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Why I Decided HDR Isn’t That Bad After All

HDR, or high dynamic range, photography gets a bit of a bad wrap. There’s a lot of HDR images online that are heavily processed, look incredibly fake and over-saturated, and consequently, photographers avoid it like the plague.

HDR is quite a Marmite thing – you either love it or you hate it. If you’re Australian, then I’m referring to Vegemite, of course. I have been on the hate it side of HDR for a long time. I’ve never really tried it myself beyond a few shots, and definitely not in recent years. But I couldn’t see why I’d want to take “fake” looking photos, assuming I’d be ridiculed for it online.

But that all changed recently when I took all my filters and tripods on a plane to Sicily but forgot the tripod plate. Yes, that was a pretty amateur error. But it happens all the same. I think I can be forgiven, as I was there for pleasure, not business. Even so, I was kicking myself that I couldn’t use my grad filters at sunset to photograph an amazing sky.

My unlikely knight in shining armor was the bracketing setting on my camera. The bracketing button, on the side of my Nikon DSLR, appeared to glisten in the evening light, whispering and beckoning me towards the HDR life. With few other options remaining, I enabled a 3-shot bracket. The view in front of me was too beautiful to ignore. An incredible backdrop of rolling hills seen through a small window of an old ruined castle was begging to be photographed. Why oh why did I leave my tripod plate at home?!

Nevertheless, I took the three shot bracket. Upon importing my photos later into Lightroom, I enabled a Merge to HDR of the three frames into one image. The results were well above my expectations for an HDR shot.

Why I Decided HDR Isn't That Bad After All

Not bad, right? Here are the three bracketed shots that the above image was birthed from (my processing involved some cropping and a little vibrance adjustment):

Why I Decided HDR Isn't That Bad After All

Ok, maybe this was a one-off. Surely further images are going to look fake? Sicily did not disappoint with its incredible sunsets, but with a lack of filters, I had no choice but to keep shooting away with bracketed shots in order to capture detail in both the sky and the foreground.

Another evening and another incredible view. If you don’t want to visit Sicily by the end of this, then I don’t know what you’re waiting for! This image was created with just two frames (the lighter exposure of the three was blurred, thanks to my forced hand holding of the camera due to lack of available tripod plate… again). The result? Well, I bet if this wasn’t in an HDR article you wouldn’t believe me.

Why I Decided HDR Isn't That Bad After All

This sunset image is actually an HDR stitched panorama, all handheld. I’m fairly impressed with the result considering there was no support used. It comes from a selection of bracketed images like this:

Why I Decided HDR Isn't That Bad After All

By now I’m going to go HDR crazy. I can’t get enough of the consistent exposure across the image. Plenty of old streets in Sicilian towns beg to be photographed, and once more I was ready with my bracketed shots.

Why I Decided HDR Isn't That Bad After All

What did I learn?

In my week in Sicily, I learned that HDR really isn’t the big, bad, over-saturated monster that it is often made out to be online. Process with caution, and remember that you’re trying to produce an image that reflects the scene as you saw it (and not one that has been painted by a child with their neon felt-tip pens they got for Christmas). If you do that, then you’ll probably find you have a shot not far from what you were hoping to achieve with filters. In fact, sometimes filters aren’t necessarily the best choice. For the image of the street above, for example, it would have been impossible to use a filter only on the sky.

Avoid being too adventurous with the shadows and highlights slider when processing your HDR images. But most importantly, stay away from the saturation and vibrance sliders… pulled up to high and you will find your image looking sickly sweet.

HDR has its moments, especially for those not wanting to lug filters and tripods around on holiday. Maybe next time I’ll just leave the tripod at home… with the tripod plate.

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Will Nicholls

Will Nicholls is a professional wildlife photographer and film-maker from the UK. He has won multiple awards for his work, including the title of Young British Wildlife Photographer of the Year in 2009. Will runs a blog for nature photographers, Nature TTL, which provides tutorials and inspirational articles to readers. He also has a free eBook available called 10 Top Tips to Instantly Improve Your Nature Photos.