HDRI Photography: Exciting New Frontier, or Gimmick to Avoid?

HDRI Photography: Exciting New Frontier, or Gimmick to Avoid?


Photo: ©2010, Courtesy Jack Howard and Rocky Nook, Inc.

High dynamic range imaging (HDRI) is technique that allows for a wider dynamic range of shades within an image than what is normally possible with standard methods. By using a computer to combine multiple versions of the same image, each shot at a different exposure, many people claim that the resulting image can more accurately reflect a scene. For these people, HDRI is an exciting new frontier in photography.

However, others disagree – thinking that HDRI images are usually over-done, often do not look natural at all, and the process itself is more of a gimmick that should be avoided.

I turned to a panel of experts to hear both sides of the issue.

Members of my trusted panel of  photographers are:

Jack Howard, Author of Practical HDRI, 2nd Edition and Dir/New Media/Adorama.com
Antonio Rosario, New York-based photographer and digital workflow consultant
Mark Blundell, London-based urban landscape photographer
Jim Goldstein, Travel, landscape and nature photographer
Tod Grubbs, Freelance Austin-based landscape and nature photographer
Bas de Meijer, Netherlands-based photojournalist
Pete Carr, Commercial photographer based in Liverpool, UK and co-author of HDR

Derek Fogg, Landscape photographer based in North West England
Isaac Hinds, Colorado-based health, fitness and sports photographer

Jack Howard

HDRI has become a 4-letter word in many quarters because I think too many people have been preconditioned to believe that a certain style of detail enhanced, ultra-saturated tone mapping is wholly and solely representative of the High Dynamic Range Imaging process for still photography. And due to this presupposing, too many photographers are unable or unwilling to look at HDR photography with fresh eyes.  When the full dynamic range of a scene is properly captured in a series of bracketed exposures, tone mapped results can range from seamlessly photorealistic all the way to surrealistic, depending on the photographer’s intent and vision as well as the photographer’s mastery and understanding of the various tone map operators available.

However, part of the problem lies in the fact that much of what people are calling “HDR photography” is, in fact, single-shot images or under-bracketed sequences that are then crammed through the tone mapping process. This can lead to users cranking up the settings  in the various HDR programs such as Photomatix or Photoshop CS5 to give that typical “HDR feel” to the images. Which then leads many others to believe that HDR photography is pretty much exclusively cartoonish in nature. But this is absolutely not the case.

When the full dynamic range of the scene is captured so that there is no data clip in the merged 32-bit file-by means of having significantly clipped highlight and shadow source images at  the end of your bracketed sequence-the resultant tone mapped image can have great clean pixels at all tonal levels, combined with well-controlled contrast snap.  We’re talking virtually noiseless shadow tones and no highlight CA issues to worry about, when done right, too.

And when the bracket sequence is wide enough to truly capture the full dynamic range of the scene, it’s not necessary to lean quite so hard on the software dials and sliders to compress the tonal range and contrast during tone mapping. Bracketing as wide as the scene demands leads to more dramatic and “cleaner” tone mapped images. Whether your intent is photorealistic or graphical, bracketing wide enough to capture the full range of the scene is critical to making professional quality results. Whether it takes 3, 5, 6 or 7 shots bracketed at 2 or 3 EVs to capture the full range of the scene depends on the nuances of the scene.

My personal style for HDR photography generally skirts nearer to the photorealistic side and usually features bold but believable color palettes and a tendency towards subdued local contrast as this slideshow illustrates. However, in the right hands, the detail-enhancing graphical style of HDRI photography can also be amazing, when captured and processed skillfully. Take a look at the work of Walter Arnold for proof of this.  

As you can see you see from these examples, HDR photography isn’t always all about crazy colored clouds and hyper-haloed hallucinogenic edge contrast  But it does seem-as this round table posting illustrates quite perfectly-that for many, the crazy clouds, trippy edges, and black light poster color palettes are inextricably linked with their impression of HDR photography.  And I do think a lot of photographers are scared away from the potential of HDRI photography because of this misconception that artificial looking hard-haloed edges and grungy details are an unavoidable side effect of the HDRI process, when in fact, this is but one possible tone map transformation route. 

Antonio Rosario

When my wife and I moved into our new apartment, the kitchen had a standard, single ceiling fixture which did an adequate, if somewhat utilitarian  job, of lighting that room. Eventually, we purchased a halogen light fixture which lit up the kitchen in a whole different way; the lights were brighter, more direct and for a time, it looked like a whole new kitchen. Now, a couple of years later, I’m no more impressed by our fancy kitchen lights than I was by the single, utilitarian fixture that was there to start with. In short, I got used to the lighting.

