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To HDR or Not – When and If You Should Use HDR?

HDR photography can be a bit polarizing in terms of personal tastes. It's like opera and sushi – you either love it or hate it. But there are also good times to use an HDR technique, and not so ideal situations.

In this article, I'll walk you through several different scenarios you might encounter and give you some tips on how to decide . . .

To HDR or not to HDR?

That is the question at hand.

HDR has gone through several iterations and has become something that many people strongly dislike.

But there is a time and place when doing HDR has its benefits. Then there are other situations and scenes that you might be shooting where HDR isn't going to help, or in fact, it might even make things worse.

What is HDR?

First, let's take a look at what exactly is HDR photography.

The letters HDR stand for High Dynamic Range.

It refers to a scene in which there is a lot of contrast between the top highlights or brightest areas, and the lowest shadows are darkest areas.

Notice I did NOT say it is a technique!

HDR has become synonymous with certain post-processing techniques and a stylized look. That is not really what HDR is though – and it was around long before Trey Ratcliff made it popular.

an example of an image using HDR, the full Hight Dynamic Range, by combining multiple images together
HDR image created from three bracketed exposures.
the three images shot at different exposures that were combined to make the final HDR image
Here you can see the 3 bracketed images (one at -2, one at 0 and one at +2 exposure) and the final blended HDR image.

In fact, Ansel Adams himself was a master of HDR photography.

Yup, his famous Zone System was designed to be able to photograph a scene with a lot of contrast and through shooting and film processing techniques – the photographer could manipulate the tones to be able to fit into one printable image.

Notice another key phrase there is – manipulate the tones!

That is exactly what digital HDR photography techniques do as well.

HDR Photography involves shooting bracketed exposures in order to capture full detail in the scene (both in the dark and light areas) and combining them later in post-processing.

I won't be describing the exact steps on how to do HDR and process it, so you can read about that here if you're new to this: 

When NOT to use HDR

Okay so now you have an idea of what HDR is all about – let's first look at some examples where you do NOT want to use it.

#1 – Do not do HDR when your scene is low contrast

When you are shooting a scene that is low in contrast, you do not need to do HDR.

How do you know for sure if your scene has low contrast? Look at the histogram. Here is an example:

a picture of a tree trunk and a leaf, unedited raw version of photo
Original unedited RAW file.

Look at the histogram for the image above. What you're looking for is how far towards each side the graph reaches. Look for anything clipping (going off the graph and up the side) in the highlight areas (right-side) or shadow areas (left-side).

As you can see below, the data doesn't reach either the left or right side of the graph. That means the contrast of the scene fits well within the capability of my camera to camera in a single image.

the camera histogram for the photo above showing low contrast
Histogram showing a low contrast scene.

Now, look what happens when I process that image using HDR techniques.

Usually, that means pulling the highlights down (darkening) and pulling the shadows up (lightening them). Punching up the Clarity slider, often all the way to +100 and increasing Saturation.

HDR applied to an image that does not require it
Notice the complete lack of contrast here and how the image feels flat and lifeless – yet is overly saturated and “fake” looking.

The image above is an example of an HDR process being applied unnecessarily. Often what I call “Bad HDR” is over saturated and the colors are garish. Please don't do this kind of HDR.

same leaf images processed normally, without HDR manipulation, looks great
Here is the same image processed normally. It has good contrast, pure black and the color of the leaf jumps out but doesn't hurt the eyes.

Another example of a low contrast scene

low contrast scene of a lake waterfront using unedited raw file
Original unedited RAW file.
camera histogram for the waterfront image above
Histogram for the image above.

There is a tiny bit of clipping in the brightest areas of the sky in the image above. But because I shoot RAW format there is a lot of information there for the editing process.

Same waterfront image processed normally looks great, with lots of detail
Here is the processed version. There is lots of detail everywhere but I've left it overall a bit dark to reflect the shooting time – dusk – and keep it natural-looking.

