Is the Death of HDR Photography Coming?

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‘Condensation’ By Gavin Hardcastle – Location, Gastown, Vancouver, BC

Adapt or die. It’s the way of the world, and with the ever changing rhythms of the digital age, you’ve got to be light on your feet in order to survive. I’m no oracle, but I direct these words of warning to all software companies that have a vested interest in HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing for photography.

If you’ve seen any of my work, you’ll know that I rely on HDR photography techniques to handle the huge dynamic range in the scenes that I shoot. The thing is, ever since I started shooting with the Sony A7R, I’ve been using HDR less and less.

Better Sensors = Better Dynamic Range

The new wave of digital sensors is upon us and the Bayer sensor in the Sony A7R is by no means the best out there. If you’ve got deep pockets, you’ll get the best dynamic range out of digital camera backs from Phase One, MamiyaLeaf and Hasselblad, but it’s only a matter of time until the prosumer market catches up, like it always does.

Below, you’ll see some recent examples of high dynamic range images (not tone mapped) that I made from just one exposure with my Sony A7R. With my old Canon 5D MkII, I would have had no choice but to bracket 3 different exposures and then blend them in my HDR app of choice. These days, I only need to do that in extreme cases , such as sun star shots where there can be major lens flare. These images were processed mostly in Adobe Camera Raw with some additional colour correction on Photoshop.

‘Cold & Steamy’ By Gavin Hardcastle – Location, Gastown, Vancouver, BC

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With the images above I basically exposed for the highlights and pulled the shadow detail back up in Adobe Camera Raw to create even dynamic range. Had I tried this with something like the 5D MkII, the noise and lack of image clarity would have made this unusable. Now I’m not comparing older camera sensors to newer ones, that’s pointless, my purpose here is to highlight how awesomely powerful the new wave of image sensors can be when it comes to dynamic range and how that’s going to affect the HDR software companies.

Imagine the freedom of knowing that you’ve nailed that epic sunset shot with just one exposure. It gives you more time to move around and try different compositions. With no need to bracket you’ll save time during a shoot, allowing you more creativity. You’ll also save on hard disk space and processing time which will speed up your workflow.

If you’re new to HDR and are not familiar with terms like ‘bracketing’, head over to my HDR Tutorial to learn how it’s done or these dPS articles:

What’s next for HDR Software Companies?

I don’t have a crystal ball, but my advice to companies like SNS-HDR, Oloneo and Photomatix is to gear their software more towards creating RAW file presets that give HDR results from a single exposure. As sensors get better and capture more dynamic range, it’s going to become the norm for us to capture all of the dynamic range we need in just one RAW file. The magic will come from being able to process those RAW files in a beautiful way with just one click of the mouse. After all, those RAW files don’t come out of the memory card looking their best. You need to do a little tweaking to pull out those details and crank up the eye candy. That’s where I see a gap for the software companies.

‘BBQ Corner’ By Gavin Hardcastle – Fototripper

I’ve come to love my HDR apps and accepted them as an integral part of my workflow, but what it all boils down to is that HDR processing is simply a means of overcoming the technical limitations of a digital camera sensor. When those limitations are no longer an issue, what’s the need for HDR processing?

I have great respect for the software companies that make these awesome HDR apps and I’ve happily paid for their software because they deliver great results. I’d hate for them to fall on hard times because they didn’t heed this message, so I invite them to post their comments on where they see HDR in the next few years.

The new wave of camera sensors are coming, will they be ready? Are you ready? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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Gavin Hardcastle is a fine art photographer, writer and instructor from BC, Canada. Become a better photographer today with his free photography guides and photography tutorials. You can learn from Gavin directly at his global photography workshops in some of the worlds most spectacular locations. Upgrade your post processing skills with his online video tutorials for Photoshop and Lightroom.

  • You don’t seem to be taking into account the millions of people using camera phones. I’ve produced stunning results using my Galaxy S4 and HDR and I doubt camera phones are going to have lenses that produce a decent dynamic range any time soon. And btw, I’m not talking about HDR filters but actual HDR with bracketed photos and software.

  • Monsoonking

    “my advice to companies like SNS-HDR, Oloneo and Photomatix is to gear their software more towards creating RAW file presets that give HDR results from a single exposure.”

    Totally agree with this. It would be great if the software was “smart” and could automatically choose the widest brackets subject to detail drop-off.

    I’ve also found that, barring extreme situations, just playing with the shadows and highlights sliders in Lightroom gives more than satisfactory dynamic range 90% of the time. Not only does it cut out a few steps in the workflow, the results are often more pleasing and natural than HDR. I also feel like I have a little more control.

