What They’re Not Telling You About HDR Images


I remember showing someone one of my black and white prints a few years ago—and I could tell there was something they really didn’t like about it. They stared at it for a minute or so, and then said, “Why is it in black and white?”

I told them that the shot was originally taken in color, and that I had converted it to black and white in Photoshop, and they said something along the lines of “Why would you do that?” After talking a little longer, they just told me flat out that they just didn’t like black and white photography. Never had, and they couldn’t understand why anyone would take a perfectly good color image and remove all the color. (Sigh).

I understand that everybody has different tastes, and some folks just don’t like black and white, or duotones, and some people don’t like Split Tones (like me), and some don’t like panos.

You Mean, Like HDR?
Now, when it comes to HDR, I’m kinda of in the middle. I enjoy shooting my own HDR shots, and I get a kick out of processing them. If someone shows me a great HDR image, I’m like “Wow!” If they show me a few more, I’m like, “Those are good.” If they show me a book of them, after about the eighth page, I’m dying to see a regular un-HDR’d image. The novelty can wear off fast on me.

I know some people are at the complete other end of the spectrum. They hate any HDR that doesn’t look natural and photorealistic, (of course, if it truly does look natural and photorealistic, I guess that kind of really means “it doesn’t look like HDR”).  :)

What They’re not Telling You About HDR Images
There’s a secret about those “over the top” HDR images that you don’t hear a lot of non-HDR photographers talk about. While many of these photographers don’t like HDR images at all…

….non-photographers absolutely love them!

That’s right—-regular, non photographer people love those over-the-top HDR images. Even though it’s seldom talked about, I think that’s incredibly important to know.

Matt pointed out something a while back while we were talking about this, and it has proved itself time and time again. Matt mentioned that if he sends a group of images to a magazine, or a Web site, etc., for them to pick a photo to highlight, they always (always!) choose the HDR shot.

Now, I fully realize that by saying this, there are photographers who will now post comments that say “My wife hates HDR” or “my boss won’t allow HDR in any of our marketing materials,” and so on, but save yourself the time and trouble, and just think about it. Think about how other people (not photographers) react to images with the HDR effect. It’s been my experience, time and time again, they love ’em.

My Love/Hate Relationship with HDR
You see the shot at the top of this post? That’s a pretty obvious HDR shot, taken on my vacation to China, and I didn’t even include the HDR shot in my post about my China photo book (link), because it was so over-the-top that I knew I’d catch some heat from HDR-hating photographers, so I intentionally left it out. The next day, I had a follow-up Q&A post (link), and that was the only photo that didn’t make the cut, so I thought—what the heck—-I’d run it and it might just go by unnoticed, and I’d be spared a nuking by the anti-HDR crowd.

I guess you can say I was incredibly surprised when I read stuff like this:

“That boat shot is killer! Good balance with HDR technique and the whole composition has “interesting story” written all over it. Quite frankly, I think it’s one of your best.”

“Love the shots from the trip, and your HDR on the ferry is FANTASTIC!”

“I like allot of your work, but this is my favorite shot of yours. It’s amazing. Love it…”

“First, that was an amazing image you used for the lead to this post. Great depth, detail and lighting. Well done sir!”

“I love the HDR Shot you posted! My fav of the bunch.”

“Fantastic HDR, the lighting and tones are beautiful.”

You’d think I would be ecstatic with comments like these, but instead I was really depressed. That’s because the regular un-HDR’d photo looks like this:


It’s a nothing photo. It’s not terrible. It’s not good. It’s what I call “A three-star photo.” Not so bad that you’d delete it, but not so good that you’d ever let anyone see it (by the way, the only reason I’m letting anyone see it now, is as a teaching tool). So, it was the HDR-Toning that transformed it from a three-star image to what embarrassingly for me, became an image that some called “my best ever.” (sigh).

My Case for HDR
I’ve read again and again how photographers who hate HDR-effected images feel that when a photographer uses HDR for the “Harry Potter Look” or goes for the classic over-the-top HDR look, they are somehow cheating. They feel it’s a trick to take a mediocre image and turn it into a masterpiece, so it’s not “real photography.” Sadly, I think my before/after actually helps to make their case to some extent.

However, this is where my case for HDR comes in.

Taking the mediocre regular shot took very little effort. I did have to compose the shot (and I think the composition is actually “OK”), but outside of that, I just pressed the shutter button, and the camera did all the work. The post-processing in Photoshop (in Camera Raw) was minimal—-it took all of 15 seconds, so the entire image has a total of less than 20-seconds invested it in.

However, for me to create an HDR image, I (as the photographer) have to work a LOT hardert. First, HDR doesn’t work for just every shot. There are certain types of shots that lend themselves to HDR (images with lots of texture, or metal, depth), and over time you learn which types of shots work (and which don’t). So, the first thing the photographer does is scope out subjects that would make ideal HDR images (it’s harder than it looks). When I saw the rusty, peeling wheel house, and the thoroughly worn wood deck, and old coiled up lines (rope), I knew it would make a good HDR image.

I had to set-up my camera to shoot an HDR bracket of five photos, and then try and steady myself while on a moving ferry in the harbor, while leaning on a railing, and trying to keep very, very still while all five exposures are captured.

Later, I have to work with five images—not just one—then I have quite a bit of post-processing work to do, including using Camera Raw not just once, but twice, along with HDR tone-mapping, and final editing and sharpening, beyond what I’d normally do. In short; it’s dramatically harder to capture a good HDR image, from the moment of capture, through the post processing stage, and the image wasn’t rescued by HDR—-it was created to be an HDR image from the outset. I didn’t just press a button and out popped a winner—I had to work it.

It’s Not Fair!
Normally, this extra photographic effort would gain the respect and admiration of fellow photographers, but when it comes to HDR, it generally gains scorn. I don’t get it. Just like that person at the beginning doesn’t “get” black and white photography. I know HDR isn’t for everyone, but like any effect, it can be fun to do, fun to look at, and like any other effect, you can get sick of it after a while. But each image should be judged on its merits, and not dismissed because “You don’t like HDR” or “You don’t like Black and Whites.”

So, in the past few months, I did learn that non-photographers love HDR shots (and all the photographers I polled asking about how their HDR work was viewed by non photographers, agreed 100% that non-photographers seem to absolutely love HDR images). But I learned two other things as well:

(1) You don’t seem to find people who are really good at creating HDR images, that don’t like HDR images. Just like you don’t find people who are Photoshop experts, that don’t like Photoshop. The people I find that scorn the use of Photoshop, aren’t very good at it.

(2) I find that no matter how much I look at that HDR image I did at the top of this post, and no matter how many people tell me they love it, I will never like it. When I look at it, I know what “it really looked like.” In my mind’s eye, I always see the original, 3-star regular exposure image I showed earlier, and so I’ll never look at it as a great image. I guess I feel like it’s kind of cheating too, even though it took me more time, effort, and skill to get there.

For those of you that do shoot somewhat over-the-top HDR shots, how do your clients, friends, and co-workers react to these types of shots? Do they dig ’em? And, how do you feel about them after the fact (after all, you’re probably the only one who saw the original single exposure). Do you feel like I do? (and did anyone get that subtle Peter Frampton reference?). I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.

  1. A friend told me that he knew someone who doesn’t like soup. I was able to top that, because I know someone who doesn’t like music.

    From your example I wonder how an alternate processing of the dull original would fare. The HDR version gets brighter colors, better detail, especially in the deck texture and in the buildings on shore, and more color variation. Two possibly interesting variations come to mind. First, if you took the original and the HDR shot as the extremes, how would viewers respond to a blend of the two? Do non-photographers want the picture as colorful as possible? Or will they prefer something more subdued? This may depend on how many HDR images they’ve seen in a row.

    Second possible variation would be to process the dull original to set full range, get some more detail in the buildings and the deck, and brighten the colors, especially in the lighter half of the image. How would that play?

  2. Hi Scott,
    I totally agree, people like HDR. Otherwise when I show some shots from my trips to people who are not photographers (if there are any in the world these days), even if the shots are not HDR, they always questioning its faithfullness. The first question after watching a nice, colorful shot is *Is it Photoshopped?* After I answer *Yes, I process all the photos which I show to anyone in Photoshop* and they just reply with a *Oh, OK* which feels like a *Oh, OK, then you are just cheating. That`s easy*
    So I think it doesn`t matter if a shot is an HDR or `only` photoshopped in a normal way, people who are not photographers will always react like that if they hear the word `photoshop`. Maybe, next time I`ll lie :)

    1. Csaba – this experience is familiar to me as well. I’m doing a 365 Project this year, and blasting out the links on my Facebook, where many of my non-photog friends would see the shots and ask if they were photoshopped. On most of the shots that they questioned, the extent of post-production was ONLY the tweaking of colors/curves, that is, no head swapping or clone stamping. I would spend time in the shoot to create a good photograph, usually setting up strobes and/or a background, and I think it was this level of production that they saw and assumed Photoshop was at work, and it was the only reason they couldn’t do the same with their camera phones.

      Since those earlier comments, I’ve done all worlds of post-processing, lately I have been in need of a decent shot, and more than a few times I’ve combined a photo of great sky with a landscape that had a blah sky, with very good effect. I always point this out, and started the mantra, “Believe nothing that you see.” This seems to be in direct opposition to my gripe with people asking if a shot is photoshopped, it’s kinda like saying, “Yes. Everything is photoshopped. The better a shot is, the less you should believe it.” Which has always been true of photography, actually. I think I may have unknowingly arrived at this perspective after a month of HDR shots in my 365, which both made me better at HDR, and like it less.

      The funny part about all this is that now all the cellphone shots I see have been processed thru Best Camera, Holgmatic or whatever plastic camera simulator someone happens to have. I love the look too, but talk about disingenuous. It puts film rebates on the sides for Diana’s sake! Maybe all those folks will have a newfound respect for photoshopping?

    2. You don’t have to lie. See what we have here a breakdown in communication. You’re both hearing totally different questions. Allow me to translate. Photoshop as a verb is meant to the general public as drastically altering a photo by inserting objects that weren’t really there. They don’t see it as a tool to do color correction. Its honestly seen as putting someone’s head on a different body or changing the backgrounds to put you where you weren’t or sticking that UFO in the trees behind you. When someone asks me if a picture is photoshopped, the answer as far as they’re concerned is honestly “no, I just fixed the colors”

  3. I love to edit my pictures. It’s like painting to me. HDR is part of my routine. I shoot almost everything bracketed just because I can and it gives me more editing options. I don’t personally like “over-the-top” HDR pictures, but I love how HDR gives me more to play with when editing. I love how i can take a 3 star picture, maybe even a 2 star picture and make something striking from it. I can honestly say that I enjoy the editing part more than the picture taking part, but I know that is because I am a better editor than I am a photographer. I am working to improve my photography skills though and figure when my photography skills are as good as my editing skills I may actually be able to create a masterpiece, LOL!.

  4. I think there still is a generall misunderstanding out there. People think of photography like something pure and hard to learn/master. On the other hand most think that retouching in PS is something bad and easy to learn/master.

    But what is the difference if I build up a set with a wooden background, or if I take two seperate shots and merge them in PS? Is buying a wooden-texture background an taking it to the studio something “real”?

    P.S.: I have the same expression, very seldom I publish a HDR and non-photographers always love them. Especially if they are completly over the top from my point of view.

  5. HDR got it’s “scorn” because some (ok, a lot) of beginners began using it as there “go to” look for every photo. It wasn’t creative vision, but rather just cranking sliders to make their photos look “cool”. Like you said, it wears you out. HDR, like any post processing, can look great when done in a way that creates a compelling nature to a shot. Photoshop lets us complete our artistic vision, but may not look good when used a crutch.

    Oh, and in order to get the Frampton reference, you’d need a talkbox. :)

  6. Scott, It’s funny how many folks say they hate HDR but just mention it at one of your seminars and watch the ears perk up. I am sure by the end of Monday there will be 99 comments below this one for and against HDR. The fact is that those non-photographers are the customers buying them. I have one that has sold many and it’s the one everyone loves. I just want to know how to make them better!

  7. Hello Scott.

    When it comes to HDR, it’s ‘meh’ to me. I am starting to think more and more that photographers use HDR as the subject instead of finding a good subject to use HDR on.

    Take your HDR photo in this post for example. I’d agree that it is quite possibly your best HDR to date, but I feel like I’m looking at a photo with no subject. What do I look at? The life preserver or the city in the background or the ropes that meander across the deck? I keep coming back to the feeling that this photo is out of a movie or TV set that is ready for the subjects to be dropped in.

    If there is one thing I am glad about with this HDR post, is the we are finally past the Flickr HDR…

    PS. Scott, I can’t wait for the opportunity to meet you in person. I thoroughly enjoy every book of yours I can get my hands on. Keep up the awesome work.


    1. See.. and that’s where I disagree…

      One of the reasons that I fell in love with this image was because I felt like “I” was the subject. For fun, I used to to take the Staten Island Ferry in NY to go across the water, get to Staten Island, just to turn around and hop back on the Ferry. I remembered what it felt like when you were approaching the harbor to NYC.. there was this feeling of anticipation.. excitement.

      When I moved to upstate NY, I used to take a ferry out to Grand Isle, VT to head to Burlington. Same thing.. it was that “Almost Arriving” feeling.. and thats immediately where I went when I saw this image.

      I felt like it was a scene.. a moment that captured what it was like to arrive somewhere..

      Looking at an image and trying to find a Subject, Looking for the lines, trying to find the rule of thirds – has the artistic merit of diagramming a sentence. Its Academic, and often very boring..

      Sometimes.. you just have to feel it out. Now.. Taste varies…


  8. Okay, so for me I also fall in the middle on HDR. Yeah, it can be a gimmick, but just because something is a gimmick doesn’t mean it isn’t pleasing. You example, for example, as standard shot, it wasn’t that interesting. You throw the HDR into and yes, it’s kind of cool. But in reality, there was some subject matter there that could be made interesting.

    I think what has happened though is everyone and their dog is doing HDR, it just kills the concept. I shoot a lot of portraits, and among them are a lot of baby portraits. Yes I know you can mock me, but it pays the bills well. Anyway, everyone wants some picture of a baby in a pumpkin or hanging in some fishnet. And yeah, it makes for an adorable picture to most non-photographer. But, you have someone with a critical eye who has maybe seen several thousand of the same iteration and all they can think is someone ate an Ann Gedis (Spelled wrong I think) photography book and then threw it up.

    So there is my biggest problem with HDR, people use it instead of creativity. I would be fine if someone did some HDR, but they would need to mix it in with some black and white, and some full color, and some hi-key.

    I end with this. I think a lot of people think that by using HDR tools, they are stepping out of the box, but in reality, they are just stepping into the box of HDR. If we always seek to find the best way to express what we want, we won’t pin ourselves down to one thing.


    1. Stephen,

      I laughed out loud when I saw your reference to the baby portraits! Boy, do I understand your position there. I have a three week old baby boy, and as i set up the studio lights to get some shots a last week, my own wife says, “make sure you get some shots like ‘so & so’ has up on her site… to which I -internally- roll my eyes and groan. They’re cute, and Anne Geddes was, and continues to be, a pioneer with HER vision. Its just not mine, and everyone with an camera over $200 bucks is trying to shoot that way. Anyway, thanks for making me chuckle on a Monday morning!

