The 10 Steps Every HDR Photographer Goes Through

The 10 Steps Every HDR Photographer Goes Through


HDR. Oh that word. A word that is either famous or infamous, taboo or revered depending on what circle you are a part of or stumble onto. HDR has been through a lot in the past few years no doubt and one thing I’ve noticed is that every photographer seems to go through nearly the exact same stages in their process. I see these stages all the time. On Google+, on Twitter, on blogs and forums around the interwebs. You can look at picture and the photographers description of the image and just about instantly spot which stage they are in. In this article, I’ll go through these various stages. If you love HDR photography, perhaps I can help you skip some of the steps.

Before we begin, let me say this: I still love and respect good HDR photography. It definitely has it’s place in my bag of tricks and it will not go away. I still use it from time to time and always will. This is just a light hearted post and is mostly making fun of myself.

A Wonderfully Terrible HDR

Step 1: OMG HDR is the Best. Thing. Ever.

I remember this stage well. HDR is revolutionary to new photographers and those who need something fresh to awaken their senses again. It’s a way to set your images apart from the rest. To create something that not everyone else can. When I saw my first HDR image in a random Google search I was hooked. Then I discovered Trey Ratcliff and his site Stuck In Customs. I started using Photomatix and as the Fresh Prince would say, “My life got flip turned upside down.” I went through the HDR tutorial, started shooting brackets instead of single frames, and I started seeing everything anew. I could shoot in broad, harsh daylight. I could shoot mundane things and make them look exciting and unique. I could do anything. The haloed and over saturated sky was the limit!

Step 2: I am an HDR Photographer. Screw Everything Else.

Now it’s time to jump in head over heels. Look at this group of people! HDR. Look at my cat! HDR. Sure I’ll shoot your wedding. In HDR! Hey, a brick wall on an overcast day! 15-bracket HDR processed in Photomatix, Lightroom, Photoshop, Topaz, Nik, onOne then back to Photoshop and back to Lightroom. This is an exciting stage because really anything is possible now. Once you put about 500 hours into Photomatix you will start to develop your style that you feel is all your own. And your style will be pushing your images past where they should ever go. And it will be awesome. Your mom will agree.

Step 3: My Style Is Over-Baked. “It’s Just What I Like.”

I haven’t found a photographer yet who hasn’t gone through this stage. Pushing a photo past its limits is so enticing. And it looks so different from a lot of the other photos out there in the world. Every now and then I stop by various photography forums. Most of them have a ‘critique my shot’ section where new photographers will post there work in hopes for some honest feedback. I’ll see a person post an HDR shot that really is just quite terrible. I don’t want to be mean so I just go over a few things in the photo that I would change. I recently saw a photo that had a really overdone sky. It was shot during mid day but the sky had this really awkward red and purple hue in it. The city in the photo was WAY over-baked and looked terrible. I pointed these things out and gave suggestions on how to make it look better.

Well, the person fired back at me all angry and said that it was just his style and he wasn’t interested in changing it. Really!? Your style is creating terrible imagery that looks like a clown went on an acid trip and threw up all over a computer screen!?

Look, every photographer who discovers HDR will go through this. It’s a phenomenon. We create terrible images with halos, over-saturated colors, clipped channels, muddy whites and sickly skin tones and we just think it looks so awesome. We can’t see clearly because there is such a vast difference between an HDR photo and a photo straight out of the camera. It’s like when you see something that looks white and your brain tells you it’s white. But then you see something even whiter and your brain resets and decided that is white. But then you see something even whiter!

Step 4: I Am Clearly An Authority On HDR. The World Should Know.

Once your amateurish style is solidified you will begin wanting to teach others what you know. How about a screen cast revealing your HDR secrets? Or an in-depth HDR tutorial right on the front page of your website? And hey, if you go that far why not hold an HDR seminar in your home town? These are all common sense ideas and must be implemented. You’re really on the fast track now.

