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Insights & Thoughts

HDR Photography: It’s Not Dead Yet

By David Salahi on October 8th 2014

Few topics in photography inflame passions more than HDR (high dynamic range). While some photographers love it, many others hate it. Not only do they hate it, they seem to take pride in being HDR haters. Scott Kelby points out that “regular, non photographer people love those over-the-top HDR images” so maybe the proud HDR haters feel like they are among the photographic cognoscenti.


Although HDR has often been used to create garish, oversaturated images, it certainly doesn’t have to be used in this way. The HDR technique was born out of a desire to overcome the limitations of our capture and display technologies.  While the human eye can perceive a dynamic range (brightness-darkness range) of over 10 stops, our cameras typically can manage only half of that in a single exposure. And our monitors generally can display even less than what our cameras can capture. So, HDR software was developed in order to compress the dynamic range; i.e., to display more tonal values within a single image. The goal is to more closely approximate what the photographer sees.


Stained glass HDR

 Sometimes HDR is the Only Way to Capture a Scene

The shot of the stained glass window, above, is an example of a scene that requires a technique like HDR. Without exposure blending there would have been no way to capture the woman, the plants and the book in a single shot where the stained glass was also exposed correctly. This image resulting from HDR processing more closely resembles the way I remember the scene than any of the individual exposures. Now, it’s true that the color reproduction is not accurate. The greens in the plants are oversaturated as are the warm golden brown hues of the wall. At the same time, the colors in the stained glass are actually less vibrant than the way I remember them. As with any photographic image it’s a facsimile of a scene or an event—not the actual scene. More examples of HDR imagery that captures a wide dynamic range without going over the top are shown in Christopher’s article HDR WEDDING PHOTOGRAPHY TIPS.

HDR Has Matured

Now that HDR has been around for a while, I think many photographers have developed a more sophisticated approaching to working with it. To some extent, we’ve gotten over our infatuation with the gaudy looks that once seemed fresh and exciting (is that really what we thought??). Take a look at the flickr HDR group these days. While many of the photos are clearly identifiable as the products of the HDR technique, in others the application of the technique is so subtle that you would be hard-pressed to identify it as HDR. And, while some images feature the highly saturated colors and the hyper-detailed, gritty look that we associate with HDR these are in the minority.


I think some photographers dislike HDR because they feel it is used as a shortcut. Not only does HDR tend to saturate colors, it can also increase contrast and these changes tend to add drama. This can make a photo seem better than it might be otherwise. However, at the same time those same people criticize HDR for being a time-saving crutch, others point out that it actually takes more time.

Self-professed HDR-hater Lewis Collard says: “By the time you’ve turned on auto-exposure bracketing, set up your tripod, taken your three shots, and taken your camera off your tripod, and packed it away, and hauled your gear away? I’m half a mile ahead of you with my A-1.” And, of course, there’s the extra processing time so it may be partially a question of whether one’s preference is to spend more time shooting or more time processing.


HDR is Alive

Whether HDR is a time-saver or a waste of time depends on your point of view. But there is still plenty of interest in HDR as evidenced by the activity in the flickr group and the existence of dozens of HDR communities on Google+. HDR software makers are actively updating their products and creating new ones. While Photomatix Pro and HDR Efex Pro battle for supremacy, several other software alternatives compete for a niche, including OloNeo’s PhotoEngine and Unified Color’s products.  Meanwhile, Photoshop’s built-in tools for HDR processing have improved to the point where they’re now quite usable. There are various other free tools and techniques including Luminance HDR and exposure blending with luminosity masking. This last technique has the advantage that there is no tone mapping or color distortion.



Camera manufacturers are including HDR in firmware. My Samsung Galaxy S5 has an in-camera HDR capability and it really works. I’ve compared many shots I’ve taken both with the HDR feature turned on and with it turned off and, in high dynamic range situations, the shots with HDR processing turned on are almost always better. And they’re not the least bit gaudy.

HDR example

HDR is Just Another Tool

There are some subjects which don’t necessarily require HDR, but which can still benefit from its use. The ’37 Ford coupe headlight/fender detail photo above is a case in point. As shown by the histogram, the technically correct exposure was almost entirely within range. But combining three bracketed exposures using HDR produced noticeably richer and deeper colors.

