abudhabi_7600_Edit_131024_Edit_131024This article was originally posted on Photofocus.com

I recently read a blog post from someone who casually mentioned that HDR (High Dynamic Range photography) was a “fad”, and they were hoping it would eventually go away. Now this was, of course, a very opinionated statement, but it was not really one that was embellished with photos or even an explanation as to what their own definition of HDR is. After reading that it got me thinking, and I knew it would be a good topic to post here. So, without further ado, here’s my very own opinionated “rant” about HDR.

HDR is a Photographic Process, NOT a Photographic Genre

First of all, I love HDR. I do a lot of landscapes, and when the dynamic range—the difference between the light and dark areas of an image—is very great, then HDR is an excellent option. I don’t consider myself an “HDR photographer”, but sometimes I process HDR scenes with my photography. I also don’t consider bracketed landscape photos of mine “HDR images”, just as I don’t consider my food photographs “natural light images”.  HDR is a process of creation, not a genre of photography.

I just don’t think that people should be defined by the process they use to make their art. Some photographers have become known by certain methods they use to create their work, and that information is always informative and educational. But ultimately the photograph should stand as their art, and not the method that they used to get there.

Subtlety versus Over-Processing

This, by far, is the biggest hurdle with post-processing HDR. All photos with HDR are not bad, and my guess is that anyone who says they “hate HDR” are saying that they hate the over-processed “look” that is sometimes the simple result of inexperience. The problem is that HDR is too easy to over-process. Many HDR processing programs have settings that can allow for over-stylization within the program. Sure, you can do this with a light hand, but it’s just too simple to click on a preset and make it go horrifically wrong in the first step.

I personally prefer to use Lightroom and Photoshop to do the basic tone-mapping of my bracketed shots. Here are the basic steps for what I do to process using HDR (and if you’d like to see this in more detail, you can click here to view a previous post on processing an HDR, along with step-by-step photo examples):

  1. First, I start in Lightroom with my bracketed shots. I highlight all of them in the Library module.
  2. Next, I go to Photo > Edit in > Merge to HDR Pro in Photoshop…
  3. Once the photos process through Photoshop, I save the TIFF file and go back into Lightroom.
  4. In Lightroom, I take this photo and use the Basic panel to make the tones a little more balanced.
  5. Now, I am ready to stylize my photo. I may do this in Lightroom, or in a plugin (such as onOne Software’s Perfect Effects, one of my favorites). I process this image just as I would any other “non-HDR” photograph.

What is Over-Processing?

My career with photography began when I started uploading photos to iStock, a micro-stock website. At the time, they were very picky with their image inspection process, so I quickly learned how to do a clean edit with my photos. I learned how to look for things like chromatic aberration, banding, artifacts, color blooming, and more. I learned to zoom in to my photo at 100% and scan over the entire image to look for all of these things. Things have changed and the inspection process is not as picky as it used to be, and in turn my editing is a little more relaxed. But I know what to look for, how to process a “clean” shot, and rarely will do what I consider to be “over-processing” with my photographs.

One of the biggest no-no’s with stock photography was to over-process a photo. This could be something specific, such as working with a photo so much that you add artifacts (little blotchy pixels) or push the color saturation too high. It could also be generic, as in looking at a photo and just knowing that it had been pushed too far. With HDR, over-processing typically consists of the following:

  • Too much saturation
  • Blue shadows (my biggest pet peeve)
  • Soft shadows (the thing still needs contrast, people!)
  • Overly darkened clouds
  • HDR with people
  • Halos (white lines) around objects and horizons

All you really need to do is a Google Image search for “bad HDR” and you’ll see examples of pretty much everything I just listed above.

Why not just use filters?

One “argument” to HDR is that you can just use ND grad filters over the lens to balance the brightness in the sky with the darker foreground. That’s definitely one way of doing things, but in many scenes, it just does not work. In some photos, the sky is not the only area that could use a little boost of tone mapping, and there may be pockets of light in places you want to bring out. Or, maybe the light is “caressing” over a field of grass, and you’d like it to be a little more defined. I personally love using filters, and have a good set of them in my camera bag, however they are not always the best choice.

Why do people even care?

This, ultimately, is the biggest question. If photographers want to nuke their photos beyond oblivion with over-processed HDR, have at it. I won’t complain that people are “ruining” photography, I’ll just skip over the photo and probably won’t comment. Ok, maybe I will cringe a little on the inside, but that’s about it. ;)

I just think that there is no need to announce to the world that HDR is over/a fad/trendy/etc. The list goes on and on. But I still do find it funny how passionately outspoken some people are against HDR. When done well, it can be absolutely beautiful! And really, that goes for a lot of things in photography; do something right and it looks good, do it poorly and you have a mess. Maybe HDR is just an easy target, but I have a feeling that opinions about it will still get posted all over the inter-webs. I guess you could even add this post to the mix; I did, after all, call it an “opinionated rant” in the first paragraph. And please, don’t get me wrong—I am not defending bad HDR! I’m just simply trying to point out that all HDR is not evil.

So, is HDR a fad?

The bottom line is this: just because a photo is considered “HDR”, that alone does not make it bad. A bad photograph is just bad, regardless of how it was created. HDR is not a fix for awful light, and it’s not always a good fit for every scene. However it can be a very useful tool you can use when the time, and light, is right. If you ask me, HDR is not a fad; it is a newer way of processing a photograph that came with the advent of digital photography. Digital images just don’t have the ability to capture a vast amount of dynamic range in a scene as we would like, and until that changes, HDR is here to stay.