To me, HDRI is like new lighting in my kitchen. There was a certain “wow” factor for me when I first saw it, but now, after living with it for some time, no more new. That’s not to say I can’t still be surprised by photos which are HDRI, but those images are more subtle, refined and less overt. To continue with my analogy, more like accent lights than a flood light.

HDR photography is two things: one, a useful technique to capture greater tonal values and extend the dynamic range of the capture device and, two, a fad.

As a practical technique, HDRI has its uses. Often I am photographing a scene where I desire to have as much shadow/highlight detail captured as possible, to overcome the limits of my camera’s sensor. HDRI front and center; it’s one of the advantages of shooting digital in the first place and it’d be silly for me not to use it when I need to. It’s a wonderful tool when it’s appropriate for the subject.

Eventually, most, if not all, high end cameras will have the ability to do HDRI built right into the camera and it probably won’t look as “processed” as some of the overdone HDRI that’s out there. I see built-in HDRI as helping to overcome some of the practical limitations of today’s camera sensors. It’ll be a cheaper way for the manufacturers to produce cameras which can capture more information in a single frame without having to produce more expensive sensors.

As a fad, HDRI will probably have a short life span, much like Polaroid transfers, autotuning, 3D movies and the new Gap logo (well, probably not as short as the Gap logo). Right now, it seems like the general non-photographer population can really get excited by the look of HDRI; some of these people are also our clients, and who doesn’t want excited clients? Give the people what they want, especially if they are paying you for it. Still, I believe once they see enough HDR imagery, it’ll no longer be unique to them and it’ll be time for the next trendy look.

What I’d tell photographers to do is to quit debating about the merits, quality, inferiority or worth of HDRI photography. Really, who cares? Get off their asses and out of the chat rooms and off the bulletin boards and go back to taking good images, whatever method they choose to use.

Mark Blundell

I first came across HDR when browsing Flickr, most probably an image of a big red fire truck – HDR at its shiniest. After looking at several images I knew that I had to find out how this was done. I soon downloaded Photomatix and began processing 3 bracket images from my compact. This was when I was just getting into photography and had yet to get a DSLR. My first images were way too bright and I look back at them now with horror. There are probably many out there who did this as well.

Mine and my friends processing with HDR has come a long way since then, toning down the intensity and making images more real. The attraction of HDRI is that an image can be processed to create amazing effects, from eye searing overblown maximum saturation, to more realistic shots with greater depth and texture than would be possible using a single exposure. The well processed final work will give a far more realistic ‘as the eye sees’ image than a regular shot ever could.

There are many as many advocates of this processing technique out there as there are people who think it’s the devils work – I am the former.

Despite the ease with which an HDR image can be processed there is still technique and skill involved in producing the final composite. The original must be wel l composed; certain shots just can’t be used,  there must be a good range of light and dark and high contrast, the image should be clean and as noise free as possible. There is still skill involved in the post processing within Photoshop or Lightroom, this isn’t just a tool for slack photographers to disguise sub standard work.

For me, I believe that HDR gives me something ‘different’ to work with, something slightly more realistic and atmospheric than a normal image from a single shot. Most of my work is related to urban exploration, often in dark places with lots of texture, HDR really brings out the feeling of abandonment: Peeling paint that jumps out, rotting floors and ceilings that look as if they are about to give way. Closeups gain a realistic texture that you want to touch. It also enables one to bring out areas in an image that would not be possible with normal processing from a single shot – to highlight the inside of a dark room behind a door, or conversely show exterior from interior trees and foliage that would otherwise become blown out with a normal exposure. In short there is far more to work with than a single image.

I certainly wouldn’t say that this is a technique to avoid, but one to try and use with caution. For me HDRI it is just another tool to make images how I myself like them, it’s no different from using other filters or Photoshop itself. Well processed HDR can look awesome, badly processed HDR can look terrible, its up to the person processing to make the decision as to which side of the fence they are on – subtle, or searing.

Jim Goldstein

HDRI is like any other technique… one option of many to explore to hone your own artistic vision. That being said it is not a technique that I employ in my work. Expanding the dynamic range of light that one can capture in a photograph has been a goal of photographers since the advent of the camera. This desire is not new and there have been numerous methods to accomplish this.