Step 5: The Discovery Of Halo’s, Toxic Greens, Psychedelic Skies and Zombies

Everything is going great in your life. You’ve become somewhat of an authority on HDR in your community (at least in your opinion) and you really feel like you’ve nailed this whole process of HDR. Then…one day…you look at one of your images in a new light. And that new light reveals at least a few of the terrible flaws in your images. You start seeing the halo’s around that building against the cloudless sky. Is it really that obvious? Do other people notice this as well or am I over-reacting? Wait…are my red channels blown? Why does the foliage in this forrest scene all of the sudden look like a toxic waste dump? What’s with these muddy whites? You mean that in order to create an unclipped histogram Photomatix simply turned my blown highlights to a murky, grayish color? What just happened? My whole life is a lie!

When this happens, don’t panic. The first step to recovery is always admitting you have a problem. So check your pride at the door and start moving forward. There is light at the end of this tunnel, and there’s no need to process it into oblivion.

Step 6: Wait. Everything Doesn’t Have To Be Tonemapped and Bracketed!?

It’s true. It really is. When you come across that brick wall on an overcast day, you’ll remember all the things you used to think about regarding light and exposure and how this brick wall can easily be captured with one RAW file (heck, probably half a RAW file for that matter). You don’t need to set your camera up for a 15 bracketed exposure sequence to ‘capture the full tonal range of light’ and then almost crash Photomatix trying to cram as many files through it at one time as possible, only to get a flatter image that you then have to add detail and contrast back into to make look decent. Moving past this mindset my friends…is what progress looks like. You’d be amazed at just how much information can be stored in a single RAW file. And you don’t need to create three copies of the photo and send them through Photomatix to realize this. Programs like Lightroom are incredible tools that can pull that histogram in and bring back all the beautiful details most of the time. And hey, sometimes it’s ok to have a blown highlight of clipped shadow. It really is.

Step 7: Ok. Maybe I’ll Dabble In Other Forms Of Photography As Well

This is a big step for any HDR photographer. This is when you start refining your HDR and accept that other forms of photography are acceptable as well. Suddenly you can take a picture where all the light is captured and not feel the need to tonemap it into oblivion. You start to realize that when you do need to tonemap something you don’t have to push all those tempting little sliders to their limits. What you realize is that with everything in life, it’s best to stay away from extremes and find balance.

Step 8: Realization That Photoshop > Photomatix

Photoshop is by far the most incredible and powerful tool for editing your photos. Photomatix is not. That’s not to say that Photomatix isn’t an incredible program that does incredible things, but one should never use Photomatix to edit photos and when you realize this it’s a big step in the right direction. Photomatix should be used for one thing; getting all the light into one file. Any and all stylization should be done in Lightroom/Aperture and/or Photoshop.

Step 9: Screw HDR

Now HDR sucks. When you see an HDR image you silently rebuke it and judge it. Instead of appreciating a good image, you search for it’s flaws and convince yourself that you would never make that same mistake now. You are an enlightened photographer like all the rest of the HDR haters out there and can capture plenty of light with just your camera and some brush techniques in Photoshop. But then you go out on a shoot somewhere and realize that you honeslty, legitimately , absolutely cannot capture all of the dynamic range of light in the scene before you. You refuse to ‘bracket’ the scene but you do take some ‘extra shots’ at different exposure levels so you can blend them together later if you need to. You sit down at your computer the next day and spend an hour blending the different exposures together in Photoshop and then come to another conundrum: When does an image cross the line and become HDR? What is an HDR image? If I blend two exposures together in Photoshop to increase the dynamic range of light that would not otherwise be possible to capture in camera, did I just create an HDR image? Because after all, HDR simply means ‘High Dynamic Range’ which hints at an image that has more dynamic range than what a camera can capture. Ahh! My whole life is still a lie!

Step 10: Ok. Don’t Screw HDR. It’s Just A Tool And I Will Use It As Needed. HDR is still pretty awesome.

