HDR Really Sucks Big Time

WB IMG_6481

Stephen F. Dennstedt

Photographer, Writer, World Traveller


Cusco, Peru

This article was originally written exclusively for Northrup Photo and accepted for publication. Unfortunately, if you’ve followed my recent posts, you know they recently dropped their blog format. I am now able to publish this article on my platform for the benefit of my 400+ personal followers. Feel free to comment, ask questions, and/or share if you’re so inclined. SFD

I hate HDR. How many times have you heard someone say that? I’ve heard it myself and even been guilty of the thought if not the proclamation. I think what we’re really objecting to is the over-processing of an image. HDR is simply an acronym for High Dynamic Range, how much exposure latitude can we see in an image before we lose detail in the shadows and highlights. Tony and Chelsea [Northrup Photo] explain all of this very well in their books, videos and tutorials. A tech-weenie I am not.

The biological eye is really good at doing this. Our cameras try their hardest, but can’t seem to beat Mother Nature at her own game (yet). Maybe someday when we’re able to combine biology with mechanics we’ll be able to replicate this feat, we’re getting really close. Implanting small computer chips into cells and cells into computer chips is the stuff of Science Fiction, but it’s coming (in some applications it’s already here). The blind will see, the deaf will hear and the mute will speak.

San Juan Chamula

I think a big part of photography is presenting to our viewers what we saw and not what the camera necessarily recorded. Most of us shoot in RAW (not in the raw, although some of you might), and when previewing our images on the camera’s LCD screen they look terrible. All of the information is there, but it takes processing in post to bring out the true aesthetics of the image. The newest generation cameras, shooting in RAW, record tremendous dynamic range, but it’s up to us to take full advantage of this technology.

Most blog posts give you the “How-to” of things, in this post I will discuss the “How-not” of things. Some self-disclosure first. I only came to digital photography in 2009 after shooting film for 55-years. I am not a tech-weenie (but I’ve learned a lot from Tony about the technical side of things), I am not a post-processing guru like Chelsea (far from it) and I am not a graphic artist. My background is definitely artistic and not technical. When I started processing my images in Photoshop I went bonkers. It was just too much temptation. Therefore I offer up the following suggestions:

Antigua Ruin

Don’t over-sharpen. I took the notion of “Tack-sharp” way over the top. In the old film days it was hard to get really tack-sharp images, the cameras and lenses of today are far superior in my opinion. I shot Nikon, Leica and Rolleiflex back in the day, and they were the gold standard. Relative to what was being produced my images were crisp, but the ability to further sharpen digital images in post takes it to a whole new level. I sharpen at 100% magnification and really pay attention to any digital noise.

Don’t get radical with exposure. Shooting in RAW gives you the opportunity to capture tremendous detail in the shadows and highlights. This is great but don’t abuse the privilege. Even with the biological eye shadows will naturally fade to black and highlights will brighten to white. Watch your histogram and pay special attention to incorporating some true black tones in your image and some true white tones. This not only adds some needed contrast but can also provide extra drama.

Don’t over-saturate colors. Boy did I ever abuse this one. Color is fun and I like fun. If a little color is good, then it must hold true that a ton of color is better. Wrong. I like bright colors but they should be believable. Now instead of cranking the slider to its max, I will take it a little past believable and then dial it back. The images I’ve included here as examples are bright and they pop, but I think they are still believable, and more clearly represent what I actually saw with my naked eye (well not totally naked, I wear glasses).

Don’t be heavy-handed. When I started experimenting with post-processing my first inclination was to do almost everything in Photoshop. Now I do more fine-tweaking during RAW conversion. Instead of grossly boosting saturation I will subtly adjust vibrancy, and instead of grossly boosting contrast I will subtly adjust clarity. This difference is in the terminology and the result, gross versus subtle. Subtle typically gives a more natural appearance, a more pleasing (less harsh) look.

Don’t overdo HDR. I love what HDR processing can do, however the temptation is to overdo it because it can look so cool and “Artsy-fartsy.” All three of these images have been processed using some form of HDR technique and processing. With a RAW file you can work with shadows and highlights, or you can bracket shots in-camera and then stack them in Photoshop or you can use a HDR software program like Photomatix. Remember step 4, gross versus subtle.

Monterrico Sunset WEB2

Finally a word about philosophy. HDR and post-processing in general are controversial topics. They’re a matter of personal interpretation, preference and utilization. I am not a believer in the “Purist” model of photography. Ansel Adams is often held up as the poster-child for so-called purist-photography. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Ansel Adams was an innovator (he always was and would be today). Many of the processing techniques we use now were developed by Adams and his contemporaries.

I think that photography is about creative artistic vision. We too often get hung up on labels and definitions. Creative is innovative, thinking outside the box. Whatever it takes to realize your vision you should do. Labels mean nothing to me, it’s the end product that speaks to me, or not. If the lines blur between photography and graphic arts who cares? I’m not particularly adept or accomplished at post-processing, but I’m willing to learn everyday. You should be too. Northrup Photo goes a long way in helping you with that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s