image. It is not the look of HDR that people are tired of, I think it is the fact that the look has been overused and to some extent abused. Thank goodness that HDR seems to be fading into the sunset for the “normal” photographer. Like selective color, I for one am not sad to see those gritty Harry Potter style landscapes going away.


HDR certainly has its uses, especially for indoor or architecture photography. Embrace HDR as a tool to make the images that need it look better not the ones that are just compositionally poor or boring. Here is an example of an older image I took (2009 the days of train tracks and HDR!) specifically to be made into an HDR image. These two images are not edited to what I would consider a final state, they are right out of the camera, and as you can see when you expose for the sky to get the clouds, the foreground and the shrubs on the sides of the tracks become lost in the shadowy darkness. I certainly could use the shadow slide to bring out the shrubs but because this was taken with a Canon 7d, the dynamic range is just not there, and the noise in the shadows in enhanced by bringing them to what would be a reasonable exposure level. This is where HDR comes in for me.


Exposing for the foreground (yes its still a bit underexposed) will cause you to lose much of your sky detail, I work with HDR tool a bit differently, rather than pushing the drama slider or strength slider depending on your program and adjusting from there, I prefer to start with a basic level and adjust the contrast, white and black point and exposure to get a more natural feel.


When you first take your images into the editing program, whether its Lightroom, Photoshop Photomatix or HDR Efx you will start with an image that need some basic adjustments especially in the contrast area.


Here, I adjusted the white and black point in HDR EFX and brought the contrast more in line with what I was looking for. I didn’t touch the drama or strength slider to increase the effect and I didn’t go for one of the Edgy presets.


This image was adjusted primarily in Lightroom. I adjusted the contrast slider in HDR EFX then brought the white and black point into line in Lightroom and added a gradient filter into the sky which added a bit more blue, and I adjusted the clarity slider which brought more detail into the boards of the tracks. I think this makes the image pop a lot more for me while still keeping a reasonably natural look. While this is not what I would consider a final image, I think its a lot closer than most.   A couple tips: 1. Treat the HDR tool as something to bring lost portions of your images out for your viewers to enjoy, not as a way to generate a look for your images, its been done to death lots have been there before you and we have seen enough HDR. Secondly, Don’t think of the HDR tool as the final step for your image, if you are going to use the HDR tool to bring more out of your image, take it to the next step and whatever normal editing workflow you use, do that too.


Just don’t do this to your images! Notice the halos that are popping up around the trees and other objects in the lower area of the sky, as well as the over detailed boards, for me, and I think many viewers, this is not a pleasing image to look at.