    2. Stephen,

      I laughed out loud when I saw your reference to the baby portraits! Boy, do I understand your position there. I have a three week old baby boy, and as i set up the studio lights to get some shots a last week, my own wife says, “make sure you get some shots like ‘so & so’ has up on her site… to which I -internally- roll my eyes and groan. They’re cute, and Anne Geddes was, and continues to be, a pioneer with HER vision. Its just not mine, and everyone with an camera over $200 is trying to shoot that way. Anyway, thanks for making me chuckle on a Monday morning!

    3. Why would anyone mock someone for doing baby portraits? I’m doing birthday parties, engagement shoots, maternity shoots, a baby shower…kids, families…etc.

      Yeah, baby photos may all end up looking alike, but the point is that people want a photo of their kid the way they want it, not necessarily a unique and dramatic, once-in-a-lifetime shot that no one else has taken before. They’ve seen their friends’ photos and want some just like that.

      I love doing those kinds of shoots, on top of my own print photography which I also love with a crazy passion.

      And I do HDR as well…and I agree with what someone else said…if you get stuck ONLY doing HDR, you lose something…I like to do HDR, but also love B&W, exposure blending, etc. Lots of different ways to capture a scene.

      1. To respond to you, a lot of photographers look down on Wedding and Family Portrait photogs. As so capturing what the parents want. Well no, many of my images are once in a life time one-off shots that are amazing. But, I was hired for my photographic vision, not to replicate someone else.

        Yes, I have done an Anne Geddes type image a few times. I had quadruplets once and it was almost called for to do something like that. But like all things, once over done, they dis-inspire.

        Oh, and I’ll answer RC here, I hope he catches it. No, going out and looking for HDR does not mean you are uncreative, but if that’s the tool you are bound to, then yes, yes it does mean you are uncreative to some extent. Or at least that your creativity is bound into the box of HDR.

  9. Hi Scott,

    just a sidenote to what you said in the last “box”:
    I think, it would be worth noting that the reason for “Just like you don’t find people who are Photoshop experts, that don’t like Photoshop.” might be well the other way round than the one that is implied.
    I, for one, am well experienced with lots of different software (having studied software engineering) and never had any problems using any graphics software. Still, since I just don’t like the excessive use of Photoshop (or gimp) on my pictures, I never bothered using – and learning – it. Lightroom already fulfills about all my picture “editing” needs. And if I want to do something I can’t do in Lightroom, then I open gimp and edit it. That happens about once a year. So – as far as Photoshop is concerned – I’m a “doesn’t now Photoshop because he doesn’t like Photoshop” guy.

  10. I don’t think the question need be restricted to HDR Scott.
    Now with facebook and seeing everyone’s photos published we get to see a range of techniques.
    HDR always gets the thumbs-up from punters. For the life of me I don’t know why – I keep saying it looks like visual vomit, but hey, that’s me!
    But when people post other waaaay over-processed imagery, it always seems to get the thumbs up too.
    Something could be heavily coloured ie green/ yellow. It could be exceptionally heavily contrasty, or saturated. And the facebookers applaud with “likes” and comments. “You’re such a great photographer”, “have you thought about turning pro”.
    I turn to my paperbag at these comments and feel the bile rising. Ugh!
    I think all that people are responding to is the idea of difference. They’re bored with looking at same-old, same-old photos that everyone else has and they’re responding to the excitement of difference.
    They’re NOT responding to great technique or great photograph, just someone that spent, say, 20 seconds in photoshop…

  11. I shot a range of indoor shots as an assignment for a new restaurant once. Given I wanted to capture atmosphere and it was kind of dark in there, I thought I’d just shoot a couple of HDR’s to try and bring out the dark areas.
    I gave the client a choice of 10 images to use, and despite them all being of the same quality of image, and mostly ‘normal’ shots, they chose the one HDR image in the 10 to use for their ad.
    So yes, non-photographers do love HDR images.

  12. Totally agree with the fact that “non-photographers” mostly prefer HDR if you show them both the original and the HDR-processed photo. So I really don’t understand all this HDR hazzle: the end (means the result) justifies the means. Maybe the reason for all the discussions about HDR amongst photographers could be the results of an overload of (somtimes really bad processed) HDR photos, mostly at the time HDR became a public manner, or “mass phaenomen” if you like. Many people did simply produce overprocessed images with HDR, they have produced loads of ugly photos in the eye of other photographers. As a photographer, you’ll usually oberserve photoblogs and photocommunitys, so after the 50th “bad” HDR with q00px wide halos around every subject and dirty, scooty clouds, you may evolve an aversion.

    Nevertheless, I really like “good” HDR and if its used as a stylistc device (like in Scott’s photo above), there is, in my eyes, absolutely nothing that speaks against the usage.

    My 2 cents

  13. Well, I am going to be a counter-example to your first point. I consider myself quite proficient at HDR, if maybe not an expert (if you want to judge for yourself: http://www.aperturefirst.org/index.php?x=browse&category=9) but I really, really don’t like the overcooked HDR look.

    I think it is a great tool to be used when the scene really requires it, because its contrast exceeds the dynamic range of the camera, but only if the goal is to obtain a realistic looking image. Here’s an article I wrote to defend this point of view: http://www.alexandrebuisse.org/writings/articles/A-plea-for-HDR

  14. To pick up on your main theme, what actually is important is what the viewer thinks, if indeed you are making pictures to be appreciated by others. I’m often amazed at which photos of mine people like. For example http://quicksilver8.redbubble.com/works/4052705-4-sheffield-eye-ferris-wheel-at-night . I took a series of shots of this Ferris wheel at night and as an after thought included this treatment when I uploaded them to fickr. It went ballistic getting in explore and sixty odd favourites and loads of comments. I actually preferred the natural colour version.

    Unfortunately I think in any area where you are knowledgeable or expert and understand the processes involved it can detract from the magic. I took my two daughters on the Peter Pan ride at Disneyland Paris. Ellie who is actually the eldest exclaimed “Daddy we’re flying” to which Isabel my more practical youngest said flatly “It’s just attached to a hook on the ceiling”. I think the photographers eye is like this.

  15. Scott,

    Thanks for a fascinating read and yes this is exactly the kind of response I get to some HDR images that I’ve done in the past.

    I have a bit of a struggle with HDR but when I say that it’s not a struggle with doing it but a struggle with ‘should I do it’. A while back I went through a phase of HDR’ing everything and did get some pleasing results that ‘non photographers’ loved. However since revamping to a new website and a portfolio clean up, I no longer include these images. This has resulted in emails and conversations asking where those images are. Personally I’ve gone off them, and that may be because I’m particularly hard on myself and one day I’ll like a photo I’ve taken and the next day I wont.

    I still do use HDR but only very occasionally when I’m putting together composites as I believe does Tim Wallace on occasion but the HDR itself has to look realistic as opposed to the ‘Harry Potter’ style yo refer to.

    Going back to your post I for one do actually really like the HDR version. Now that I think is because it’s an image that suits HDR. The main problem I think with the whole HDR thing is that some people get hold of the technique and HDR every single thing.

    Ultimately I think ‘the’ skill with HDR is knowing when to use it.


  16. I do too get a strong positive reaction from my HDR prints from non-photographers. However I do also get some accusational comments about HDR which I just grin and bear because I know why I did it. It has its uses, and I use it carefully, just like choosing B&W or not. It’s a tool at my disposal.
    You need to ask yourself if it sticks out like a sore thumb in your portfolio or does it seamlessly slide right in? Do it carefully so you can be proud of it and hit the wow factor from everybody not just non photographers.

  17. You’re talking mostly about the effects of tonemapping parameters, not HDR per se.

    That aside, the way to overcome the angst about other people’s opinions is to take criticism only from people whose own work (in overlapping fields) you respect.

    It’s just a technique. What matters is when you choose to use it (and how, if it shows).

  18. Hi there,

    In my experience many HDR-images are “too much” over-the-top. That don’t mean that I don’t like HDR, just that the ones I have been shown most often are too extreme, at least for my taste.
    This could partly be because I myself isn’t that good at creating HDRs, even though I like to try from time to time. From my view this confirms your conclusions.
    But I must say that I generally preffer a four-star regular image over a five-star HDR.
    Just as a side-note, I read a rather funny comment on HDR some days ago:
    “HDR is like riding on a small motorscooter: it is fun, but you don’t want your friends to see you doing it.”
    The comment is from Andy Biggs, who is cited in this blog post by Grover Sanschagrin.
    That blog-post, and its three “sister-posts” are recomended reading.

    Hampus “Scarlett” Haara

  19. You know…I think I’ve sorta put my finger on a piece of the HDR “rub” for me…maybe. “Does it add to the shot”…does it serve a purpose other than “Look…interesting technique”. In your boat shot…absolutely…it enhances the story of the boat.
    It’s like the latest actions or “tilted” portraits where the technique is just there for its own sake.
    Used for a purpose…I love it…used ‘cuz you just bought Topaz/Lucis…not so much!
    Stated otherwise…if the picture is strong enough to stand on its own…don’t employ the action…my 2 cents!

  20. Even in the film days there was post processing in the darkroom. Was this wrong or considered not real photography because you altered the print from it’s original capture? No and no. I’ve read blogs and forums that both praise and scorn HDR. I like HDR when it’s done in a way that captures the full tonal range you see with your eyes. The notion that this is not real photography is crap. In every art form there are different techniques to express one’s creativity. Whether you dodge & burn, cross process, duo tone, or tone map the hell out of it does not make it fake or a contrived attempt at polishing a turd into a masterpiece. Photoshop is the darkroom of today that gives you infinite possibilities in which to show off your creativity. You can’t please everyone and if you get flack from other photographers you probably are doing something right. Haters act out of insecurity and a sense of entitlement, it’s best to tune out the noise and create. Haters with waste time badgering on and on when they should be shooting instead… whoa, I’ve rambled. I like the image Scott, don’t beat yourself up :) HDR is just another means to express creativity but you should have other photos that are processed other ways to show a little diversity.

  21. Know what else non-photographers love? Black and white photos with one item/area still in color. It makes me cringe, but when working for clients I think it’s important to keep in mind that making them happy should be your priority.

    I am not a huge fan of HDR either. It’s like having Michael Bay directing your photo for you. They might as well just add a “Michael Bay” filter to Photoshop. But I think it’s important what you’re pointing out, Scott. There’s a reason why Bay has directed some of the highest grossing movies of all time.

    1. Hi Bo:
      You are right on with your statement that non-photographers love that look where you convert the photo to black and white, and leave one part in color (like a photo where everything is in color but a bride’s bouquet).

      That another one where, as a Photoshop user I’m like “Oh not that tired old look” but clients absolutely love them, which is why they’re in just about every wedding album these days. The customer is always right. :)


  22. I wish someone would come up with a better name for what is termed “over-the-top HDR” instead of just calling the technique and the results HDR because I feel it is misleading. I am a nature photographer who uses HDR in almost all of my landscapes to capture a greater luminosity range that otherwise possible. I choose to tone map the images in a realistic manner simply because that’s what I’m about. I have nothing against anything any artist does to express his/her vision. But I think we are perpetuating the idea that HDR is a surrealistic technique only and for that reason, many photographers may be missing out on one of the most important tools of exposure. I teach an HDR class and I’m having a difficult time selling it just for this reason.

    In your recent workshop, Scott, you demonstrated HDR only as this “over the top” technique. Although I understand the popularity of the surrealistic use of HDR, I wish you had demonstrated how to tone map for a natural-looking result as well. The irony is that you are not overly fond of the “grunge” look yourself and yet you missed an opportunity to show the other side of the story.

      1. Both you and Joyce make me wonder: would you say the same about any other “overcooked” technique?

        There’s been mention of selective desaturation in the comments, above.
        There’s pseudo-Orton, that makes an image dark and ethereally glowy.
        There’s fake b&w “IR” processing, heavy on the red channel.
        There’s fake-cyanotype and duotoning.
        There’s fake-“tilt/shift” (really annoys me, that one: go out, get an LF camera for cheap and do it properly!).
        There’s fake-“lomo”, vignetting and corner blur.

        All of these tricks should be insignificant, however. What matters is an acceptance that the artist wanted that particular look. (By implication, the artist should not publish zillions of variations on an image, either: selection is an artistic talent.)

      1. I have been calling it “stylized” or “surrealistic” Tone-Mapping vs Realistic Tone mapping for several years now. There is a place for it, if it’s done well. Sadly, very few do it well and their “halos” aren’t a sign of an angelic image.

  23. Hi Scott

    I think some perspective needs to be put around your “three star” photo before it can be judged. From what I’ve read about it, it was always intended to be part of a collection of photos that generated an HDR image. Yet it’s being judged as a stand-alone photo. To me that’s like taking a pohutukawa flower (which is off a tree in my home country of New Zealand) and trying to judge it as a rose, it’s never going to live up to expectations.

    If we take that pohutukawa flower, put it back in it’s tree, then judge the flower as part of the tree, all off a sudden it becomes a much more beautiful flower. The same can be applied to your photo. If it’s judged against the purpose it was taken for, which is as part of a collection of five photos that will build an HDR photo, then it’s a five star photo. It has great composition, it fits the purpose it was taken for perfectly, and it was taken with great foresight in being able to see the potential in it as an HDR.

    Anyway, I hope that makes some sort of sense.

  24. I agree but I think it can be summed up with not just tonemapping but any amount of post production.

    The non-photographer doesn’t know how it was created and sees something very different from what they are use to. It is often something they believe they couldn’t do with their own camera. They don’t realize what the original may have looked like and see this vibrant world they are not use to seeing.

    Good or bad, my experience has been always positive until it hits the cartoon look. That’s when red flags are thrown by everyone.

  25. I wonder if the negative reactions to “HDR” are not really objections to overly aggressive tone mapping. Looking at your original photo it appears that the brightness levels in the image are well within the sensitivity of your camera; so, was the time and trouble of multiple exposures and then post processing really necessary? Could a similar effect have been obtained by using a program such as Topaz Labs Adjust or even the so called “single image” HDR that seems to be appearing in every HDR discussion?

    I agree with most, if not all, of what you’ve mentioned in your post. It is especially true that virtually all of the HDR or HDR type images I’ve shown to non-photographers have been winners. My wife, on the other hand, who has had to live with my mad scientist Photoshopping and experimentation, now takes a look at these “incredibly beautiful and creative masterpieces” and just says, “Not again. I wish you wouldn’t do that. I just want to see things the way they are.”

    As they say, “Difference of opinion is why we have horse racing.” It would be nice if everyone would use my perfect judgment and taste before posting, I’m pretty sure they won’t, so I just sigh and appreciate good work and move on when I see the overdone.

  26. I love HDR….people I know seem to either love it or hate it, like any other expression of art. I don’t understand all the angst and debate over what is simply another tool in our toolbox.
    Like all tools, it should be used judiciously, and allowed to breathe….and again, like all art, some will love it and some will hate it.

    1. I would have made this comment if I hadn’t seen yours first. No rules in art, and it it always is a matter of personal taste. Remember solarization?

  27. I wonder how many people told Ansel Adams that they didn’t like his Black and Whites?

    I always compare HDR (and other things) with loosing weight… You’ll always find some people who will tell you “Are you loosing weight?” while other people will see you and say “You need to exercise”. Everybody has a different point of view or in other words: “You can never satisfy all the people, all the time”.

    I think the “ART” in photography relates to the time and effort one puts into massaging the pixels to make them “Pleasing to the EYES OF THE BEHOLDER”.

    I’m sure there are people out there that don’t like the works of Ansel Adams….

    Great post as always!

