Since HDR Photography has become so popular over the last few years, a lot of cameras are coming out with an HDR mode now.  Which one is best?

If you ask me the better question is, …are ANY of them even remotely useful?  Uh oh, you guessed it.  This article is not going to be a thorough testing of all the different HDR modes in different cameras.  It is an opinion / advice column with the sole purpose of encouraging you NOT to use your camera’s HDR feature, let alone make a buying decision based on such a function.


Indeed, quite honestly NONE of the cameras currently on the market have an HDR feature that is good enough to be a buying decision deal-breaker.  It is borderline useless on all cameras.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s compare two of the most popular cameras today, both of which have an HDR feature:  The Nikon D800, and the Canon 5D mk3.  Note that the Canon 6D and Nikon D600 also have nearly identical HDR functions, though.

Right off the bat, let’s disqualify the D800’s HDR mode because it only works in JPG capture.  Yeah.  Bzzzzzt…epic fail.  So if you want a JPG HDR and RAW original frames for archival purposes, you have to capture the images separately;  In other words, Nikon’s HDR feature works entirely separate from its usual bracketing feature.

Let’s be honest, you want your RAW photos if you’re a landscape, architecture, or basically any type of slow and methodical photographer who is going to be using an HDR feature in the first place.  Actually Adobe can pull more latitude from a single RAW D800 file than 90% of the in-camera JPG HDR images you might produce.

[Full HDR Tutorial]

Either way, with the D800 you’re better off just sticking with oldschool bracketing methods and using post-processing HDR techniques.  Hech, with the dynamic range being so incredible on the D800, simply buying that camera in the first place will eliminate 80-90% of your need for bracketing / HDR techniques, period!

The Canon 5D mk3, on the other hand, does have RAW capture options with its HDR mode.  However it does not create a RAW frame that includes the HDR data, it simply creates another JPG image with whatever style of HDR processing you designate.

in-camera-hdr-function-650A demonstration of the Canon 5D mk3’s various in-camera HDR JPG options

Yes, the mk3 does a pretty darn good job of creating that JPG file if you set the processing / picture styles right, and for that matter so does the D800.  However in my opinion neither camera can match the post-processing power of a program like Photomatix etc.

[Tip: Click here for a 15% Photomatix Discount Code]

So with this in mind, the main factor to consider is dynamic range in general.  Unfortunately, Canon DSLRs (including the 5D mk3) struggle quite a lot to keep up with the Nikons.  Therefore, the bottom line to me is this:  If you like HDRs, you probably like dynamic range in general. If you like dynamic range in general, you should buy the camera with the most dynamic range.  Which, for now, is a Nikon.

in-camera-hdr-function-d600-650Nikon D600 – a single image processed in Adobe Lightroom 4 with an HDR preset from the SLR Lounge Preset System V5, plus burning & dodging.

The other bottom line, of course, is that you should only be considering this if you are a first-time buyer, probably.  If you’re already heavily invested in one system or another, the differences in RAW dynamic range (or HDR features of course) are not going to be a deal-breaker for 95% of photographers out there.  Yes, every now and then you hear about a landscape photographer getting fed up with Canon and buying a D800E.  Then again, just as often you might hear about a wedding or portrait photographer getting fed up with Nikon and buying a 5D mk3 or 6D…  So on the one hand it goes both ways, but on the other hand most users really don’t need to worry about it if they’re currently invested in a system.  Each brand tends to leap-frog the other every few generations.

[FAQ: What is HDR?]

So, this advice is mostly for new buyers who are just starting out, maybe they only have a beginner DSLR and a kit lens, and they would like to explore HDR photography and they heard that some more advanced cameras have built-in HDR features.  Well the good news is that yes, for casual use you can really get some great results.  However the bad news is, the more serious you get, the more I can guarantee you’ll be doing regular old bracketing and HDR post-production.  :-)

[Rewind: Tips for customizing your camera to make HDR photography easier]

For the record, personally I don’t own a D800 or a D600, or any Canon, however I have processed thousands of images from these and almost every other Nikon and Canon DSLR in production today. So you might ask, what is my choice for my hobby of adventure / landscape photography? The second-cheapest Nikon on the market- the Nikon D5200, and now the Nikon D5300.  (Or the Nikon D7100, if you really need the speed and functionality, but as a landscape / nature shooter I happily trade that for the articulated LCD screen!!!!)

So, there you have it.  For now, HDR features these days are still just part of the “bells and whistles” that a serious hobbyist or professional probably will not use much, if ever.

Of course if technology advances and things change in the world of HDR capture, you can bet that we’ll be the first to talk about it!

Take care,

Learn HDR Photography

To learn about and master HDR photography, be sure to check out HDR Tutorial by SLR Lounge. This comprehensive “gold standard” guide will give you a mastery of HDR photos, from the location and scene considerations to the actual shooting, and of course the post production. Click here for more info.