#2 – Do NOT do HDR for silhouettes

This is the antithesis of HDR.

A scene where you actually want part of your image to be clipped. To create a good silhouette image you want to make the foreground really dark, or possibly even pure black, with no detail. The sky or background may or may not have detail, or be clipped as well.

This includes sunset images!

For more on that subject read this article: 3 Tips for Creating Spectacular Sunset Photos. Take note of the exposure settings I recommend there.

Look at the silhouette images below. The dark outline of the subject against the colorful sky is what makes them so dramatic.

You do not always need detail in every single nook and cranny of your image.

Get over it.

silhouette image of a lake, mountains and trees, does not need HDR done

silhouette image of a photographer and bench at sunset, looks best without HDR

A silhouette photo of a photographer and tripod on a hill during blue hour looks great without HDR

So for a good silhouette or sunset image – just let the foreground go dark and expose for the sky. Get the sky dark enough to get nice deep rich colors and your sunset images will automatically go up a notch.

#3 – Do not do HDR to remove all shadows

This is a pet peeve of mine. I see way too many photographers using HDR to “get rid” of all the shadows in their image. Like shadows are a bad thing – they aren't!

Read: 5 Tips for Using Shadows to Create Dramatic Images

It's like the old saying goes, “One cannot know happiness without also knowing true sadness” or something like that. So it is also true that without shadows your images will be missing something.

You need both light AND dark to make a photograph and show shape, dimension and depth in your images.

side by side example of same image with prominent shadows and lightened shadows
Left: Unedited RAW file. Right: Image processed to try and remove the shadow. Can you see how flat and lifeless that one looks?
same image of shadows looks better when shadows are enhanced
Final processed image – I actually ADDED more blacks to this image to deepen the shadow and add more drama. Can you see the difference?

Here is another scene where the little bush being lit by direct sunlight caught my attention. You tell me which processed version has more impact and drama?

In which image does the bush stand out more and draw your eye?

example of shadows being lightened making the photo worse
HDR processed to pull up the shadows and bring the highlights down. Is this effective here?
same photo processed normally, without HDR, looks great
Processed “normally” to enhance the existing light – not correct it. See how both the light and dark are needed here?
Photo of an old tractor covered in vines looks flat when shadows removed
Another HDR example with all the shadows lightened and basically removed. See how flat it looks? The colors are drab and dull as well.
Photo of old tractor covered in vines processed normally to look great
Processed to keep and even darken the shadows. See how punchy the colors are now. Note: I did NOT touch the saturation slider here at all! This is what having good blacks will do for your images – add drama and color intensity naturally without it going too over the top.

#4 – Do not do HDR to “fix” an image or to make it better

You cannot take a bad image and make it into a good one by using any processing technique, HDR included.

An image with poor lighting, bad composition and lack of a good subject to draw the viewer's eye will still have all those problems after applying HDR!

example of a bad photo with lots of contrast but no subject
Unedited RAW image. This scene is overly contrasty and there is no real subject to draw the viewer's attention. The barren hill in the upper third is just boring and uninteresting.
same photo as above, processed similar to HDR still makes for a poor photo
The same image, edited to pull back detail in all areas. Sure now there is detail up the wazoo, but it hasn't magically made it into a good image – one that has impact and interest. Nope, it still sucks. Yup, I took it!

#5 – Do not do HDR with people (or animals)

Generally, it is a bad idea to attempt HDR when there are people in your scene.

It just doesn't do good things to the skin tone and they usually move from one frame to the next, making it hard to do bracketed shots and merge them together.

Most HDR software have gotten pretty good at fixing such “ghosts” but not perfect.

compiliation photo showing 3 bracketed shots that include a human subject combined together
Here is a bracketed set of images and the resulting HDR (bottom right) image.