  • Frank Ball

    Photomatix, I believe, already can apply its HDR effects to one exposure, and I assume they all can… just sayin’.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Hugh,

    I’ve yet to see a HDR image from a smartphone that
    produced ‘stunning’ results but I’d be delighted to see the ones you’ve
    created.

    I think eventually smartphones will surpass the current
    quality of DSLR and mirrorless. It’s just a matter of ‘when’ the tech
    controllers decide they’ve made enough money from us as always.

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    I believe that would be ‘tone mapping’ which isn’t quite the same thing as bracketed exposure blending but I get your point. It’s an example of the ways our beloved HDR apps will have to adapt.

  • I’m sure most of the HDR photos you’ve seen from a mobile phone used the Snapseed HDR filter or some other pseudo HDR technique but the 13 megapixel camera on my Android captures surprisingly good detail and I use a camera app that let’s you set ISO and bracket photos so I can shoot 3 bracketed photos just like you do and then merge them with Photomatix.

    I’m looking forward to the day smart phones catch up with DSLR quality but I think it’s going to take a lot bigger lens than most cell phone carriers will be willing to put up with. And I agree with you that the new sensors are probably making HDR for DSLR photos unnecessary, just pointing out that I think they’ll focus on camera phones more now. The new HTC One with it’s dual lens look promising.

  • Connor Katz

    Yes! I love that we are getting more and more DR out of sensors! I always hate having to take multiple exposures to capture the full dynamic range. Any photographer should be happy about this! It gets you the same (often better) results with less work. Assuming you shoot w/ a high enough shutter speed you don’t need to worry about ghosting or trees blowing in the wind or any subject that is in motion.

    Really, all I was ever after using HDR tools was a way to blend multiple exposures down to one image w the full dynamic range… all that funky tone mapping and processing is still there if you want it, you just don’t have to shoot multiple images to do it!

  • Hi Gavin, Thanks for sharing. I was just thinking about this very thing yesterday. I think the improvement of sensors combined with the power of software like LR/ACR/PS, I find myself using my HDR software less and less. I’ve been considering buying the A7R but I’m waiting for some more native lenses to be released. Can I ask which lenses you are using with it?

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Hi Rowan, The shots above were taken with Canons 16-35mm and 24-105mm. I’m patiently waiting for them to bring out a new wide angle. You can read my review of the A7R here https://digital-photography-school.com/camera-review-sony-a7r

  • Gavin Hardcastle

    Great point Connor. It really is the death of LDR.

  • elohiym

    The death of poorly created HDR. If HDR aids in the “story”, then it will continue. I live by this; light illuminates…shadows define. These two components are photography. The most consistent color in nature is black. I think in many ways HDR has allowed us to stray from the basics of photography. As long as HDR aids the story, it will continue. HDR will evolve.

  • Jared Lawson

    I would love to see the death of HDR, most knew it wouldn’t be something that stuck around forever. As HDR blew away social media sites and photographers sprouted everywhere – lighting became less and less important because they figured bracketing would fix all. I still love to shoot with one exposure and rely on good natural lighting, you can too! Photography Tips

  • Laura Richardson

    Just shy of 2 yr with my D800 and I have found the exact same thing. The dynamic range in a single shot gets me there 98% of the time and I love it!

  • Marlene Hielema

    Lumix cameras have an iDynamic setting where you can shoot jpgs with a high dynamic range and skip the post processing stage completely. I’ve completely stopped shooting raw files with my Lumix GH3, except in the most extreme lighting conditions.

  • JL

    I find the example pictures a bit strange considering they’re all long exposure, which allows more light to be captured at a lower ISO and increases the dynamic range to the sensor. How about shorter exposures in brighter light? Are these new, fancy sensors capable of replacing HDR in cases like that?

  • Saqib

    Broadly agreed. However, the HDR is also known for its ‘cartoonified’ look which is one of the reasons people would continue to use and like it

  • JohnH

    Let’s not forget the millions of DSLR’s that don’t have the current crop (no pun intended) of sensors that are still going to have to take bracketed shots. These cameras are going to be around for some time and will still take advantage of the software like Photomatix, etc.

    As far as HDR goes, I have used it to capture the full tonal range of a scene, usually in a dark setting and in some cases have taken as many as 7 images to make sure I get what I want. I see nothing wrong using Photoshop HDR along with LR/ACR or a software program to blend those images. I have a 5DMKIII that has in-camera HDR, along with a great sensor. I can still produce a better image with post processing multiple images than a single image or the in-camera HDR.

    I’m not a real fan of the abstract HDR that often gets turned out, but I enjoy being able to capture the entire realistic range of a scene.