While I respect the work of many well known HDR photographers, to my eye the most popular form of HDRI is garish and jarring.  In many regards the technique eclipses subject and at that point it becomes gimmicky. Expanding dynamic range is important to be able to accomplish, but many photographers confuse how we see with how we create images. The myth that HDR reproduces a scene as we see it is a misnomer. If anything its a very cheap attempt. Our brains piece together numerous components of our world into a cognitively constructed mental image. Our eye does not capture a scene before us like a camera.

Our sharpest vision (foveal vision) accounts for 2% of our overall field of view. Our eyes scan the world around us and our brain pieces it all together, applying an understanding of brightness, saturation, hue, dimension, shape, contrast, motion, pattern, orientation, etc. HDR provides no truer reproduction of the world before me as any other artistic photo technique, but it does offer a creative way to portray various photographic subjects.

Tod Grubbs

I love HDR! Why?

HDR fills in the hole in my photography, I spent countless times out taking what I thought was an awesome picture but ended up with crap. I was not able to get the picture I saw or what remembered I saw when I took the picture. With HDR I now have tool in my bag to get the picture I saw in full dynamic range. I understand the negative comments about HDR some photographers have but every one has his/or her own opinion about HDR and how to process HDR pictures, that is what makes photography so great. A wedding / portrait / sports photographer may never want to use or even like HDR but those of us who do landscape, Urban/Rural Exploration find it drastically improves and brings out the full dynamic range of the scene the way we see it with our eyes. Not every picture or situation is good for HDR, the trick is to know when to use it just like any other tool in your bag.

I really like the ability to enhance the texture of the objects in the photo like in our recent trip to the old Spanish Missions in San Antonio Texas. The 16th century masonry work is texture rich, heavy, and bold and I wanted that to come across in the pictures.

Flying Buttresses, Mission San Jose

Or the incredible clear sky and clouds on this shot of the Penny Backer Bridge in Austin TX over Lake Austin. Taken July 4th 2010 after a hurricane that landed in South Texas pushed out the normal summer pollution so you can even see the downtown Austin in the distance.

Pennybacker bridge, Austin, TX (360 bridge)

Other HDR pics in the HDR gallery on our PhotoShelter site.

Bas de Meijer

HDRI itself is an interesting technique to solve a technical problem, namely the lower dynamic range of the sensor compared to the human eye. Using multiple photos to solve a dynamic range issue, is not new. We did it even with film. But since it’s so easy with digital photography, HDRI is out of control.

It is as if people want to show that they know how to Photoshop, or whatever program they use. “Look daddy, I can ride a bike with no hands at the steer”. Well, that it is possible to do it, doesn’t mean you need to do it. Instead of using HDRI for what it’s meant to be, it is used in most of the cases to show off. It results in horrible kitsch pictures, where technique is more important than what it should be about with a photograph: telling a story. People seem to have a lack of boundaries where it goes about HDRI. The photos aren’t realistic anymore, they become an illustration instead of a photograph. And it was ok, if it was an interesting illustration, but they aren’t interesting at all most of the times. Just as we had in the old days with cross processing: it started as something new and fresh, but became a simple and boring trick.

So please, stop using HDRI to create ‘interesting and unique’ images, but focus again on the subject and the story you want to tell. I hold on to the idea that HDRI is just a trend, that will pass away. Can’t wait till that day comes.

Pete Carr

I’ve been using HDR for nearly 5 years now. I fully believe that its a good technique that can really help photographers. However, I’ve also seen numerous photos ruined by being run through the HDR process. Blown out skies that turn grey, eye-popping saturation levels, a loss of contrast, crazy halos, and massive white balance issues.

The problem HDR faces is its image, no pun intended. Google HDR and you’ll be presented with a lot of crazy looking photos. The over-processed look is in this season. There’s Flickr groups for HDR that say “the over the top the better”. Thats the main problem with it. Its a solid technique that can be used well to get around dynamic range limitations with digital sensors but its public image is in a very bad way.

I use it for:

  • Architecture to balance inside / outside without requiring a large amount of lights
  • Helps at dusk as there is a crazy amount of variety in city lighting. Balances it out more so than 1 RAW file can. Example
  • Landscapes, where a normal filter can’t fit the highs and lows of mountains

Watch out for:

  • Over processing. Don’t max out those sliders.
  • Halos around trees / buildings
  • Not every photo needs HDR
  • Use RAW not JPG, and do n’t “HDR” from a single JPG
  • Watch the saturation. Too many HDR photos come out overly saturated, eyepoppingly so
  • Check the white balance

Derek Fogg

HDRI was introduced to allow the photographer taking the landscape image to more accurately reflect what is actually seen by him. This is because even the top of the range cameras do not have the same dynamic range as that of the human eye.

