A good way of getting things straight concerning a particular topic (in photography or elsewhere) is to bust some myths. Even though HDR photography has been around for a while, there are still a number of misconceptions out there that get picked up by beginners too easily. These HDR photography myths tend to lead into the wrong directions and ultimately get you frustrated. To help you out of this frustration, here are my top 21 HDR photography myths busted.
I have coarsely grouped the myths into 6 groups. Depending on your skill level and experience, you may find some of them obvious while others may come as a surprise. In particular, if you are just starting out with HDR photography, you may find this list useful.
But please be cautious! I deliberately chose to accentuate some of my statements to read a bit polemic. They are meant to be thought-provoking, and you may want to make up your own mind rather than just absorbing them. So, you should read this list with a grain of salt. If you have a different view, you are welcome to leave a comment below.
…because 21 can be divided by 3 and by 7. Both these numbers are deeply meaningful in religious terms. Or maybe it was just coincidence. What do you think?
Myths about Photographic Skills
Myth #1: Mastering the basics of exposure is not really necessary for HDR
So you are creating 3, 5 or 7 exposures anyway. Aperture, shutter speed, ISO… who needs to care about all these technical details then? Right? Actually, the exact opposite is true. And this is why many people do not get the results they strive for. To get the right exposures for a give scene requires solid knowledge about photographic exposure. You need to know the relation between aperture, shutter speed and ISO to dial in the right settings. You also need to know what an ‘f-stop’ is in order to take your exposures at the right exposure values (ev). Doing your homework and learning the basics will help you a lot. It will enable you to understand the effects of specific camera settings and it gives you the creative power to use these tools in order to get the results you want. The quality of your images and your effectiveness will greatly increase. Note that you don’t need to buy a book to learn these skills. There are numerous good sites on the Internet that explain the basics.
More information: Learning about Exposure – The Exposure Triangle
Myth #2: HDR saves the day if your images are
crap not that good
HDR is just a tool that you may apply to an image (or a series of exposures to be more precise) to overcome the restrictions of today’s camera technology. It is not a magic wand. It does not replace photographic skills. That is, you still need to master your camera (even more so than for non-HDR photography), and you need to think about the composition of your photos. If you have a great photo that suffers from blown-out highlights and/or underexposed shadows, HDR can save it. If you have a bad photo, HDR may make it even worse. The general principle here is crap in = crap out!
More information: Digital Photography Composition Tips
Myths about the Perception of HDR
Myth #3: HDR is a religion
If you follow discussions about HDR on the Internet (about what it is, how it should be applied, and what looks real) you sometimes think that people are fighting religious wars over these questions. There are people that love it and people that hate it, just like in any other proper religion. No other photographic technique has created such controversy lately. People get carried away and start calling other people names over the question as to whether HDR should be done over-the-top or as realistic as possible or, even more obscure, whether something is art or plain crap. Before you join such a discussion, take a few seconds and tell yourself: “Hey, it’s not a religion. It’s not about going to heaven or to hell. It is just a photographic technique. Anyone should use it as they like.” I am pretty sure, that these words will calm you down and help you spend your time more productively.
More information: I Hate HDR? (some brief thoughts by HDR expert Rick Sammon)
Myth #4: HDR is unethical as it manipulates the truth that lies in every image
Some people think that an image that comes straight out of the camera represents the scene as it was in reality, and that any manipulation (especially HDR) alters this reality in unacceptable ways. The same people keep telling you that the original scene cannot possibly have looked like your image even though they never saw the scene. I always tend to be very careful with terms like truth and reality. First, due to several technical restrictions, a photo is only a projection of reality no matter what you do and don’t do to it. If a scene has a high dynamic range, then a well-made HDR will be able to capture it more realistically than a single exposure as it lifts at least one of these restrictions. Second, each person perceives reality differently. What our brain creates is a projection too, and our memory constantly keeps changing this projection depending on our experiences, mood and situation. So, in essence, everything we think of as being reality is only our subjective interpretation. Instead of insisting that someone else’s photo should depict reality as you see it, you should enjoy that person’s version of reality since it may offer you a different perspective and enrich your own world. That is what we generally call art.
More information: Is HDR Imaging Ethical for Photojournalists?