  • Jota2101

    I like HDR and there are some shots and some details I can’t get without doing it.
    I’m using a D800 and shoot with 14-24 as well as a couple of old Nikon lenses
    I think HDR is not dying , but it takes a lot of time to master it.
    In camera HDR is awful and lacks of detail

  • Michael Ortega

    I’ve been planning on buying a A7R. I’m just curious about the lenses you used for those shots.

  • eKalb33

    I use HDR software to generate 32 bit .hdr files for lighting 3D models, a method called image based lighting. Photographers don’t use HDR, at least not as a finished product. No one would be able to view it (at least in its entirety).

    I think a lot of people get confused about what a HDR image is. A HDR image is a digital file containing more light information than current displays can reproduce. What most people think of when they hear HDR are actual HDR files that have been tonemapped (compressed) to fit the light information into the bounds of displays capabilities.

    HDR, as photographers think of it, will not die because of these new sensors, it is just that the sensors are creating an HDR raw file instead of having to create several bracketed LDR files. A step is being removed that the software has traditionally been used for.

  • also why many go the other way and hate it!

  • good discussion, keep it going!

  • Jhunelle Sardido

    Wonderful Colors! love the Last Photo.! grreat job!

  • Jürgen Strauss

    That’s an interesting take on future of HDR. Certainly improved sensor quality will provide greater dynamic range and removing the need for multiple exposures has a lot of benefits. I rarely do a lot of tone mapping – my objective with HDR is to emulate the dynamic range that was (is!) possible with colour reversal film (slides) and Cibachrome prints. Slides provide about 18-20x the range of negative film and Cibachrome material is the only one I’m aware of that renders prints from slides displaying something like that dynamic range. To achieve a similar result with digital HDR, I’ve been recently focussing on producing 32 Bit HDR composite images in Photoshop and then working with contrast, highlight/shadow balance and black/white clipping in Lightroom. I’ve moved away from Photomatix and Nik’s HDR Efex Pro, as the 32 Bit images produced by Photoshop give you much greater flexibility in range – I wonder how the new sensors will compare with that? Of course, I don’t have a A7R (yet??) so am working with an “older” sensor.

  • Edmund

    The only problem I see with this, Marlene, is that it restricts your ability to post-process. Memory cards are cheap, why not shoot RAW + JPEG? OK, if you are convinced of your ability to capture the perfect photo then just use JPEG but remember that the image degrades every time you re-save it whereas the RAW image can be manipulated without degradation.
    I don’t know about you but I only get a really brilliant image in, say, one out of 50 shots and maybe one in 25 needs some tweaking – the rest are best confined to the recycle bin (although I only do that for real failures).
    I also have a Lumix and in no way would I let the Camera take control when I could have control myself, fine for photography where you have only seconds to respond but lazy for more thoughtful work.

  • Edmund

    Hi Jürgen, I was always under the impression that slide film, which does indeed produce an excellent print on Cibachrome if you can master the process is more demanding than colour negative film. With transparancies you have to get the exposure 100% correct whereas with negatives you have some leeway, at least 1 stop which surely gives a greater tonal range?
    I appreciate your comments on HDR but I hope that someone can put me right on this comment – not that I am thinking of going back to film, just for the education.

  • Yes, correct exposure was more critical for slides if you had them developed in standard E-6 or Kodakchrome and used only the slides to display. Of course, there was quite a bit you could do in the Cibachrome printing. Yes, the process was quite demanding and complicated – that was why both Kodak and Agfa developed instant reversal copy material at the time. Kodak Ektaflex as it was called, was reasonable but didn’t match Cibachrome. The Agfa material was brilliant, but didn’t make it to a commercial product. As a general rule, I’d underexpose slide film by anything up to 1 stop (on the cameras I was using at the time), which improved the saturation without compressing dynamic range. For negative film I would always overexpose by anything up to 2-3 stops – but then required processing by better labs than mass produced (to correct for exposure and colour). This usually gave quite good results – suppressed noise and improved saturation and range. Ah the good old days of film!

  • Yes, correct exposure was more critical for slides if you had them developed in standard E-6 or Kodakchrome and used only the slides to display. Of course, there was quite a bit you could do in the Cibachrome printing. Yes, the process was quite demanding and complicated – that was why both Kodak and Agfa developed instant positive copy material at the time. Kodak Ektaflex as it was called, was reasonable but didn’t match Cibachrome. The Agfa material was brilliant, but didn’t make it to a commercial product. As a general rule, I’d underexpose slide film by anything up to 1 stop (on the cameras I was using at the time), which improved the saturation without compressing dynamic range. For negative film I would always overexpose by anything up to 2-3 stops – but then required processing by better labs than mass produced (to correct for exposure and colour). This usually gave quite good results – suppressed noise and improved saturation and range. Ah the good old days of film!

