The Not-So-Obvious Reason for Using HDR

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Over the past five years or so, HDR (high dynamic range) has become a huge part of my photography.

Even with the latest advances in camera sensor technology, the dynamic range of the human eye is much wider than any modern camera sensor, and as a result, can only partly interpret the human experience. The goal of HDR photography is to artificially increase the dynamic range of a given photograph, making it as close as possible to the human experience.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 01

I do not consider HDR to be a photography style, but rather, a technology that helps us to extend our creative reach and overcome the limitations of modern photo equipment, specifically a camera’s sensor.

When the dynamic range of the scene we capture exceeds the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor, it results in the loss of information (or details) in both the highlight and shadow areas. HDR technology allows us to separately capture these details from the darker and brighter areas of the scene, and merge that information during the editing process.

Even though every generation of modern camera offers a larger and larger dynamic range that gets even closer to the human experience, HDR technology continues to be an extremely valuable tool to have in your toolkit.

But, those who read my blog and follow me on social media often give me a hard time when I post an HDR processed image with a dynamic range that is not extreme. As a result, I get blamed for using HDR for no reason and am accused of intentionally complicating the editing process.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 02

In this article, I will demonstrate exactly why and how I use HDR when the lighting of a scene is not too extreme.
I took the featured photo in the Eastern Sierra during my driving trip to the Southwest.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 03

Covered by the clouds, the sun diffused the light and made it less dynamic. I could see right away that I did not need HDR processing to capture and preserve the entire light range. However, I took three bracketed shots anyway just to make sure I collected as much information from the scene as possible.

When I started editing the photo in Lightroom, I only used a single RAW image (middle bracket). The challenge was to overcome the mild haze in the air, so I had to apply pretty aggressive edits in Lightroom (contrast, clarity and vibrance) to bring back the contrast and colors of the scene.

Once I was happy with the result, I evaluated the image by zooming in to 100% (1:1 in Lightroom), in order to see what noise reduction setting to use. When I did this, I realized that the image started to break up because of my aggressive editing. The deterioration in the image was beyond digital noise and was almost impossible to fix even using the dedicated noise reduction tool.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 04

This is when HDR came to the rescue. I selected three bracketed shots and merged them to HDR using the HDR Merge module of Lightroom.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 06

After Lightroom produced a brand new HDR image in DNG format, I used the Sync functionality of the program to apply the editing setting of the original RAW file, to the new HDR image.

The effect of the edits were identical to the original RAW file, but the image was much cleaner without any traces of deterioration. The newly created HDR file had much more information and details, which allowed me to push it much harder without producing negative artifacts.

Images The Not So Obvious Reason 05

The image is cropped 100% without any noise reduction added.

The digital noise of the image was mild and was completely eliminated using the noise reduction plugin.

Conclusion

By merging multiple images to HDR, it not only helps us overcome the dynamic range limitations of modern photo equipment, but can also to produce images that have more digital information and details, compared to individual out-of-camera RAW files.

Read more from our Post Production category

Viktor Elizarov is a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada. He travels around the world and shares his experiences on his popular travel photography blog. Visit Tutorials section of his blog for free tutorials (including original raw files) and free Lightroom presets.

  • Stillsofthrills

    Excellent post! I often thought of using HDR for just interior shots (churches, etc) but this makes perfect sense. Thank you!

  • Adam Wood

    I never seem to get quality results from HDR.. the photos seem to be near what one exposure produces but this sounds like a great technique.

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  • Juanfran

    You can get the same noise reduction just taken three pictures exactly with the same parameters (not bracketed) and making a mean image from them. Mean will cancel out the noise.

  • Edward Warren

    Excessive use of HDR has ruined many excellent photographs. I actually hate it. Everyone should read what you have written and use the tool as it was meant to be used and not as a technique to artificially over-enhance, verses merely enhance, digital photographs. Nothing says to me Amateur faster than overuse of HDR.

  • Could the benefit you report above have come simply from editing at a higher bit depth, in case of the hdr dng, rather than from the HDR process itself? If that is the case an alternative could be to open the middle raw file in PS, convert it to a higher bit depth, and the do any adjustments required in PS or LR.

  • Very true, Edward. I have seen way too many photographers “overcook” their photos using HDR. And of course if a person does that to most, or all, of their photos, it get pretty boring.

  • LindseyH

    I tend to agree with you, I have been on a holiday recently and decided to use the in camera HDR of the Canon 5D3. With the setting of HDR type set to normal it produces a lovely natural looking image that matched what we could see ourselves. The individual photos do not come up to scratch with this HDR image.

  • Andrew Kliss

    I have to chime in on the negative comments regarding “overcooked” HDR images. Yes, to noobs, cranking up tone mapping to try creating something out of nothing has given HDR a bad rap. There are some great examples though of photographers using this technique to great advantage: a gritty boxing club scene; night in an alley; the portrait of a weathered, old, leather-faced man… yada-yada.

    It has its place I believe, in the realm of interpretive or artistic license, but using it on Tahitian beach sunsets, etc., is probably not the best place to implement this technique.

    As with seemingly all things, the pendulum swings wide one way, and then the other; finally to settle in somewhere in between.

  • Paul Franklin

    Here is where I have an issue with HDR. In your first photo taken in the Easter Sierra the tree in the foreground is lit and yet the sun is behind it. Your eyes do not see this tree lit they see it in shadow which makes the photo unrealistic. Also when I focus my eyes on a subject whether be it bright or dark my eyes see the detail in it but do not see the detail only a few degrees away. Shift your eyes from a dark object to a bright one just those few degrees away and you will see the detail in the light ones but not the dark ones. So do our eyes really see 22 stops at once? they see 22 stops but I question their ability to see detail if the bright object and dark object were exactly beside each other. So when taking a photo perhaps seeing the detail in the subject matter is all that is necessary. Just a thought.

  • If I look at a photo and my mind is on the scene, composition, the art and emotions I am feeling, than I think it is a winner, only then do does the photographer in me start wondering how might I produce a similar result. But if look at a photo and I immediately focus on the how, then I think it is a miss. The first photo in this article is a great composition, but the second I saw it, my eyes were drawn to the shining bark and thinking why did he push it that far. In the other two photos HDR is used to great effect and I was able to enjoy them much more. But regardless of the process or technique (it just as well could have been too much reflector or flash) if it is too much, it is too much. Having over processed too many photos myself, for me the challenge is to somehow divest myself of the vision I had while capturing the photo and bring a fresh set of objective eyes to the processing.

  • Wade

    This is something that I have started incorporating into a number of my landscape images. With the capability of LR CC and HDR it is so easy to process shots to add just a little more detail.

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  • I would agree with the overuse of HDR. More often than not, it seems the average person is a fan of hyper HDR processing. These are also the same people that prefer a very flat portrait studio look, over a shot lit more naturally.

  • pete guaron

    I happily agree that excessive fooling around during post processing is often toxic, and ruins otherwise perfectly acceptable shots. But even in that context, there are exceptions, where extreme post processing actually makes the shot, as it finally turns out. It really depends on the shot, and what the photographer is trying to say.

    The “controversy” in the comments on this article reminds me of the differing opinions on capturing movement in water – or on the use of “natural” light.

    Let us all be honest about these “opinions”. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. What they are NOT entitled to do, is to deny everyone else the right to have a “different” opinion.

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