This is the final stage for most photographers that pursue HDR and the one I feel I am currently in. Not every image needs HDR processing. Sometimes blown highlights or clipped shadows can actually enhance a scene rather than take away from it. Sometimes these things add mystery to a photo and who was it that said, “A photo should tell just enough of a story to leave the viewer thinking.” When you tell the whole story, nothing is left for the viewer. Yes, not every image needs to run through Photomatix but guess what: Some scenes really can’t be captured in just one frame and sometimes you really do need to capture all that beautiful light and bring it into one, final image. When that happens, we should embrace HDR as the tool it is. Capture that light in however many exposures you need and go about combining those exposures by whatever means you feel necessary. After all, your photography should be about one thing: Making you happy. If someone else doesn’t like it, screw them. You don’t create images to please other people and if you do then you’re not in it for the right reasons (well, unless you shoot exclusively for clients). We need to stop viewing HDR as a style and start seeing it as a tool. Something that we can pull out of our bag of tricks when we need it to create a better image than we otherwise would be able to. And there is nothing wrong with that in my book.

A Beechcraft Bonanza at Sunset (blown highlights from the sun included)


Well I hope this article made some of you laugh a little as I (somewhat) vaguely described my journey as an “HDR photographer.”  I went through all these phases and I think a lot people reading this have gone through plenty of them as well! I still have Photomatix in my dock and I still take bracketed exposures ‘just in case’ when I can’t capture everything in camera. But now, more often than not, I continually surprise myself by seeing how powerful and efficient programs like Lightroom are at bringing in all those details. I don’t think I’ll ever abandon HDR completely, there are just too many situations that demand it in my opinion. I just know that it’s not always needed and I can now freely laugh at the views I had in the past.

Have you gone through similar steps? Care to add any? Wanna let us know what step you’re in? Be sure to let us know in the comments below!

Oh yes….do be sure to follow me on Google+ and Twitter if you haven’t already!

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James Brandon is a landscape photographer and educator residing in Dallas, Texas. Join 20,000+ photographers and get access to his free video tutorial library at his website. James also has an online store full of video courses, ebooks, presets and more. Use the coupon code "DPS25" for an exclusive discount!

Some Older Comments

  • Raffy July 30, 2013 04:56 pm

    If the final image hurts my eye...that's when I tell myself, "your doing something wrong dude". I still take 3 to 5 exposures when can always delete the files but you can never take what's already passed by.

  • Steve Huskisson June 10, 2013 06:23 am

    Really enjoyed this post. I've been there and gone through all 10 steps! I hope I've found my niche and look forward to helping others find theirs. I've included a link to your blog on my blog.

  • Bruce January 24, 2013 11:31 pm

    What HDR did for me was to put another focus within my visions.

  • Rick January 2, 2013 06:03 am

    Great article - been through steps 1 - 10, and back again (as a new idea pops into my head). Now-a-days I only use HDR if the tones need a bit of balance - but I always blend HDR edit with non-HDR edit using the blend modes in my editing software to give me the best of both worlds.

    Maybe I'm back at step 1 with a different slant of HDR, but as you said in your article, if it pleases me then job done, and I'm as happy as a pig in the proverbial!

  • Harry January 1, 2013 07:04 am

    You hit the nail on the head. I am now at step 10, but I skipped step 9

  • Phil October 16, 2012 08:48 am

    Trying to figure out which step I am on. Does anyone know if there is a Twelve Step Program for recovering HDR Photographers. If so, where and when does it meet?

  • Andre October 15, 2012 12:45 pm

    I loved this article and I am still learning photography and I'm still probably at stage two if anyone could look at my photos and give me proper feedback that would be great. Thank you

  • Steven Ng October 14, 2012 04:15 pm

    Thanks for the sharing those steps that sometime seems an infinite loop.
    We can definitely dial-up up the saturation for fun to our taste or tune it down to your desire.
    HDR is definitely a great tools and it add extra color depth and also dynamic range to the original photo.
    Here are the examples of what I did on HDR vs. photo from single RAW with contrast and opens-up shadow (D-lighting in Nikon)
    HDR version:
    RAW file with contrast and shadow adjustment:
    Note that HDR version provides better color depth on the water at the lower part of the river and also more dynamic contrast to the water steam.

