In Praise of HDR that Doesn’t Look Like HDR

December 29th, 2009

In his article titled “A Plea for HDR” on Alexandre Buisse says “The technique (HDR) has indeed a very bad press, especially in the “fine art” community, and to be fair, much of the criticism is justified. But the point I would like to make here is that, well used, it can be very powerful and look perfectly natural, and is sometimes the only way to capture a scene as our eyes see it. Because there are so many widespread misconceptions about HDR, and because most online resources focus on how to achieve this overcooked effect that so many of us hate, I would like to briefly make myself it’s advocate. Do not expect a detailed tutorial but rather a general presentation of the technique…”

I have to say that Buisse’s work is HDR like I’ve never seen before. It’s nearly impossible to tell which of his images are HDR and which aren’t. Buisse makes an interesting statement, “The problem with HDR is that by default, it looks artificial and ugly, and it takes some work to bring it back to something believable. Though knowing how to achieve that result mostly comes with practice.”  The reason I found this statement so interesting is that it’s almost exactly what Dan Achatz (a master of real estate HDR) told me recently. Dan said that he is moving to using the Photomatix  blending  feature combined with strobes, because it takes less time to make interiors look realistic. Incidentally, Dan promised us all a video tutorial on his new approach to shooting real estate. Stay tuned.

Another resource for those shooters in pursuit of HDR that doesn’t look like HDR is Paul Omernik’s flickr thread called “The Definitive Guide to Realistic High Dynamic Range Images” (via a recent post in Paul’s detailed instructions for creating realistic HDR are based on Photoshop CS2 or above.

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15 Responses to “In Praise of HDR that Doesn’t Look Like HDR”

  • Good info, Larry. Thanks for sharing. Personally, I’ve avoided learning HDR because it’s mostly ugly. This is a good reminder of how when HDR is done right it’s not ugly, and it allows you to occasionally capture a shot that you otherwise couldn’t. I’m convinced. I’m going to learn how to do it.

  • Thanks for sharing, he also simply has some amazing landscape and mountaineering shots that really inspire me, regardless of technique!

    regarding HDR, as I like to repeat, it simply stands for “High Dynamic Range” images. The ‘ugliness’ that people speak of is the ‘tonemapping’ technique that brings it back to being a low dynamic range image that can be seen and manipulated on our monitors. Tonemapping is amazingly difficult to get the desired results. As sensor technology develops further, I’m convinced that the sensors will soon begin to capture at least as many stops as our human eyes can see (medium dynamic?) and will produce images as naturally as we saw them in person, without any post processing of low dynamic range captures. Perhaps I’m wrong with this, but I’ve heard many discussions in this arena.

    The more captured info to work with, the better, correct?

  • It’s all subjective.

  • Geoff, there are sensors that capture a range close to the human eye. At $140,000, however, they are not what the human budget can afford (not mine anyway.) As always, the technology will trickle down to the consumer. As much as I love HDR (done well) it will become obsolete in the next decade. One thing I like to stress, however, is that HDR shouldn’t be limited to “what the eye sees.” It opens up a whole range (no pun intended) of artistic possibilities as well. The ugly stuff you see (yes, I agree. It’s butt-ugly) is simply people attempting to express themselves in a creative manner. I applaud those actions, even if the result makes me want to retch. It not only takes practice to use HDR and tone-mapping techniques to produce realistic images, but it takes practice to create pleasing artistic effects as well. In the mean time we need to tolerate the drivel. In time, the fad of the drivel will subside and those truly driven by the need to create will mature.


  • Larry… I/We have been blessed to have you as a resource for information focused on our profession.

    I have been shooting virtual tours and real property interiors for a little over 5 years. My location is a beach town with a very active rental and sales market… The views of the ocean and bays are high priority… At first we dealt with the blown out windows and low light situations. Then we discovered blending 3 exposures via layers in photoshop. Now these past 6 months HDR software!!! Thanking the Wizards for this!!! These tools eliminate the residuals left by the previous technique which we had to spot heal and clone… As the previous poster stated it is the heavy handed tone mapping that can take it to an unrealistic state. I currently use HDR Tools, Lightroom and Photoshop for fixes of verticals and I and my clients are extremely pleased with the awesome natural results which could not be achieved previously without cost prohibitive equipment. Bringing that view in vew… I am all about HDR!

    Learning something new every day!

  • Note that Buisse points out that it takes a lot of time to get HDRs right, something we don’t often have the luxury of with pfre. Also, for interiors, we often have to deal with mixed lighting. Flash can help minimize the effect of mixed lighting and make post processing easier. HDR doesn’t help us there, and may even make things harder. Some people try to save time by batch processing HDR, but it seems to me that whatever time you save by batch processing is lost by having to spend more time in post trying fix things that would have been taken care of if the optimal tonemapping had been done for each image. With pfre each shot may often present very different lighting and color temperature issues. With regard to pfre, some people seem to view HDR as a panacea for lack of adequate lighting skills. I don’t think it should be viewed that way. Rather, I think the use of HDR should be a conscious choice for a certain style and workflow. While shooting with HDR may be quicker, you will often spend more time in post.

  • Larry–
    I purchased Photomatix about a year ago and became quickly frustrated with HDR and tonemapping. But when I tried using the exposure blending feature, a whole new world opened up. I’ve been using Photomatix’s exposure blending for all my interior shots–three exposures each, with a camera-mounted flash. I then use the batch processing feature. Sure, almost all the shots require post work, but I don’t mind that. My clients seem to love my work, and, amazingly, I like it myself! I’ve noticed that exposure blending is a little more iffy if used outdoors, but usally I don’t need it for exteriors. If I want to get “artsy”, maybe I’ll give HDR another try. But for real estate interiors, exposure blending is the answer for me…

  • I agree with Maureen. The exaggerated tonemapping is the reason for the stereotyping BUT it’s only pushing photographic art in another direction. For every person that hates it, 3 other like it. I’m ok with that. Whether or not it’s viewed in a negative way, is left to the opinion of the viewer. I have many HDR photos that look very natural and it highlights the lighting differences that the naked eye can’t view on its own.

