You can use HDR – Just don’t call it “HDR”

by John Neel

© John Neel

© John Neel



HDR seems to have earned itself a bad name as of late.


These days it seems pretty easy to find plenty of terribly produced images that have been overprocessed with what some believe to be “the HDR look”.

Those looks, which are commonly referred to as “grunge” or “artistic”, can be the one thing that produces negative reactions from potential viewers. It just might be that the HDR look is what kills the experience of seeing your image.

From what I can tell, most of the “HDR image makers” simply do not know how to use it and even fewer seem to understand why it should be used.

I must confess that there are a few over the top looks that HDR can produce that might be somewhat acceptable to at least a certain group of viewers. But for most peoples taste, the HDR look seems annoyingly gross. Some call it the velvet painting of photography. Personally, I think HDR can be used well or it can be used in a detrimental way. I personally am not offended by pushing the envelope, but rather by over pushing it. I personally do not have a problem with Grunge or Artsy when it works with the subject.

One of the best secrets for doing HDR is in not letting anyone know that your image is produced with an HDR technique.

That probably means that HDR is OK as long as you:

  1. Don’t make it obvious that HDR was used.
  2. Don’t over use the HDR controls (sliders).
  3. Don’t over saturate the colors of an HDR image.
  4. Don’t lose the audience by making HDR your focus.
  5. Don’t tell anyone it is HDR.

When HDR is done properly, all one need do is post it, print it or use it and most will never know it is what it is.

For those who may not know, HDR is simply a method for attaining more information (detail) in the highlights and shadows. It was not intended to be an overly contrasty or overly saturated technique. When contrast and saturation becomes too obvious, or when grunginess and overly artsy overtakes the image, it distracts the viewer from looking at the subject. When people are distracted, you lose them. They will not see the image for what it can be. They will instead see something that gets in the way of experiencing the subject.

HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. There are many instances where the dynamic range of a scene is too great for a single exposure to record. The dynamic range of an image has to do with how well it reproduces the details in the highlights and the shadows. When the range is too much for the sensor to record, the details tend to block up or wash out. As a result, we get shadows that are too dark (no detail) and/or highlights that become blown out (no detail).

To offset this, HDR techniques allow for a series of images to be taken at slightly different exposures. These exposures are used to capture the details at different light levels within a scene. In most cases, the range of tones needed for blending can be done in two or three exposures. One is usually captured that reproduces a normal tonal range. Another is slightly overexposed, and a third is slightly underexposed. Once the range of details is captured, the images can be blended to retain the best of all exposures. The overexposed image records the details in the shadow areas of the scene and the underexposed image records the details in the highlights. The final blending produces a more acceptable dynamic range by including the details that would otherwise be lost to blocked shadows and overblown highlights.

When done properly, HDR actually makes the subjects appear more like the scene we experience with our eyes. It makes the scene more realistic in that we can now see the viewable details that were impossible to capture with a single image. When HDR is done well, people will simply look at the image. The technique becomes lost in the subject. The details seem to look the way we expect them to look. Your image will look a lot more like a realistic representation of the real world.

© John Neel

© John Neel


If used to an extreme, or if used without subtlety or attention to a natural appearance, the effects can become garish. It is the garish look that most people do not like. It simply looks overcooked, badly done, and out of control. The offbeat rendition becomes a roadblock for communication.

What you shoot and how well you do it are the important to the production of any image. Photography is not so much about technique as it is about subject. Let your subject be the first priority. Technique needs to support the subject and the message. There are plenty of tools that can be useful for subject enhancement. I believe that pushing the envelope is one of them. However, it must be used with some degree of consideration.

Don’t make HDR the first question someone asks about the work. Is this an HDR image? Rather, give the viewer the right amount of technical and processing skill to support the things photographed. It is important that you use any technique, including HDR, to reinforce the viewer’s experience of the subject matter rather than detract from it.

HDR can be a valid way to make a normal looking image. By normal, I mean an image that to the eye looks the way we might see it in the real world.

Like all of the tools we have at our disposal as image-makers, it is important to choose them wisely and to use them with some level of skill and restraint. Even if we choose to push it a bit beyond the normally acceptable look, it would be smart to consider the subjects tolerance for doing so. It would also be smart to consider the audience you hope to impress.

Please have a look at some of my other posts here.


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