  28. I think HDR can be used as a great tool to turn non-ideal situations into great pictures. For example, in your original, if you could have removed the smog, the cityscape may have been much more vibrant. But, not even the great Scott Kelby can do that! So why not take another approach…HDR.

    At a recent visit to a theme park down your way, before a certain section related to a previously (by you) mentioned wizard opened, I took some pictures of the areas that could be seen by the public. The problem is, there were about 30 other people taking pictures at the same time. My solution to having photos different then the others, HDR…

    I took advantage of my ability to do HDR to make an picture more interesting then the guy beside me. Take advangtage of what you know and what you have. After all, you have paid for those two things in one form or another.

    1. Er… why HDR in particular? I can do that too. ;)

      If you want to stand out from the masses by manipulating multiple images into one artwork, experiment with superposition; I’m having a phase of using the HDR algorithm to combine moving subjects (waterfalls[0]), comparing that with image-stacking[1], and even timelapse video.

      [0] this way you get fuller-bodied white highlights than any one fast frame, even from 3 fast daylight exposures, whilst avoiding the cotton-wool water effect.

      [0] As used in astrophotography; the idea being, why buy zillions of ND filters to get your 7-minute long exposure in daylight when you can take 60 fast exposures 7s apart and layer them on top of each other instead? (If you use layer transparency in photoshop, then each layer up from the background should have opacity set to 100/n %; for 60-odd frames, it’s easier to write a script to do it programmatically in your favourite language.)

  29. I like to think I am somewhat artistic, but I can’t draw…can’t paint either. I couldn’t mold anything out of clay or blow glass if I tried. This is why I photograph though. I can use the camera to “paint” or “draw” my artistic impression onto a digital file. HDR is another tool that allows me to do just that and I can’t understand why other photographers don’t embrace it that way.

    As far as people liking my HDR images…yes, I do tend to get better responses out of my HDR images, especially from non-photographers.

    Is it cheating? I certainly hope not. It is supposed to be easier to cheat, right? I tend to put quite a bit of work into an HDR shot. At least a lot more than in a regular, single exposure image.

    I also am not on either side of the guantlet concerning HDR processing. You always hear pro HDR folks say something like “I like it when used to prcoess a natural looking photo, but can’t stand that cartoony look it gives”. I, on the other hand, think of it as two sepreate tools I can use. I have processed HDR images as natural as I remember from standing there looking at the scene and those images got great response. I also will push the edge a bit on HDR to get a more surreal effect. This images get just as good of response as the natural HDRs. Like you mentioned, Scott, it’s all about the scene for me. If I walk into a building that has paint peling off the wall, old bricks, rusty things, etc. I automatically know I am going to produce a HDR shot on the edgey side. If I decided to shoot a sunrise and do it a la HDR, I know I am going to process it as a natural HDR shot.

    I think you summed it up really well, Scott. I like HDR. I use it. I like my results. I do get tired of seeing it all the time, though.

    As far as if I feel like you do…concerning always seeing the single exposure image…No, I do not feel that way at all! In fact, I’m 100% the opposite. Before I even start to take a HDR image, I know in my mind what I want the final image to look like. So before the first shot is even taken I know I want the scene to either be processed grunged out or natural and I know in my mind what I want out of my tonemapped image and that is what I expect to get. I could care less what the single expsoure shot looks like. Just like I don’t care what my shot at -3 looks like. Why should I? At the end of the day, I got the image that I wanted and am still sleeping pretty well. ;)

    Rambling done now.


  30. I don’t think you should hate the HDR in this photo. The photo isn’t great art; as you said, it’s got a decent composition, etc, but the tonality is pretty blah until you used HDR on it.

    That made the photo a usable illustration. It brought the image quality up to the standard of other photos in the book. The book wasn’t an art book, it was a story book, and the images had to work together, and HDR made this photo (which you might have needed to tell the whole story) good enough to use. But I doubt that it’s a photo that you’d want to put on your wall. (I’m sure you have better)

    The problem is that the public has other (some might say “lesser”) standards, and the last cool photo they look at must be your best ever. So don’t be depressed that people liked it so much; they weren’t looking at it next to better photos is all.

    As for the standards of the public – I constantly remind a friend that his standard for a good photo is much higher than the people who buy them. (he sells prints of car groups) If the colors of the cars are right, and you can see the cars and the faces, they’re happy.

    I don’t let purists tell me how to shoot or process my photos. :)

  31. Have to admit in this case I prefer the HDR image. It has dimensionality that the original doesn’t. But then again, I’m an amateur who thought the true role of HDR was to give you greater dynamic range as opposed to the over saturated “CGR” effects that many seem to prefer.

  32. Hi Scott,

    You are right that most non-photographers get bowled over by the typical high contrast, saturated HDR images, while photographers don’t. Like many other types of images, such as B&W photography, HDR is a learning process. It’s just B&W images get less flak due to their perceived timelessness and less likely to gnaw at viewer’s eyeballs when they are done poorly. Most photogs learn and improve based on other people’s feedback. And when the non-photogs praise the look of over-cooked HDR images, photogs are encouraged to create more of those images. Nothing out of line with other form of learning, really.

    Just to throw a nugget out there: sometimes I like to combine HDR with B&W techniques: e.g. http://www.flickr.com/photos/hurworld/2798610490/



  33. While I love the shot and appreciate the vision, skill and effort that made it, I’d like to point out that, I believe, something quite similar could well have been accomplished in a single frame with some selective underexposure and filtered small flash fill.
    Would that, then. feel more “real” to you?

  34. Wow… it isn’t HDR that is problem it is the constant debate and hand-wringing over subjects of no real consequence. If anything new comes along a few adopt it and people “wow” over it… then when it becomes available to a larger audience the “wow” disappears… People just want to justify themselves to gain acceptance so they take a position…. if you don’t like it walk away… if you do like stare to your hearts content… It would be like walking into a restaurant and see peanut butter and jelly on the menu and feeling compelled to grab the chef and explain to him all the reasons why you don’t like peanut butter and jelly…. Gosh who cares… just order (or do) something else…

    After all photography isn’t really art…. it just easy anyone can do it….. right… there are not great photographers just wannabe artists that can’t paint….

    Ok if you started to feel your blood warm a bit then you just got the point…. this kind of debate has been around a long long time… just different tools, different techniques are being substituted….


  35. That’s a very interesting observation! I do agree that non-photographers will love HDR more than photographers. I think that is one reason many people like Thomas Kinkade. His stuff is kind of HDR like.

  36. As we learn to do anything from our mentors, we create a passion for doing our thing their way. I find that photographers who enter photo contest are the most likely to hate HDR or anything else that seems different to their rules. Almost all photographers that are driven by the customer will be driven towards new ideas, one might be HDR, selective color, black and white or any number of wants.
    The longer a person has been doing anything one way the more they are convinced that is the best way. I love learning new things about my passions in life. I don’t like or dislike HDR, I just want to learn the in and outs and make my own decisions about when or if to use it.

  37. Photographs, to viewers, are about the emotions they evoke. How you get there, and the genre’ really is only a mechanism – if the image works, it works. And having a unique treatment for a photo that’s important to them connects the owner with the world of “art” – even if it’s cliche’ to someone else (or elses…)

    Scott, I tend to not like HDR because of the really garish stuff that shows up – but your harbor shot is one I really, really like… nicely done.

  38. I’ve found that in general, your “normal” photo-viewing folks tend to like anything with over-saturation (judging from the types of pics that are starred/faved/thumbed up) which explains why HDR attracts the attention it does.

  39. Hi Scott…Love this topic and seeing all of the “fuss” over it.

    I think it’s the typical issue people have with change, the reluctance of people to try something that might be perceived as insulting to “traditional”, etc. I thought this back when I toyed with the idea of going to digital from film. I wanted to stay true to the craft and I thought that going digital was a way of cheating or something.

    Just as black and white is a different presentation of a color image, I think HDR can represent a valid and interesting (and different) presentation of an image. People take these objections to photo manipulation way too far. I think some of that is fear though. Fear of learning something that seems complicated.

    I think of it as art. That’s the whole point in my opinion. To go beyond the “who cares” to the “wow”. Sure, it’s not for everyone…but it’s all over the place, it’s in just about every magazine, all over advertising, etc. I also think that most people who object to HDR don’t really understand it because they only see the blown-out “grunge” look.

    Your two examples here are a perfect example of a good, creative use of HDR and the benefits of this type of processing.

  40. I agree with many of your points, but you are wrong about one thing. Your original photo is just as far from reality as the HDR version. No way did your eye see anything so limited as the original exposure!

    A conservatively processed HDR (like the one above) is closer to reality!!!


  41. I posted a couple of surrealistic HDR photographs on the international photography blog (Aminus3) to which I belong. I was blown away by the overwhelming positive response; I had expected a lot of anti-HDR comments. Having worked with both Photomatix and CS5, I just run it through the HDR engine in neutral and then I do my major work with Nik’s plug-ins.

    By the way, having seen the Sneak Peek on Nik’s new HDR plug-in (to come out the end of the summer), I know that it will become my HDR software of choice. It’s amazing!

  42. I was commissioned by a speaker manufacturer to shoot the new speaker cluster at American Airlines Center in Dallas after three photographers before me had failed miserably. The problem was that they wanted the shots taken during a live NBA game. HDR was the only way to pull off the shot and made me look like a genius when in reality it was a simple technique. I’ve shown the shot to photographers who say, “How did you ever pull that off?” but non-photographers say, “It’s a basketball game, so what!”

  43. Scott, I couldn’t agree with you more, except that I really do like your HDR shot of the boat. :) I’ve dabbled back and forth with HDR, got some mild enjoyment out of creating them, but I always feel that I’m not being a photographer, so much as being a Photoshopper …not that that’s a bad thing, its just not what I would prefer.

    That being said, occasionally I will throw in an HDR for a client on top of my ‘regular’ stuff and wouldn’t you know it, I may get comments on other photos, but someone will always comment positively on the HDR shot that just got “thrown in”. So yes, I most definitely agree that the general population of non-photographers still have a keen interest in HDR photos.

    Its a finicky world out there and each to his own. While I may not be showing any HDR photos in my portfolio, I always include one or two in my packages for clients because they always like them.

    The thing we have to remember is that, Photoshop *IS* the digital darkroom these days. Its no different than Ansel Adams cross-processing chemicals or dodging and burning a scene to get more rich looking contrast in his landscapes. In fact, I bet Ansel would have loved Photoshop!

    …just my two cents though.

  44. I was initially worried Scott when I saw that this was a post about HDR. I thought there might be an explosion of trollish comments and am happy to see I was wrong. Good discussion here. I am troubled that you would self-edit because of your concern over getting slammed by the HDR-haters. That’s the kind of self-censorship that I think has the potential to harm photography. If you’ve been around as long as I have you’ve seen many of these controversies. Back in the day the big controversy was whether or not “color” photography was “real” photography. Then there were the filter wars. If you used a filter on your lens you weren’t pure enough for the Beanie-wearing artists. Of course there was the whole digital v. film thing which has kind of died out by now.

    In the end, all I care about is the image. The image will live on. Our debate as photographers about how it was created will not. You hit it out of the park with “….non-photographers absolutely love them!”

    That will be the reason that HDR survives and will eventually be replaced with a new controversy. Distractions over how an image was made simply serve as a crutch for many people. As you rightly say, they don’t want to learn it or can’t so they attack it.

    Now obviously, some folks who could do HDR simply don’t like it so they take a pass as they should. But to spend time and energy attacking photographers or photographs because they are simply HDR is based on concern for the process and not the result. In that case I think if you’re ignoring the result you’re in the wrong place.

    And oh, I love the HDR shot! Thanks for sharing. One of the best posts you’ve written which is saying something since so many of your posts are great.

    1. Scott B. – As always your comments are right on. I completely agree, “In the end, all I care about is the image.”

      I’m reading Trey Ratcliff’s “A World in HDR”. He writes a comparison with early Impressionism and HDR and states, “At the time, other classical artists hated the Impressionists, but the public loved them.” He goes on to say “Artist (especially the subset therein of photographers) are some of the most persnickety people in the world.” Ha! That gave me a good laugh.

  45. I’m going to agree with most of you. As a photographer myself, I don’t find anything special with HDR. I did a couple of cool HDR shots before, but from them, there’s only one that I absolutely love. Now, I just don’t feel like doing HDR photos anymore, I guess I got bored of it, or I just want to shoot more realistic photos, because anyways I feel that I am “creative” enough without HDR. There is also tons of bad HDR photos over the internet that are too pushed and saturated, and some people think that is art…

  46. Scott, I like both shots of the ferry. HDR is a great tool for photographers, but I think one decides on a photo by photo basis. For me, The HDR one has a sharp,almost mean quality to the light. When I look at the original, the ropes and wooden deck have a warm feel to me. I think if the exposure were dropped down a notch or two it would be closer to what your eye saw at the time and perhaps closer to what it felt like being there. I have always wanted to go to China!

  47. Hey Scott,
    Great blog post. For me, HDR has a place in my workflow. However, I wait until I have a composed photo of some quality before I will even consider bracketing the composition. For some of these shots, the HDR looks fine. Others not so much. I think of HDR much like I do all other works of art. Other’s works are much better than mine. (My own worst critic) But, comparing my work to greats like yourself keeps me very, very hungry to get better. My friends and co-workers tell me that my photography is getting very good though.
    Thanks for teaching the masses. My sponge has not even began to fill up yet.

  48. I love the look of HDR… I love the look of cool photos. I’d say they look cool. Especially that boat up near the top of this post… Just wish I had more time to do my own HDR’s and get them to look so polished.

    Great stuff – keep them coming – They’re very cool.

  49. I like the HDR shot you posted. Not because it is a great HDR shot. But because it is an enticing picture that does indeed tell me a story.

    There are some HDR pictures I like. Some I loath. I loath the ones I loathe not because they are HDR but because they are – plainly said – bad pictures that happened to have been done with HDR.

    Since HDR is relatively new, I guess there are some people trying it that…. ah…. don’t get it or have it mastered yet. Or that don’t use it to its fullest extent. I can imagine that same thing happened when the first colour films became available. What did they they? “Oh, that is such an insignificant picture, its only merit is that it is in colour?”

    What might make you uneasy about the HDR is that you might not have learned to previsualize it yet. One thing I noticed about what seasoned black-and-white photographers say is that the more you shoot in b&w, the more you learn to see a subject in that context and judge if it is worth to develop it as b&w or not. A lot of photographers either had nothing else than b&w film or they had to actively shoot between a b&w film and a colour film. So it was a matter of choice and of making an active decision based on long – in sometimes decades long – experience.

    And HDR? It is still so new that each major software update has more than just a passing impact on what the technique can do. Have you had the time to learn it so thoroughly, that you can *exactly* predict how it will look after the conversion? With the same amount of certainty that you know the result of a conversion to b&w and print on high quality baryt paper will have?

    And if you can’t previsualize the exact outcome, why are you astonished that you feel as if you cheated if the result surpases what you expected? I might be wrong but it seems to me that you resent the HDR picture not because it didn’t fulfill your expectations but because you can’t forgive it its simpler infancy and can’t seperate that embryonic picture in your head and on your hard disk from the one you developed it into.