Myth #5: HDR images look
like a big load of color puke somewhat unrealistic
I can totally understand why people would think so. But here’s the reason: You only recognize the unrealistic crappy images as being HDRs. First, they have the obvious look you are complaining about, and second, the people creating them tend to label them as HDRs. HDR (done in different ways) has become common is photographic fields like architecture, real estate and landscape photography. However, a professional landscape or real estate photographer applies HDR in a way that is subtle and not recognizable, and they rarely label their work as HDR.
More information: I Hate HDR? (some brief thoughts by HDR expert Rick Sammon)
Myths about HDR Software
Myth #6: HDR software gets every bit of dynamic range out of your exposures
You should really think that this is the case, but in reality it isn’t. If you trust in the ability of your HDR software to squeeze all the dynamic range out of your RAW source exposures, you may find that it falls short of achieving that. The reason is that every HDR software product has a RAW converter software inside that interprets your source images. It may actually covert your RAWs to JPEGs internally before it starts merging them. This is an automated process that cannot look at the images as you can. Therefore, it is advisable to convert your RAW images manually for HDR to optimize your results.
More information: Creating HDR Images the Right Way
Myth #7: Tone-mapping = HDR
Many people still confuse these two things: Tone-mapping and HDR are not the same! Tone-mapping is a procedure by which the high dynamic range of a 32-bit HDR image is reduced to 16 or 8 bits to be able to display or print it. You can tone-map an image without any type of HDR technique being involved. That would be a pseudo-HDR image. Similar effects can be created using image enhancement software. Furthermore, there are HDR methods that do not use any kind of tone-mapping. So tone-mapping may be a part of HDR, but tone-mapping alone does not increase the dynamic range. Thus, a single exposure that you tone-map does not become an HDR image.
Myth #8: HDR = Photomatix
When people talk about HDR, they usually refer to the process of feeding some number of source images into Photomatix or any other dedicated HDR and tone-mapping software that does the magic for them. In fact, there are many other ways of increasing the dynamic range of an image. Limiting the usage of the term ‘HDR’ to workflows where a 32-bit image is produced and then tone-mapped seems a bit artificial. Many people apply manual blending methods by overlaying the different exposures and masking them to blend in all the well-exposed areas of each image. Such techniques are often used by landscape photographers.
More infotmation: Hand-Blending High Dynamic Range (HDR) Images Using Luminosity Masks
Myths about HDR Processing
Myth #9: HDR is about reducing contrast
One may easily confuse the dynamic range of a scene and the contrast of an image. Dynamic range is basically the difference in brightness between the darkest and the brightest parts of a scene you are trying to photograph. Contrast, on the other hand, is the difference in brightness between the darkest and the brightest areas of the image (also sometimes referred to as tonal range). Got the difference? Dynamic range is a property of the scene while contrast is a property of the image. The purpose of HDR is to squeeze the large dynamic range of the scene into the range of tones available in an 8-bit image. If you squeeze too much, you end up with rather dark highlights and quite bright shadows in your images. The results are images that have neither whites nor blacks in them. All the tones are shoved to the middle of the spectrum, resulting in the flat and dull-looking images you see all over the Internet. Even if you are producing an HDR image, you should not be afraid of blacks and whites. More contrast usually means more appealing and vivid images.
More information: High dynamic range photography
Myth #10: Your HDR image is done when it drops out of your HDR software
If you are viewing a stunning HDR image with great colors and contrast on the Internet, chances are that the image went through a more or less complex post-processing phase after the tone-mapping stage. Any HDR software out there today falls short of a dedicated full-fledged image editing software that lets you apply diverse adjustments and filters to the entire images as well as to selected parts of it. If you strive for producing appealing HDR images (or any other type of image) you should learn at least some basic skills in photo editing to finish off your images after the tone-mapping.
More information: HDR Workflow
Myth #11: The presets in your HDR software will get the job done for you
After all, those presets are plenty and created by experts, right? Well, not one size fits all. A preset may look appealing on one image but appalling on another one. Moreover, guess who else is using those very same presets… Right! Everybody else! And you don’t want your images to look like everybody else’s, do you? It is far better to learn how the sliders affect the image one by one and then start from a ‘neutral’ position and develop the look of every image step by step by manually setting each slider. Yes, that will definitely take more time. But you will learn an awful lot this way, and chances are, you’ll discover your own personal style.
