What is High Dynamic Range (HDR)? :: Digital Photo Secrets

What is High Dynamic Range (HDR)?

by David Peterson 3 comments

If you spend enough time on sites like Flickr, you’ve probably noticed a lot of High Dynamic Range (HDR) photos. But, if they leave your mind buzzing about what HDR really is, then let me shed some light on the subject.

[ Top image Hay for the Winter by Flickr user Stuck in Customs]

What IS High Dynamic Range (HDR)?

HDR is an imaging technique that allows for a greater dynamic range of exposure than would be obtained through any normal imaging process. HDR is commonly used for real photograph scenes where, for example, a large range of exposures would be found between sunlight and shadows.

HDR History

No one person can be credited with “inventing” HDR photography. It’s more of an evolution of photography dating back to Ansel Adam’s Zone System right up to today’s software programs, such as Topaz Adjust.

Since HDR is a method of increasing dynamic range of an image, founding father of photography’s Zone System, Ansel Adams could be credited since he used this process to alter film developing times in order to increase the dynamic range of his negatives. Even though we can credit Ansel Adams with the process of dynamic range, today’s advanced HDR processes are still regarded as being used by rebel photographers.

HDR Today

When digital photography came along, people were quick to figure out how to increase dynamic range of an image by taking multiple exposures. The most popular HDR photography today is the international photographer Trey Ratcliff, whose hay bales image is at the top. His website StuckinCustoms has wonderful HDR tutorials and information. He’s also known for his “Photo Walks” where he tells fans and photographers where and when he will be “walking” on a photo shoot. Hoards of photographers and fans show up on his Photo Walks to learn as much as they can about HDR while seeing the world through his lens. He sets his camera up on a tripod when he’s ready for a shot and give the group details about settings, composition, and more. Trey is a great example of a photographer who has fully embraced the craft of HDR and makes no excuses for it to those who say HDR looks "over processed" or "fake".

The HDR Look - Love it or Hate it

The reason for the backlash that Trey does not defend, yet carries on with his craft, is that HDR comes with drawbacks seen by those who love a traditional look. The so-called "HDR Look" is characterized by heavier color saturation, strong "haloing" along high contrast edges (i.e. the horizon on a landscape shot), and a fantasy or surreal look to the image. Most people will say, "It looks like a painting!" Whether that’s a compliment or not, it’s still saying, "That’s not a photograph."

Meanwhile, there are photographers who continue to use HDR to great effect, while some tend to overuse it. As with any art, there will be others, usually the old school critics, who will criticize any form of HDR as being responsible for the systematic destruction of photography as an art form. It's a dramatic statement about dynamic range, I know, but it’s out there.

It is important to know that what has become known as the "HDR Look" is not a prerequisite of the HDR process. The term HDR Look speaks to the characteristics that come from over-processing, of pushing the tone mapping and detail algorithms to their maximum, or close to it. Photographers pushed those limits when HDR software became the new rage. Now, in hindsight (doesn’t it always work that way?) the over-processed look is not as appealing. The key for every photographer is the find the right touch that becomes their signature touch and work to perfect it. So many photographers were mimicking others, but photography, as an art, ought to be about "Your Look", not everyone else’s, and not the HDR Look.

  • Nikon D800
  • 200
  • f/2.8
  • 0.25 sec (1/4)
  • 16 mm

Frogs in the Paris Opera by Flickr user Stuck in Customs

Effective HDR

The original intent of HDR photography is worth taking a look at so we can see how it can be properly used to produce fantastic, not fantastical, images that most people won’t even realize are even HDR.

For both indoor and outdoor images, you can use HDR to achieve a look that is similar to what photographers have already been using in Photoshop, such as layers and masked multiple exposures. Going back for decades, much of the same issues and results are why photographers have successfully used neutral gradient filters. They’re all about balancing light’s dynamic ranges.

