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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.

Image: A Wonderfully Terrible HDR

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.

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

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

Conclusion

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

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!

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