  • I’ve been all over the map (tonemap?) on HDR for the last couple of years. In the beginning I was certainly heavy handed with the settings, at first enjoying the interesting and novel, but unnatural look. I’ve sensed backed away from that going for a more natural result that doesn’t look like obvious HDR. Occasionally I’ll still go for that edgy HDR look when I’m striving for an artsy result, or working with an image that just won’t stand well on it own. But most of the times these days I just use Photomatix to blend 3 to 5 exposures (depending on which camera I use) and then some minor adjustments in Photoshop. Here are a couple of examples where HDR certainly enhanced the images while still remaining relatively natural:

  • Our new year thinking is to take another look at HDR, we were talking about doing a demo practice home shoot only a few weeks ago. Our past results have not been successful, plastic look or just real ugly photos of non-realistic, I am sure we have all seen an HDR that is just plain awful, that was our results. Nothing I would want to put our name on. We have all the software & tools, what we need now is some advise on how to get the right results for a “real looking” photo without spending a ton of time on each one.

    I see the results that David Lenhert has on his examples above, photo blending with Photomatix, several look very impressive David, I like the sky, good job.

    Larry, does anyone have a “how to” for HDR using the flash too on interior photos? I would be interested in finding out what other’s may be doing or how they do it?

    Good topic, one that will continue for this coming 2010 year, Happy New Year to everyone !!

    Rusty @ MLS Photo Pros

  • I always love when HDR gets discussed because of the panacea of opinions. On one side you get comments like “HDR is crap, you can’t ever produce quality images without flash” and on the other side you get “HDR is the only way to be true to the lights in the house” and it goes on and on. The best way to understand HDR as a tool is to be truly logical about it.

    If you want HDR to magically match the interior and exterior light levels you’re dead, do not pass go, do not collect $200. If you want HDR to add light where light does not exist, you’re lost in the woods and will never find home. If on the other hand you want HDR to take a little bit of work off your flash and off blending by hand, then it’s a good tool. Most images I see using HDR are pushed way to far, and it’s understandable, I tried to do the same when I first started out. You (hopefully) come to a realization at some point that the automated HDR programs can not make conditional decisions, like a window is blown out and needs 3 stops of reduction while a white picture frame is only slightly overexposed and need 1 stop of reduction. Most people push the software (and image tonemapping) way too hard to bring in window pull but neglect other areas that take on negative defects.

    What HDR will do if used appropriately is get the base layer much closer to being usable in a timely manner versus hand blending. You can extend the dynamic range of the image to something that has a mostly untouched midrange but recovered highlight and shadow details. Once you have that it’s much easier to tweak the image with dodging/burning, color balance, and even a layer exclusively for the windows. The advantage to a properly completed HDR or blend is that window sills are often recovered and easy to mask realistically with the exterior than just a 2 exposure hand blend.

    Just like good lighting skills take time to develop, good post processing (including HDR) skills take time and practice to develop. No one is going to be an expert the first day they buy an SB-800 or the license to Photomatix. The only way to get better is to practice and try to take a step back and judge your work as unbiased as possible. Sometimes it’s good to come back to them a month or two later and see how you’ve progressed and what you’re doing differently and even reprocess a file using new settings and techniques. The greatest addition to my HDR workflow was careful addition of diffused flash into the exposures. Using flash to fill dark areas, balance color casts, and pre-compress the range of the scene can go a very very long ways with HDR.

  • grr, stupid iphone spell checker…. in my post, panacea –> plethora

  • I use the photomatix exposure blend and LR enfuse. I will usually run both and compare which I like better. Usually, the differences are rather small.

  • Ed (Dec 29) said it in a nutshell: it’s all subjective.

    IMHO using HDR/tonemapping techniques to achieve “natural” results is overkill. Use enfuse [0] (version 4 just release), with one of the many available GUIs if you’re allergic to the command line.

    HDR/tonemapping tools are developed primarily to improve the visibility of details that are not immediately visible because of the limited dynamic range of the capturing/displaying device. Some may find aestehtical pleasure in the results.

    When using/viewing HDR/tonemapped images, be creative/open to a new experience. Maybe it will come and go like fashion. Maybe some of it will stay.

    There used to be a time when a “natural” photograph was black and white. Then came color film, with its different variations and subjective choices. Which film renders more “natural” results? Fuji Velvia? Kodachrome? Then came digital and “natural” was redefined once again as “what a less-than-perfect pieces of silicone can capture and reproduce”. In the meantime the silicone improves and will at some point surpass the dynamic range of film. Or has it already? Too late, the last decade has redefined “natural” photography as edgy, screaming contrasts with little in-between. The same has happened with audio recordings.

    True, there is a lot of over saturated, unbalanced, ugly HDR/tonemapped stuff out there, and I admit having produced some of it [1] in my quest to expand my creativity’s range. Whether you like it or not, it is subjective. I enjoyed doing it. YMMV


  • I feel like there are not enough people to hate the direction HDR has taken photography. I have used a method of HDR shooting ever since I started shooting digital photography, but never wanted my images to look fake or over-saturated with HDR. Recently, ever other photographer using the method is creating wild dream like images…which can be really cool and artistic…but should not be used when displaying reality! Doing it “right” is important!

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