episode 10

Is HDR Photography Dead?

HDR photography was a much talked about a topic a few years ago. However, it has since died down and this lead me to think about the topic, “Is HDR photography dead?” I will start with a brief introduction on what HDR photography really is and then talk about whether this technique is dead or not.

What is HDR photography?

For those who may not be aware or familiar with the term or the topic, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and when people talk about it, normally they refer to a technique of blending photos but this is a term that basically talks about how your camera handles extreme light situation and extreme dark situations in the same scene. Basically what I mean by that is if you go out on a bright sunny day and you are to set your camera into a neutral exposure where your light meter is at zero and your camera takes that as the perfect neutral exposure, and you take a photo, depending on the kind of a camera model you have, you are probably going to see that there are some spots that are extremely blown out or extremely bright and then there are other parts which are extremely dark. So, if you have some extremely bright situations and your camera can’t handle that, then your camera might not be good at dynamic range. Same with the darks, if you take a photo and your darks are almost on the black side, then your camera can’t handle the dynamic range very well.

There are some cameras out there which can handle dynamic range way better than other cameras brands and models. What this means is that the camera can handle really dark situations or areas of a photo in lighter areas of that same scene and you still get details in those areas instead of them blowing out or being completely lost and having no data. So, there are some cameras out of the box that can handle dynamic range very well and you really don’t have to use some certain techniques to bring some of that back. Sure, if you bring the photo into Lightroom or Photoshop and bring down the highlights and then increase the shadows, you are going to get a little bit more details out there but some of these camera brands and models typically have a very awesome dynamic range and this is especially helpful for landscape photographers who may be shooting in bright situation and they want to still have details and some sort of foreground elements and other things like that.

It is also good for real estate photographers who want to capture the inside of a home and not blow out the windows because typically the inside of the home is darker than the outside. As such, you can handle that a little bit better with some of these camera models. So, just to give a general idea, the Nikon D810, D8-100/E, D750 and even the Fujifilm XE1 are really good cameras that have very awesome dynamic range. I’m not trying to single out any particular canon but these are some of the cameras which have been rated to have a really good dynamic range and you can see that Nikon typically handles that better than any other camera brand. The new Canon EOS 5D Mark IV also handles dynamic range a little bit better than some of its predecessors but it does a good job. Nikon typically has a really good dynamic range as well as low light noise.

The kind of slogan for most of the camera brands when it comes to Nikon vs. Canon is usually that Nikon can handle the low light situation than Canon but Canon has that really awesome looking color and for some reason Canon is always associated with color and although there might be some argument about that going back and forth but this is an age-old question as to which is better but really there is no better camera but whatever works better for you depending on your type of photography. So, those are some camera brands and models to think about if you are looking for a camera that has some really good dynamic range.

Just because you might have a camera that does not have a good dynamic range and can’t handle that very well doesn’t mean that you can’t capture that. You just need to go through a couple of different steps in order to get a really good dynamic range and that’s where the HDR photography movement kind of came. What basically this means for those who haven’t shot HDR and are not really sure how to do it, you’re basically shooting the same scene with the same settings minus the shutter speed. So what you typically do is set your tripod up with your camera there and you maybe take a scene that’s for example, f8 ISO 100 and then you’ll change your shutter speed accordingly to try and get a darker photo, a neutral exposure and a bright exposure. That’s the basics of HDR and so there’re different ways you can take HDR when it comes to getting maybe 7 images, 10 images or all kind of series of different images but typically the HDR is technically going for 3 different exposures. A lot of cameras have blackening where you can do an automatic blackening where the camera automatically takes the shots that are maybe 2-stops underexposed, a neutral exposure and 2-stops underexposed or you can do it manually by dialing the shutter speed yourself and just looking at maybe the histogram to try and get a better idea of how the photo will turn out. But that is the basic idea for setting up an HDR photograph if you want to do an HDR photograph or run it through software.

One quick thing before I move on to kind of the typical software that’s used for HDR photography is that I notice that a lot of people when they start getting into HDR photography, they’d try and hand-hold it and sure you can try and manipulate the software and do a little bit of de-ghosting but you really might need to try a tripod if you can because that way everything is stable and neutral and you don’t have to increase your ISO. I’ve seen a lot of HDR photos that are very noisy and this is probably one or two things maybe they’re dialing in more of the exposure composition than they should, where they are trying to increase the shadows and decrease the highlights way too much maybe or they have an HDR photograph they’re trying to shoot but they have a relatively high ISO. A lot of people think that just because your camera might handle ISO and noise better than some cameras then you don’t have to worry about the ISO performance for a camera when it comes to HDR photography. But you need to keep your ISO down as real as it can go. This is mainly due to the fact that when you run your photos through an HDR program, whatever program you choose to use, it kind of amplifies the noise a little bit. As such, even if your camera can shoot a low ISO at 100, if you go to 200, you are going to see a little bit of a noisy image. Again, depending on the camera model, you’re going to see a little bit of a noisy image because your camera is kind of amplifying that when you run it through the software.