I actually forgot my camera was set to bracketing when I shot the images above from our vehicle. Looks not too bad at first glance right? Wrong! Let's look closer.

example of HDR software incorrectly processing a photo including a human subject making it look horrible
Oops, he's looking a bit “odd”.

The software attempted to fix the issue of him having moved from one frame to the next – but as you can see it didn't do such a great job. His face is half missing and something is just wrong with his chest and left arm.

Same with animals

It's tempting to use HDR as a look or style. That's totally fine if that's your thing – I just urge you to keep it on the natural-looking side and try not to do images like this:

HDR process done on a photo of a dog results in a poor photo
The poor dog!

The image above is another example of what I call overdone HDR.

There's a ton of detail in her fur (she wants me to throw her ball) and the sky but the image just looks “off”. Can you see that? Something about it just doesn't feel right.

See the difference with the image below?

It's subtle but this one feels more right to me. You?

photo of a dog without HDR processing looks better

What photos work best in HDR?

Okay, so we've covered several times and situations in which you do not want to do HDR.

So when is it a good idea to do it then?

When is HDR the optimal choice?

HDR Photography is best used When the contrast of the scene exceeds your camera's range

HDR Photography is best used When the contrast of the scene exceeds your camera's rangeClick To Tweet

Honestly, this is the only time you really want to use HDR – including bracketing and merging them in post-processing.

Here are three before and after examples.

You can see my bracketed images (shot 2-stops apart) and the final merged and edited HDR image.

example of 3 bracketed HDR photos combined into one final HDR photograph
I needed four shots, each 2-stops apart, to capture the full range of tones in this high contrast scene.
stunning HDR photo of the Okanagan lake with vineyards in the foreground and mountains in the distance
Finished HDR image, merged and processed entirely in Lightroom.
NOTE: It is NOT possible to get detail in both the sky and the foreground subject in a lighting situation like this. If you have tried to adjust your exposure and it's not working – you are NOT doing anything wrong. You camera simply cannot capture detail at both ends of the tonal range in such a high contrast scene.
3 photos shot hand-held and bracketed a 2 stops apart combine to create a magnificent HDR photo of the okanagan valley and grape vines
Three hand-held bracketed images and the processed image.
stunning HDR image of grapevines and the okanagan lake
Notice anything different here?

After debating, I flipped the final processed image horizontally so your eye follows the rows of vines into the image, not out of it.

This is a composition decision which you can make later.

Again this is a very subtle change but helps the viewers stay inside the image instead of flowing out.

3 bracketed HDR images combined into the final HDR version of Misconduct Winery at blue hour
Three bracketed images (shot on tripod) and processed version.
HDR photo of Miscondut Wine co building with motocycles in front
Final processed HDR image. I was able to retain detail and color in the sky and in the building under the lights – as well as the dark areas like the motorcycle and wood paneling.

Conclusion

You may have noticed by the number of items listed under when to do, and not do HDR that there are way more occasions to avoid it.

My advice is that if you enjoy doing HDR, like the processing part of it, and the final look – then do it. But do so sparingly and selectively.

Use it as a tool in your photography arsenal, not on every image and every scene.

What are your thoughts?

Have you tried HDR? Let me know if you have any other questions about the how, when or why of doing HDR and I'll do my best to answer. Please share your comments and HDR images below.

Side note: All the images in the article were taken on a recent scouting trip to British Colombia's Okanagan Valley where I'm planning a new 5-day workshop. Get more info or sign up to the waiting list here

Cheers,
Darlene-1-250x130.png

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  • Love the article, Darlene. You nailed it.

  • Derek Chambers

    I do HDR when the circumstances demand it (i.e. the dynamic range is too much for even my D800 to capture). But I almost always use Lightroom to create the blended image precisely because Lr does not over do it.

    I have also been following Elia Locardi’s Photographing The World series, in which he selects which images to use, from the series he’s taken, on the basis of what elements of the scene each one best shows. He then layers and blends them manually, using just portions of each image. When he does further tweaking he can take it too far, so I occasionally find the final result too much, but the process is definitely informative.