  50. I do a fair amount of HDR and I’ve been told by other photographers during critiques I’m pretty good at it too. That being said I definitely have to wear asbestos underpants most of the time. Some of the locals who are old hats at photography seem to hate HDR and disregard anyone who does it. As far as I’m concerned it’s a tool and works well for some images and not for others. I don’t do it all the time and I have a specific taste and style in them. If other folks don’t, hey that’s fine. Just move along and find something you do like. I’m not a fan on certain looks either but I don’t go around flaming their users. I’ve got more important things to do (like make more photos!). ;-)

    I’ve also gone through the same sort of self editing that Scott is talking about. I’ve definitely left some images offline or out of site because I was afraid of the flaming.

  51. I have to second the comment of Joyce. What ever happened to HDR meaning the kind of dynamic range we get with our eyes reproduced in the visible details of a photograph?

    I’m not suggesting the images with high saturation and contrast aren’t good images. Let’s just remember that what you’re calling HDR is really a manipulation of color, sharpness and contrast that’s something quite different.

  52. Great post, Scott. Let me preface by saying that I am a massive HDR fanatic. I love working with it and truly appreciate fine HDR images. With that said, I wholly agree with your points about the consumer/commercial viability of HDR. Most people (referring to non-photographers) do not go into the minutia of why they like a shot. It’s not about the narrow DoF, the lens used, and especially not because HDR was applied to it. It is because the image resonates with their eyes, they mind, and their sensibility (or lack there of). They remember your name, become a fan, and buy what you’re selling (if you are selling) because of the ‘ends’… not because of the ‘means’.

    My point is this: I do worry that a lot of people use HDR as a crutch to try and take a subpar shot and make it better by haphazardly applying this processing technique. Often, and unfortunately, the end result is usually worse than the original base image. Photoshop, HDR, Isolated Color, Orton, Plugins, Actions, etc. None of these should be substitutes for knowing how to capture a compelling image. Learning how to craft and fashion an image when you’ve got the camera in-hand is the absolute most important part of photography. It’s how you grow and how you, hopefully and ideally, begin to set yourself apart… by creating your own visual style.

  53. I use HDR quite a bit in my work photographing home interiors for builders. On one occasion I was shooting a home for the contractor who built the kitchen. The interior designer had a photographer shooting the house the day before. When I shoot interiors I’ll take at least 10 exposures for my HDR shots and after processing them I paint them into the regular photo so that nothing looks over cooked. Not only did the kitchen contractor use my photos but the designer purchased copies as well.

  54. Scott, actually your original shot only needed a tasteful sharpening applied only to those areas of interest and not an HDR effect. Most people, professionals included, do not have an artistic sense of subtlety and end up going overboard on a contrived, artificial means to enhance their pics. The ones I’ve seen on the NAPP members’ web portfolios are atrocious and actually hurt my eyes to look at. A great pic is able to elicit the question “how did he or she do it’?, and not be obvious to all who look. As for black and white, some of the best pics on the NAPP portfolio page, ironically, have been in this mode and have been able to convey a mood and nuance far better than any color pic ever could hope to achieve. Another problem with enhancing with HDR and also with LAB colors, is how do you avoid creating a lot of out-of-gamut colors even if you are printing from an ink-jet printer never mind sending the pic for publication in a newspaper or magazine? Even Dan Margulis has not, to my knowledge, addressed this issue when he advocates his LAB technique. Thanks for hearing my rant.

  55. While I do believe HDR is somewhat “gimmicky”, I do still feel it has its place.

    I was shooting some photos for a tanning salon once and, as you might imagine, shooting a tanning bed has a pretty “high range” of latitude. So I shot it with my tripod at actually 7 exposures. The client had no idea what I was doing at the time and said something like, “cant you just snap the picture?” I just said youll see when the photos are done, and as you mentioned, the ‘non-photographer’ client absolutely loved the photos and was blown away at “how I could do that”. followed by something along the lines of “my photos never look that good” (this is why you hire a professional, right?) and If I do say so myself, their advertisement was pretty nice looking ;)

  56. It’s pretty simple actually; the debate I mean. You either like how the image is processed or you don’t. I process most of my images that I would care to show someone and occasionally I get it right in the camera and there isn’t a need to go further. You can get that weird HDR look without multiple exposures so to my mind the real value of HDR is to get something that I would call more usable or desirable to look at and whether you do that with HDR or PS processing is a personal choice.

    There is a balance that needs to be achieved between things you get right in the camera and the things that are possible in post. I’ve taken washed out cell phone shots and made them usable with a little post. We all have those washed out “snap shots” in our library somewhere but if the composition is right then often times you can bring them back. The boat photo above is perfect example of how an average photo can become so much more with an eye for the creative post work. If HDR is the right tool for the job, then by all means….

  57. I like your HDR ferry shot because it reminds me of the almost magical experience that I had when I rode that same ferry in Hong Kong. I took shot after shot to capture all that I felt and saw. I have some I really like, but your shot brings to mind the surreal experience of Hong Kong. Every thing is just in a state of hyper-reality, like it is in your shot. The smallest detail on the boat, the waves, the skyline, the people’s faces almost glow. Is it really like that, no, but the experience of a westerner in the orient for the first or hundredth time is like that. You absorb every detail like a sponge. Your non-HDR shot does not convey that experience. The HDR shot is full of emotion for me.

  58. More on “over the top”: My first attempts at HDR were using the “photorealistic” settings provided by Adobe which was interesting but didn’t grab me. A few blog entries ago Terry White passed on the settings that he said that you started with which did grab me. Please comment on what is “over the top” in regards to these 2 settings. (yes, I remember that the “photorealistic” settings got luke warm comments during the beta teaching videos.) Is there an HDR that isn’t measured on the “over the top” scale. Regarding other comments, to me HDR is a filter. It doesn’t replace composition or viewer interest past the first 4 seconds; it does put back what the eye saw but wasn’t captured on “film”.

      1. June 1, 2010 video at the bottom of the blog. OR

        radius=176 px
        strength = .47
        gamma = .76
        exposure = .30
        detail = 300%
        shadow= -100
        highlight = -100
        vibrance = 22%
        saturation = 26%

        ps. thought I’d lost it because its not easily apparent

  59. 4 of my top 10 most popular photos are HDR (including my top 3). HDR images dominate my best selling prints. People like them, I like them, and I’ll never understand the hate som photographers feel towards them.

    Now, I’ll admit that it took me a while to get the hang of it. My earliest attempts were pretty lackluster. You have to train your eye to identify the kinds of subjects and scenes that will really work in HDR, as well as learn how to shoot and process them to get the result you want. But now it’s an integral part of my workflow. Which isn’t to say that I tonemap every photo I take, but it’s a tool in my workbelt that I’ll use to get the images I want – whether they be detailed but photorealistic landscapes, or the more colorful/surreal kind of scenes.

    I do think that people overuse HDR. I think that a lot of photographers use it to compensate for a bad image – they’ll take a 1 star photo and tonemap it, and the super-saturated halo-ridden result will look a little more “interesting” to non photographers. But I think you can say that about any technique, or photography in general. 90% of everything is crap. But for some reason when it comes to HDR, people are more likely to blame Photomatix when they see bad images than offer a critique to the photographer who published it. That’s the part I don’t get.

  60. I’m one of those who prefers your HDR version of the image to the single-exposure image. As presented, the HDR shot evokes feelings due to the dramatic lighting and textures. It gives the viewer a sense of being in your shoes. It’s a bit more eerie than the single-exposure and it allows our imagination to conjure up a sense of adventure, where the single-exposure just makes me think of a cold & boring ferry ride. Nothing to get excited about and I almost wish it were over so I could get on with my day.

    My original impression of HDR was quite negative. Most of the photos I saw truly sucked. What I didn’t know at the time was that it’s because the photographer hadn’t really finished creating the image. All they had done is tonemap the image, move the sliders in some atrocious manner and present that as the result. They never took the images into Photoshop to blend with the originals, provide any Levels or Curves adjustments, or do any sort of final processing. Worse, those images were of uninteresting subjects.

    I didn’t want to do any HDR photography and add to that pile of horrible images. Then I learned that HDR doesn’t have to suck. I watched Matt’s class on KelbyTraining and was very inspired to try it out. Shortly after that, I attended a workshop by Scott Bourne and Trey Ratcliff in Tampa (RC was there). That was truly eye-opening. Scott & Trey both had great information to share that went well beyond just the mechanics of processing an image.

    Trey shared his thoughts on Impressionist artists and how it influences his work. Scott shared his thoughts that a photograph isn’t reality (e.g., have you ever seen a waterfall that really looks like cotton candy?). I went there to learn and understand the techniques used in HDR post-processing, but I think the biggest lesson I learned was to free my mind from the concept that photographs somehow reflect reality. Reality doesn’t stop at 1/125th of a second or blur at longer exposures. Reality doesn’t require that I travel with 14 bags of lighting & camera gear. Reality is overrated.

    We take photographs for different reasons, but I’ve decided that the photographs I enjoy most are the ones that evoke a feeling or sensation, rather than merely record history. HDR is a tool that allows me to attempt to evoke something in others. I’m aware some people won’t like my images, but that’s OK with me. I’m just doing this for the fun of it.

  61. Scott,
    Well then if you happen not to feel so good about this picture, could I assume you could sell prints of it anytime soon? would love to have a nice big print (metal of course) of the final picture hanging on my wall…

  62. I hate the argument that post-processing is bad if it takes a “mediocre” image and makes it appealing. As a photographer, I am selling not my straight-out-of-camera shot, but my end result. More than that, I am selling the *perception* of my end result. If people like my final image, I have succeeded. Whether that means using HDR, selective color, or any other “gimmick” doesn’t matter; I just am out to make images people like.

  63. Without going into depth I’ll say this – yes, people love my HDR’s… yes, photographers tend to hate them. My most licensed image is a HDR – people see it, come to me, pay me to use it. That alone means I’ll keep doing it.

    Also, just between you and me, sometimes I like the “HDR” look ;)


  64. Scott,
    I shoot a lot of images specifically for HDR. I shoot other shots as well, but would consider myself an HDR shooter. Most of my “clients” (very few) absolutely LOVE the HDR look. Some of my shots are over the top, but not all. I try to make the processing match the subject…. I might create a overprocessed sky in a photo of a church. Or, as Rick Sammon and others say, MAKE a picture don’t TAKE a picture.

    I really don’t care if fellow photographers call me a photographer. I consider myself an artist that uses a digital camera to create my art. I understand that not everyone will like it, but isn’t that true in all walks of life? Especially Art?

    As far as knowing what my “original” photograph look like I understand that the EV0 photo that most photographers would call my “correct” shot is only 1/3 or 1/5 of my work flow. If you look at it any other way its like its like eating the apple out of the apple pie before you bake it.


  65. I can get very, VERY close to your HDR just by taking that single unprocessed image and pumping up the clarity, contrast, vibrance, saturation, recovery, and black sliders in lightroom.

    IMHO, HDR is using multiple exposures to reveal details in the shadows that are not visible when you take just one shot, and reveal details in the highlights that are not visible when you take just one shot. But in your example you are killing the details in the shadows, not revealing them. And you don’t bring out any additional details in the highlights. Just because you made the shot from 5 images shot in HDR doesn’t make this an “HDR shot” to me – it’s just using HDR as a technique when you could have achieved the same results from 1 image. I don’t get the point. I certainly think it’s a BAD example of an HDR shot to start off a discussion on the merits of HDR. I’d much rather have an example where the HDR image really does show a much greater dynamic range than was possible from a single image. Then we could talk more intelligently about what HDR did and didn’t accomplish for that image.

  66. “Beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder,” to quote the late, great Dean Collins. If people want HDR then do HDR. Pretty simple idea, do what people will pay you for so you can do what you want, even if no one else wants it.

    HDR can be cool. It can (obviously) turn a ho-hum photo into a jaw dropping OMG, how’d ya do that kinda shot. Good ego rubber, can be good check book rubber and those two alone isn’t a bad days work.

  67. I like some HDR, some B&W etc. Each picture has to be taken on it’s own merit. It has to speak to the viewer on some level. This is no different than paintings in the museum. There are some expensive pieces hanging on museum walls that I would have tossed in the trash.

    What I would be interested in seeing is the original photo of the boat but with the HDR cityscape view. :-)

  68. HDR is like the latest “hot” hairstyle. It looks good on some – bad on others. Some think it’s the greatest look in the world, while others may hate it. Some really don’t care. When we look back at this time, ten years from now, we’ll wonder what were we thinking! It’s a phase and will soon be replaced by another trend, enabled by the ever changing field of technology. There will always be the hippies – the purists – who refuse to cut their hair or wear make-up.

  69. This obsession with ‘pure photography’ always amuses me. Many of these were the same people who insisted that digital was not real photography. They were correct, it was not film photography — art is art, the tools just differ.

    So we are left with all the definitions of ‘what is photography’ and as with all art that varies as often as the person answering the question. I am certain that if he were alive today Ansel Adams would love HDR and tone mapping. He might hate the over processed look but he would love the expansion and control it can give over the image.

    To those who laugh at that and still insist on the purist approach I simply have a one photo answer “Moonrise Henandez New Mexico”. The story of how that image was taken is only matched in my opinion by Galen Rowell’s story about the taking of ‘Rainbow over Potala Palace’.

    I would suggest that you read the following two stories:
    Rowell: http://bit.ly/c2zvbj (the image is at: http://amzn.to/bRTF5h)
    Adams: http://www.anseladams.com/content/ansel_info/ansel_ancedotes.html

    The point of these stories is how they happened and in the case of Adams the fact is that it took him many years of darkroom work before he ever got a print that made him happy — a print that showed the image as he saw it in his minds eye. I don’t have a problem with rules in contest that limit what one can do with the image, those are rules. But, to apply those rules to images in general is silly. Simply say you like the image, or you do not.

    Personally I think Extreme HDR has it’s place but I tend to be picky about where I like it and I don’t — in general it just seems over cooked in too many peoples hands, which is not a surprise since it’s a recent technique. Careful use and it is an amazing tool that gets us beyond the artificial limits of Dynamic Range, which is after all why Adams came up with The Zone System.

  70. Even though I often felt as Peter Frampton did I do not feel like you do when I look at an HDR picture I’ve made. I usually, but not all the time, have the final look in my head before I even pick up the camera. My job is to get the picture in my head on to the screen or the final print. There are several stages to this and I know this is the case and therefore I never look back at any of the previous stages and think that is what it really looked like. It is irrelevant. The supreme test of a tog is how close he can approximate the picture in his head. That is creativity and I think it applies to all pictures whether HDR or not.

  71. Hey Scott,

    So I promise I won’t be offended that you used my quote about how much I liked that image. Though I’m sorry it depressed you. :-) I obviously have really enjoyed many of your non-HDR frames. What I liked about this one in particular was the use of toning to set a mood and yes, bring to life an otherwise “meh” kind of capture. I really didn’t see it as being “over the top” as some purist would say. And I stand by my praise for the final image.

    The fact is we’ve been “enhancing” images since the early 1800s. In my view, a camera no more represents objective reality than a painting does. Photons are particles with zero mass, and only represent a tiny fraction of the electro-magnetic spectrum. The very interpretation of light is a highly subjective thing (ask your pets). HDR is nothing more than another tool in the bag. And like Photoshop, HDR can be used with skill and subtlety or as a blunt instrument. It is the artist’s unique perspective (painter, photographer, photojournalist, etc.) that creates “the image”.

    I use HDR sometimes to bring out details and subtleties in my images that would otherwise be lost as the camera does not see what I do, as in the example below.


    I don’t use it all the time, or even often. Its just another tool I use when warranted. As long as I enjoy the final image, I’m happy.