  • Patrick October 12, 2012 12:14 pm

    Nice article...funny? Yes! Truthful? Yes! I just read the rant of proof-reading....funny again! Get a life!

    As for Trey Ratcliff being the all-knowing person on the planet on HDR - you have to be kidding me! If anyone wants to learn HDR FOR FREE then you have to check out Klaus Herrmann's massive web site where you can learn so much....did I say FREE? Trey was the first one out of the shoots with HDR and from what I have seen, his images are still old-school. Here's Klaus's web site:

  • Darlene October 9, 2012 09:17 am

    @Glen I'm curious what part of this article you found in poor grammar?

    @James I think you just did! Begin that is!

  • James Brandon October 9, 2012 08:38 am

    O glen. I ca'nt b-gin 2 tell u how much I luv grammer nazis dropping n 2 contribute absolutely nothing 2 the conversation 'accept' 'they're' bad attitude and negativity.

    Maybe you should learn how to capitalize your name next time you leave a comment ;-)

  • Glen Cunningham October 9, 2012 08:29 am

    It's time for DPS to "except" the need for more proofreading of "it's" articles so that we don't need to re-read lines to figure out what is meant. I have been distracted by poor-quality editing in most DPS articles, and it doesn't need to be that way. It's a matter of respect for the reader.
    We can't portray ourselves as professional photographers if our writing makes us look like we didn't complete elementary school.

  • Isaac October 8, 2012 03:57 am

    Great (and funny :) )compilation, James.
    I'm just an amateur, but have seen and experienced some of what you described. Your post also definitely helps building a more solid position on HDR for those of us who are not that experienced in the matter!

    Thank you!

  • Darlene October 7, 2012 06:40 am

    Beecee - in camera HDR is not the same as doing it using Photomatix. In camera just pulls down the contrast but you have no control over how it looks. If you are happy with the result, that's fabulous. If however you want more control you need to bracket and move into software to do so.

  • Marcus Davis October 7, 2012 04:23 am

    I would say I am in step 5. Great article. I got a few chuckles as I thought about my own experiences. lol

  • Chris October 6, 2012 04:30 am

    Fantastic! Thanks for the laugh today. I've hit just about every one of those steps.

  • Miekkuli October 6, 2012 03:51 am

    I started straight from the step 10 many years ago. Use HDR regurarly since, but event photographers do not usually know they are HDR images if I do not tell it.

  • BeeCee October 6, 2012 02:22 am

    I guess I can count myself fortunate. I'm a beginning photographer with a Nikon D5100 - to my knowledge, the only camera with HDR built-in. I also have a good friend who loves the neon psychedlic colours HDR can produce. So I've seen his amazingly colourful shots just as I'm discovering the HDR function on my camera, and deciding that the subtle enhancements of my built-in function versus my friend's hypercoloured Photomatix images are much more satisfying.

    Thank the gods I've managed to avoid the first 9 steps. :-)

    Good article. Thank you for making this non-Photoshop / Photomatix-using newbie feel less insecure.

    [eimg url='' title='304752_4193194282247_2084926759_n.jpg']

  • Chris October 6, 2012 02:21 am

    Great article - I have never used Photomatix, but Photoshop allows one to take photos to nuclear levels too! I still use HDR often, but my goal is to create photos that few people would recognize as HDR. A bit more than my camera can see, yet a bit less than my eye can see. You just need to learn where the line between "realistic" and "radioactive" lies.

  • Darlene October 6, 2012 02:14 am

    hey James!

    Very funny and oh so true article! I'm sure I've been through a few of those stages and I think where I'm at now is where you are with an added #11 can't stand to look at neon puke HDR overbaked images, and just wanna give those people a good slap. LOL

  • RLFielding October 5, 2012 08:33 pm

    Great read. My sat.nav. was useless on my journey!
    The big word in HDR has to be SUBTLE...small changes to improve the photo.
    Trey Ratcliff and his site Stuck In Customs sets the standard which we all try to achieve.

