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.

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):

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.

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:

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.

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 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.

  • JR

    Wonderful (from a Sicilian)! Can’t even tell these are HDR; just pleasing. I’ve lightened my hand in using HDR more recently and am much happier with the results. I think what’s been helpful is that I’ve changed my mindset going in from creating a wow, jarring “painting” to exactly what you said; what my eye saw when taking the shot (maybe sweetened up just a bit). I’ve also found that in my chosen post-processing application, Zoner 18, there are two HDR options: Exposure Blending and Tone Mapping. I find that sticking to Exposure Blending makes for a more realistic, less extreme final product. So glad you enjoyed Sicily. Joe

  • There are times when it is advantageous to bracket for HDR and times when it’s practically useless. If it’s windy and/or there’s a lot of movement among portions of your subject, HDR images won’t turn out well (because of ghosting). At times like that, it’s better to use grad filters if your composition allows. As always, the light and weather conditions affect your compositional choices.

  • I agree wholeheartedly that exposure blending (or exposure fusion) is the only way to go for natural-looking HDR imaging.

  • Brian Luscher

    On a trip to Scotland and Ireland, I found that bracketing and some HDR merges helped to counteract battleship grey skies that actually had an amazing amount of cloud detail. Bracketing also made copying the sky from one photo to another an option. As an amateur photographer who does this for personal enjoyment, I discarded tripods some time back as a nuisance that kept me from taking spontaneous photos and which made travel and hiking about less enjoyable.

  • Harold Faulkner, III

    The HDR images presented here are wonderful, not overdone. After reading this, I want to play with HDR.

  • BazzaBoy

    I am a great fan of HDR and do not hesitate to bracket my shots even in bright daylight and even when I don’t have a tripod. There are a lot of HDR freeware available today which remove ghosts successfully, and Photomatix is no longer the only option. It is nice to see more and more people converting to HDR.

  • rwhunt99

    I have a question, what happens if you didn’t take an HDR photo, so you go into your RAW photo editor and you adjusted and saved a copy one stop higher and one one stop lower, and them merged them into an HDR file, wil it come out the same, or it will only work in camera? I’ve never experimented with doing it in camera and trying it manually to see if there was a difference, I was wondering if anyone tried that just to see if the dynamics would work the same.

  • pete guaron

    I think the issue has been confused and confounded by a tribal taboo – tribal elders pronounced that HDR produces unrealistic hyper saturated colors, so we are told not to do it. And to a large extent, nobody did. Leaving far less experimentation and experience to test and/or develop and/or establish limits or guiding principles.

    Which is a pity. Since photography is, after all, supposed to be a creative pursuit. But we humans are often handicapped in our activities by some kind of tribal fear, tribal reproachment, when we want to “dare to be different”, or to “go where no man has gone before”.

    And it’s a pity also, because the vast majority of photographs taken now, are taken using digital gear. And digital gear is inherently limited, in capturing and recording detail at the two extremes – extreme shadows or extreme highlights. Calling them “extremes” is a bit of a misnomer, when you remember that analogue film was far more capable in capturing and allowing us to use that same information. So we are left with staring at our histograms, and in some instances, urged to choose which we are going to capture – detail in the highlights or detail in the shadows.

    HDR offers a chance to work around these issues, and gets stared down. Yet in all the articles I’ve read, before yours, Will, the only criticisms that stuck in my mind were directed at people who “overdid it”, and others commented in a more reasonable way that HDR was OK, so long as you kept the colors from getting out of control

    Against that background, I found your article is a breath of fresh air – reason and common sense. I hadn’t given it much more thought, till I read your comments, but I think I will now be encouraged to experiment with it, and see what I can or can’t achieve by using it.

  • I wonder what piece of software were you using prior to merging the images in Lightroom? I’m in the same boat as you with regards to HDR but I too was pleasantly surprised when I recently tried it in Lightroom. The images were much better than those that I previously had done in the Nik Collection.

  • James Clark

    Great article. Yes, HDR can have a natural look. Thanks to the great dynamic range in today’s cameras and the HDR merge feature in Lightroom, I have also had great success in creating natural looking HDR images.

  • David Martin

    I’ve been doing quick travel shots lately; a blooper, an inadvertent 1.0 second hand-held exposure (admittedly at 12 mm) alerted me to the possibility of deliberately making people blurry while the buildings and greenery remain tack-sharp. So bracketing? Sure!

  • Robert Carter

    A good piece, Will. It is unfortunate that I was unable to tell you all of that years ago. Just as the graduated filter, radial filter, adjustment brush, etc., are being badly misused by many photographers today, the HDR tool is often victim of the same. We cannot blame the adjustment brush for its misuse and we should not blame the HDR tool for its improper use. My favorite HDR program merges my bracketed photos and then asks me, “Do you wish to have a natural look or would you prefer one of these ten (10) weird, other-worldly looks?” Many photographers today simply choose one of the weird looks. By the way, re: tripod, I always use a tripod with my HDR attempts. Further, I have often found that when I felt HDR might be required, I was better off to process one of the bracketed photos. Good luck with your future HDR attempts.

  • Robert Carter

    Well said, Pete . . .

  • chrysmarty

    I have always bracketed my landscape shots in case I screw up my exposure. I agree that HDR should used with some restraint. My fave is to use it to bring out foreground details in Sun rise shots. Great article.

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