News and Views from Dave Wilson

Why HDR Sucks

by on Jun.03, 2012, under Photography

What! Dave says HDR sucks? Are we in for some kind of major turnaround here? If you’ve read this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I’m a huge advocate for HDR so the post title can’t be coming from me, surely? You have to admit, though, that had I called it “Why a Sizeable Percentage of the Photography Community Thinks HDR Sucks”, you probably wouldn’t have clicked through that link, would you? 🙂 This post, however, puts forward my suggestions on why HDR sucks to so many seasoned photographers.

Just to keep the record straight, I most certainly don’t think that HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography sucks but I do have a pretty good idea why so many people seem to think that it does. Hopefully I can illustrate some of these reasons in this article which I’ve illustrated using embarrassing images from my past (all of these are still on Flickr – think of it as a kind of penance for me). I felt this was somewhat kinder than picking bad examples from other photographers but, if you want to see some, just wander through Flickr’s HDR group.

First of all, there will be people who hate HDR for reasons that are not covered by this article. I include in this group, the people who discount photography in general as a form of art. These people are of the opinion that all art must involve laying carbon, ink or paint onto paper or canvas by hand and, since photography doesn’t do this, it can’t be true art. To these folks, I say just move along and go back to your crayons since there’s nothing here for you.

There are another group who reject HDR and all forms of post-processing or digital manipulation of images on the grounds that the results are not “real”. This group appears to consider only single exposures valid but fail to take into account the fact that the capabilities of digital cameras are changing and improving all the time, and that the amount of processing performed on the images in-camera is increasing with every generation. As things move forward, assuming “real” is defined as the result of a single shutter click, these people will have to expand their definition of “real” to include wider and wider dynamic ranges and even in-camera HDR so they will likely change their opinions in the end. (As an aside, these people are often quite happy to include monochrome imagery in their definition of “realistic” photography. I find that rather strange.)

The majority of people who claim to hate HDR, I suspect, hate not HDR but badly applied tonemapping (the part of the HDR workflow which generates the output image that you end up seeing). HDR describes a set of techniques and not a look, but too many people fail to realise this and associate the term with funky looking images where the techniques have been applied very poorly. It’s disappointing but true that badly done HDR is extremely easy to recognise due to several commonly-made processing errors that stand out. Let’s consider a few images that exhibit these problems and which people should be encouraged to dislike. Click each to see the original on Flickr if you would like to see a larger version.

Why HDR Sucks (using my images as examples)

Excavator

Why HDR Sucks - Excavator
This image has it all – terrible tone mapping and even worse follow-up processing. I used HDR here for valid reasons – there really was a huge difference in brightness between the sky and the foreground and the camera couldn’t possibly capture all the light levels in a single exposure. In processing, however, the result turned into a classic example of how not to produce an HDR. Let’s look at the main problems:

  • The basic picture is pretty uninteresting. It’s a snap of an excavator. I did use a wide angle lens and I did shoot from a low angle to try to create an interesting perspective but the effect isn’t pronounced enough to really make this anything special. There are pictures to be had in this scene but, nowadays, I wouldn’t have shot this one.
  • The ghosting in the clouds is horrid. You’ll need to look at the high resolution version to see this but there are multiple images of each cloud in the sky. This occurred due to the time between each of the 3 exposures that comprised the original bracket used to build the image. At this point in my development, I didn’t notice this and didn’t retouch the sky to get rid of the problem. Ghosting is a problem in all HDRs where any movement occurs between the individual exposures. A good photographer will notice this and fix it before publishing the picture.
  • You can see a great example of tonal inversion in the clouds. When you push the HDR tonemapping too far, you end up finding that areas which should contain highlights turn grey. There’s a fine line between dramatic skies (which can be created really well when tonemapping) and overcooked skies like this one.
  • What was I thinking with that vignette? I suspect I was worried about the fact that I had a bunch of blown-out highlights in the sky (another indication that my tonemapping wasn’t right) and tried to fix them by merely reducing the brightness of the sky and edges by painting partly-transparent black over those areas. The result is a horribly unsubtle blob of a vignette. Yuk.