Myth #12: Extreme tone-mapping settings make for stunning HDR images
If you are into digital photography, you are used to software with a lot of sliders that let you adjust different aspects of an image. Would you agree that setting all of them to their max value results in the best images? Certainly not! When you tone-map an HDR image, it is very easy to overdo the effects since the changes caused by moving the sliders around seem very interesting or even fascinating at first. However, as with everything in life, the secret of getting great results is often moderation. Of course, the question of what looks great and what is extreme or moderate is totally in the eye of the beholder, and if you love extreme HDR, do it! But if you would like your work to appeal to a wider audience, going extreme may not be the best choice. My personal experience tells me that people are often most fascinated by photos that only slightly cross the border between the normal every-day visual experience and the extraordinary. Images that are completely outside that border are hard to relate to, images that are complete within that border are not special. The art of any image processing is to find that border and just slightly step outside.
Myth #13: The appeal of HDR images comes from the increased dynamic range
I can hear you go: ‘Of course it does!‘ Certainly, increasing the dynamic range of a scene can create fascinating views, and many scenes could simply not be photographed if it was not for HDR. However, what most people are attracted to in a typical HDR image is not necessarily the dynamic range. It is the typical look created by tone-mapping and related post-processing methods – the increased local contrast that gives structure to the objects in a scene, the intense (but not oversaturated) colors, and the smooth gradients. And I would argue that a certain unnatural element in the images is very appealing to many people. If done masterfully, that unnatural element comes across as extraordinary without distracting the viewer. You can verify this theory by taking the same image and creating 1. a simple exposure fusion of it (essentially blending all the well-exposed parts of all source images together) and 2. a tone-mapped HDR image. Both will have the same dynamic range. But which one is more appealing?
Myths about HDR Technology and Gear
Myth #14: In-camera HDR will soon do the whole job, so why bother?
Some camera manufacturers have started building ‘HDR’ functions into their cameras. These take a number of exposures, merge them into an HDR and tone-map the resulting image automatically for you. This sounds great at first glance, as it does away with all the manual effort you needed to invest in ‘the old’ days. Right? Well, the good thing is that it is fully automatic, but the bad thing is that it is fully automatic. Producing a good HDR image is about controlling the parameters of HDR creation and tone-mapping. If you let your camera manufacturer control these for you, your images will look like millions of other images shot with the same model. Moreover, the automatic function does not have a feel for the scene, and may therefore take strange decisions that translate into a lack of quality both artistically and technically. The bottom line here is that in-camera HDR may be great for tourists, but if you are ambitious, you should turn it off and create your HDRs manually. Not only does this result in better quality, but it is also much more rewarding for you.
Myth #15: You really do need a tripod
Sure enough, if you use a tripod, your images will generally have a better quality since camera shake and misalignment of the source exposures are not an issue with a tripod. However, you can also produce high-quality HDR images hand-held without a tripod. All you need is solid knowledge about your equipment and some practice. HDR software is constantly getting better at handling hand-held source images. Being able to hand-hold your shots gives you a lot of freedom and flexibility. It also allows you to shoot in situations and places that do not allow for setting up a tripod. Obviously, if you have a tripod with you, if you are allowed to use it, and if you have the time to set it up, please do use it!
More information: The Secrets of Hand-held HDR Shooting
Myth #16: You need one of these expensive cameras for HDR
You may see Trey Ratcliff shooting in exotic places with his Nikon D3x (priced at $6,000 and above), and you may think ‘Gosh, if I only had this camera, I could also produce stunning images.‘ Well, in fact such a camera does not guarantee great images, and you don’t need it to produce great images. Having a decent camera with some basic features makes your HDR life much easier. But you can get all of this at a couple of hundred dollars in many entry-level cameras. In fact, buying something like a D3x to start off your photographic career with some HDR can be a big waste of money and will overwhelm you. It is good practice to let your equipment grow with your photographic skills. You will clearly recognize when your camera becomes the limiting factor after some time. At that point, you will have a pretty good understanding of what you really need, and you can invest your money in a more educated way. It can be very funny to observe obvious beginners running around with the most expensive equipment. And believe me, you spot them from miles away.
Some people make a passionate case that you can produce HDR images with just about any camera. Technically, that is certainly true. However, it won’t be much fun. The shutter lag, the lack of image quality, the need to control exposure manually and some other properties of point-and-shoot cameras will lead to suboptimal results and quickly make you stop your HDR adventures. This may be a good way to start, but if you enjoy HDR photography, get a DSLR.
