HDR - High Dynamic Rubbish?

May 2013

North Queensferry and the Forth Bridge



A bunch of loveliness....or a bunch of arse?


This is an example of one of my own HDR images.


Is this an acceptable amount of HDR or is it too much?


Go to 'Waterscapes' and 'Forth Rail Bridge' to see it larger and to see other examples.

HDR is probably the most divisive development in digital photography for a while, possibly ever. You only have to look at the comments on YouTube HDR videos for evidence that photographers either love it or hate it. Some of the haters are quite vitriolic in their comments. And part of me can understand why. ‘Tinternet is flooded with some truly awful HDR images that have quite frankly given what should be a legitimate technique a bad name.


I have recently started experimenting with HDR photography, and it has been a real learning curve. To be honest, I still don’t think I have it nailed and I am still producing HDR images that just don’t look as good as I want them to. Some turn out really well (in my opinion) and some just look like sick.


Over saturation of colours can be a problem and so can a 'haloing' effect. Let's look at some examples to show you what I mean.....and this means showing other people's work, so I apologise to those concerned! No copyright infringement is intended and I am NOT passing these off as my own or making any money from them. If you wish your image removed, please use the 'contact' form.

Halo to you!


These images on the left are from a blog called 'Cool HDR Photography Effects' and as you can see, suggests that the 'Halo Effect' is actually a desirable thing to have in your HDR photographs. Which I was really surprised at as it's something I have been at pains in my HDR work to avoid as much as I can.


You can see what they are refering to, the lighter halo that surrounds the buildings and the trees. My beef with this is that, in my view, this is what makes an HDR image look amateur-ish and ugly to look at. Halo's tend to be created in photographs when too much contrast is applied during post processing, especially when the image has immediate transitions from dark areas to lighter areas, like a house or tree against the sky.


I was just really taken aback that halo's could be promoted as something 'cool' that you might want to have in your photographs. My suggestion would be that if you want your HDR images to look natural but with an added 'wow' factor - what I try to achieve - you need to pay more attention to the selection of the subject, composition, colour and texture and not rely on a misguided gimmick like this. In my opinion, a gimmick that makes you look like a beginner who has just discovered HDR.


Here's another example to show you what I mean, and again, no disrespect intended to the photographer who took this photo. Here, the composition is, in my view, quite good and the convergence of the buildings make for an interesting view. Had it been left like that, we would have been fine.


But why is it then ruined by this horrendous halo effect between the buildings and the sky? There's nothing wrong with going for a dramatic sky, but here it just looks plain weird and....well, just plain wrong!

It's surreal I could touch it


One of the other reasons HDR has a bad name with many is the use of the 'surreal' effect. Photomatix Pro is the software choice of many for HDR processing - including me - and it has a lot of 'presets' you can use to process your HDR image. There are a few 'surreal' presets in the software that give you an effect similar to the image on the left. But just because the developers included presets that make the images look like you are on drugs, doesn't mean you should actually use them! Genereally, software 'preset' options are for those either starting out with the software and/or for those who are unwilling to explore the full potential of the software. Which in my opinion is why the 'surreal' effect looks very amateurish.


Here's another example of the 'surreal' effect. I get the idea that 'surreal' means 'not real' and that might means that the final image is not meant to look 'normal'...but am I the only one who looks at images like this and thinks 'urgh'?


As before, there's nothing wrong with the subject or the composition. But what on earth is happening with the sky? Have you ever seen a sky that looks quite like that? And why does the sky suddenly change from grey to blue along the exact line of the telegraph cables?

Colour me Badd

The other phenomenon that can be experienced during HDR processing is extreme colour saturation, especially when the original subject has bright colours and when you have used more bracketted exposures.


This example on the left illustrates the point. Once again, I quite like the composition and subject matter. But not only do we have haloing around the trees, but we have some extreme saturation of the greens that make the image look very unatural indeed.