    Good article, Darlene, and a great location as well!

  • Gene Jenkins

    When I first saw the article, I thought, Big deal; Ansel Adams did it the old fashioned way. Then you pointed it out. Another “HDR” the old fashioned way was called dodging and burning.” Great article for old timers converting from film to digital.

    • HI @disqus_Np9nUrPsKV:disqus – ha ha, yes I got you! Yes of course dodging and burning is HDR as well – and Ansel did a lot of that too. Have you ever seen an unedited version of his Moon over Hernandez image? It looks nothing like the final one. It’s in this book if you’re interested http://amzn.to/2gFebcH

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d_Ar5ZPuKUM

      • Gene Jenkins

        Thank you, That was interesting. I grew up in California and spent my early adulthood in Santa Barbara. You could be driving down the street and see 10-20 Brooks students with their view cameras pointed at a business across the street. They had taken their first exposure in daylight and were waiting for it to get dark to take the second exposure (on the same sheet of film) of the lighted interior. Another example of HDR. We have it made today with our histograms and instant viewing of our shots..

        • Yup too true. That would have worked too. I also sandwiched negatives in the darkroom to reduce contrast too.

          • Gene Jenkins

            Aw shucks, that must be an old picture, you look too young to have messed around in a darkroom 🙂

          • LOL picture is from 2013! And I had my own business already in 1991 shooting weddings – that’ll give you some idea of my age! 😉 That and I graduated college with a photography degree in 1988!

  • kerry

    Well thougjt out Darlene, as alwsys.

  • Richard

    Excellent article Darlene and I agree that not all scenes lend themselves to HDR processing.I think anyone that expresses a “hatred” of HDR is judging it all by some rather distasteful examples. I will admit I have seen some very “overcooked” work that gives HDR a nasty reputation,but at the same time I have produced some excellent work,if I may say so. 🙂

    • You may say @disqus_YDFXatus8l:disqus LOL. Yes I agree – I think it’s coming around back to more natural but some people still cringe just at the mention of HDR because of the reputation it has.

  • Cool! Love the train. One thing to watch out for when doing HDR is a halo. That’s a light area around your subject that shouldn’t be there. Look around the train – it has a bit of a halo. It’s not right or wrong – just be aware that it is a direct clue to the viewer that you’ve manipulated and edited the image so their attention goes there – instead of your subject, the train.

    • Thank you very much for your reply. To me, the train is is over done and you perfectly right. The white line around the train is distraction.. I did not pay attention to my teacher when discussed the HDR.. . I mean you 🙂

      • LOL thanks. So go back and give it another go! That train is a great subject.

  • Robert Forrister

    Hi Darlene. I agree HDR has to be applied lightly. Though I have been known to push the process a whole lot further than any one should. Keep up the great shares.

  • I am glad you addressed this topic . . . and so well. It seems to me that I am seeing more and more over processed, over HDR’d images and I thought maybe I was out of touch with current trends. HDR definitely has it’s uses but if I can just get the information out of a well exposed raw image, I am much happier.

    • Thanks David – I hope we see less and less of the over processed stuff. If more people educate themselves on the topic I think that will be the case. At first glance, the images may have punch but they lack strong elements like good lighting and composition often – so the impact is short term. You see COLOR and that’s it. Once they realize photography is more than just punching the viewer in the face with color, most people will look to honing their skills more and not rely on that to grab attention.

  • Dragonfly Traveller

    First I need to say thanks for introducing me to HDR. I’ve been quietly ignoring it! And second it helps so much to start with your opinion of “To HDR or not to HDR”. Your opinion and your links give me a great place to start – many thanks!

  • Paul Plak

    Very good explanation. While I have already some processing experience with and without HDR, these examples are very to the point and propose a good and thorough questioning, so we can find new answers and just don’t do HDR to see what comes out of it.

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