  72. I think the HDR debate (and pretty much all debates on techniques, post-processing, etc.) comes down to one question: Why are you taking the picture?

    Is it for yourself? The joy of photography? The joy for the creative process? Then great! Who cares what anyone else has to say about it?

    Are you taking pictures for a client? Different story. Presumably you’ll be bringing some of your own style, skill, and creativity to the shot, but at the end of the day get over what you like and don’t like and make sure you please the client.

    Shooting to please or gain approval from some wider audience? Know your audience.

    The world would be pretty boring if we all liked the same things.


  73. Hey Scott and NAPP family. I just wanted to throw my $.02 in the hat. I am usually pretty good at spotting an HDR image, not because I don’t like them….but because adding more tone usually decreases the saturation. To be honest, I’m like Scott: I can look at some good HDR shots and be inspired but after a while it gets difficult to look at more than a handful.

    On another note, Scott, a Doctor that has trained for years and follows up with continuing education doesn’t feel bad when he/she gets a patient that may only need a few Motrin or 3 minutes to make a diagnosis. NOPE. They know that a majority of their patients will require a little digging and enough time to make the patient feel comfortable as well as a follow up. Surgery may be needed etc… When that Patient gets their bill of $600.00 for a diagnosis and a couple of Motrin, they begin to understand that this Doctor gets paid for all the hard work that has led up to that appointment. This is not unlike photography.

    You, Scott spend countless hours learning your trade in Photography, Post Processing, and even in Business Savy. You didn’t cheat. You just had an image that wouldn’t really work if you had developed it in another way. You had an okay image and gave it a shot in the rear! It may never be a 5 star image, but your thinking about the original will always affect the way you feel about the final image.

    Your knowledge of Professional Photography has clouded this experience! So start with that joy that we all had before all of the training, understanding and experience…Some images just need to be brought to life in Photoshop! After-all, if that weren’t the case where would you be today!?

    And hide your originals…lol


  74. Scott, for the most part I feel exactly like you do about HDR. I’ve never mastered the effect and didn’t really care to spend the time to learn how so I do have a lot of respect for the few that do it very well (e.g. RC, Ratclif et al) b/c like you said it’s not as easy as it seems… and the copious amount of “bad” HDR imagery out there attests to that fact.

    I hate that you don’t like your boat shot though b/c it really is a great image. ;)

  75. When someone asks, “Why do you shoot in black and white?” my usual reply is, “Excuse me, I have a phone call in the other room.”

    The texture on the photo of the tug is palpable; the color exquisitely subdued. I was hypnotized by the finished HDR work the first time I saw it some weeks ago. I should’ve tipped my hat to you then, Scott.


  76. I’m so excited for the “next best thing” to come along and all the furor over this HDR stuff dies down. Then we can move on to spending too much time hating the images made with that new technique instead of concentrating on making the best images we can make ourselves. Can’t wait!

    The proof is in the pennies. If you want to make money in this profession, shoot what your customers want. If you want to make art that captures your vision, do so and celebrate the fact that you were able to accomplish that feat. Neither are often easy. If you can manage to merge both of these you are blessed.

    With that being said, it’s time we knock photography off of its pedestal of “Reality”. We don’t experience life in HDR, B&W, sepia, split-tones, selective coloring, landscape, portrait, panorama, macro, micro, composite, 4×7, 8×10, 36×48, glossy, matte, photorag, canvas, 15s, 1/100s, 1/1000s, f1.2, f8, f64, 10mm, 50mm, 500mm, ND grads, polarizers, diptychs, triptychs, portfolios, Photoshop, Lightroom, the GIMP, Aperture, Mac, PC, Linux, Canon, Nikon, Hasselblad, Sony, Pentax, Olympus or anything else that we use to create and share images, captures, actuations, or piktchurs.

    So why do we get so hung up on silly things like HDR as if we do (experience life in…)?

  77. The timing on this is interesting to me since i just took one of my first HDR images.

    The photographs I take for most of my work don’t lend themselves to HDR and I have mostly ignored it.
    When I see a shot from Ben Willmore, I think, “Wow, it would be cool to be able to see like that before I take the photo.” I think that certain people see in HDR, the same way that Jay Maisel sees in telephoto. I don’t.

    That brings me to this last weekend. I went to the local County fair and while the rest of the people I was with looked at all the “new and improved” gadgets and cleaning products, I went out to photograph some of the lights. About 10 minutes in, I decided to try something new and set my camera to take 3 bracketed images with the express purpose of trying the new HDR Pro in CS5. I shot a lot of sets of three, all handheld. It was fun.

    When I finally did the post production I was pretty happy with what I got. I’m pretty sure i could have spent hours tweaking a single frame in photoshop to look the same way but doing it this way took about 5 minutes and the people who I was with at the fair LOVED it. They didn’t know it was HDR or that it was three frames at different exposures. I tried to tell them about it but they just didn’t care, they just liked the photo. I then posted it on twitter and guess what, I got a lot of positive feedback, many time more than whenI just post a regular image.

    I’m glad that people like different things. Think how boring it would be if we all liked the same thing. I admire those people that can see in HDR, I think their work is amazing.

  78. So, I’ve been think about the difference be HDR love from the non-photographers and hate from the rabid photogs. I personally believe it is the Wizard of Oz effect. Once we know that it’s just a technique we all kind of go, meh. Now, I love me some good HDR and I hate me some bad HDR, some is over the top some is subtle. It really just depends on what I’m looking at. However, I know it’s a tool, and for me it’s no more.

    For the non-photographers out there, they don’t think it’s that easy. They think a tone of work went into it, and yes a lot did, but not as much as they think. In their head, all they can think is, I could never do that. So they are amazed. My wife always loves my HDR photos even though they are total crap sometimes.

    I also think that it has to do with the amount of exposure you have to that type of photography. As a wedding/portrait photographer, my brides would fall in love with the whole black and white with a pop of color thing. I was asked to do it. But that is when it first came out. Now that enough brides have seen enough of their friends photographs and everyone has it they don’t ask for it nearly as much. Some still want it, and I probably throw one in the mix just to judge response, but even when I show it now, it’s not always picked in the first cut.

    I started doing this desaturated-ish, sepia-ish, dual contrasting tone, thing. It has a bit of a grunge look. It usually ups the noise a bit, which ads to it’s aesthetic. I came up with it on my own and it looks good, sometimes great. However, I went to a bridal show that I didn’t want a booth in. One of the photographers there was a guy I knew from back in college who I sort of keep in touch. Well I walked up to his booth and as I was doing it he put away one of his portfolio books. I asked him what was up and he admitted he stole my idea. As soon as I saw his photos, I went home and was kind of disgusted with my photos. So internally, because it’s now been done, I have written it off.

    Just like HDR, when I first saw it, I was amazed. Now that I’ve done it and so has everyone under the sun, I’m kind of meh about it.

    Okay, enough of my ramble, hopefully you got it.


  79. To a classically trained fine art painter; photography will seem like cheating. To a fine art darkroom photographer; Digital photography and Photoshop can seem like cheating. I have come to believe, over the years, that the image will dictate the medium and how it will be used.

    The image of the boat house lends itself well to be either a painting or a HDR photo. Just as others are best as B/W or in color. You have made a very dull and unexcited image into something that is interesting. The use of the contrast of values and intensity of the hues with the composition has made this a very interesting photo to enjoy. I can see why some feel that is one of you better images.

    Generally I am not a big fan of HDR photos. But time I feel you have created a winner.

  80. I am like you Scott, I liked to play with HDR but I had rarely thought it had much use outside of just being fun to play with until a client proved me wrong. During the first of the year I did a photo shoot for a local mental hospital (I swear I was not a patient), anyway I was to photograph the CEO, the lead doctor, and some of their rooms and classrooms.

    I took in lights, umbrellas, and softboxes and photographed the people and rooms. On a whim while photographing the rooms I shot them using lights and without planing to use HDR processing. When I finished and showed their art director the images she chose the HDR images of the rooms for every single image.

    She was so excited about them she couldn’t stop talking about them. A few weeks later I photographed a very expensive home for a local real estate company, this time I just shot in brackets for HDR and they were ecstatic with them and the detail that showed.

    In the end I have started showing HDR images to people who look for architectural photography. I’m located in a very rural part of the south US so I have to try to be a jack of all trades but when it comes to architectural photographs especially its like you said they love the HDR effect, even if it’s not “realistic”.

    I certainly do not consider myself an authority but it has been my observation the very thing that everyone claims will be a fad or will not last is the very thing that becomes the standard. I mean the president of Walden Books once laughed at Amazon saying it would never replace the retail book store, I seriously doubt he is laughing now. To me the greatest danger we face as photographers is not new technology, but rather our preconceived belief that things will not or cannot change. I believe we should look at new technology not as a fad or threat but as an opportunity to push ourselves beyond our self imposed boxes.

  81. I would simply ask that we be more clear in what we are talking about. When you say “HDR,” or “High Dynamic Range,” that technically means (correct me if I am wrong) that you’ve increased the range of luminosity in your photograph — much like Ansel Adams did with his Zone Method. Nothing really new there. The picture that Scott showed, however, doesn’t seem to be an example of HDR so much as it is an example of tone mapping.

    Trying to increase the exposure range in a photograph is what photographers have done since the beginning. This is bread-and-butter stuff. HDR is just another way of getting there, as opposed to using filters or fill-flash or dodging-and-burning, etc.

    Tone mapping, on the other hand, and to my eye, tends to create a hyper-real image that I find personally unappealing.

    But is it cheating? I would say no more than all sorts of “low-tech” methods to create “unreal” photographs, such as motion blurs, overexposure/underexposure, shallow depth of field, etc. Nobody blinks an eye at such creative methods. Because we are used to them. They are part of the popular conception of what a photograph “ought to look like.”

    Well, the popular conception is changing. Maybe over-tone-mapping will stick and become the “New Pictoralism.” There will be those who embrace it and those who stick to another style. Regardless, if you can convey something of meaning and value, you will have spent your time well, no matter the school to which you subscribe.

    1. An addendum to “is it cheating?”: depends what kind of photography you do. For example, if you are a documentary nature photographer, purporting to show what the rain forests look like as if you were there, well, you walk a very fine line if you do any kind of post processing, especially tone mapping. The use to which a photo is put has to be considered in answering that question.

  82. Ansel Adams would have been a huge fan of HDR, after all wasn’t that what he was doing in the darkroom? And he did say, you don’t take a picture you make a picture!

    1. Depends what you mean by “HDR.” If you mean it as a short-hand for increasing the exposure range of an image and revealing detail in shadows and highlights, then absolutely. That was his stock-in-trade.

      But at the same time, remember that Adams was a rabid enemy of the Pictorialism school of photography. He believed instead that a photograph shouldn’t try to imitate a painting. In that regard, I don’t believe it is accurate to say that Adams’s style is consistent with what many HDR images are synonymous with, which is an over-use of tone-mapping to create a “video-game”, “hyper-real”, or “impressionistic” effect. Those are perfectly valid endeavors if that is what appeals to you and your clients. But I don’t think you can use Adams’s photography in defense of them.

  83. I agree with a few other posters. The “ends” justify the “means”. Ultimately as Photographers we are in the business of impressing, pleasing, satisfying…the end user NOT our fellow Photographers. If the end user loves it than who cares what some snobby, elitist, photo-bug has to say; your mission is accomplished. I’m also a musician and feel the same way about my music. I don’t create my music to impress other musicians but to express myself and make something that my audience will love. As artists our best work comes from freely expressing ourselves not trying to “one-up” the next artist. As business people our job is to make the customer happy NOT blow up our egos.

  84. Did you see ‘Avatar” in 3D? I did and I absolutely preferred the effects. It was more realistic to me. My friend who is an artist “saw” the movie with me. She did not like the 3D effects at all.
    It is obvious that we were not “seeing” the same thing.
    I have worked in the printing business for over 3o years. In that time I have been responsible for over a hundred customer “press approvals”. This is where the customer comes to the plant to approve the color and “look” of the items we are printing for them. Not once in my career has a customer been able to describe what they are seeing the same way that I “see” their products. I’m often asked by them to, “Please add a little zip to the ink”. That can of “zip” is as non-existent as clean water in the Gulf.

    The point I’m making is that each of us “sees” differently and cannot put into words how it makes us feel in a way that others can easily understand. My customers love my HDR’s, they are happy, so I’m happy.

    “I know it when I see it” is often how a customer coming in to approve printed parts tells me they want something to look. The proofs they approved prior to the visit, be damned.

    HDR is similar. When I look at HDR photos I create, they look to me like the world as I see it. Yeah I’m an optimist but I’m also an artist and create the world the way I see it.
    And I know it when I see it.

  85. I’m surprised that nobody has mentioned “oil painting” yet.

    My reaction to well done HDR shots is that they cause the “oil painting appreciation” part of my brain and experience to kick in.

    I suspect that this is what is happening with the “non-photographers” who love the shots instinctively. Even more amusing I think it is what the photographer/HDR processor aims for consciously or sub-consciously.

    For my money it is one of your best shots, Scott. It doesn’t matter how you did it. My eyes love it!

    1. Which begets the question, “what do painters think of HDR/tone mapping?” Seriously. Are fine-art photographers employing HDR/tone mapping encroaching upon a painter’s domain, so to speak? And if they are, then what does HDR/tone mapping photography offer to the art world that painting doesn’t? Just throwing it out there.

  86. Y’know, that first guy that added color to his (her?) cave paintings probably got a paleolithic earful from the traditionalists of the day too. ;)

    As a teacher, I know that HDR is one of the many new expressive techniques that gets kids excited about learning. And that’s always a good thing.

    As for feeling bad that “cheating” is somehow involved… I don’t get it. I like color in my cave paintings. :P

  87. What annoys me the most is that many people, photogs included only see HDR as over processed images. There are plenty of HDR images out there that don’t even look HDR. The HDR technique has been tagged with this over-done look and its frustrating to those of us that use it as a technique to capture more detail without the over-done look. I have nothing against the overdone look either it can look nice (your example proves this). I have seem photogs complain that they don’t like HDR when looking at an image that was actually just processed in Topaz Adjust and not HDR at all. They think the over-done look and HDR are the same thing !

  88. Scott, great post! Thanks for putting in to words a lot of feelings that are out there about HDR. As someone who loves HDr and shoots it quite a bit I feel that the whole hate vs love thing is pretty silly, for exactly the reasons you state in your post, you like it or you don’t so why do people keep posting their feelings about it? It won’t stop haters from hating or lovers from loving! I’m only replying because you asked a very specific question, my friends family and clients although I’ve never even advertised or planned to sell images since right now all I use is a point and shoot – all dig my HDR pics. As for how I feel about them every time I take a bracketed set of images it’s with a finished look already in mind to improve what I saw “live” If I didn’t want to change it I wouldn’t have shot the HDR, I want to see a better texture, or deeper colors, or darker mood that’s the whole point, I’m usually more worried about composition and content than I am about worrying if the actual scene matches my HDR vision of it. To each their own I say, the more pics the better whether HDR, B&W, Duo-toned, photoshopped, or straight out of Camera it’s all good…

  89. Hi Scott, will you feel better if I say it’s not your best image? LOL! ;)

    I’m interested in the techniques used to create images, but above all, I love captivating images. (period). Your HDR image really invites me to study it, …it’s amazing how much detail you were able to add.