If you produce work like this, please discard it immediately or, at least, learn to recognise the processing errors and practice techniques needed to fix them. In this particular case, more subtle tonemapping parameters followed by some time in Photoshop to replace the horrid sky would likely have yielded a far more acceptable image.

Katz’s Never Kloses

Why HDR Sucks - Katz's Never Kloses
This image isn’t as unforgiveably horrid as the last one but does illustrate a problem that quite a few people have. HDR allows us to capture enormous brightness ranges in our pictures so many people (myself included) use it as an excuse to shoot directly into the sun and try to salvage a result. From my experience, this doesn’t work particularly well in most cases. Exceptions tend to be when the sun is shining through something (a tree, for example) but even then direct into-the-light shots tend to be tricky.

Take a look at the sky in this picture, for example. Have you ever seen a clear sky that shade of grey? The tonemapping choices I made to get the car looking about right caused the sky to become horribly unnatural. The fix here would have been to try different tonemapping settings or, more likely, generate a couple of versions of the image, one where the foreground looked right and one where the sky looked right then blend them in Photoshop.

Another problem in this shot is the strange variation in brightness over the front of the car. Why are the sides of the hood so much brighter than the centre? I’m not sure if that’s a tonemapping artifact (Photomatix does some really strange things to areas of the same colour that are crossed by high contrast lines – try tonemapping an image of a suspension bridge taken on a clear day if you want to see what I mean) or whether I tried to rescue the image by using some bad dodging to darken part of the car but, regardless, it’s something that should have been fixed before I thought of posting the image.

Wildflower Center Cistern Roof

Why HDR Sucks - Wildflower Center Cistern Roof
This picture illustrates another problem with many people’s HDR images. HDR makes it possible to capture an image like this where the patch of sky is probably 6 or 8 stops brighter than the interior brickwork but, given that I started with a boring composition, the result is still boring. HDR can’t make a bad composition good. It can make it different but then it’s just different and badly composed.

As I mentioned before, HDR is a set of tools not an end in itself. To generate a good HDR photograph, you need to start with a great scene and compose the image well then, if necessary, use HDR techniques to overcome any camera-related limitations if the brightness range is wider than you can capture in a single shot.

Although I don’t like this picture, there is a picture to be taken in here. If I was reshooting this, I would likely have zoomed in and generated a pattern picture with the skylight sitting on one of the thirds. Maybe I’ll try that next time I’m at the Wildflower Center.

Cowboy Boots

Why HDR Sucks - Tutorial Image - Cowboy Boots (hideous tone mapping)
I’m cheating here since this is a bad image I generated deliberately for use in my HDR tutorial. It was designed to illustrate another typical trait seen in bad HDR images. In this case, I set the “Light Smoothing” option (in Photomatix’ tonemapping dialog box) very far to the left. The result is a whacky looking, flat and generally nasty image. This is the kind of look that many people associate with HDR but, to me, it’s entirely unappealing. Just because you can make the image look weird, it doesn’t mean you have to. You can find my preferred version of this same image here in case you want to compare.

Texas House HDR

Why HDR Sucks - Texas House HDR
OK, I’ll come clean here. I don’t dislike this image much at all. I rather like the composition but I needed a picture to illustrate another enormously common problem with poorly-done HDR images. For some reason, people seem to assume that, because you are doing something creative with your digital image, you need to hype up the saturation to the point of silliness. At least in Austin HDR circles, this effect is known as “Clown Vomit” and, to me, many an otherwise good image has been destroyed by moving the saturation slider too far to the right of its neutral position. I would hope that this is not something I’ve done really badly but this particular shot is definitely a bit too saturated for my liking. Fixing this problem is easy – don’t muck with the saturation slider or, if the tonemapping has accentuated the colour rather more than you would like, pull the slider left to get things back to near normal.