  • Scottie October 5, 2012 04:42 am

    This article made this "old" photographer laugh out loud. I must admit that I only just this past weekend realized what HDR is . . . but the phases part of any photographer's journey are similar. I recall everyone going thru the cemetery phase, the homeless person phase, the graffiti on the wall phase . . . and so it goes. Thanks!

  • James October 5, 2012 03:50 am

    Really enjoyed the article. Saw myself and the work of quite a few members of our camera club in these steps. Unfortunately not all are moving through the steps as quickly as we would hope.

  • C.J. McCullough October 5, 2012 03:50 am

    Thank you. I've been doing photography for a while but haven't tried this HDR thing yet because I've seen such GAWDY photos! At least I know the steps I'll go through from COOLEST THING EVER to meh, it's okay when I finally decide to attempt it (and I got a good giggle out of the article too).

  • Al Reiner October 5, 2012 03:17 am

    This is a well done piece, I would also reccomend T. Till's article in this months Outdoor Photographer. The most important thing is to experiment and try different things, The camera has become a fine art tool and can be used as a Paint brush. Again Thanks for a great piece

  • marius2die4 October 5, 2012 03:06 am

    I don't like HDR from the beginning

  • Shiva R October 5, 2012 03:05 am

    Good one, I liked it :)

  • Sandy October 5, 2012 01:54 am

    Yup. Been there, done that. And now I'm in the same stage as you. It's a tool that I use occasionally. Your post made me laugh out loud!!! Mostly at myself! Thanks for sharing!

  • Scottc October 4, 2012 08:29 am

    Great article, you really covered the gamut! Quite a few interesting response as well. I try to appreciate what the photographer intends (and what they may be going through) with HDR, and I like more tha I may have as a result. I also use it on my iphone, but having tried it otherwise it's not meant for me.

    Thanks for an interesting read!

  • whatispunk October 4, 2012 12:43 am

    You ever see the back of a twenty dollar bill, man? You ever see the back of a twenty dollar bill... on HDR? Oh, there's some crazy shit, man.

  • James Brandon October 4, 2012 12:28 am

    Loving the feedback everyone, keep it coming!

    AnZanov - I never said RAW files were always enough, simply that you'd be be surprised just how often they ARE enough.

    Jason - care to share a link to your work? i'm always interested in someone who stepped into HDR and was instantly a master at it ;).

    Dave Wilson - Glad you were able to skip step 9, I wish I could say the same. I definitely went through a period where I was just tired of HDR. But I came around still definitely appreciate it for what it is and appreciating good images when I see them.

    Jai Catalano - I disagree, nobody is a master with 'one click.' That's the problem in fact; applying a one click filter like Topaz Adjust and applying it globally to the entire image instead of selectively through brush work in Photoshop. Hey - that might be a good next article for me!

  • Bharat Justa October 3, 2012 10:11 pm

    I kinda directly jumped to step 10. Thanks to him--->

  • Miles Baltrusaitis October 3, 2012 09:57 pm

    ha! Got a kick out of your post idea here. You could have taken it down a nasty road (considering all the vitriol spewed by ex-HDR photographers out there) but you kept it constructive and funny. Thanks for posting and shared.

  • Rich Kretzschmar October 3, 2012 09:13 pm

    This hs got to be the best thing I've read on topic! Great Job... I am truley hooked and need detox.

  • Jonas October 3, 2012 07:33 pm

    I have a feeling that many HDR users are actually not aware of the power of proper lighting or spot metering in cases where you rely on natural light. A decent camera is pretty much _always_ able to capture the subject in your scene. It's only when you wish to capture everything at once that you run into problems. But remember that shadows also play a role in many photos. When you're applying HDR, you are usually doing this at the expense of removing something else.

  • AnZanov October 3, 2012 07:16 pm

    Those people who think that one single RAW is enough should check Farbspiel's works on church internals or Blamethemonkey's works on landscapes or underground stations!!

  • CHINA October 3, 2012 07:12 pm

    Skip all the first steps and go directly to 9. You will feel much better about yourself.

  • France in Photos October 3, 2012 03:52 pm

    Nice post, but I think many people do not go through 10 steps to get to the conclusion!