    “I didn’t even include the HDR shot in my post…, because it was so over-the-top that I knew I’d catch some heat…, so I intentionally left it out.” …that is exactly why Seth Godin doesn’t allow comments on his blog; he found that the opinions of others affected the authenticity of his work.

  90. Well, people better get used to HDR, because I guarantee every major camera manufacturer will soon have HDR compositing in their cameras. I just saw an article the other day about Canon already starting to implement the technology.

    I think traditional photography enthusiasts are the majority of people who don’t like HDR. Even subtle HDR is shunned nowadays. The fact of the matter is that non-photography people like it. And I like it too. And who is really to judge the fact that Scott’s original ferry image wasn’t as fantastic as the HDR version? He put a lot of time into editing the image, but that doesn’t necessarily condemn it to a horrible shot. If I remember correctly, old-school photographers could spend hours in a darkroom altering images to their liking as well. Heck, if they had the technology we do now, they would wonder what all the complaining was about.

    I think the fact that it’s easier now somehow makes it bad. But I just don’t get that. I guess we can only take “pure” images now that we have technology that makes editing photographs too easy. Yet, when people like Ansel Adams spent hours manipulating their photographs, they were considered stunning works of art.

  91. Isn’t it our job to create great images? What does it matter how we get there. Sure, it’s sweet to nail it in the camera, but in real life situations the camera does not “see” as the human eye does, and it’s often necessary to take several exposures to achieve what we saw/felt at the time.

    It was your eye that captured the image in camera and your skill that transformed it into the final image, that, in truth, more fully describes the actual event, so feel proud of creating a great image!

    On top of that, it’s not totally overdone, but a very pleasing image that puts us. the viewers on the boat looking out at the harbor and the city, love it.

  92. Something I ran across a couple weeks ago. This guy, Erik Reinhard, goes really in depth with HDR and the process behind it. He’s obviously opposed to it, but he explains why– that what is normally associated with HDR is actually software artifacting, especially the unnatural halos so common in the process. Personally, I will occasionally use HDR, but I intentionally avoid pushing it into an unnatural realm.


    I think it’s a very good read. It includes side by side comparisons of many different softwares, and their results.

  93. Hey Scott, thanks for sharing your thoughts about HDR. To me it all boils down to staying true to your art. For some, art is capturing and presenting an image as it imprinted in their memory with the heat, sweat and smell of it. For others it is a mix of the image in their memory and a fare dose of fantasy and interpretation thrown in. Whether someone manipulated an image after the photons struck the sensor is probably not the biggest question – after all, all digital cameras do some image processing at source itself and most people use some kind of image processing software. If photography is an art, all that the artist does is create art and the interpretation is left to the audience.

  94. Great blog entry on HDR. I equate this to the average consumer going to their local BestBuy and purchasing an LCD TV based on the brightness & high color saturation of the picture. They truly believe it’s better, which is why the stores purposely pump up the saturation, contrast & brightness. For the most part people don’t know and don’t care about the technical and/or artist aspects of why they like something. They just like what they like, period. No rhythm or reason, which is VERY frustrating as artist (photographer, graphic designer, illustrator, etc.) to except. We put our heart in soul into what we do and they have no idea why they like it. UGH! ;-)

  95. Compared with the silver-halide workflow, I would have positioned HDR in the Printer’s toolbag, not the Photographer’s. There are those that take photographs and those that make photographs. The photographer can only go so far with the tools at his disposal. The printer has different tools for different purposes. I’d wager most people wouldn’t look twice at a faithful printing on an Ansel Adams negative. The power of Adams’ work comes, in large part, from the magic he weaved in the darkroom – taking a ho-hum negative to a most powerful print.

    You may not like it because you were there and the base image is ho-hum, but maybe you’re thinking like a photogprapher and not a printer. The HDR version has extracted qualities that are not immediately obvious, like Adams’ application of his zone technique extracted qualities not immediately obvious in his negatives.

    And perhaps this is why non-photographers like HDR. Photographers may see it as a computer gimmick, not worthy of comparison to all the effort that goes into balancing light and shadow to render the best image in camera, but non-photographers may see it as something beyond what they can do with their point-and-shoot – a representation of photography as art and (unconscious) celebration of the print rather than the photograph.

    So maybe, Scott, you should take off your photographer’s hat, put on your printer’s hat and re-evaluate what you see. If you hadn’t been there to take the image but rather, were handed the image to re-imagine, I’d wager you’d feel way better at the outcome from this different point of reference.

  96. Our photography group recently had a show at a local coffee shop. Two of the images that sold right away were HDR. While my image wasn’t an HDR, it had that similar “feel”.

  97. Art is not definable, art is in the eye of the beholder regardless if it’s a cat turd with glitter on it, an HDR image (subtle or over the top) or the Mona Lisa. If my HDR makes someone take a second look and ask me about it….mission accomplished. Keep up the great ART all of you traditional and HDR shooters alike!

  98. Many years ago I read the advice that if you use a fisheye lens more than about six times in your life you have probably overused it. I know that sometimes, using a fisheye lens can bring something different to a subject. You may have used it more than six times, but the people who view your images may not have seen more than a couple of examples. For them it may be fresh. I think it is a similar situation with HDR.

  99. HDR images look like a photo you could actually step into. A true HDR for me is an image that have been brought right to the edge of actual photo and art work. An almost 3D appearance. Smaller images like in your blog look awesome. I want to reach in a grab something.

    The regular image is nice and if you use hdr to make it a nice image it’s something you could simply have done with any image editing software. Saturated colors, heavy hues and deep contrast are what makes an HDR so vibrant to the eyes.

    most people don’t really know a well laid out image. They know they like it, but have no idea why. Same with hdr. It’s eye candy and mesmerizing all at the same time.

  100. i think that the same photo could be made by using a couple of flashes now if it was made using many flashes would it be considered a sin by HDR haters

  101. Scott
    Firstly, The image you used to make the point contains the elements to make a good HDR image, but there all over the place ! What’s wrong is not your composition (given the space you were confined to) but the positioning of the elements on the boat and so within the frame.
    I use a technique in Camera RAW where I remove ALL the camera RAW default settings. Yep all sliders are set to zero, including the sneaky medium contrast curve(that’s set to linear) a small bit of RAW sharpening is all I preset. So when I open an image (or collection of shots for a pano or HDR) because everything is set to zero any changes I make are based on fixing whatever problems exist from what the camera recorded. I’m not putting in presets and then making adjustments based on the problems the presets have introduced. The problem with this ( and the point I want to make here) is that from this base level my images look YUK! flat, and uninteresting when opened first time in Camera RAW. It’s what I do from here that makes the image POP! ! ! With HDR and any-other from of increasing the tonal dynamic range the difference between the original and finished product is huge, so the people complimenting the image are basing their evaluation on the finished image.

  102. Scott,

    I’ll bet ya, that if you think back to that moment in time, your created photo is probably pretty close to what you actually saw. You know that your camera no matter the cost or quality will never be able my itself, to capture the image that you saw. The image you created is a result of a lot of work using the tools of your craft to get as close as possible to reproducing the image you saw when you took the photo.

    People will always have differing opinions, the reality is that HDR is just another means to a end.

    …and yes, I like your end result!

  103. Scott,

    When I think about photography I see three different audiences. They are photographers, non-photographers, and the image taker. What surprises me the most about reactions to my photos is that I can never predict what others will love.

    Most often, I shoot with the intention of capturing images in HDR. For me the best HDR image is one that is not over processed, so one can not easily tell that it is an HDR photo. Having said that there is a place for grunge processing. After all, we are creating art and if it’s a bit edgy and others don’t like it that it’s not art. The next time you create an HDR image, process it so that you love it. If it’s not possible than it’s just a matter of not being able to suspend your disbelief over what you remember seeing.

  104. This is a really interesting post. Mainly because since purchasing CS5 a few weeks ago I’ve been messing around with the new HDR functions in Photoshop. I’ve never been a huge fan of HDR but when it’s done well, I do go ‘wow’ and all that. But I’m really starting to like the CS5 HDR stuff and it’s because it DOESN’T look “over the top”. When I use it, it just seems to add detail back to the shadows and highlights. Then with a bit of tweaking I’m able to add back only as much contrast as I want.

    But, to refer to the images in this post, I think the HDR version looks heaps better and here’s why. The reason is because it actually has a sense or theater about it. In the non-HDR you can’t make out the city-scape too well, it’s too bright and the boat looks cleaner. In the HDR version you can see a shiny city off in the distance, and the boat looks grungy, dirty and like it has a sorted history. It then makes you think “why is this crappy old POS boat heading toward that shiny city”. And I think it’s that question that makes the shot more interesting.

  105. For me i like the HDR effect but not the top over HDR effect i like when it’s a little subtle.
    The top over HDR effect is just *Beurk* for me.
    Well it’s true that i’m the only one who know the original single exposure but i don’t think like i’m cheating anyone because when i want to take some pictures in HDR, in my mind i’m kind of thinking of what the final result could be.

  106. Great post Scott this is a topic that has been much on my mind lately. I am a lighting designer by trade. I have always been dissatisfied by traditional photography’s ability to capture theatrical and architectural lighting. The first time I saw an HDR shot it was a totally over the top version of the Tokyo skyline, It blew me away. I thought Wow – If I could figure out a way to dial this technique back it could be a way to really capture what my work actually looks like.

    Since then I have been playing around with HDR a lot, maybe too much. I have gotten pretty good t using HDR for good (it is great to be able to capture a facade with neon or LEDs and have the building properly exposed and not have the neon blown out) but there is great temptation to use HDR for evil. Overly dramatic skies can be particularly tempting.

    I hate Thomas Kincade’s work, and a lot of HDR has a tendency to go in that direction. But I think just because a lot of people out there are doing horrible sickly sweet HDR crap it shouldn’t negate the tool. HDR is fairly new technique and we are all just learning how to fit it into our bag of tricks (and like any new toy perhaps overusing it). There are a lot of photographers who are pushing too HDR too far now (my self included) who will learn to pullback as they get more seasoned and their tastes mature and there are others (probably the same ones who still use glamour glow and selective color) who will continue make images that make my teeth hurt.

    Some one else mentioned Ansel Adams, who I think would have embraced HDR. He always talked about capturing images that showed not just how a scene looked, but how it felt.

  107. Scott,

    First off, props to you for calling them ‘lines’ and not ‘rope’. :-) When I shoot HDR images, I (like you mentioned above) set out to shoot HDR. I take time to scout my subject, setup, shoot, and then process the images. I have to set out with a purpose to shoot HDR. Otherwise I just feel like it’s a happy accident.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts and feelings on the subject – one that I feel is often misunderstood.

    All the best,


  108. I remember reading your book about the seven point system where you took horrible exposures and showed how to turn them around into something a lot better.In this new world of computer technology the boundaries are going to change just like in the movie industry taking a swipe at 3D again and the camera manufacturers add video to DSLR.We are in for a fast paced change that will be embraced by a younger generation whether we approve or not.Evolution is the only future!

  109. Great post, and great comments.
    I love HDR! When I first stumbled upon it, I thought it was one of the most exciting things in photography I’ve seen in a while.

    But it’s like anything else: when it gets overused, it becomes ‘bleh’ like yesterday’s news.

    I honestly thought the same thing about the Dave Hill look. It was awesome.
    …until it started showing up everywhere. Then I couldn’t stand it anymore. Yay, more dave hill look. Another person figured out how to imitate Dave Hill. bleh.
    (not a slam against the kelby tutorials on how to do the Dave Hill look. I loved that!!!)

    Someone above (on page 1 was it?) posted that once you know the secret to something, i.e. how to do HDR, it takes away much of the magic.
    Sadly, this is so true. I was always amazed at special effects and CGI in movies. Until I learned how to do 3D modeling and rendering and could create such imagery on my own. Now there is no magic in it, and it never gives me the same visual rush that it used to. Don’t get me wrong: I am not on the level of the CG artists of ILM or Pixar, and I am amazed at the new levels they’re constantly taking it to….
    But still: I know exactly how the stuff is created, and therefore, there is no magic in it for me.

    I think HDR fits this description for the photgraphers in the know. Those that don’t know still feel the magic.
    Ignorance is bliss, eh?

    1. Mark, I have to say your post is bang on! I’m a (very) amateur guitar player, and there could be a song I’ve loved for 20 years, then one day I’ll learn it on guitar, and a lot of the “magic” of it is gone. If you want to know the truth, I still don’t know the lyrics to “She Loves You”. There’s a part of the second verse I never understood, and I have no desire to search it out, for some reason. There is mystery in all art. HDR definitely falls into that category, for those of us first discovering it, and then, definitely for non-photographers who can’t believe it’s a photograph.

      (p.s. please don’t reply with any Beatles lyrics)

  110. I’m a huge HDR fan. I don’t think the question should be HDR vs non-HDR but rather good hdr vs poor hdr.

    There are a few things that I consider poor HDR like when I see horrible halos or other obvious HDR artifacts.

    I also think there is a big difference between poorly done grungy hdr vs good grungy hdr’s.

    As with most things it comes down to personal taste but I think this whole HDR discussion (for those that aren’t dead set against HDR) is a matter of how well they are processed not if they are processed.

  111. People used to like mullets and photos with faces in champaign glasses and clouds too. Over the top HDR is another idea that people are going to look back at in 5-10 years and wonder why they ever did it.

  112. Hello Scott Kelby!

    I think there’s a conflict here: people who don’t like HDR are the ones that don’t understand that the printer (aka Ansel Adams) is an artist too. There is: if someone take a snap of a car, and later in Photoshop makes it look like a studio shot, what’s the problem? He’s an artist too, it’s fun to do it, it’s fun to see the results. Why do people criticize the ‘printers’ while everyone may work harder to be a better photographer AND – at the same time – a better printer?

    Great post!

  113. “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!” I find most HDR images almost painful to look at. They are sort of the aesthetic opposite of a beautiful black and white photo that presents the image itself as art, instead shouting out glaring color and nauseating sharpness and detail with all the subtlety of an Elvis on black velvet painting.
    The boat image here is a good choice of subject matter however, but I agree with Scott that I wouldn’t want to look at more than a couple of these things.

  114. I realize that this may be viewed as an overly simplified answer but….to me…photography is like any art form, completely subjective, therefore there is no correct answer to this question. It’s simply too personal.

    As professionals and highly invovled hobbiests, we take extreme measures in ensuring that we learn and understand as much about the subject at hand as possible. How you measure success, be it in sales of your photographs or evoking emotion from yourself or those that view your exposures is entirely up to each individual photographer.

    I’ve seen HDR shots that I’ve absolutely been blown away by, and I’ve seen HDR shot’s that were simply not enjoyable to look at. Ultimately….what matters is only valid to the individual. All the technical detail and debate back and forth is simply a reflection of that persons opinion.

  115. Hey Scott,
    isn´t it a bit like beauty retouching?
    I like what Tom Kostes (first post) said in his first paragraph. It´s our job to create great images and this is one of them.

    People who are no photographers or photoshop artist won´t ask themselves by looking at our pictures “Oh, the tone mapping is too strong” or “Wonder which camera was used”. The result is important.

    But for me as a photographer or photoshop guy it´s important to learn so thank you for sharing your mind and the before!

  116. I’m a photographer and I like HDR images. Why? It’s something different and lends another area to stretch and learn and produce something spectacular. From an artist’s perspective, I don’t really care that the person who likes what I make knows how I made it. I don’t need to know why the car runs in order to drive it. I don’t need to know how to make a comfortable pair of jeans to know that I like a comfortable pair of jeans. As a matter of fact, the less they know about what I do, the more they hire me to do it for them. Win win!

