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Do Your HDR Images Look Like HDR Images?

Published: 26/10/2008
By: larry

HDR and blending with Photomatix may be one of the most cost and time effective shooting techniques for real estate photographers because it allows shooting interiors without lighting equipment. It can minimize the amount of time spent on site with the trade off of spending a little more time doing post processing.

At the same time, if you are not extremely careful, your HDR images end up with a characteristic HDR look. There are some characteristics looks that HDR images have that are worth attempting to minimize:

  1. The smoke damage look - The bottom HDR image above demonstrates the smoke damage look. See how the smoke has darkened the ceiling around the light fixture in the lower image? As this pair of images demonstrates this look comes from getting carried away with the strength slider in Photomatix.
  2. The radioactive look - This look comes from getting carried away with the saturation slider. To me it feels like the Photomatix saturation slider has a hair trigger. I prefer modifying saturation in Lightroom or Photoshop where you have more precise, targeted control of saturation.
  3. The foggy look - This comes from the fact that by the time you get a processed image out of Photomatix the pixels have had a lot of "mashing" so the image always needs some serious sharpening or increase in clarity to reduce the fog. Even the best HDR images don't have that crisp, sharp look of a shot that was well lit with strobes has.

In areas of photography other than real estate marketing photography we can get away with more creative uses of HDR processing but in marketing shots we are constrained by the mental models we are all walking around with in our head that says that verticals are vertical, interiors don't look foggy, radioactive or wildly dramatic.

There are several myths among beginning HDR photographers that can get in the way of expanding skills beyond the use of just HDR:

  • Myth 1: Shooting with natural light only is somehow purer and more truthful, and sacred than using artificial lighting. The fact is, the most talented photographers make use of natural and artificial light to control the look of a image. Controlling light is more difficult than HDR processing.
  • Myth 2: If your clients don't immediately protest strange looking HDR images they are OK with them. The majority of Realtors and home sellers are not visually sophisticated enough to even talk about why the like or dislike an image. Clients are hesitant to bring up issues to someone that presents themselves as a professional photographer.
  • Myth 3: Every shot can benefit from the use of the HDR process. The purpose of HDR is to help you out when the contrast is beyond the dynamic range of your camera. There are many situations where a conventional shot will work just fine.

In summary, Photomatix can be a big time and equipment saving tool in real estate photography, but don't get so stuck in doing only HDR images that you don't learn how to control light. I found Sylvia Guardia's  recent post in the flickr discussion very interesting. Sylvia does beautiful HDR work yet she understands that to reach her maximum potential and do high-end architectural shooting, she needs to also learn how to use artificial lighting.

15 comments on “Do Your HDR Images Look Like HDR Images?”

  1. I love HDR. I use it quite a bit and I get alot of wonderful feedback on it. I generally don't use it for my real estate photography, I have had bad results in the past.

    I generally use lightstands and lightroom for my interiors and have been very happy so far with the results. Now that I have more experience with HDR, I'm going to have to give it a whirl again. Thanks for the posts.

  2. I have been playing with the idea of HDR mostly because I just don't have the cash flow for a lot of lights. I find that blending images with Enfuse in Lightroom produces a fairly natural look and then after they reimport you can add saturation, contrast, or fill light as needed.

    I have used Photomatix Pro as well but I agree that it is easy to get carried away with it. The new plugin for LR is pretty cool though....

  3. The "HDR Look" is one of those things that people seem to either love or hate. I loved it from the beginning, and in the beginning I typically used higher settings. My older work shows it. As I've matured and gotten a better feel for the controls, I've backed off considerably.
    These days, for most of my paid work (especially real estate photography) I use rather light settings in Photmatix. Most people (even those who know HDR well) aren't usually aware anything special has been done. On the other hand, if I'm doing something "artsy" and the image can handle it, I turn up the strength but still just short of the tell-tale indicators like those mentioned above, and a few more like halos from trees and roof lines against the sky.
    I'm still finding my style and I'm sure HDR will be a part of it for a long time to come. Please keep the HDR topics coming...

  4. thanks larry 🙂 i've gotten a lot of helpful responses from that post. and it's something i'll be learning to do for sure in the next months. i hope to learn a lot from the archives in this blog too... thanks!