    So far, I have only been through 2 steps:
    1. Tried tone mapping in Photomatix and realized it was very difficult to get consistent and good looking results
    2. Use exposure fusion (in Photomatix), Photoshop, Lightroom, or even ND grads, depending on the situation to capture images with extreme contrast.

  • Albin October 3, 2012 09:06 am

    Good. Now Find/Replace "HDR" throughout this piece with "tack sharp", "smoky waterfall", "time lapse", and every other firmware / software enabled "just because I can."

  • Neal Goggins October 3, 2012 06:53 am

    well I am firmly entrenched in step 7 I think. and BTW, prev poster, who says lolcats are passe? :)

  • Chris Delle October 3, 2012 05:02 am

    This is without a doubt the best article I've read on this website in a LONG time. You NAILED it. I really hope this gets a lot of attention and people really take the time to think about it and figure out what category they're in. Thank you for this.

  • Alanna St. Laurent October 3, 2012 04:35 am

    I still use HDR, but now I mostly use the Exposure Fusion in Photomatix vs Tone Mapping. It depends on the scene, really. But my goal is to get a more "realistic" scene vs an image that you just KNOW is HDR.

  • JEET October 3, 2012 04:17 am

    Wonderfully realistic article. Yes been there done that (HDR) . " And it will be awesome. Your mom will agree" You bet I know from where its coming from ROLF. James you really should write more often. Few things about HDR -
    - Tone mapping is possible in light room and I like to limit it till that only.
    - For some situations where HDR - Tone mapping can help and can be done easily light room for example, where the fill flesh doesn't help.
    - If required photoshop select colour range and changing the RGB channel a bit serves the purpose well (depends on accurate selection.)
    - If purposefully done for mysterious look for special situations. Let it look like clown has thrown up all over the screen (I loved the comment).

    Loved the article waiting for more.

  • Alex October 3, 2012 03:33 am

    Yes yes YES! Thank you for sharing this. God that was funny (and relate-able!)

  • Mike Criss October 3, 2012 03:12 am

    What a great article. I can totally relate. I started HDR in 2008 and I still use it to this day. I like a more realistic look to my HDR and I use Photomatix as another tool like Photoshop or Lightroom.

  • Jason October 3, 2012 02:59 am

    No 10 steps for me. I have Photomatix and have only ever used Fusion Natural and made minor edits from there. All the other presets have always looked awful to me. I came onto HDR with 13 years experience and only ever saw it as a tool for handling extreme contrast, not a style in itself. I'm surprised people get sucked in so hard.

  • onnie hull October 3, 2012 02:57 am

    brandon, this was absolutely on point for me!! i laughed at all the appropriate times and nodded in agreement at the rest of it!! i feel so much better now that i know i'm not alone in my hdr recovery!! thank so much for sharing this!

  • xulsolar October 3, 2012 01:48 am

    Pretty good true, I've been in all the HDR stages....I think, I'm at stage 10 now, but who knows..

  • Kim Peterson October 3, 2012 01:16 am

    Thank you! Great and funny article :)

  • Dave October 3, 2012 01:15 am

    I hope that I am getting near the end of this series of steps but I have clearly gone through most of them. I love the line about shooting the wedding in HDR. I seriously thought about it once. It is like a disease at first. Great article!

  • Ron Clifford October 3, 2012 01:14 am

    hahaha James you hit my funny bone this morning. It's funny because I can relate to at least 8 of the 10 steps ( I'm still in denial about the other 2)

  • Derek Lyons October 3, 2012 01:09 am

    No, not every photographer is obsessed with HDR. Not even close. Not to mention the memes this article is based on are getting very old... Like LoLcats, they've run their course.

  • Erik Kerstenbeck October 3, 2012 12:43 am

    Totally agree with this article - I think I even invented a few more stages in this process by accident! HDR has a place in image processing, but is certainly not for every situation. Its interesting that one can also do pseudo HDR by shooting RAW and using selective exposure enhancements +-2EV....kinda HDR, kinda not

    Like this shot from New Zealand. I bracketed it, but despite my best efforts using Photomatix, the end result looks awful. Using selective exposure, I think I brought it back from the dead!