Myths about HDR Scenes
Myth #17: You should constantly be looking for HDR scenes
Ok, if you are a macro photographer, you will be spending your time crawling through the woods hunting insects. If you are a street photographer you will try to find interesting people in interesting situations. But if you pursue HDR photography, optimizing your shots such that they have the highest possible dynamic range may not be the best idea. HDR is a tool for overcoming a limitation of current camera technology. You should not artificially try to cause a problem just to solve it, which is kind of common sense. Look for scenes that are appealing. Optimize your composition; get nice leading lines and a good depth into your images. If the scene you end up with happens to have a large dynamic range, go for HDR. Photographing directly into the sun just to do some HDR will result in dull images.
Myth #18: More dynamic range = more realistic images
The fact that the limited dynamic range of camera sensors keeps the technology from depicting some scenes realistically may easily be turned into the reverse argument that the more dynamic range you can depict, the more realistic your images get. This is not the case if realistic is what the eye can depict. Your eyes have a much larger dynamic range than any camera sensor, but they are still limited. E.g. you will never be able to see the well-lit interior of a room and the glowing wire inside the light bulb on the ceiling at the same time. You can take enough exposures to make both visible in one HDR image. However, it will not resemble the real scene. Moreover, squeezing too much dynamic range into an image typically makes the highlights and the shadows look washed out as many of the tones that your brain normally perceives as being very dark or very bright will be shifted towards the medium brightness range. So sometimes more is less.
Myth #19: HDR can improve any type of photo
While HDR can be a very versatile tool, there are a few areas where it needs to be used with care (if at all). One such area is people and portrait photography. The reason is that HDR (and tone-mapping) tend to emphasize the small details in an image. Portrait photographers usually spend a lot of time trying to get rid of these small details (e.g. wrinkles or pimples) in their images. If you use HDR on a portrait photo, the subject will usually look like a coal miner coming straight from his shift. You could, of course, apply HDR only to the background and not to the main subject. But usually, an HDR-enhanced background tends to distract from the subject. So, in many cases, this is not a good idea either. Often, using a fill flash or blending different exposures works better for portrait work than running the images through some HDR software. One secret behind good HDR photography is to know when to apply it and when not to apply it.
Myth #20: The more source exposures you take the better
This is a tough one. There is some truth to this statement. However, it is far less significant than most people think. First of all, the number of exposures you need to cover the dynamic range of a scene depends… well… on the scene. More is not always better. Very often, 3 exposures are all you need. Producing more source images is a waste of memory and time. Moreover, it may actually lead to worse results as more exposures require more time and movement in the scene (e.g. fast moving clouds) may be amplified through this. Also, a 9-shot exposure series shot hand-held will produce a lot of misalignment problems due to the extended time you need to complete the series and the increased movement during that period. If movement is not an issue and you are shooting from a tripod, more can be better (if you have enough storage space) because you have more flexibility in choosing the adequate source exposures later on (possibly discarding some).
Myth #21: You cannot capture a scene in HDR if there are moving objects in it
It is certainly true that excessive movement can ruin your HDR plans for a particular scene by introducing an effect called ghosting. However, there are a number of techniques for dealing with moving objects in your HDR workflow. Some come with your HDR software, others involve manual masking in an image editing software. Movement causes more work in the post-processing phase, but it can be compensated with the proper technique and technology, at least up to a certain degree.
More information: Moving Objects in HDR (a brief tutorial on how to deal with moving objects in an HDR image)
Summary and Advice
Myths are a strange thing. Oftentimes, they are initiated by people who don’t know better, who lack certain skills or who simply have not given it enough thought. Here is my advice to you: Have an open mind and be skeptical when somebody is trying to tell you what you cannot do or what you have to do. Try it yourself. You will learn a lot by doing so, and sometimes, you will prove people wrong. This will advance the state of the art and enable you to develop a recognizable personal style.
When I got interested in HDR Vertorama photography, most experts agreed that it was close to impossible to produce interior panorama images without a tripod. Using HDR on top of that seemed illusive. I did not listen. I tried, and I made it work.
In that same spirit, don’t let me tell you what to do and how to approach HDR photography. Question each of the arguments I brought forward above, and prove me wrong! I would actually be the person that would be most happy about this, simply because it would mean that I have learned something new.