All I can say is that the vast majority of HDRI that I have seen does not show the scene as it would have been seen by most normally sighted people. In fact I would suggest that the majority of those producing HDRI need to go and see their optician.

This maybe because the HDRI software has been abused with many people using it to create highly saturated images with a high level of edge contrast. Surely the whole purpose of endeavouring to achieve a successful and self satisfying landscape image that you can be proud of, even in this digital age, is to achieve this “in camera” with as little post processing as possible.

That is certainly my philosophy and I don’t feel it will ever change. The next thing will be that whole HDRI process and what ever new technology next comes along will be carried out “in camera”. This can only lead eventually to there being no need for talented landscape photographers, with their own individual style as everyone will be producing exactly the same images.

Isaac Hinds

HDRI, in my opinion, is simply a technique and not a concept. I see hundreds of photographers using HDRI but very few are successful with it. Most try to pass it off as the foundation of their image(s) rather than focusing on a strong image to start with.

I have a saying that applies to the over-use of photo shop and techniques like HDRI. (*The kid-friendly version) You can put a ribbon on a piece of poop but it’s still a piece of poop.

Photographers should spend more time capturing and creating great images before getting on the computer. Focus on evoking an emotion based on the subject matter. That’s not to say HDRI should be avoided at all costs. I’ve seen a handful of photographers take a good image, apply the technique and it helps take things to a new level. There’s a time and a place to apply any technique… know when it’s appropriate and show restraint. Often times, less is more and it’s usually the case when it comes to HDRI.

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There are 12 comments for this article
  1. Matthew Dutile at 5:15 pm

    I agree that HDRI was invented to solve a problem (that different techniques have been invented to solve in the past) but it has spun out far from that. It’s become more of a terrible processing set now. In fact, when using it sparingly for the problem it was originally meant to solve it doesn’t even do that well. There’s a mystery in properly used highlights and shadows, or in controlling the light to achieve a more even exposure across the entire frame, that HDR severely abuses. I’ve used it before in the past, but I can’t see it as anything more than a bad processing trend now. I hope it will fade out, but honestly I don’t worry about it either way. It doesn’t affect how I go about with my personal vision nor the clients I want to work with.

  2. Arek Rainczuk at 5:22 pm

    I really like HDRi but I find it tricky to make it look good. It’s very easy to overdo it or underdo it. I recently discovered that thanks to the amazing speed of my Canon 7D I can take bracketed shots for HDR handheld. The fact that I don’t need a tripod or that I can get HDR images of moving objects made a real impact on my creativity, have a look for your selves: http://bit.ly/9aaAve also visit my blog for more recent works: http://bit.ly/aMYBHG

  3. Steve at 5:28 pm

    Dear HDR photographers who say that it gives your images more “realism”: Please let me know what drugs, and how many handfulls of those drugs, I need to take so that I see the world as you do. The world I see does not look at all like what you show in your images. HDR = autotune = selective desaturation = flavor of the month. I pray.

  4. Mike Olbinski at 5:36 pm

    Here is my take on this stuff…which is bothering me to write, but I see a lot of silliness here and need to respond. I’d rather not, because this argument makes me sick and wish I didn’t have to deal with artists feeling the need to attack others, but that’s the way it goes. First off, art is art. If I want to create a crappy, halo-filled HDR photo, who are you guys to tell me to learn something else? As a matter of fact, as much as I don’t like it, there ARE people out there who love those overdone, grungy HDR photos. If someone likes making them, who cares? Why can’t artists just learn to let other people do what they want without attacking it? We’re all struggling to showcase a vision. We should be supporting each other as artists, not ripping someone’s art to shreds. I read a little bit of Jim Goldstein’s blog about how much he hates it. In the blog, he gives 3 different alternatives to getting similar results. A few of which are basically Photoshop related. So….why is doing masking or exposure blending in PS THE RIGHT WAY, and HDR tone mapping wrong? It’s all software right? Some artists like to rip on HDR because people will use it to make a poorly composed photo “look better”. True, that happens I guess. But I’ve also taken photos that look just okay in color, but I convert them to B&W and they LOOK BETTER. But my eye saw color…how dare I change it to B&W? In fact, I’m so sick of everyone leaning on B&W to make a photo look more “artsy”… (that last line was fake, but you get my point…or don’t, who cares) I love the way HDR brings out the nastiness in stormy weather…in fact, I’m one of the few stormchasers I know using HDR as a technique to convey this. I have a ton of fans who follow my work and have purchased that work to hang in their houses, display on their business websites or use in a play at a local theater. But I also do color and B&Ws of my weather photos. It’s not my only trick in the bag. The bottom line is this: There is a lot of bad HDR out there. There are also awesome HDR photographers out there…like Mark in this post, or Brian Matiash, or Trey Ratliff…etc, etc. But none of it matters. It’s art. They want to convey an image in a certain way. Deal with it. Stop arguing over it. Stop trying to decide if it’s a fad or not. It’s here…people use it, people like it, and if you don’t, well…keep it to yourself 🙂 A friend of mine said recently…”If you want to get some blog traffic, blog about the love/hate going on with HDR.” I wish that would stop. I wish we’d just move on from that topic as a group of artists and bloggers and instead (OMG!) start supporting each other.