  • Gary October 3, 2012 12:37 am

    Great story!

  • Ito October 3, 2012 12:30 am

    I have never been happy with HDR. All I ever wanted from it was more dynamic range in a shot HDR has never really given me that without ruining the photo. I think that I am the other side of the coin of photographers who find the idea of HDR very appealing but mostly hate it in practice.

  • Deb Scally October 3, 2012 12:00 am

    GREAT post, James. Made me laugh and I thought it hit all the right points. So funny that I saw this, this morning, because I had started a similar commentary I was going to submit to DPS called "In Defense of LDR (or Not Everything Has to Have High Dynamic Range)". Your conclusion was basically going to be the premise of my submission, but you wrote it so well, I have to hand it to you. I 100% agree. HDR is a tool, just like the exposure slider, masks, tone curve, and all the other implements we photographers use to generate our desired images. It's not evil. But nor is it the savior for every shot. Highlights, and shadows keep life interesting, as you said! And I don't know about you, but I don't walk around seeing everything in "HDR"... Sometimes photography needs to keep a little mystery on either end of the Zones.

  • Sreenivasa Sudheendra October 2, 2012 11:58 pm

  • Sreenivasa Sudheendra October 2, 2012 11:57 pm

    Nice humor:D,
    I do agree that HDR sometimes is needed for capturing the images as we see..

  • Dave Wilson October 2, 2012 11:47 pm

    I agree with you on most of these though those of us who came to HDR after many years of "conventional photography" went through some of them in a different order. I can see all of these in my past though I reckon I skipped step 9 entirely.

  • Kerstin October 2, 2012 11:34 pm

    That's exactly the way I see it!

    I went through all the 10 stages, and am still shooting two or three shots with different exposures, just in case. But more often I realize that I only needed the one already well exposed shot with some fine adjustments in Camera RAW and Photoshop.
    Whenever I use two exposures, mostly one for the sky and one for the foreground, I use HDR just to reproduce what my human eyes saw and what my camera couldn't capture. I call it 'Natural HDR'.

  • Graham October 2, 2012 11:30 pm

    HDR stands for High Dynamic Range NOT High Dominant Reds :-)
    Highly Disgusting Results
    When used properly and not overdone it is an excellent tool.

  • Frank Villafane October 2, 2012 11:20 pm

    I got a real kick out of this article...very apropos, btw. I went thru all those stages, and I'm currently in the 10th stage - i.e. I use HDR as a tool...not as an end in itself.

    But I must admit...I got into photography specifically because I was so enamored with HDR. Since I'd never seen it, I was blown away by the "hyper-reality" of an overcooked, well-done HDR photo. I bought all the books and began to experiment...but then I tried night photography and shooting in Manual mode, and HDR went "out the window". I now mostly shoot in Manual mode, resorting to Aperture priority and brackets ONLY when I can't capture all the light in one exposure. I still love my tools (Topaz, Nik, etc.), but I now use them considerably more "sparingly" and try to get as much "in camera" as possible before I go to my post-processing tool set. I do 90-95% of my post-processing in LR4, and go to CS5 when I CAN'T do it in Lightroom.

    Great article...

  • Jim Crotty October 2, 2012 10:55 pm

    Great article James. Yep, I've been through all 10 steps. I started using HDR when Photomatix first came on the scene on 2007. My favorite "side trip" was taking HDR into black and white conversions. You are absolutely right with your conclusion that HDR is not a photographic style but rather another tool to tweak and explore. So many camera club types get all hung up on the label.

  • steve October 2, 2012 10:33 pm

    Lightroom is much more effective with the latest release

  • Steve October 2, 2012 09:32 pm

    Great article. I have moved well away from the cartoony type of hdr but still use it sometimes to bring out a very wide range of shadows and highlights. Certainly find the latest lightroom is far better than it used to be at doing this with a single exposure

  • Jai Catalano October 2, 2012 09:22 pm

    The funny thing about HDR is it makes one think you are a better photographer than you really are. Nowadays with filters like Topaz you don't even need to shoot multiple exposures. With one click of a button you are a HDR photographer expert.