Regardless, there are the diehard HDR haters who will never budge from their viewpoints and to them I say: to each his own. In his article, Scott Kelby points out that HDR isn’t for everyone just as black-and-white photography isn’t for everyone. If it’s not to your taste, then don’t use it. On the other hand, if you view it, as I do, as simply another tool, there are lots of excellent resources for making the most of it. You can start by checking out the other HDR articles and tutorials here on SLR Lounge.

If you want to learn how to create beautiful and realistic high dynamic range photographs, check out our HDR Photography workshop DVD which has hours of comprehensive tutorials, plus presets and exercise files for your complete HDR education.

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Dave Salahi is a photographer, Photoshop artist and Photoshop instructor in Southern California. In a previous life Dave was a software developer and still does some website development work. His website, The Photo Performance, features Photoshop tutorials and other photography info.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Jeff Thomas

    HDR is becoming almost necessary in the modern market. People love color, depth, and beauty. Why not capture it in a way that pleases them?

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  2. Kurk Rouse

    I never thought of it as dead, It was all the hype when i started photography. But how it was being taught most of the results were a bit unrealistic , I’m now learning how to really pull it off correctly in PS which gives much more pleasing results.

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  3. Steven Mole

    I think everyone “pushes the sliders” a little too far when they first start HDR imaging, simply because it looks so eye-catching and dramatic. That look is definitely a popular one because the more overprocessed images on Flickr, 500px etc seem to get a lot of likes and comments. I do like HDR photography, more so now that I’ve progressed from automatic blending in Photomatix to manual exposure blending with luminosity masks. As the article states, sometimes it’s the only way to capture all of the detail in a scene.

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  4. Peter Nord

    Sometimes it’s just fun. Did all that hand waving in the darkroom, played with local temp and concentration adjustments on a print years ago. Turning on the HDR in my D810 once in a while is just fun. If it isn’t fun why bother.

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  5. Brandon Dewey

    I agree, I still do HDR but I am not a fan of fake looking HDR. I try to make my HDR look as natural as possible.

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  6. Joram J

    To me its just a tool, like a trick in the bag. I use it as exposure blending to get more details in the shadows/highlights.

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  7. Chris Jung

    HDR is so much beatifull

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  8. Mark Iuzzolino

    I’m actually one of those that like it when it’s a little over done. I love all those rich colors and surreal styles. I also like it when it’s done more conservatively so no one can tell it’s an HDR. RC Conception is an example of who does the more surreal HDRs and obviously has a following due to what he creates with it.

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  9. Clare Havill

    As long as it’s done with a good eye and not over done HDR can look beautiful.

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  10. Peter McWade

    I use both. I use mostly HDR on my iPhone vs my Sony A7R but I have used it on both and not used HDR on both as well. Just depends. I do take photos that many times have very high light and very dark shadows. Helps keep it reined in and tame. Sensors are very sensitive and need some help via HDR. Nice to have that tool.

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  11. Ralph Hightower

    I don’t mind HDR as long as it’s subtle, non-detectable. If the photo looks like it doesn’t exist in nature or doesn’t look natural, then it’s overboard.

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    • J D

      I agree. HDR that doesn’t scream HDR looks best to me. Too many times you see someone just crank the HDR setting up to 11 and then its just gaudy and ugly looking. A well done HDR photo is a beautiful thing.

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  12. Brian Hammonds

    Nice one. I’ve been meaning to give HDR another go for a while now.

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  13. Ben Perrin

    People don’t hate HDR, they hate the fake look of tone mapping type fx that is way overused. Subtle examples, especially with luminosity masks are really great (in my opinion). Examples like the ones you’ve shown work very well.

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  14. Jim Johnson

    Yeah, digital HDR has matured and I’m glad to see someone bring it up. For so long, the term was synonymous with poor tone mapping.

    But, for those purists who are HDR haters, they should know that HDR has always existed and always took planning and patience. Digital HDR, when done with restraint, simply gives you the same effect as flashing your film (or paper), push or pull processing, or holding back light (either in exposure or enlarging). Hey, even leaving your prints in the developer for longer or shorter times changed how much detail you could see in the darkest shadows.

    HDR is just another tool.

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    • Nick Buchholz

      True. HDR has been around for ages.

      Look at the window on Da Vinci’s Last Supper. In a dark room the landscape would have been blown out and overexposed.

      HDR is done well (right) when nobody notices it’s been done at all.

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