  117. Interesting comments on HDR. At first this article made me feel tasteless–I love what photographers hate but everyone else loves. I’m like one of those people who like Thomas Kinkade. This in turn made me feel shallow. Why should I care what other photographers think, or mind having plebeian tastes? But then I got to the end of the post and felt pretty good. The thing is, unlike Scott, I don’t see the world like the “3-star original exposure”. I see the world in HDR. And these new tools allow me to create images of the world as I see it.

  118. Hi Scott

    Great article about HDR, one of the things that hit home for me is exactly as you said, non photographers LOVE HDR. When I first saw an HDR image a few years ago, I thought I had found the hidden treasure, until all the pro photographers did again, what you said – scorned it. Its not really photography they said, If you expose properly you dont need HDR etc. Maybe so, but then again, photography is a creative and visual art, so we need to be able to represent that. I am glad you wrote this article (about to read the follow up) because i think pro photographers need to realise that sometimes its about making the image say what we want to say. My comment to a lot of the naysayers is this “so, you never dodge and burn your image, you never boost contrast, you never increase saturation?” Its a great debate, but so many photographers say they dont like to manipulate their images, well if you are shooting on JPEG then guess what, the camera has already done that. The debate will continue, but I for one am a fan of HDR…

  119. Very inspirational stuff on HDR, Scott! It definitely makes me want to try to resurrect some of my own 3-star (and 2-star and 1-star) photos thru HDR and see if there’s hope of salvation. Not saying your boat shot was bad, but the HDR result was night-n-day. I’m going to stop writing and start working.

  120. Well I totally agree – people love HDR. From the pictures im selling on stock, the topsellers are always the ones, that have that “HDR – line” in them. Something more, something extra, something you cant see with your eye usually, but u enjoy looking at it. – If you are not a photographer. What I found very interesting, is that if I raise an HDR into my portfolio the first time I just love it. Then weeks pass, and I feel it a bit too corny, I find something that is just not okay, some chr. aberration, some shadow-images, something small something that ruins my feelings, and I have it with other photographers pictures aswell. After a while I just feel – damn it should be a pure one…
    Then I find the original images, and I realise this HDR still rocks. I feel like this for a week or so, and then… so this is my creative cycle:)

  121. I’ve caught heat for pics that weren’t even HDR but looked like they were because I spent time puklling out the colors in a single frame. To me HDR isnt a gimmick, but I don’t use as one either. 99.999% of my shots are single frame (even if its hundreds of frames of it). The occassions I do shoot in bracket is to make a picture the way my eye actually sees it. to darken the brights and lighten the darks. None of the extra over the top stuff. Its only successful to me if it looks natural. That’s not cheating to me. Its extra work I had to do to catch the technology (camera) up to the way we see naturally.

    @Csaba : Photoshop as a verb is meant to the general public as drastically altering a photo by inserting objects that weren’t really there. They don’t see it as a tool to do color correction. When someone asks me if a picture is photoshopped, the answer as far as they’re concerned is honestly “no, I just fixed the colors”

  122. I did some hdr-jobs lately, and the reaction of customers has always been the same: they like the over-the-top hdr-images, that look like illustrations the best. But they hesitate to use them. What usually happens: they finally use the more realistic hdr-photos for their websites, ads, publications. But they do order additional stuff like cards or wall-sized prints from the more artistic and illustrative hdr-image. Here some examples for the latter from a job for a library: http://www.shangri-la.ch/?p=336

  123. Dear Scott,

    the difference betweent the HDR and the regular boat shot is, that the HDR version has a story.
    The warm glow of the left side with the lifebelt contrasts beautifully with the colder and ultrasharp, detailed ropes on the right and the box in the middle, which looks like a kind of a treasure chest.
    And all these romantic foreground things contrast beautifully to the blue, cold threatening skyline of the city.
    All these impressions and associations are completely abesent in the normal version.
    So the HDR picture tells me a story and I consider it as a piece of art, intentionally or not.

    Thanks for insisting on this topic!

  124. I like what Ansel Adams said:

    “When I’m ready to make a photograph, I think I quite obviously see in my minds eye something that is not literally there in the true meaning of the word. I’m interested in something which is built up from within, rather than just extracted from without.”

    Photography is a process of creating a story, on film, that tells us about place, time, and feelings. The camera is just one tool we have. Post-processing, such as HDR, is another.

  125. Candyfloss, over-sharpened HDR may be very popular and visually appealing, but as a business, what I care about is making money – and I find that it is very hard to make money (in the sense of time is money) off of HDR processing (or any time consuming post processing for that matter).

    I find that over and over again, bread and butter level clients (corporate and portrait) don’t want to pay the premium for producing post processing intensive images – so I don’t really concentrate on making them. Too many photographers will spend hours and hours tweaking a photo – then turn around and sell it – with usage rights – for $25 – or even worse – include a free DVD of full resolution edited images with their shoot fee.

  126. I’ve never got into HDR, not because I really dislike the technique, or the effect, but because as a journalistic photographer, I am uncomfortable with using any technique which involves merging more than one frame.

    I drew my line in the sand, in order to maintain a level of credibility to what I do professionally. I do processing, the minor adjustment of brightness and contrast etc, and I crop frames lightly, but I NEVER manipulate and image by adding or removing things from my captured frames (except, very, very occasionally dirt on the sensor) because the second I start doing this, I believe I loose some of my journalistic credibility.

    It is important for any photographer to clearly define whether they are one who manipulates their pictures, or not.

    I don’t think that the HDR process does necessarily manipulate the ‘truth’ of an image, in fact, as someone already mentioned, it may even show a more accurate representation of how the eye sees a scene.

    My difficulty is that the technique involves creating a composite of different frames, so I’m unsure whether it can be clearly defined as processing or manipulation.

    1. I know this post was made years ago. But I came across this article through a google search for something unrelated and I’m replying in hopes that you get an email notification and read/reply. Your thoughts on merging more than one frame, closely reflected how I used to think about all photos in gernal, until one day a photographer friend “it’s not cheating when professional photographers do it too”. But HDR photos can be made from a single frame. Uncompressed photos can get enough information to produce an HDR by doing brightnes/contrast adjustments, and merging the “Variations” of that single photo. What are your thoughts on journalistic credibility in that situation? Or rather, I’m just wondering if that “borderline” scenario crosses your personal line of keeping the “Truth” in an image.

  127. Oh, and I think that ‘over-the-top’ HDR, when things start to look a bit ‘Harry Potter’, is a complete no no for me.

    The image doesn’t have to omit or add anything that wasn’t there, in order for it to look fake, and if it looks fake, you look like a fake. There isn’t anything wrong with that, if that’s the kind of photographer you want to be…

  128. I think the HDR picture emphasizes the city more, and the more naturally lighted photo emphasizes the ferry more. I think if the photo chosen would be the one that tells your story. Maybe the story is both photos, as in the person who described the feeling as “being almost there” But then I’m the amateur photographer (from the Latin for love).

  129. The thing that pops into my mind when reading this is:
    Who am I shooting for?

    If I am shooting for myself, I really like the image to be captured with a single frame. I get a sense of satisfaction from an awesome image coming straight outta the camera, and minimal retouching needed. And I love it even more when I can accomplish that with minimal tools. I actually try to work without an assistant whenever I can, holding my own reflectors, shooting one-handed, etc.

    Interestingly, if I am shooting for a client, I now accept that they may want a lot of post-processing. I’ll never forget my first gig, a family portrait. I was still learning a lot about retouching and I showed the mother the unretouched proofs. Then later, as a thank you, I gave her a free print, with all the retouching done and she said, “Wow! It looks so much better! Did you photoshop it?” (Maybe I was overly sensitive, but I felt the implied was ‘wow, photoshop can even make an average hack like you look good.’ LOL!) I think the majority of images people view are commercial or promotional shots that have a fair amount of post production work done on them, so that is the “standard” for professional photography.

    As HDR images become more common and people become accustomed to seeing them, I wonder if that will become the new standard, or if HDR will become a special effect to be used judiciously?

  130. I feel photography serves two (not necessarily mutually exclusive purposes) … recording and art. Recording is about showing how things exactly looked and my thought used to be that there should not even be any pp for those images. I will allow that there should be enough pp to bring the image to how it looked to the naked eye, since cameras cannot capture (yet) the exact way the eye saw it. Art is about creating an image that does not necessarily look or feel like the original. The original is just a starting point; some raw material, if you will. The rest is artistic license used to produce the final image .. it’s not about reality, but about a feeling the original image might not even have. I think both are photogrpahy.

  131. Ok, as much as i would have loved to read all 178 comments, there were just to many. :)

    I did want to say a couple things though and i hope i don’t repeat anyone else.

    HDR photography increases the contrast of an image and contrast creates drama (this is true of all art forms and all forms of contrast).

    It occurs to me that the reason why most non photographers love HDR images is because their palate is less refined than many professional imagers (photographers, painters, graphic artists, etc..). This isn’t an aspersion on the great unwashed, just an observation. Any professional who works with a craft/art develops an increased sensitivity to the elements of his craft. Its what makes him/her valuable over the average person. That sensitivity sets him/her apart. In the case of photographers, we develop sensitivities to color, form, texture, light, composition, etc, and HDR imagery is often over the top for us. But, to those who don’t have that sensitivity, HDR simply looks really dramatic, a welcomed break from the humdrum. It appeals because its overly dramatic.

    Its a lot like the difference between McDonalds/Applebee’s and a great Boutique Restaurant. Foodie’s will scoff at McDonalds, say they hate it, groan at the overly saturated flavors, and so on, and then rave at the subtly of their favorite place. But most people like McDonalds (as evidenced by the billions of items they sell every year), then again, most people’s palate isn’t very refined and were they to go to an expensive place, a lot of the subtly of the flavor’s would be lost on them. Its neither good nor bad, but it does explain the variance.


    i actually love McDonalds. ;) and HDR. so, um :)

  132. My attention was directed to this blog by a friend and fellow photographer currently exploring HDR, and two matters assumed prominence for me which I’d like to comment on. The first concerns remarks made about one of the prominent figures in photographer, Ansel Adams, and the second, ostensibly the topic of most comments, the boat photograph, “improved” from a “three star” image to a “five star” HDR photograph.

    Its rather strange to see comments about Ansel Adams referring to him as a printer RATHER than as a photographer, or that his photographs were just so-so until he made them into prints.

    I think you can take any acclaimed photo – by Ansel, or Weston or many others – and qualitatively reduce it – minimize contrast, flatten tones, etc – to the point where someone can say, good eye, great timing, lucky shot (not necessarily all about the same picture), but, if only he or she had ever looked at real photographs.

    Perhaps we’re past the time when people have had the thrill of looking at a body of work by a master photographer, an artist, a photographic artist, like Paul Strand, a complete photographer who knew how to make an image not just WOW a viewer, but feel there was a living pulse being transmitted, a connection through time and space with reality, that the PHOTOGRAPH, a series of photographs, could generate actual feeling.

    The best work of Adams can do that, but if you think the best – consider “Moonrise, Hornitos,” for example – is solely due to his printing craftsmanship, try moving some elements around and see if its as good. Its an easy exercise to do in the digital age.

    Then ask yourself whether you would be prepared – having recognized the potential, visualized the matrix of possibilities and are ready to make the picture – when the light is diminishing at a rate that will allow only one properly exposed negative, or clouds are moving quickly and you might have only a few minutes to record anything at all, assuming you’ve correctly anticipated the position elements would be in, in relation to where you could be on the highway, to set up your large camera. And you’ve been using a large camera, because the qualities you love about photography and want, the smoothness of tonality, the detail or texture of the landscape, which, especially at that time, would be unobtainable from any enlargement made from any smaller format camera, and even if a viewer might not recognize it you would know you had compromised, and so would Alfred, Edward, Imogen and the much smaller number of others who understood what a great photograph was. And then to do it many times over in the most difficult of conditions, setting a standard, as Jackson or Watkins or Steichen had done previously – does anyone seriously think Ansel Adams is only a great printer?

    You may prefer other kinds of photographic work that benefits less from great craftsmanship – gestural images, perhaps, more commonly found in photojournalism, perhaps, and assume there is greater “purity” involved. Or, you may prefer color (generally I do, in fact, for my own work, which specifically concerns color in photography ) with the current ease of making prints, compared to the past, when good labs were rare or prohibitively expensive and showing your work in transparencies was the only alternative, and didn’t allow the work to be lived with, on the wall as part of your life.

    But if its journalistic style work that you prefer, the best advice I can give will be to avoid reading commentary by the photographer so as to avoid disappointment at learning that some thoroughly believable images were in fact arranged to be photographed, as carefully as scenes from a film.

    And if good printing-presentation is beyond your skills, then hopefully you will have the grace to credit those who bring your work to light, nearly all of whom are the beneficiaries of education of what constitutes a fine quality print, and how to make it, that was taught in workshops and classrooms by masters of the medium that included Ansel Adams, Minor White, Harry Callahan, Aaron Siskind and Henry Holmes Smith.

    Concerning the boat picture, attractive in both of the manifestations we see, yet to nearly everyone including the photographer, if I might paraphrase, “not quite there,” what has gone unexpressed is that, in my opinion, there are really three main ideas that have not been fully realized in either version.

    Some subjects seem to compel attention as though they are part of what Carl Jung called the “collective unconscious,” and boats are one. I’ll leave details of a Jungian analysis for others to explore, but simplify by saying that the image itself is not just about the boat but seems to involve a destination – the cityscape – second, the water itself, and of course the boat. I’m assuming the boat is headed to rather than away from the city. In the original image the city is soft focus or covered with mist, as though to suggest a diminished role in the mind’s eye, or a sense of uncertainty. In the HDR there is greater certainty and the increased acuity makes the boat seem longer and more important. Similarly for the water.

    But the water is really a second element since Kelby tells us that five shots were involved. Only if the boat were frozen in ice would it be possible to take 5 identical images that would coincide for the shore, and this would be impossible for the water, thereby meaning that a choice for the water portion has been made to accentuate one image by sharpening, in other words, by freezing, the medium (water obviously being the medium that the boat moves within).

    By looking at the image cropped in half horizontally it can be seen that there is a greater sense of movement toward the city in the original image and that there is greater attention to the boat in the HDR image, even though there is only half of it. In fact it is the boat that assumes much greater prominence in the complete HDR picture, especially from the enhanced illumination and brightness of color of the life preserver against the rhyming color of the wood. But if this boat (a tug boat, is my guess) is heading anywhere, there is no helmsman evident. Is it simply drifting, abandoned in the bay? Or is it heading out from shore? If, on the other hand, in the HDR version we seem to be looking backward to, rather than away from the shore, the enhancement can suggest regret at departing, rather than the expectation and uncertainty of approaching a new destination.

    It might be argued that I am over-determining this photograph, reading too much into it, but Kelby has made an investment of his time into making and refining the image. It apparently therefore satisfies some inner need of expressing concerns about photography, and doubts about the aesthetics of the image in presenting it in this manner.

    And it might also be argued that the various potential meanings, including these several meanings that I have suggested, represent intentional ambiguity that add to the complexity of the image, fulfilled by the technical achievement of HDR processing. But my point, finally, is that in the end it is not technique that determines aesthetic quality, that makes it art, but rather, like the boat, or the water, it can help you get there.

