HDR Photography: What is it all about? What is it not about?

Other Posts in this Series "High Dynamic Range (HDR) Photography"

Previous Post: HDR Photography: How the Camera Understands Exposure
Next Post: HDR Photography: Introduction


This tutorial series is written for those just learning about their cameras.  If you have been using your camera for a number of years, then this tutorial isn’t really geared for you, but please feel free to read, we all learn something new even when reading about things we know.  

I decided to write this for those who really don’t understand or know what exposure is, or that their cameras have a built in light meter, or most other camera functions or photography basics.  This is for those who have used their cameras in the automatic mode and want to learn enough about the art and craft of photography to begin to use their cameras in the other modes available.  

I will have links to those sites that I have used to learn these concepts myself, and many of these sites will typically be a lot more in-depth than I will get.  These sites would be of interest to those with more knowledge and understanding.  Enjoy!

WARNING: This article shows some poorly processed photographs.  I share them with you so you can see examples of what I discuss.  I also share them to show how in learning to use HDR techniques it is really easy to go overboard and produce some garish photographs.  I share them to let you know that we have all produced images like these, and by doing so, we can learn from our mistakes. These photographs do not represent my present level of experience or photography.  You have been warned! 

Imagine with me for a minute that you are standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. The sun is setting to the west, and the play of light among the mesas and buttes in the canyon are just incredible.

It is a beautiful scene, and you take out your camera, and try your best to capture the jaw dropping beauty that is before your very eyes.

If you are like me, you have your tripod so you take it out and you attach your camera. You turn on your camera and begin adjusting your exposure settings. Maybe you even expose to the right (ETTR) to capture as much detail in the dark areas as possible without blowing out your highlights.


And once you are happy, you take your shot. Or a number of shots!

And you can’t wait to get back home or perhaps to your hotel room to check out the beautiful photographs you just took.

You finally are able to download your images into Lightroom (or Capture One, or any other RAW editor of your choice) and you open the files up and gasp.

Because the sun was so bright as it was setting, even doing ETTR you still have very dark side canyons. You adjust your shadows slider and try to recover some detail and all you get is a lot of noise – color as well as luminance. You go into the details panel of Lightroom and adjust the noise levels.



Exposing To The Right – called ETTR – is a method where you purposely overexpose your image without blowing out the highlights.  To use this process, one must become both familiar and comfortable with using and reading the histogram which displays brightness across the exposure range.  For now, don’t be too concerned about this technique, it will be covered in more detail in a future blog post.


And you are left with a very disappointing end product. What detail there might have been present has been lost in an effort to reduce the amount of noise present in the initial photograph. 

A really early digital photograph (2003) of the Grand Canyon at sunset when I was learning about digital photography.  I was not happy with this photograph, there was so much noise that I had to remove, and the details are all but lost.  I share this photograph to let you know that I have been there too!

The dynamic range of the scene was just more than the camera could handle. You can keep the inner canyons in total darkness and adjust for the setting sun, or you can try to bring out the details in the inner canyons but destroy the detail that you are trying to bring out either with too much noise or too much noise reduction.

It is these kinds of situations that High Dynamic Range (HDR) photograph works to solve. How to produce an image that can capture both the brightness of the setting sun (in our example above) as well as the deepening shadow of the side canyons. A range of brightness and darkness that exceeds the camera’s ability to capture.

HDR technique was developed such for situations where there is a high amount of contrast that you want to manage.  Contrast is simply the amount of the scene that is in deep shadow versus the amount of really bright areas of the scene.  Scenes of high contrast have deep blacks and bright whites and often are have a high degree of texture which adds to the perception of high degree of contrast.  HDR photography is used to capture details in both the shadows and the bright areas and enables the photographer to render a photograph with varying amounts of detail and contrast. 

Many photographers like HDR, myself included, because it enables them to extract seemingly great amounts of detail from the scene.  But sometimes a lot of detail can become a  serious distraction.  And like all other reasons to use HDR, the photographer needs to manage the amount of detail in such a way that it doesn’t overwhelm the photograph and rob the photograph of it’s power.  

A poor example of an early HDR photograph I produced (2010).  Notice the grittiness of the clouds and the abundance of detail. You can also notice the dreaded halo around the trees as they border the clouds.  All work to produce a garish photograph that just doesn’t work. There is so much wrong with this photograph.  But I share it so that you can see what a poor HDR photograph looks like.  

I know I love details in my photographs, and over the years I have learned that painful lesson that sometimes too much detail is really too much detail – it distracts from the ability to enjoy the photograph as desired.  A prime example of this extreme overprocessing is too much detail in clouds.  Some photographers will process their images so that the clouds get this real gritty look, and that come from too much detail that overwhelms the photograph and becomes a distraction from the scene the photographer attempted to capture. 

In the next article we will cover the basics of exposure. Understanding exposure is critical to understanding HDR photography to know when HDR will be useful to you the photographer.



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