HDR software

There is a bunch of different HDR software which you can find especially if you do a little search on Google right now. All these will claim to be really good when it comes to HDR photography but some of the top HDR programs that people use are obviously Photoshop, Lightroom, Photomatix Pro and Aurora HDR. If I had to rank all these programs based on the one that is best for doing HDR photography, then I will have to go with Lightroom as the best to do HDR photography with. There are a few reasons why I like having my HDR photos in Lightroom and number one is that you are dealing with raw files and although you can deal with jpegs and TIF files working with raw file gives your program a lot more information to deal with and ultimately you get better results. You also get to do the whole process from start to finish in one program and thus have all the awesome capabilities than you would normally have if editing a single photo and that’s being able to catalogue your images, being able to edit and go back and do non-destructive edits to it. This is not as cumbersome as it would be to do this in Photoshop where you have to import it into Photoshop as a script, open the file, play around with it and try to get the best image and then save the PSD and then you might need to go back to the camera raw filter to make more edits and this becomes some sort of a mess. However, Lightroom really does a fantastic job of making a HDR photo that doesn’t really look like it’s an HDR photo and that’s kind of the whole goal nowadays when taking an HDR photo as you don’t want it to really look like it was taken through a program or like you generated a file and made some adjustment. You want it to look like a very natural photo because that is what it kind of what it’s all about. It’s not applying really nice looking grunge effects to a photo but making a photo that has a very good dynamic range where you can still see a lot of bright areas and bring back a lot of the dark areas.

We mentioned a program called Photomatix and this was the first program I used for HDR Photography and without putting the blame on this software, there are many filters it offers from where I think HDR gets a bad rap. One of the filters in there is called Painterly where you can just click and it makes some real artistic looking effects to your photos and I think people saw that and they were like ‘oh these are some new looking photos that we’ve never seen before. I wanna share this and see how it looks but originally probably it looked really awesome because there was something different or new that we’d never seen before and everybody just kind of ran with it…’ also everybody in HDR photo looked just the same and had this ‘paintry’ feel to the photo and that kind of got a bad rap according to me. I don’t think you can really edit one of those today and people say, ‘wow that looks really crazy’ but instead they say it looks like an HDR photo.

When it comes to HDR photography nowadays, I think people just want it to be an HDR photo and if their camera doesn’t handle the High Range well, they want it to be an HDR photo without looking like an HDR photo. That’s kind of my whole goal when I’m trying to capture a scene with a lot of dynamic range, just to make it not look like an HDR photo at all.

One quick trick when it comes to HDR photography as I mentioned earlier is to take three different photos thus giving you three different files which you run through this kind of software. You can actually do this with one single image but it wouldn’t give you the same best results as you would receive if you were using 3 different raw files to deal with. You can actually work with a single raw file and it just takes a little bit extra work but again the quality is not always the same. I have done this on occasions when I was in a fix and I needed to have a little bit more dynamic range. It definitely helps a little bit but not as much as obviously having three separate files to deal with. So, the way to deal with one image is to actually take the raw file and drag it into camera raw (I like using it because it is a quick in and out program) and then take the neutral exposure and do a little bit of adjustment by maybe doing the highlights and the shadows by either increasing/decrease the highlights and increase the shadows and do a little bit of vibrancy Nothing major really but just slight adjustments before saving the file as a Tif. File. I will keep that file open and then do the same thing with that file except that I’ll leave all the settings that I just made but I’ll take the exposure and maybe knock it down one or two steps depending on how deep I want to go with the shadows. So, I’ll drag it down there and I’ll save another Tif file and then I’ll take the exposure and bump it up one or two steps overexposed and save that as another Tif file. As such, I will technically have 3 files to deal with and the reason why I’m doing Tif files and not jpegs is because I want something that’s totally uncompressed to help the quality of the photo. Jpegs normally give you a compressed version of what you had before and that’s how you start seeing noise, ghosting and defragging and stuff like that.

If you want to do this technique, the best thing is to do a Tif file. I will then take those Tif files and run them through an HDR program like Photoshop or Lightroom or Photomatix among others and then try to adjust them from there. If you do this and you are not getting the same results as you would when editing one file altogether, this could be the way to get some stuff back but again this is what  I will only use in a case of emergency situation and needed something that looks ‘HDR-ish’ or brings back a little bit of details. If I want to get a real HDR photo, I will have to use 3 individual photos.

Now that we know what HDR is, we go back to our original question on whether HDR photography is dead? My short answer to this is “No”. The reason I say this is that it’s not really as it was but is kind of revolving a little bit. What I mean by that what it seems to me is that people are totally ok in doing HDR photography if it is done almost the manual way. What I mean is that maybe you are taking 3 separate photos but you are not running it through a program. You will take the three separate photos, edit them a little bit and drag all of them through Photoshop and manually blend them in with layer masks and all these other stuff. That is what HDR photography seems to be; you are capturing more data for 3, 5 or any number of separate images and then manually blending them in.  I think more people will respect this rather than running them through a program but that is what it tends to be now. So, if you’ve ever heard of manual blending, that’s kind of how it goes. Maybe you are blending a bright sky and the dark foregrounds, what you will do is take the exposure of the sky that is over-exposed and not worry about the foreground at all but worry about it in the next photo and you store those in Photoshop and mask them out and blend them together. That’s kind of what is being considered ok now when it comes to High Dynamic Range photography.

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