    Photography as a matrix of possibilities in its best expression represents facets of life, both what is visible and what is implicit – in psychological terms, the unconsious. This was far more evident when the photographic medium was clearly about the interchange and transformation of imagery from negatives to positives and prints – for most photographers, this was clearly its nature, its essence, even if many chose not to dwell on the implications of handling negative versions of their images. Or on the psychological consequnces of prolonged contemplation involving staring at images, which would resonate as after-effects that would be most compelling when the image was optimally printed. Which, in a sense, is to say that great printing and great photography are really inseparable.

    Cary Wasserman

  133. I liked your HDR image because it brought out detail and created an atmosphere not evident in the original. Using HDR is like using sharpening. In the beginning I was counseled not to over sharpen an image. If an HDR image has been in effect “over sharpened” then it detracts from my interest and enjoyment. In the January 2010 issue of National Geographic is an article on the Scottish Islands. I think the first two images in the article are HDR processed. The light and shadow is so well balanced, and I can see detail as if I was standing there.

  134. I’m not a fan of HDR.  I feel like I have to strain my eyes to look at it and the unnaturalness of it really throws me off balance.  I find it also strips the original mood of the picture away and replaces it with that eerie feel every HDR has.

    1. Totally agree. It’s great to create a fairytale which I am sure why the masses like this kind of thing. Quite disturbing actually. As a nature lover … I find this art form feeds the denial of so many … and that’s why it is so popular.

  135. How come HDR is treated here as a binary, as though an image “is HDR” or “isn’t HDR”? I’m not a pro, but it seems to me that modifying the contrast and saturation of an image is a matter of degree, no? Even the DSLR itself, when it captures an image, makes its own interpretation of what it sees, based on its built-in algorithm. Who’s to say what is most “correct”?

  136. Someone else mentioned it’s a matter of degrees and I agree.  The fact is that Ansel himself was “cheating”, if by “cheating”, one is referring to an increased degree of manipulation.  The Zone System itself was ingenious pioneering into HDR before anyone else had ever thought of it; it was Ansel’s training as a classical musician that gave him the insight, “ten fingers; ten zones”.  Ask yourself:  is the Zone System about low dynamic range?

    What Ansel knew how to do was PREVISUALIZE an image by analyzing its contrast range (picking out the thresholds of detail in the shadows and the highlights by using a spot meter).

    So each scene ought to be handled differently.  Hackers, myself included, will use the “cookie cutter” approach and apply a single formula of bracketing regardless of the contrast range, but HDR will yield its finest results to those who actually know how to use it to its greatest potential, using it to document a contrast range that’s actually there rather than one they’d like to manufacture.

    My present goal is to create HDR’s that don’t look like HDR’s.  I’ll confess to succumbing to the temptation to use as many as nine images in a set, but it’s often the only way to get color into, say, church windows.  I never exceed +2/3 of a stop and try to accentuate the exposure area around the “n” exposure.  I find that the highlight detail can still be very useful (again, in the “church windows” example) as far down as “n-9”.  But what makes an HDR image look like an HDR image is the neutral density that all the layering accumulates.  So sometimes it’s better to move in two stop increments, particularly after “n-1” or “n-2”.

    The mantra of “expose for the shadows, and develop for the highlights” seems to have been replaced by “expose for the shadows, and bracket for the highlights”.  The hot spots in the Zone System are Zone 3 for the shadow threshold, and Zone 7 for the highlights, but, the key to creating a good HDR that doesn’t look like one, is pre visualizing where those are before you ever trip the shutter.

  137. Kirby, I agree with you completely.  I sell prints at local art shows and outdoor arts festivals, if I have an image processed HDR and the same image processed “normal”, 8 out of 10 people will buy the HDR version.  I like HDR if it is done well, I am not a fan of over the top.  HDR is just another tool photographers have to create beautiful images, sometimes from mediocre files.  It is not a be all, end all process that should be used on every image.  Just my humble opinion.

  138. IMO, HDR is absolutely UGLY ! I hate it ! UGH ! but then I am a photographer myself. Not all Un HDR phtography is good but ALL HDR is bad. In non-HDR photography you can reach sublimly elegant states like zen or sushi while HDR has the same charm as an after party puke of the college frat boy.

  139. I ran across this article after searching for other things. I’m what you might call a part time photographer, in that I do weddings on occasion and sell some photo artwork at a local store. HDR is simply another tool. It annoys me to no end when I see photographers trashing various tools or criticizing other photographers work, no matter what it is. I hated, as well, when professors used to grade me on the interpretation of poems in my English classes. Art isn’t about the artist, it’s about how it makes the viewer “feel.”
    I agree that there’s good and bad with HDR photography if not used properly and not all images require it, but it’s not just about photography, it’s about the image you create. Just about ALL images are edited in some way, how is amping up the dynamic range any different? I learned in the early 90s how to dodge and burn black and white prints in a dark room using handmade instruments. Good lord how tools have changed….FOR THE BETTER. Like it or not the average CONSUMER LOVES HDR. Most don’t even know what it is and think you created the photo without it’s HDR use. I simply accept the appreciation and don’t elaborate on my editing tools. It’s what makes them the consumer. For of you that don’t use it, nobody is demanding you do. As far as I’m concerned that’s more consumers that will head my way for purchase of my artwork.

    1. Here’s a hearty ‘Bravo’ from a poor sap who is largely connected to the (not so in my case) unwashed masses! Being from such a crowd of obviously uninformed hoards of ignorant folk.. I find it difficult to make clear in my photographically challenged brain__ to determine effectively__ just what it is that I (should) like. I certainly appreciate all these photogs (an unwashed masses word..) making me aware of what it is that I should be thumbing my nose at (oops.. there’s one of those unwashed grammatical errors.. sorry,) I don’t know why anyone as a photographer gives a clam why another photographer likes his/her work! Are you planning to sell your work to other photographers? Art is art not because you say it is__ it’s art because I say it is… that is.. if you expect to get me to pull my checkbook out anyway. Reading what is here reminds me of EXACTLY why I NEVER attend high school reunions.

      1. We don’t create to live, we live to create; we respect the opinion of other artists because they have the capacity to understand what it is we are trying to say and more importantly to challenge our understanding of our chosen art form. Art is not primarily about getting paid, and your “cheque book” comment just highlights your ignorance. The reference to the “great unwashed” was quite obviously the writer having a dig at himself for such sweeping generalisations and your apparent outrage makes you look stupid and arrogant. With an attitude like that, I’m willing to bet that your old schoolmates are glad that you don’t attend your high school reunion.

      2. @Dave

        As photographers we capture. We don’t “create”.

        Just wanted to highlight your ignorance…

  140. I have one question… I don´t really know where to put it so i put it here, in your Photoshop CS5 book when you talk about HDR, you say that you need to re-tweek your images, you call this post-production (saved then as Jpeg let´s say) in Raw. Now one thing…AFTER that, do you then re-save them as jpeg from the raw processor? I know it sounds like a silly question and an obvious answer but there may be other possibilities. So I HDR my image, then saved it as jpeg, then finalized it in raw again, and save as…? let me know asap thanks! Jazzy

  141. HDR images don’t have to look over the top and unrealistic. . .I personally keep them realistic just use HDR to enhance what I find necessary adding glimmer and sparkle to my shots I personally don’t do much in HDR but if it doesn’t look realistic I will not use it.

  142. Your unhdr looks better. I keep hearing that HDR captures the range that the eye can see – but that’s very misleading. The eye is continuously adjusting its dynamic range, you never really see anything all at once. My eyes don’t see anything like any HDR I’ve ever seen, including the “good” HDR.

    100% gimmick.

    1. If this is you basis of comparison (what your eyes see), then the majority of Photography is a gimmick. If not, we’d all be shooting with 55mm lenses… and even that isn’t an accurate representation.

  143. I like this shot. I do some HDR myself and it has it’s place just like black and white and color. I think photographers over think the new digital world. I never liked film, I thought it was hard to work with, you spent more time in a darkroom than out taking pictures. I have been shooting for 50 years my work today is far better with digital than it ever was with film. HDR, COLOR or BLACK AND WHITE. Don’t over think your work. Just shoot! Daily.

  144. Are you sure you polled real photographers? or were the ones that didn’t like HDR FAUXtographers who couldn’t get a good HDR shot if you hand it to them on a plate?

    I think those berating HDR are those who can’t get one done, and not an actual pro…JMO
    (Obviously if you know what you’re doing, getting a good HDR shot comes natural, even if you’re not an HDR specialist like RC…and if it doesn’t, it means that you simply don’t know what you’re doing.) Logically…

  145. I actually love HDR. I am not a non photographer. I understand why some photographer’s don’t like it and I don’t love “Photoshop magic” but there is a reason I love HDR. I think that being able to manipulate photographs is a bit of an art form in itself, if you are honest with anyone who sees it and doesn’t recognize it as HDR.

    Maybe because my dad was a photographer and I grew up shooting the old ways, I can see and appreciate it for what it is. It is a technology that makes many people who wouldn’t consider being photographers want to learn how to shoot better! My dad would have loved how this technology works! When I look at it, I think of what I wish I could share with him!

  146. I agree 100% with the author of this article. He pretty much stated everything that bothered me about HDR and the reasons why. HDR is neat, but what bothers me is how it takes away the naturalness in an image. I also despise the fact that HDR almost always gains the upper hand when compared to the REAL and NARURAL image.

  147. What I don’t like about HDR is how it’s used ad nauseum by certain photographers to appeal to people that don’t even know (and most don’t) that there is something called HDR photography. All of a sudden they’re considered an exceptional photographer, a cut above the rest. They’ll often receive comments like, “Wow your photos are so great, you’ve got skills man” comments of this ilk. The thing for me is HDR is over used and abused. I get that it can be used for certain shots, but some people shoot almost exclusively in HDR and I feel sick when I look at it.

  148. Even though this discussion is dead….I like to add an HDR image from time to time in with my other stuff to sort of stir the pot. I consider it a “spice”….they are nice in metered doses but you can over do it easily. I like to find a middle ground between the purists and the every-person. Because most “real” photogs will see through the portfolio full of HDR as an easy way out for guys who can’t line up a solid shot out the gate.

  149. I think there is another angle to this HDR picture in particular, which I guess is also true for many other HDR pictures out there. I live in Hong Kong. I’ve taken that very ferry literally over a thousand times. I’m not kidding, it used to be my daily commute back home. But that picture does NOT describe the experience of taking that ferry in Hong Kong. The non-edited one does, and quite well.

    It could have been a CGI rendering for that matter. Yes, it does look pretty, and I find it still amazing. However, it did not capture the actual experience. It’s like those holiday shots on travel sites, but somehow you can never find those destinations in real life? To put it short, it feels fake and it is. To put it nicer, it’s artistic.

    That picture gave me the feeling of an ancient ship sailing through the futuristic city of Hong Kong. And I found that, as a resident, a striking difference and interesting. But if you want to show the picture as “this is what Hong Kong is like”, no, it would have failed horribly.

    1. Well, there are dozens of photographs already published and plenty of social media photography already published that can tell you exactly what any place on the face of the planet is like, at least as much as a photograph can. Artistry, though, isn’t just showing what things are like. It’s amplifying, increasing, improving… or grunging up, diminishing, making more subtle. Artistry is in interpretation, and documentary presentation is only one artistic choice possible.

  150. I think one of the biggest reasons why many photographers hate HDR is because the photographers that post these images don’t go into explaining them. They want people to think they are such fantastic photographers that they shoot pictures like this. They like to bask in the never ending compliments of mediocre photography.

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  152. I’m sorry, getting on my horse here!!! (I love your shot by the way Scott, better the HDR way!). I hate how these so called “purist” photographers think that their way is the ONLY way to a good photo! Personally, I think alot of their stuff is crap! It is a very subdued version of what was really there to capture! Is HDR not an accurate statement of what was reality? Sure it can be, no doubt that sometimes I go overboard just a touch on the sliders, so what! It is my opinion that these same bashers of HDR take their strobes and flashes and other lighting gear to a studio and “CREATE” an image that wasn’t really there. These negitive minded individuals then proceed to photoshop to “ENHANCE” their work! In my mind, you bashers of HDR need to sit back and take a good hard look at what you’re doing to your photos as well. At the end of the day, it’s all about light…….natural, man made, digital, whatever! We are all bending it to fit the frame! And I do believe we as photographers Create!
    HDR Lover!

  153. I’m an HDR fan and agree with everything you said in your article. I belong to a group on FB that is for specific to shots taken in the state I live in (soemthing like 10,000 members)…it happens every single time that there are beautiful well composed and all around photographically sound “non-HDR” shots posted that get very few likes, but then someone will post a sunset over-looking a lake that you can tell was processed using tone mapping HDR filters that make the water and sky an unnatural blue, clouds a purplish color, and the sky with unnatural oranges, yellows, etc…and it will get 1000 likes immediately.

    I like well done HDR and I think the image you used is great for making a point, I have to admit I’m disappointed with the processing which to me is a bit substandard for good HDR because of the halo effect that is present along the vertical support beams of the boat.

    Thanks for the writeup, I very much enjoy your work and your words!

  154. You can still bring out some nice details and increase contrast without HDR. It can be overused, when not necessary at times. But, as they say, to each his own. This is not a good or bad; right or wrong, but for of a preference for how you want your images to look.

  155. Wow, this article is 5 years old ans still kicking, great job! To HDR or to not? The gods still hate it but the mortals love it more!

  156. Photographers are Artists and everyone choses his /her brushes to paint what inspired him/her in the first place. Some add things they vision in the painting, others leave out items they don’t like to see in it. HDR or Regular photo captured by the single image it is still art and you will find people that will like it and people that will be not so fond of it.

  157. There are no short cuts to being a good photographer….. If one wants to be good at taking pictures, you must learn how to get it right in the camera, which also means the understanding about lighting and exposure. Using a computer to fix bad images is not photography, it is called graphic arts.

  158. You’re right that the original photograph wasn’t that interesting but so what? It’s about expressing oneself and feeling about a moment and not just taking pretty pictures. All art is about manipulation. Is painting and music not good art because it’s not real? And what about black and white? I mean, lots of photos that aren’t interesting in colour sometimes can look amazing in black and white, is that bad too? Or what about any other photographic manipulation? Make up, lighting, waiting for the golden hours?

    I believe this obsession with “real” is made by people with no talent of their own, no imagination and no creativity. So they want everything to be real because that’s all they can do. Anyone can snap a photo. How many can make a Van Gogh painting?

  159. I am a non-photographer, and I absolutely hate HDR images. I like to browse Zillow for homes, and when the pics are HDR, I have a really hard time looking at them, so I tend to ignore the ad for that home. I hate them so much I did a web search and learned that they are HDR images, so I now know what to call the thing I hate.

  160. I don’t like HDR and it goes beyond simple ‘i just don’t like it’. It doesn’t look real. It’s not what I see. So I guess it is simple. But my eye is for the normal realm. Not things you can alter falsely (what I feel is false) after the shot. I apologize if that makes me sound like some kind of critical ass.

  161. I think it provides a certain sense of separation in the image between elements in different places, and it also provides a certain sense of immersive detail, texture to the objects in frame. The source photo doesn’t snap the same way, doesn’t create the kind of “you are there” sense of depth. We SEE HDR every day, and when photographs appeal to that, the other photographs seem flat by comparison.
    Which is not to put down regular photography. People love the fuzziness of analog photography, and plenty of digital photographs with less color depth have had their appeal. It’s simply a matter of taking advantage of a different dimension of color contrast that was previously unavailable.

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