This problem is most commonly seen in skies. When you are about to publish an HDR containing a blue sky, take a look outside then look back at your picture and ask yourself if you’ve ever seen a sky that colour. If it seems a bit on the over-blue side, please fix it.

Live Oaks at Fort Bend County Courthouse

Why HDR Sucks - Live Oaks at Fort Bend County Courthouse
This is a picture whose composition I like but which fails due to my laziness. The picture you see here was rushed through Photomatix and published without any final touch-up work when it definitely needed a fair bit done to it. The first, most obvious problem is the haloing in the blue sky areas. This is an enormous problem in an enormous number of published HDR images – very obvious brightness changes along high contrast edges. Typically you see it along horizon lines or along the edges of buildings where there will be an area of lighter coloured sky tracing along the dark edge. In images such as this one, however, where there are many, many high contrast edges (the boundaries between the dark branches and the bright sky) you end up with a sky that is a complete mess with the blue colour varying enormously in different areas of the picture.

Fixing this type of problem is straightforward in Photoshop (this image is the example I used in my tutorial on the Magic Blue Sky Halo Removal Method but I was just being too lazy that evening to do the job properly.

Another couple of problems are evident here. I need to fix (or, at least, reduce) the converging verticals which make the courthouse lean into the shot and I also need to clean up the front of the courthouse building itself which is suffering from a bit of tonal inversion caused by my aggressive tonemapping. Again, these are pretty easy to fix in Photoshop but I was just being lazy.

The point here is that even if you have the material to produce a great image, if you do a slapdash job of processing it, you can ruin the result. Take the time necessary to get the image right (or as right as you can make it) and only publish it when you have done as good a job as you can.

In Conclusion

I’ve spent quite a while airing my own dirty laundry but hopefully you see what I’m getting at. Pictures like these are the ones that the HDR-averse are seeing daily and which are causing them to come to the conclusion that HDR in general sucks. What they don’t realise is that the same techniques which were used so badly above are being used all over to great effect and that, because the job is done so well, you don’t actually notice the technique – you see only a spectacular image and not the tools behind it. Here are a few of mine that I hope fall into this later category. All of these use HDR and exposure blending techniques but would you immediately recognise them as HDR images?

To anyone reading this who professes to hate HDR, therefore, I would ask one thing. Please consider the image itself rather than the methods used to create it. I’ve offered several images that are, indeed, terrible and which do, as it happens, use HDR. Condemning HDR in general based on these (and other) example is, however, throwing the baby out with the bathwater since there are many, many examples of the same techniques being applied and resulting in good images.


Blue Hour Skyline, Austin

Austin Icons

Smith Street at Dusk, Downtown Houston

Flatiron Building, New York

Astronaut and MMU, Space Center Houston

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18 Comments for this entry

  • Bill Wilson

    Hey Dave,

    Good article – you made good points, and proved your points with examples from your own work, which anyone should be able to appreciate. It’s pretty tough looking thru the HDR group on Flickr. I’ve really been trying to make sure that I’m using HDR as a way to represent the way the scene really looked when I photographed it (blue sky is blue, etc.), including the latest image on my blog. Keep up the good work!
    Bill Wilson´s last blog post ..Rent or Buy

  • Wayne Frost

    Thanks, Dave. I really appreciate the self-criticism, we can all learn from it. I have been practicing HDR for about two years, and I know that I still need to reign in my lazy instincts when trying to produce good HDRish images. And while I fell totally in love with HDR, I have been allowing myself to see the potential of post processing techniques that do not include HDR.

    HDR is not the be all for all photographs, but HDR and any other pre or post processing techniques used by photographers will produce true art.
    Wayne Frost´s last blog post ..Memorial To An Education Uncompleted & A Life Cut Short

  • Jim Denham

    Well spoken and delivered Dave. Unfortunately, people will still hate, but maybe some will see the picture for what it is, not how it became to be.
    Jim Denham´s last blog post ..Midway Boardwalk

  • Don Schulte

    Agreed with your post. So much so I am arguing within myself to nuke most of my old website (www.oxherderarts.com) and it’s images and re-do my favorite images. I get such better results now that the s/w tools are better and, more importantly, I am a better at post processing.