  5. Mike Olbinski at 5:48 pm

    RE: Steve Ummm…if I look at a storm brewing in front of me…I see depth, shadows, colors, textures…if I snap a standard photo of it…there is NO WAY you can see all that stuff in the photograph. Yes, I could use filters and go nuts trying to get it to look right…and that’s one way to do it. HDR…when done cleanly and naturally…can bring out the depth, shadows, etc., that I was seeing when standing there. But I guess I’m just on drugs right? Flavor of the month huh? It’s still amazing to me how much hatred artists can have for each other and their style of work.

  6. Sean Galbraith at 8:53 pm

    I’ll say upfront that I don’t enjoy the look of virtually all HDR images. They have a painterly, hyper-real quality that doesn’t appeal to me. It definitely has “shock value” and gets my attention like a kick to the nuts… but my interest in them passes very quickly. I find that looking at a photo by an old master, while not as immediately grabbing for my eyes, stays with me longer and I enjoy looking at it longer. In my own photography, I admit that I had an HDR phase a couple years ago. Gotta try new things. My interest in it didn’t last long, and in fact I abandoned digital photography altogether not long afterwards. I greatly prefer chemical/film photography. My preference is to remove as much “technology” as possible from the process. Hell, my current camera gear was made 20 years before I was born. All that being said… for those who want to employ the technique… more power to you. Do what works for you, regardless of what others think (unless you do shitty work.. then definitely listen to what others are telling you). I generally consider the way HDR is practiced by MOST practitioners (including several above) to be in the expressionist realm of photography. And if painting and music can have expressionist styles, I don’t see why photography can’t either. And just as Pollack isn’t to every Vermeer fan’s taste, so is it fine is HDR isn’t to every Bresson fan’s taste. Photography is a big enough tent for many styles.

  7. izmostock at 1:02 pm

    @Daniel Korzeniewski. Very nice beach and ocean in Nassau, Bahamas Then….. I’m in the camp that HDRi is a tool on the photographer palette. HDRi is a tool to make images which represent our brain/eye systems perception. The crazy HDR look will fade away, but full dynamic range will stick. Back in the silver halide days of film it was common to use pan masking film sandwiched with a transparency to print on the much adored Cibachrome paper. Compressing dynamic range it was. In 2003 the kind people at EyeTools provided me some time with their eye tracking system. The system tracks eye movement and time. The objective of the HDRi eye tracking test was to see if people noticed the areas of detail. I showed a random group of 20 people HDRi and non-HDRi images. The results were conclusive that this small sample of people did spend more time looking at H/S details of the HDRi images. Mostly in the shadows. Back then the only HDR app I knew of was Paul Debevec’s HDRshop and the manual masking method in PS, so results were varied. The newer tools like oloneo.com are fantastic and a huge step closer to creating reality based HDRi images, with individual light source control. In my work with the automotive media catalog, bracketing and HDRi are just a normal loop in the workflow. Steven Poe izmostock.com

  8. Gregory Tran at 5:32 pm

    I don’t get the people who say they want HDR to go away… it doesn’t matter what techniques are out there ppl will use it “badly” (once again “bad” is pretty subjective isn’t it?)… if people like something then more power to them.. . it also doesn’t need to be even close to garish… here’s an image of mine i took.. does anything think it looks too HDR’ish? i do know that w/out HDR it would have looked like crap… http://www.flickr.com/photos/gregorytran/5009726359/

  9. Andrew McKenna at 1:53 am

    My problem with HDR is that so often I feel the message of the photograph is lost in the medium. There’s just too much going on in those overprocessed HDR images There is no pathway to lead the viewer’s eye into the image and there is no difference in tone from foreground to background. In the end I find that all you end up with is flat looking, busy and fussy images. With some care and attention and used subtly, yes it can be produce stunning images but the rest, to my eyes, just look broken.

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