You often have to resist the temptation to go with the colours of the processed HDR image - as the eye popping colours can often make you want to keep it as it os - and desaurate the most prominent ones. Not boost them, as this photographer has done here. It results in an interesting image ruined by too much green.

The Sky's (not) the Limit

When HDR processing, a dramatic sky in real life can be amazing in the final HDR image. There is something about the process that brings the sky out in HDR photos, and there are sliders in Photomatix that can really emphasise the sky even more.

Here's a classic example of someone new to HDR who has been seduced by the 'microcontrast' slider in Photomatix. This is a slider that brings out extremely localised contrast, especially in skies.


The issue with this image is that not only are there terrible halos, too much colour on what must have been in reality subdued lighting, but we have a sky that is so overwhelmingly unnatural that it detracts from the interesting building on the bottom right.


I can understand the temptation to go overboard with microcontrast, but it is a symptom of a newbie to HDR and I would bet that this photographer will look at this image in a few years time and cringe just a little.

Me and my Shadow

One thing that confused me a little when I first dabbled with HDR was that the ideal histogram for an HDR image was peaked in the middle (lots of midtones) and that it sloped away towards either side to a point, meaning there were no true blacks or whites in the image at all. However, when I saw an image that was full of midtones but with no shadows or highlights, it just looked...flat.


Take a look at the image on the left of a motorbike. It seems to live the values of an HDR image, lots of midtone and no blacks or whites at all. But doesn't it just look a bit dull? Lifeless?....Dare I say it, flat?


What I tend to do now is not be satisfied with the final HDR image. It will nearly always need tweaking of some kind. Quite often, one of my tweaks will be a very subtle curves edit, to give the contrast a very small boost. An image needs some depth to give it some life, and that comes from a little shadow and highlight, something you don't always get with a true HDR image.

Summing up for the Defence.....or Prosecution?

Let's get this straight, I am no expert when it comes to HDR. I am still experimenting, still trying, still making mistakes. From those mistakes and shitty HDR attempts, the conclusions I am slowly coming to are that 


  • Some subjects are just not suited for HDR

I have seen a few HDR images of portraits, weddings (yes!), everyday street scenes, all kinds of subjects that just are not really suitable for HDR. They felt like HDR for the sake of it. HDR should be used to bring out detail in scenes that can't be captured in one file. Scenes with high contrast, areas that are significantly different in exposure levels, scenes with rich texture will work better.

  • Subtlety tends to win over ‘in your face’

 This took a while to sink in and I still don't always follow this rule. Being such a visual person, some HDR files seduce me with their illustrative look, when I really should back off a bit on the strength of the effect.

  • Some shadows and highlights are what gives a photo depth

Don't be afraid to keep some shadows in your HDR image, they don't all have to have every detail visible. This will help your images retain some depth.

  • Most ‘horrible’ HDR images come from inexperience

Personal experience here again. I find that as I do more and more HDR, the more I back off from all the types of images shown above.

  • HDR mustn't be a substitute for good composition

I have fallen into this trap as well, of thinking 'oh, that'll look good in HDR' without approaching the subject as I would normally do, i.e. thinking about depth of field, focal point, view point, composition, colour, texture etc. The HDR treatment rarely makes a poor photo into a good one. You still need to get the basics right.

  • HDR doesn't just mean Photomatix

You don't have to process 3, 5 or 7 exposures through Photomatix Pro or Photshop's 'Merge to HDR Pro' function to make an HDR image. An HDR image is amy image that has an increased dynamic range of tones - and that can be as simple as merging two photos manually, one exposure for the sky and the other for the foreground. That's still HDR. Don't assume it has to be an all singing, all dancing tome mapped 32 bit HDR file.



I suppose the bottom line is that there is no such thing as 'bad' HDR, just lots of opinions about what good HDR should be. HDR has it's place, it's just that so many people give it a bad name.


Is HDR High Dynamic Rubbish? That depends on the photographer!


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