Traditional HDR is achieved by taking a series of different exposures by taking 3-7 images each with a slightly different shutter speed . Once captured, the exposures are combined into a single image. The combination of the bracketed image is that it has a greater dynamic range than any one exposure could create by itself. For example, if you set your DSLR bracket a series of 3 images at -1EV, 0 EV, and +1 EV. On uploading and combining them in an HDR software (like Topaz Adjust, Nik’s HDR Efex Pro 2, Oloneo PhotoEngine, or even Photoshop’s HDR module), the results will be one final image that gives detail in both the highlighted and lowlighted regions.

This was the ultimate goal of HDR photography in the first place... to provide a higher dynamic range than modern digital cameras can capture. HDR is meant to match what your eye sees, which is different than what your DSLR translates onto its sensors. Even the best DSLRs can’t match what the human eye sees when it comes to dynamic range. It gets lost in translation.

iPhone’s HDR Mode

If you have an iPhone and play around with the camera mode, you probably noticed that it has an HDR mode. Maybe you’ve used it and just noticed that not only does it take two images, one with HDR and one without its effect, you may not have known until now what it’s really doing. Sometimes, as you probably also noticed, the HDR one looks better, and sometimes the original one is the one you post to Instagram. Deciphering between the two with a keen eye means you're on the right track. The HDR option is meant to make your pictures look better, but that will depend on the situations in which you use it.

When You Should Use HDR

While HDR is designed to help your photos look better, it’s still limited to certain situations. Here are some examples on when you should implement HDR’s capabilities, especially with your iPhone.

  • Nikon D800
  • 200
  • f/16.0
  • 0.017 sec (1/60)
  • 14 mm

The Endless Fields of Queenstown by Flickr user Stuck in Customs

Landscapes: Whenever you’re dealing with expansive scenes in Mother Nature, unless it’s a purely gray cloudy day, landscape photos often have a lot of contrast between the sky and land. This creates a challenge for your camera, which can’t readily decipher how to handle all of the conflicting data. By using HDR mode, you can capture the sky's detail without making the land look too dark or the sky too bright.

Low-Light or Backlit Subjects: If you take a photo that turns out darker than you’d hoped - which often happens if your scene has too much backlight - turn on HDR mode. This will brighten the foreground while not washing out the better-lit parts of your scene.

When NOT to Use HDR

Just as there are times to best use HDR, there are times when you don’t want to use it. Here are some situations when you want to turn HDR off:

Subject in Motion: There are a few reasons why subjects in motion don’t translate well into HDR. If your subject is running or playing or riding a horse, or whatever the movement is, HDR will likely produce a blurry photo. Why? Doesn’t it have to do with light? Remember, since HDR captures three shots, a moving subject will be doing just that... moving... between the first and last shot, so your final picture is likely to be blurred.

Vivid Colors: If your scene is too dark or too light, HDR will bring some of the color into the areas where it’s lacking. However, if you're scene has a lot of existing vivid colors, HDR has the tendency to wash them out. So, keep the colors in tact by turning off the HDR mode.

Final Words

As I’m always recommending, experiment with any new process you take on. This post was in depth, other than going into the actual how-to process HDR. It’s meant as an informational guideline to help you sort out if you even want to try HDR. I encourage you to try it and see if you can’t develop your own HDR style. It does come down to personal taste and testing the waters. Once you get the hang of it, HDR can be a great tool. Remember that HDR is best used in bright sun with dark shadows, you’ll start to see more and more scenarios where it comes in handy, whether on your DLSR or iPhone.

Ready to start taking your own HDR photos? Read more about HDR, and how to merge your own HDR photos in Photoshop.

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  1. tholumuzi says:

    Thank you David for the tip, I enjoyed art from a young age so, will definitely be trying mixing these different exposures

  2. Mridul Sardar says:

    Thank You Mr David Peterson,
    There had been many tricks those I have learnt from your technique guide. I have applied them also how successfully that can be judged by you. You are my contact at flickr. Please Judge my photos if possible. Hope for your response.
    thanks again

  3. sreejit says:

    Good article

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