  5. These days I tend to blend the original image (adjusted and corrected) with 30/50% HDR image (3 exposures) that I've also adjusted and corrected (yellow saturation, whiter ceiling etc). I find this smoothes out the light and harshness without looking fake /typical hdr but is a very time consuming process. With outdoor shots I do the same but all with one RAW image as the movement in leaves, trees and bushes causes a lack of sharpness when 3 images are taken

  6. I have a similar approach as Phil. I tend to use HDR with 5 exposures. I then blend it in PS with a 1 or 2 strobe "traditional shot". It balances everything well. But HDR's are not needed on all interiors or exterieors. Real estate photographers need to be able to work with strobes as well.

  7. I originally started using HDR because I wanted better exterior shots, never dreaming I could take this technology inside. But now, after about two years using Photomatix, I use it most everywhere. As for the myths:

    1. Natural vs. artificial: I appreciate HDR’s ability to show highlights and details the eye can see but single exposure images can’t. For example, views thru windows, textures on furnishings, reflections off granite counter tops, grains in wood, veins in plant leaves, etc.

    2. Client’s protest: I agree that clients won’t actively debate technique. However, those that don’t like your product won’t return. I’ve never had a client complain about not being realistic.

    3. 100% HDR? I have trouble finding a single exposure shot that can’t be improved when combined with some of the many other exposures I take with each scene. My standard work process is to take three bursts of three. So I end up with 7 exposures from -3 to +3 in one stop increments.

  8. Excellent post. I am still fine tuning my HDR skills, but I have been able to produce a few images that don't have that telltale HDR look and yet are.

    I was blown away the other day to see an ad in National Geographic Traveler for a property in Phoenix (I want to say it was Hyatt Resort but the issue is at home) that was clearly done in HDR. Yes, it had "the look". Not overdone, but enough to tell what it was. Maybe this signals the start of acceptance?

  9. I am a realtor and do my own photography with HDR pretty extensively to get around the need for lighting equipment. Since I am my own customer I don't get many complaints, and my sellers *love* what I have done including the early stuff which was way over-done using the default settings in Photomatix.... I've experienced all of the faults mentioned above and then some, including some shrill psychedelic results. I suppose those were 'chromatic aberrations.'

    There are times when an exaggerated effect works really nicely and I can't resist using it, like on a log structure horse barn that got the 'old west' look thanks to HDR.

    With the help of this blog as well as occasional lurks on the flikr discussions, I have solved some of the cooked-up problems in my first attempts and have gone back and re-done everything. Still not perfect, but improving, and the most recent project got an accepted offer in less than a week. That is what it is all about.

    I use a Canon Rebel XTi with a 10-22 lens, and am presently doing nine interior shots bracketed one stop apart, and Photomatix seems to be able to sort through it nicely. Exteriors are three bracketed at 2 stops apart, handheld, and if the wind is a problem one of those shots is used as a psuedo. When the house gets full sun on the front, though, no HDR is needed.

  10. @Mike Martin-I would have to disagree with you on single exposure shots. There are numerous situations where a single exposure can work just fine. No offense intended here Mike, but in my opinion your HDR is way too heavy handed. I looked through some of your work and it doesn't look natural at all. Take a look at the work done by Dan Achatz, David Palermo and Larry Lohrman. Their HDR work is what HDR is supposed to look like. Again, no offense intended Mike, I just think your work could be better than it is.

  11. @Chester - Yeah, you are right, and if I knew when I bought the XTi that I was going to be doing HDR, the camera choice would have been one that would do more than three bracketed shots at a time. When I started with this 6 months ago I used 3, 4, or 5 hand set shots, but it was a hassle and I got annoyed with that so on the last house I tried three sets of three and it worked.

    Processing time is not an issue for me because I spend around a week on each listing writing and creating websites, so the Photomatix process goes on in the background in batch. Even when I go back and have to re-do some shots with hand tweaks on white balance and details enhancer it is still just a break in the action and not an interference. There is plenty of other stuff for me to do so I am not twiddling thumbs waiting for Photomatix to finish.

    @Larry - The new e-book looks great, and I am looking forward to your new chapter on HDR. I think I am improving on the details enhancer settings but it still feels more like art than science. Any light you can shed in that direction would be most helpful.

  12. I consider HDR as a backup resource rather than an alternative photography technique. I use HDR often but only when really necessary. I also hate those ghostly HDR left-over looks. How did professional architectural/interior photographers ever work before HDR introduced? Good article for the over-excited HDR lovers. BTW, Sylvia's photos are fantastic.

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