  • Hi Gavin,

    We have released HDRinstant – an HDR program that allows the user to do HDR withoutbracketing and it is the only one that works with moving subjects.

    Your article made some interesting points and we thank you for providing the opportunity to respond. The Sony A7R is a great camera – but, as you mentioned it comes with a hefty price tag ($2,300 body only). Technology will improve and prices will drop, but, in the meantime, we provide a software solution for $30 and youdon’t need to bracket your images.

    Your photosare great, but they are long exposures and a tripod has been used. Nothing wrong with using a tripod of course but, companies should adapt to the digital age so how about doing HDR without a tripod? HDRinstant allows you to move around freely without the confines of bracketing. It works similarly to the way
    you took your photos in that it requires the photographer to expose for the
    highlights. However, when you do this, you further underexpose the darker areas
    adding a lot of noise to the shadows. Had the shadows been pulled up any
    further, a lot of visible noise would have appeared there.

    HDRinstant reduces noise by stacking multiple images. They are obtained by recording or taking burst images of the scene. The software automatically removes ghosting in the final image. Your technique would not have achieved the same results with a moving subject.

    HDRinstant is right on the cusp of new technology. The record button will become the shutter button for many – the GH4 for example lets you get 30fps at 4K. More
    bang for your buck.

    Sensors will get better with time, but until they become more affordable, HDR companies are trying their best to solve the problem. Why not try our software to see what you think?

    HDRlog

  • While this may not be good news for HDR software developers, from a photographers perspective I’d say that HDR is about to become a lot better. The process of taking multiple exposures and then combining them always was a workaround to get around camera limitations. I know that I’ve been waiting for camera manufacturers to start making HDR sensors.

    Actually, it might not be the end for HDR software developers either, as HDR images still need to be converted to Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) for display. There are various methods to do this, with varying effects.

  • taphoto

    Jared, you do realize HDR has been around since the 1980’s in the film industry. It’s not a new fad, it just seems that way because of the way folks embraced it with digital…heck the first attempt ot combining images happened way back in 1850…It’s a tool, not everyone uses it correctly, and it should not be used in every situation, but it does have its place in a photographers toolbox, just like off-camera flash for all you “Natural light” shooters….

  • Stephen Hoppe

    Great article Gavin, I agree completely that HDR is a work-around tool to get the results we want. I love the aesthetic of a “natural” looking HDR shot that relies on HDR only to create more range, not as an extra artistic layer. I’d love to have a sensor that could capture more range in one exposure and look forward to the day it is possible to be closer to the contrast and range my eyes can see.

  • You might be interested in 32 bit HDR then. It merges the exposure data from bracketed shots into a single TIFF file that can be edited in Lightroom. http://youtu.be/xLyRptI5bPI

  • Stephen Hoppe

    Thanks for the tip Kevin. I currently use NIK HDR Efex and have a lot of success with that program. I’ll have to look into 32 bit interfaces in the future, especially when monitors’ range catches up.

  • AKP

    While the dynamic range of cameras have been increasing, i do not see similar increase in display range. This will soon pose a tone-mapping problem similar to that in a HDR. While current dynamic range to display mapping can be managed by a fixed gamma curve, as the range becomes higher, intelligent mapping will be needed, local tone-mapping may also be needed. People using HDR often tweak around with tone-mapping controls to get a desired result. But when you expect your default camera shot to straight away give the result that you will like.. it becomes very tricky.

    I think HDR software vendors will now focus on tone-mapping, hopefully add some artificial intelligence to understand your tone-mapping tastes and automatically generate results for you, the moment images are loaded into the software

  • photomediareview.com

    Good riddance to the painterly, circus clown HDR. That said, tasteful use of HDR software to achieve an artistic vision still has its place. I agree that single image HDR presets which do away with the need for bracketing would be useful.

  • Ksharp

    While better dynamic range sensors would be great, don’t forget that not everyone can afford them. So HDR isn’t gonna fade away – it gets built into smartphones, people overuse it, but good and bad results are clearly visible.

  • Adrian J Nyaoi

    HDR is just a tool, same as focus staking. It wouldn’t die, what i hope would die out are those horrible HDR photos that look unrealistic.

  • Leif Bonven

    Yes – many photos taken too far

  • Benjamin Gravet Ben

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/857496-REG/Mamiya_Credo_80MP_Digital_Back.html

    This camera costs just about what I am paying for my 3 years university course and my camera costs a 1/30 of the Mamiya…I highly doubt HDR death is anywhere near but if you can afford that kind of sensor, good for you 🙂

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