There’s a lot of debate about HDR. The topic can be contradictory because of the many misconceptions surrounding HDR photography. This causes a lot of confusion about the process.
First, let’s talk about what HDR photography is; It’s a post process method that increases dynamic range by merging multiple exposures of the same scene.
To create a HDR image a person needs a set of bracketed images (same scene but different exposures) and HDR software. The software will bring the bracketed images into alignment and merge them together then contrasts are reduced with tone mapping and then tweaked or adjusted normally using Photoshop or another method.
Now let’s check out six HDR misconceptions and why they’re untrue:
1. HDR is a Fix for Bad Exposure
When creating HDR images you usually work with 3-7 exposures of an identical scene. A common belief is you don’t need to get the correct exposure because you are bracketing (aligning) multiple exposures so there is no need to worry about capturing the best one.
It is true; bracketing can help reduce the possibility of missing the appropriate exposure but you actually do need one shot properly exposed or very close to proper and other bracketed exposures branching out from that to create a good HDR photo.
2. HDR Photos Don’t Look Real
HDR doesn’t have to look fake! Some photographers like to make their images surrealistic by pumping up the saturation levels but this is not necessary to create a beautiful HDR image. Directly after alignment HDR looks harsh and thereby unrealistic. Don’t try to achieve the final look of the photo through the tone mapping stage, only work on bringing back details in the highlights and shadows. Tone mapping is only part of creating the final product.
Look to accomplish low contrast and low saturation in you photo with tone mapping. You bring back the full beauty of the scene with Photoshop at the end to create realistic HDR photos.
The above photos are both HDR and still look real to me.
3. In Camera HDR Replaces HDR Processing
Some cameras offer an HDR setting that will create an”HDR” image right in the camera. The HDR function can work differently depending on the brand of camera but usually this setting will bracket multiple images, align them together and save the result as a separate photo all inside the camera.
Some cameras are less flexible and only save the merged photo and discards the remaining bracketed exposures. This function does not replace dedicated software.
A good HDR image is created not automatically produced. An HDR function in camera does not have a feel for the scene and can make decisions that produce poor quality both creatively and technically. To be clear; HDR in camera can never substitute for your perspective on the scene or your personal creative ability.
4. Good HDR is Impossible if there are moving parts in a Scene
A lot of movement, especially high contrast moving parts in a scene can make it a bad choice for HDR. An effect called ghosting becomes an issue. There are techniques and software that can deal with ghosting but the effect will cause more work in the post processing stage. Ghosting can be masked with an appropriate application for the most part.
Certain things like water or car taillights in night shots can still look good, most times not realistic but still pleasing to the eye.
The HDR photo below illustrates a few possible outcomes with moving objects: Ghosting- The little boy to the right of the photo and the tree in the top left are glaring examples. The water in the fountain is softer looking and ghosting is less noticeable.
5. You Need a Special Camera for HDR
An expensive fancy camera is not needed to shoot HDR images. If you are looking to buy a new camera and want to create HDR photos an entry-level camera with a few basic features is all you really need. This type of camera can set you back a few hundred dollars and will be straight forward to learn to use than an expensive, tricked out camera.
Your camera should have an auto bracketing setting (ABE). This setting enables the camera to take three or more shots at varying exposures for each frame. If you own a camera without an ABE setting, you would adjust each photo for different exposures manually. This is definitely more time consuming but still can work.
6. You Either Love HDR or Hate it
Saying you love or hate art is a ridiculous statement. There are different forms that are art all with different style or medium. I believe HDR like art has something for every taste. With such a wide variety of scenes and style with HDR it is impossible to love or hate all of it.
Myths or misconceptions are born of from a lack of knowledge or experience. Approaching HDR photography with an open mind is the best way to discover techniques that work best for you to create images you like.
Trey Ratcliff is a well known HDR photographer, he has an excellent HDR course available and it includes over 10 hours of video instruction. To get a taste of what he offers here is an excerpt from the full course.
There are free tutorials and loads of information on all aspects of HDR available today. Reading others opinions is part of gaining knowledge about HDR Photography but the real learning is in the trying and experimenting with HDR yourself.