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I Don’t Need No Fancy HDR! Okay, Why Not?!


I’ve resisted playing around with some of the fashionable “photography” techniques to be found on places like Flickr because I’m a bit old fashioned in a way. I’ve always had the mindset that I want to capture a scene as you see it in reality, not some super-saturated, better-than-life version. However every now and then I soften a bit and try new things. One of them is HDR (or High Dynamic Range) photography.

The idea is that you take several photos of the same scene, ranging from very underexposed to very over-exposed (the photos, not the photographer). Then you use some software to glue them together that picks the best bits of each shot and produces an image that is perfectly exposed. Then it can do some fancy tone mapping that produces something quite amazing. This means you can take impossible pictures that a camera could never produce in a single shot, such as directly into the sun and on very bright days with dark foregrounds. Like this one:

Impossible Exposure

I must confess that it does look pretty cool. Thing is though, it’s unreal – the actual scene didn’t look anything like this and was a bit of a nothing shot really. But with a bit of software jiggery-pokery I was able to produce something quite impressive. Nice though it is, it’s not the sort of thing I plan on doing much – it’s art in its own right but it’s not what photography is all about for me. Unless of course I can’t think of anything else to take a picture of at the time!

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Creator of John's Background Switcher. Scotsman, footballer, photographer, dog owner, risk taker, heart breaker, nice guy. Some of those are lies.

8 Comments Join the Conversation

  1. I’m ambivalent about HDR. The eye has a far greater dynamic range than any film or digital sensor, so much of the skill getting a good exposure is in managing the limitations.

    In theory HDR allows us to get closer to what the eye really sees. But I think it falls down in two ways, one is that most people use HDR as a special effect rather than to overcome dynamic range limitation (we’ve all seen HDR images with that slightly surreal, painterly look); the second is that generally when you try to reproduce a scene in a photo it is a subjective, rather than objective reality that you are aiming for.

    In that sense the limitations of traditional photography work for you not against you.


  2. If everyone used this technique would we become unsatisfied with the real thing? Perhaps the most horrible example is should Playboy start using this … I just can’t bear to think about it! … you say, they do? Those College girls are not real … they don’t look like that! Life is not worth living …. 🙂


  3. you said:
    “Thing is though, it’s unreal – the actual scene didn’t look anything like this and was a bit of a nothing shot really.”

    But that is not the fault of the “HDR” technique. That is the fault of the person executing the HDR technique.

    If you desire you can create very unrealistic results with HDR, or you can create very realistic looking results.

    Look at these:
    Those are very realistic looking images that would be impossible without using HDR.

    Looking through your photostream it looks like you have decided to do some realistic HDR. Very nice!


  4. Yeah, since I wrote this article I realised that HDR can, as you say, let you create very realistic shots that don’t look like HDR, they look exactly like they look in the real world but can’t be captured so well in a single shot.

    That’ll teach me to jump to conclusions too quickly without fully understanding and researching the issue!

    They’re some lovely shots you’ve linked to there and if I didn’t know I’d never have guessed they were HDR, which is what you’re saying.


  5. I think HDR has its place. Yes I may be biased since most of the photos I make need to be realistic, but it seems that nowadays, people are too lazy to spend the time to get the proper exposure. They just throw it into Photomatix to get a cool looking photo that appears to have the proper exposure. I have had some of my best photos come from times I was planning on using HDR because of the dynamic range, but after looking at the raw files I realized that with a little work I had a better image than I could ever possibly get with HDR. But whenever I’m having to quickly turn out 30 interior images for a client, its much faster to use HDR than to manually fix windows in Photoshop or set up strobes to raise the light level of the room. Same for fine art photography or any other instance when you don’t want your photos to look realistic, HDR is great. That’s just my two cents


  6. In my point of view, I think surreal HDR is good as it is good to create “real” HDR photos. That is probably why many of those photos sprang out to the net.

    But what is bad about the surreal HDR is that, beginners tend to misunderstand the concept (or probably don’t know the concept at all) and create hideous versions of the supposed “good” photo. They say it is HDR. But I see one picture with a lot of noise and the details aren’t even there! But yeah, surrealistic. Fail.


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