Don't Hate HDR


Everyone in photography has an opinion when the word HDR is mentioned. Sometimes it is all about perceptions or misconceptions. In this blog post, I'm hoping to change your mind or your thought process a little, when you hear the term HDR.

Before I begin, I want to say a word about "artistic intent." I am all for this concept. When it comes to photography and art, I wholeheartedly believe in it. If you want to shoot upside down, 3 stops overexposed, and turn everything red in post, I am all for that, if that was your intent—and not because you didn't know any better.

I've been shooting for a very long time, but somehow I have always felt cheated by my camera. There were things that it just couldn't do, which my eyes could. It meant, at times, shooting the "compromise," or in a lot of cases, not taking the shot at all because of the limitations the camera has, compared to how the eye sees.

About 5 years ago I heard about HDR, or High Dynamic Range Imaging, which is the process of taking more than one image at different exposures to expand the capabilities of our cameras when it comes to dynamic range or the difference between bright and dark. The idea and promise of it intrigued me. So I downloaded the necessary software and researched how to shoot and process them.

When I did my first one, I was really excited about it because it worked much better than I had ever thought possible, and even just starting out I thought the images were beautiful. So, being so excited, I went to all my photographer friends and said, "Hey, I'm doing these HDRs and you really have to see them!"

The response from practically every one of them was, "Eww, I hate HDRs!".

Huh? What? Why would you hate HDRs?

This is my artistic idea of what I think an HDR should be

Okay, at this point I have to make a confession to you: I have a phobia, a severe phobia. I have Dontwannacopyaphobia. I don't want to copy someone else's work or their style, so much so that I rarely look at other people's work. So I never really went online to look at HDRs that other people have done. So I did, and I exclaimed, "I hate HDRs!"

What was this HDR look everyone seemed to have? It wasn't how mine looked, and it certainly didn't look like what I thought it should look like. In many cases they were not High Dynamic Range at all. In fact they were very LOW dynamic range images (mostly mid-toned). Why was this? Was it because that is how HDRs are, or was it because that was how people thought they should be?

Often when something new comes out, people don't really know what to do with it. When stereo recordings first came out, even the Beatles didn't know how to use this new technology. So people didn't know, and they just went by examples of other people that also didn't know, and the tradition continued, leading to the "Grunge" or "Painterly" style of HDRs.

Example of a Grunge style

I believe that this is what led to much of the backlash against HDRs. It seemed to mostly be from more-established  photographers who, well, can get stuck in their ways (like me). It seemed more accepted by younger photographers who were more used to seeing similar looks in the CGI world of video games.

Again, if that look was your intent, I am all for it. If you did it because you didn't know any better or didn't think there was any other way, that is when I may have a problem.

And that's the main point I have here. There are other ways, there are other looks. HDRs can have a very natural look to them. Do they look different than traditional photography? Yes they do, but they are supposed to—hopefully, in a good way. And I want to make clear the original purpose of HDRs, which was: To capture the full dynamic range of the scene, and present it in a way that was possible with current viewing methods in print and on screen.

When I then showed the same friends the examples I did of HDR (without a preconceived notion of how they should look), they said, "I don't like HDRs, but I love yours." First part of the battle—won!

So don't hate HDRs. Understand that there are different ways to process them, and different end results that can vary greatly based on artistic intent. You may even want to explore the possibilities yourself, and find what YOU want out of the process. It doesn't have to be one way, and it doesn't have to be the norm at all.

For more information about HDRs, what they are, and how to shoot and process them, see my article in the Sept/Oct issue of Photo Technique Magazine, and also my web-blog The HDR Image.

1 Comment

Just like with a good Photoshopped image, a true HDR image, you would not be able to tell if there was any processing/wizardry done at all.  I gave up labeling my HDR photographs as so all together.  I just let people see the final outcome and enjoy.