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April 11, 2014

Is HDR a Fad?

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.

lavender-square-150pxNicole S. Young is a professional photographer living in Portland, Oregon. She is the author of several print books and eBooks, and runs her own online store for photographers, the “Nicolesy Store“.

You can read more of Nicole’s articles HERE, and view her work and website HERE.

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Join the conversation! 24 Comments

  1. A link to the mentioned article would have been nice.
    But I think I’ve read the “rant” and the summary was:
    “camera sensors are increasing their dynamic range, up to a point where one
    raw file is enough to retrieve shadows and highlights where before you would have
    needed 3 exposures.”
    So, as long as your scene has a higher dynamic range as the sensor is capable of capturing,
    there will be the need for HDR processing/exposure blending.

    • Hi Mario, I totally understand about the link to the article I mentioned. I didn’t want to call anyone out or cause trouble, I just mentioned it because it got me thinking. :)

  2. Excellent article in which I agree with about everything you say! The key as you initially said is to start out with a great subject and composition – or, a bad photo is a bad photo. Of course that statement can be quite subjective depending on who you talk to! I’m just an enthusiast but love the tonal range that HDR can add to a photo. As in everything else, moderation seems to be the key.

  3. It’s like saying HD TV is a fad. We get accustomed to seeing the clarity and if it’s done right, I think it’s wonderful.

  4. This photo is STUNNING!!!!!

  5. I agree HDR is here to stay as a process I strongly dislike that it is considered a category in contests and shows.
    Thanks for a well written and thoughtful take on the subject.

  6. HDR may be something that a small percentage of photographers use regularly.

    First, what percentage of DSLR owners also own tripods? Second, of that percentage, what segment regularly carry those tripods and use them?

    General hobbyists seem unlikely to do the legwork of capturing shots and then processing.

    If HDR is to catch on more broadly, it will be when in-camera HDR is widespread and “good enough,” just as compressed music became “good enough” or cell phone cameras became “good enough.”

    Even then, maybe most of the iPhone photos aren’t even using the built-in HDR available to the last couple of generations.

    • You don’t need to use a tripod to make an HDR. I shoot handheld all the time on a mirror less camera. Plenty fast enough.

    • So true. I personally carry my tripod on virtually all trips. Hardly see many others do the same unless it happens to be a location that normally dictates it (say waterfall).

      It is also true that most hobbyists tend not to want to spend much time in front of the computer processing it. Just hit auto or use a JPG.

  7. HDR as a polarizing religion was a fad. HDR as a handy tool, one of many in my tool box, is not.
    Great post.

  8. HDR is a process that allows you to increase the quality of an image. Just with all editing processes if you take it too far then it will always be bad. HDR stylized images were fashionable once and at first people (non-photographers) loved them because it was new, now time has passed and they understand a little about digital photography and the new fashion is real images ( with instagram stylized filters)..

  9. I have to respectfully disagree with parts of your post. I do feel that often times an artist is defined by their “process”, and I have seen many photographers who use HDR as their genre and identify themselves exclusively as an HDR photographer (Bob Photographer, HDR Photographer). I love a well saturated color photograph, but there are many “artists” who no longer know how to make proper exposures and create a beautiful photograph without resorting to a process like HDR to “fix” their images. Personally, I am over the HDR craze, and wish people would learn how to use proper exposure and lighting to make clean images again. I feel like the modern photographer is not so far removed on the evolutionary chain from GWC as we once were, and I feel like it’s because so many photographers aren’t taught how to make good pictures anymore, but how to take a mediocre photo and turn it into something far removed from what the original scene once looked. Maybe I’m too “old school”, but I think having to learn the zone system, how to properly expose both negative film and positive slide film, and process both by hand made me a stronger overall photographer with a tighter grasp on what constitutes a good photograph. Perhaps the term photographer has become too loose and we need a new term for those who heavily rely on Photoshop to create a good image.

    • Heather… while I can respect many of your points… I have to strongly differ with you on one. There is no substantial difference to what a talented person does in Photoshop, then what one can do in a darkroom.

      I use the zone system and much that’s listed. Your response to the article doesn’t seem to actually respond to the authors points.

      I’m happy to show you plenty of ways that HDR simply recreates what the eye can see and the camera cannot.

    • Fixing a bad photo in Photoshop (or any software, for that matter) is entirely different than creating a photograph with intent and working with it on the computer. For many photographers, using software to finish a photograph is no different than printing a film negative in the darkroom.

      And, FWIW, HDR is not a fix for improper exposure. Film has a higher dynamic range, much of which can be brought back by dodging and burning in the darkroom. How is that different than what we do on the computer for HDR?

    • HDR isn’t a process to fix anything. HDR is a process where one NEEDS to capture multiple exposures because the technology available to them will not capture the range in one shot. It takes more planing than what your idea of a “proper” exposure. Your notion of properly exposing just doesn’t apply when the exposure can’t be captured in one shot. In fact, your notion your single exposure is automatically incorrectly exposed because you have to either be blocking shadows or blowing out highlights. The only thing the image processing software is fixing is the hardware’s inability to capture the full dynamic range of a scene.

  10. When I first discovered HDR, I have to admit, a lot of my images were over-processed. I now view it as a tool to expand the dynamic range of a scene past what a camera is capable on its own. Closer to what I remember the scene looking like when I was there. Many photographers do have a passionate opinion when they hear the term HDR. It makes their blood boil. Just mention it to an architectural photographer group and see what happens! Eventually, with experience, I believe they, too, will view it as a useful tool.

    Maybe the name will eventually be changed from HDR to something to make it more palatable. (Remember when no one would buy Slimehead fish so they changed the name to Orange Roughy?) I think it was Rick Sammon who started calling his processing EDR (Extended Dynamic Range) to avoid the HDR negativity. I’ll just stay out of the HDR argument for now and keep trying to learn, evaluate and use as many tools as it takes to get a great image.

    Thanks for the great article. You said what I’ve been thinking for a while now.

  11. Nice article. The term HDR has gotten hijacked by smart phone software to the point where many people think HDR means those cheesy micro-contrast filters that give a look like over-processed tone mapping. I don’t think the term fad applies but I do think that HDR may go away because at some point it seems likely that processors will be able to capture same dynamic range as human vision. At that point bracketing and combining captures is a disadvantage. You just wouldn’t want to risk subject movement that you have to resolve between the frames. There will still be a need for tone compression until output devices can mimic that same dynamic range but again, tone compression is not the same thing as HDR. It is a step in the process.

  12. Not a fad , Its a another tool for Photographers. is not the final purpose.

  13. I use HDR although I prefer to think of it now as NDR (Natural Definition Resolution) and see it as simply another tool in my tool belt, just as some use Photoshop, Lightroom or any other editing program. Listening to these same opinions about HDR I wonder why we never hear these opinions about infrared photography?
    Personally, I enjoy the very real look that HDR gives me with my wildflower photography. For me, its NDR and I love it.

  14. HDR is a process which has turned HDR into a BAD FAD!!


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About Nicole S. Young

Photographer, author, entrepreneur. I love photographing food and landscapes, and have written several how-to books on Photography, post-processing, and creative inspiration. You can find more about me on my blog, online store, as well as on Google+ and Twitter.


HDR, Opinion, Photography


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