To HDR or not to HDR……

When I posted my article on in-camera HDR I genuinely did not expect to stir up a controversy. I set out only to demonstrate the Canon 5D mk III’s capability and I chose the Art Bold setting on the basis that it would hopefully produce output similar to that which I associate with HDR.  I don’t think I actually said HDR is bad. I simply said I didn’t like it. A lot of the debate was off-line from the blog but one commenter thought it was wrong to choose the Art Bold (or is it Bold Art) setting if I don’t like the postcard effect. Fair comment but I visited a couple of Flickr groups to see what passes for HDR and frankly I don’t think the bold approach was too far adrift. Check this out:

So maybe the very expression HDR is being corrupted. This is what the founder (?) says about the HDR Anything group:

HDR (High Dynamic Range) Photography is just another avenue to make your photos stand out in a croud, Post you HDR Photos that are pushed to the limit, Huge amounts of Color, Braod Landscapes, Whatever!!! Just make sure that the photos are Fantastic.  (sicut)

Pushed to the limit…… I rest my case. On the other hand there are very different approaches to managing HDR. It is comparatively recently that I even began to attempt anything more than the most basic post processing. I was blown away by some of the images I saw and I turned, on personal recommendation, to Sean Bagshaw’s tutorials. I’m not here to plug Sean’s tutorials, they just happen to be the ones I tried. I am sure there are others. I see Tony Kuyper cited a great deal. Take your pick. I also turn to for inspiration. This seems to me to be a body of work that includes a very different approach to extending dynamic range. Altogether more subtle yet also powerful in that the images begin to illustrate what the eye sees but the sensor cannot replicate.

One debater pointed out the time consumed in producing worthwhile HDR images and argued that HDR can not be generated in camera.

So in fairness I shot a couple of frames today on ‘HDR Standard”.

Firstly, the non-HDR shot. And as before other than resizing and a soupcon of USM these are as they come.

Plant - no HDR applied

And with HDR:

Plant with HDR in-camera applied

Take your pick. The HDR shot was at +/-2 stops off a base exposure of +1/3, 1/8s, F3.5, ISO 200.

The “without” shot was intended to be the same base settings but when I checked the EXIF it says the exposure compensation was zero. Mea culpa.

Now here are 2 more shots: one HDR in-camera but this time only =/- 1 stop and the other has been post-processed to see whether I can pull out more detail than the simple in camera programme.


HDR in-camera shot @ standard


No in-camera HDR applied - separately post-processed

Maybe this was just too tough a test but in my view the manual adjustments win hands down in the ability to draw detail out of the dark areas. Here I used Sean Bagshaw’s techniques of manipulating the darks and lights separately and creating layers that I could then blend. The camera took a few seconds. I took maybe 5-10 minutes but I’m slow 😦

If you are struggling to work out what this image is, it is a group of larvae of the moth Metanastria gemella on a tree trunk. I don’t know why they congregate like this but I see them each year and sometimes in much bigger gatherings. Perhaps they think they are wildebeest, thundering across the plains of Hong Kong.

When I look at these images and the ones I posted before I can not help but agree with the comment that HDR can’t be done in camera. Or perhaps it should be can’t be done well in camera. Feel free to disagree and if you like what it gives you, that’s fine by me. There is an image in the HDR Anything group, where the photographer attempts quite nicely to explain how the finished image was arrived at and his own response to the “I don’t like HDR” crowd. Here is a link to the  image “A Forest in Islamabad (4 shot HDR)“.

I also recall a very good article by Scotty Graham on Steve Huff’s site a while back. Here it is:

The article itself was a good read for me as I had gone back to rangefinders myself for certain types of photography. I was (and I still am) using my M3 and my M9 and I guess the difference was that I was still also using my 1D mk IV for birds and natural history generally. An M9 isn’t much use for birds in flight!! What was startling was some of the reaction to the images Scotty used to illustrate his article. The word I would use is disproportionate. So before you jump into the love or hate camp just remember, most of us do this for pleasure. Few of us are privileged to do this for a living and I doubt if many who do get rich doing so.

I guess this is a topic that could run and run but for me it is closed. Over to you.

4 thoughts on “To HDR or not to HDR……

  1. i enjoyed all 4 photos, hdr or not i enjoyed them all. i was wondering what that larvae was.. ; )

  2. Diving into deep water filled with sharks mate 🙂

    The term HDR has indeed been tarred with the grunge brush, probably due to the plethora of such images on Flickr et al. A “style” has developed due to the limitations of the tools available, starting with the cameras we use and the software with which we “try” to replicate the dynamic ranges present in the scenes we experience with our remarkable eyes.

    Our cameras, even the most recent, while improving in their abilities to gather larger dynamic ranges within a single frame, are still way short of our own vision. Tools such as the new Lightroom 4 are increasingly incredible at recovering “lost” dynamic range from RAW files. But many of the scenes we want to record still fall outside of this capability.

    I tackle this with multiple bracketed exposures. I Harvest the Light at the scene and that way I know I have it all should I need it. Amazing spectacles rarely repeat themselves and I’d hate to only have a small percentage of the Available Light when I get home to my studio. This way I have future proofed my workflow.

    What do I mean by that?

    Current tools allow me to blend my bracketed exposures manually, first in LR4, then in Photoshop CS5. I use the Tony Kuyper Actions you recommend here, and I learned a lot of this by watching Sean’s Videos too. (reviews of all of these on the HL site).

    I can do a pretty good job of manual blending these days, expressing (In My Opinion) images that express my experience of the event I recorded. I do not believe any HDR algorithm is capable of blending images as well as a human, especially where bright and dark areas fall very close together.

    I can see where Canon have gone with this, I feel they are catering for a market, but to make the resultant file a jpeg?

    Photography is a progressive pastime, we have to learn many things, from Vision, Technique and Processing our images to be expressive. Every part of that process is as important as the next, a shortfall in any will result in a shortfall in ones communication skills. Cameras are tools to Harvest Light, it’s up to the user to make the light sing the song in their head 🙂 (sorry for the long rant!!

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