To HDR or not to HDR

Published on February 27, 2011 under Photography

The Parthenon as an HDR Photo

It's no mistake that the technology of High Dynamic Range (HDR) imaging has enhanced and taken photography to a new level.  The popularity can't be mistaken not even with the functions in Photoshop since CS2 and the release of software titles like Photomatrix Pro and HDR PhotoStudio.  More and more portfolios now are showing a lot of HDR photo creations, and the general consumer has gotten into HDR through apps, functions on lower-end cameras, and other various software outlets.

So we're seeing the joy of vivid color, wild dramatic scenes, and greater detail, but are we ready to chuck normal photography for an HDR-imaged world?  While I think the artistic value of HDR is amazing, I don't think every single photo needs the treatment.  So when should we apply the treatment and when should we not?

First off, I want to toss out there the disclaimer that I am not dismissing the artistic nature of making some "over-the-top" wild looking HDR image.  In my book this is a whole different world than those using HDR simply to make a dull photo look amazing.  My personal goals with HDR and even this article are to hopefully build those "amazing" looking photos that one would see out there from the top photographers.

The case for HDR treatment

When I traveled to Europe this past summer, I had many times where I set up the auto-exposure bracketing (AEB) and fired off three exposures of landmarks and scenes I wanted to capture.  My philosophy is that it's better to have the means to go normal or HDR if you feel the need.  It's worse to go through all that distance and end up with a poor shot.

The Parthenon as an HDR photo
The Parthenon as a normal photo

In the above example, I took sets of three exposures of the Parthenon when I was in Athens.  Looking at the difference between the normal shot and the HDR/tone-mapped image, it's easy to see why the HDR works in this scenario.  The detail level of the shadows on the Parthenon as well as the bold colors made this an ideal choice.  In the "normal" shot I felt the sky was a bit dull and the features on the Parthenon seemed flat.

Belvedere Palace as an HDR photo
Belvedere Palace as a normal photo

When I ended up in Vienna, I grabbed a set of three exposures of Belvedere Palace.  My choice to convert this image to HDR is pretty easy to see.  Like the Parthenon, the features on the "normal" shot are a bit flat and while the sky looks interesting, the HDR image just has a more dramatic look and the shadow details on the entryway are amazing.

The case for keeping it normal

Not every HDR image ends up as a golden image.  Sometimes you'll end up with something that's a bit over-the-top or not even useful.  Take a look at this barn I shot in the backyard of my girlfriend's relative in Slovakia.

Slovak Barn as an HDR photo
Slovak Barn as a normal photo

So maybe some could say the HDR image isn't anything terrible, but in my book the dark clouds made what looked like a gray day into the hand of God ready to reach out and destroy the barn.  While I did tone down the clouds in the HDR image, I just did not care for how the photo looked compared to the normal version.  In this case, the gray day is a better choice in my book.

St. Nicholas Church as an HDR photo
St. Nicholas Church as a normal photo

This image of St. Nicholas Church in Prague is yet another example of when the normal photo is a better choice than the HDR.  Let's face it, my DSLR isn't fast enough to grab three exposures of a scene full of moving people and not having the ghosting occur.  I'm not even sure if any DSLR on the market can do that.  So with loads of tourists strolling in and out of the shot, HDR just isn't going to work in this case.

Exposure Fusion as opposed to HDR

If you're using Photomatrix Pro or many of the other top software titles, there is a new function added called Exposure Fusion.  The general idea is that instead of combining three exposures into a high dynamic range photo, you're instead combining two exposures into what's known as a Low Dynamic Range photo.

The Arch of Galerius using Exposure Fusion
Exposure Fusion
The Arch of Galerius as an HDR photo
The Arch of Galerius as a normal photo

The advantage of this new technique is that you won't end up with the over-the-top look you get with a lot of HDR photos.  The Arch of Galerius images above show the difference between HDR, Exposure Fusion, and even the normal shot.  As you can see, the day wasn't as dark as the HDR image lets on, but the normal photo does seem a bit dull.  When I tried Exposure Fusion, I got the best of both worlds.  The colors were more vivid, the details more defined, but the day still looked like the partly cloudy weather we had in Thessaloniki.

HDR, LDR, or even just the plain shot, the goal is the best image possible...plain and simple.  It's purely a judgment call for the shooter, regardless if it's a DSLR, point-and-shoot, or even a smartphone.  I wouldn't tell someone not to shoot multiple exposures when out, but this is a story of just because you have the technology, it doesn't mean you always have to use it.

What's your personal preference when shooting photos?

Tags: photography, HDR, Exposure Fusion, technique

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