Why Do Most HDR Images Look… Weird?

There’s a fundamental (human) mystery in the way many/most HDR images are produced, best described as something between overdone, foreboding  and ominous. This really works well if you’re going for the surrealistic look, but… Sort of reminds me of my daughter playing with mommy’s makeup. Capable tools requiring application restraint.


The premise behind HDR (High Dynamic Range) processing is that some images have way too much dynamic range (blown out sunsets, nuclear blasts, blazing fires in a cave and other other-worldly occurrences) to be adequately displayed from a single shot. Two or three bracketed shots, extreme highlights, middle tones, and extreme shadows, are merged; each individual shot having been “optimized” by internal contrast manipulation so as to present one composite image able to display all the tones.


The concept is solid. Such scenes do happen. Extreme lighting situations where the shadows are so dark and the highlights are so bright that some editing intervention and tone compression is called for. I get it… I’ve used it… I like it– when it is used with discretion. The problem is that many HDRs I’ve seen are so overcompensated, so overdone that they seem unreal, and somewhat Apocalyptic.

golden-gate-bridge-hdrAdmit it. Most of us have never seen a real life scenario that look anything like some (perhaps most) HDRs. Let’s not let Hollywood special effects take over the already spectacular scenes that nature provides. Discretion is the keyword. Pull in the horns a bit.  God made that sunset spectacular, let’s not make it scary.

Honestly, I’ve seen very few HDR projects that I felt used the technology correctly and were well done. One exception (below) came from a blog post (http://davidnaylor.org/blog/2012/05/lightroom-4-32-bit-hdr-editing/) in which the Author does a really good job of not only showing his before and after images, but describing exactly how he accomplished his results. Good job David.



Great care must be taken to not overdo the highlights and shadows. I dearly believe in bringing out detail in both highlights and shadows, but again, too much of even a good thing is still too much. In my humble opinion, the process of HDR is a very valid one, but the amount of tonal compression necessary to express most scenes beautifully is actually quite small.

Keyword: restraint


See you next time, Herb



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PS. if you have an iPad and are interested in learning about more about the fundamentals of digital photography, I suggest that you take a look at my Accurate Color iBook in the iTunes Store


About Herb Paynter

Herb is a published author, photographer, retoucher, color reproduction specialist and a regular writer for Digital Photography School. Download his iBook "Digital Color Photography: A Deeper Look" from the iTunes store and view his Light and Color Fundamentals video series at GottaKnowVideos.com.
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