    It is a continual process of improvement. My new goal is the same as yours; to have the technique indistinguishable and just the impact of the image as to what the viewer witnesses.
    Don Schulte´s last blog post ..what’s playin’ in Plato’s cave

  • Douglas Athas

    Excellent points, Dave. Foremost, HDR captures a range of light that a single exposure cannot. You regularly demonstrate that distinction as well as anyone. I appreciate your tasteful processing. Maybe grunge is cool for some but I’ve grown to dislike it and hope (hopelessly hope) that I seldom see another example. Sure, there is the occasional Andy Warhol psychedelic image that might be just the thing but, as your Flicker link demonstrates, usually not. As you say, HDR is a wonderful tool but too many wield it badly.

  • Evan Gearing

    I totally agree with you, Dave! I’m finding or at least am trying to use HDR as a tool now instead of my way of photographing everything. Some times it works and some times it doesn’t. My laziness creeps in a lot as well. If I can get regularly get results as good as yours, I will be a happy man. Thanks for putting this together!
    Evan Gearing´s last blog post ..Morocco Shopping

  • Mike Criswell

    Great article Dave, I must admit you got me with the title. I love shooting HDR but agree, not all scenes should be shot this way. I break that rule allot myself but usually throw out the images anyway. I see more and more processing of low dynamic range scenes, processed as HDR, which really defeats the whole purpose. I still love it, cheers!
    Mike Criswell´s last blog post ..~464~

  • Jan Wnther

    What a great article, great examples too. I hope everyone who likes to mess with tone-mapping will take the time to read your article, and try to figure out, study and understand why one needs to be very critical when doing HDR, because it can begin to look fake and/or weird very fast, ie. black clouds on a blue sky.

    Good HDR to me is when it doesnt “look” like HDR. just like your astronaut.
    Jan Wnther´s last blog post ..Morning on the lake

  • Christian

    Excellent article here Dave. I am also pleased with your HDR tutorials.I found your site by searching for
    ‘reducing halos in my images’ and your blending technique truly is magical. I have bookmarked your site.
    Christian´s last blog post ..Testing My Post Processing Skills – Photo By Klaus Hermann @ farbspiel-photo.com

  • Johnny Peacock

    Hi Dave,

    I linked here from a page bad-mouthing HDR and citing this article as backup. He also lamented the fact that there aren’t enough articles online attacking HDR. I find it funny that he’s referenced this article, clearly not reading it.

    I’ve been working with HDR for about a year now and would love to hear if you think I’m hurting the reputation or making it look good! My work is available at http://www.traverseearth.com.

    Johnny

  • Allie

    You take some really great photos! You should enter some in Canon’s Project Imaginat10n: https://www.longliveimagination.com

  • Mark Neal

    Must admit that I was taken aback with your title, Dave. But this post is a perfect remedy for those of us who have, in the past, been tempted to push the HDR imaging process too far. Having only been “practicing” the art for about a year, I have really learned a lot and have hopefully gained from viewing properly processed images – yours included.
    Mark Neal´s last blog post ..HDR – Gnarly Beauty

  • Xerith

    Nice post. Very useful. I practically commit every single mistake you posted here… I hope i can improve with your advice.
    Xerith´s last blog post ..Rejected…

  • Gallego

    Nice article, clarifying the common mistakes in HDR. It still baffles me how some guys have made a fortune with pictures that lack composition, texture, message, etc and besides get into several of the mistakes you mention when tone-mapping pictures. Take a look at http://www.stuckincustoms.com. This guy shoots anything, I mean anything…and then does a super-tone-mapping with Photomatix. It may be worth looking on the screen for a couple of seconds but don’t you dare print one of these because it will drain your ink really fast. I mean, he has the money to go anywhere in the world, great equipment, f/8, shoot, tone-map and sell but….it really is a mock, a curse on the art of photography.

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