  • John October 2, 2012 09:10 pm

    YES! This is absolutely true in my case. My first HDR photographs were terrible, and yet, I thought they were amazing and that I knew everything there was to know about HDR.

    Then I started to learn about how to control light better and get the shot I wanted with a single exposure and how much LR was capable of when processing a RAW file.

    As you said, HDR has it's place, and there are some situations where I will still use it, but I wont use it everyday for every photograph.

  • Patrick October 2, 2012 08:48 pm

    Thanks for this brilliant (and bit sarcastic) post, made me laugh. I went most of these stages and though I'm still learning HDR and photography in general, I have reached your last step where I consider HDR as a tool that needs to be used with care.

  • Wayne October 2, 2012 08:34 pm

    I know someone who is stuck, looping between steps 1 and 5 and will probably remain there for the foreseeable future :-(

  • Star October 2, 2012 06:12 pm

    That was the funniest thing I have read in a long, long time!!
    I am in stage 1. Gearing up heavily. Can't wait to get out there and get me some HDR photos to show off. To do list these days off: Find a tripod that won't break the bank, read that book I bought on exposure, look through my dummies book I bought for my new camera and take some bracketed shots, find the best, cheap HDR software and download it... you get where I am coming from I can tell. I want to capture shots just like that real estate pro that just sold my sisters house. Was that really her house I saw on line? How did she do that??? I have to do that!!! I will be soooo famous when I learn the trick on how to do THAT!
    Thank you so much for your honest appraisal James. I will watch myself go through all these stages... maybe because of this article, I'll be smart enough to skip a few!

  • AnZanov October 2, 2012 05:14 pm

    hehehee very funny, I'm still in different phases that you quote here, or in my personal phase 11: "I love HDR, I try to do images that don't look HDR-ish, but 1 time out of 100 I like also slightly overprocessed too"


    See my photostream to understand ;)
    Have a nice day,

  • Pete October 2, 2012 05:04 pm

    Great article. I'll put my hand up - it applies to me. I did the overbaked stuff, I did nothing but HDR for a while, I turned my back on HDR completely for a while, but now I use it as and when needed.

    Will the dynamic range of the scene fit into one shot? Am I going to get too much shadow noise in the final image? Is the horizon not a straight line and therefore ND grad filters will be a nightmare? I now take a look, make a decision and use the appropriate technique.

    Well, I try to. Always learning something new .......

  • Elise October 2, 2012 03:33 pm

    This made me laugh out loud. The "clown on acid" comment was priceless.

  • zeddy October 2, 2012 02:06 pm

    This rings soooo true. (personally)

  • John Souza October 2, 2012 02:04 pm

    I have definitely gone through practically the same stages of my HDR photography journey. It is funny to hear someone else describe it because reading it made me think back of the times I was exactly the same way.

  • Rick October 2, 2012 12:44 pm

    Ha ha - great article James ! You almost had me in tears a few times (laughing).

    Yes, I followed your journey through HDR stages and saw myself in them. I've gone back to a few of my early HDR images just to see what the cringe factor is. I don't think I went through the proselytizing stage but I was certainly a disciple. And I think I'm now also at step 10 where I'm recognizing HDR as a tool to be used where it could prove useful. I think I've developed a healthy respect (fear ?).

    Oh, but wasn't it fun until we came to the realization that perhaps our images looked 'like a clown went on an acid trip and threw up all over a computer screen!' (what a great line !).

  • Mike Spivey October 2, 2012 12:18 pm

    Sooooooo true. Been there. I never gave up on HDR but backed it down to maybe "HyperRealistic".

  • Martin October 2, 2012 11:30 am

    Great post!
    I have seen many photographers go through these HDR stages...and can see some photographers that are still "stuck" in one of the stages, and haven't broken through to the next stage yet ;-)

  • jonathan October 2, 2012 11:12 am

    funny stuff and all too true..