What Constitutes an “Over-the-Top” HDR Shot?


First, a big thanks to everyone who posted such thoughtful and in-depth comments yesterday. I read all of them (over a 130), and not only did you guys make some great points (on both sides of the ball), everybody remained very civil throughout a topic that often sets “guns a blazin'” Way to go!

Because yesterday’s post resonated with a lot of folks, I wanted to do a brief follow-up post today based on a some of your comments, and I was hoping to get your thoughts and ideas on a couple of topics:


First, just what constitutes an “Over-the-top” HDR shot? What do you (we, us, they) consider an over-the-top shot? Take a look at the images above, taken by my buddy, and HDR expert, RC Concepcion. I love both of those shots. They both got loads of HDR tone-mapping going on (though slightly different styles), but is it “over the top?” If you think it is, does that make it a bad shot?

I read so many comments that basically said, “I like HDR as long as it’s not overdone. But exactly what is “over done?”

Is it:

(a) Pushing the Color Saturation too far, where the colors look un-natural?

(b) Is it “Poorly done HDR?” where the person processing the HDR photo, doesn’t really understand how to use the HDR tonemapping software (and if that’s the case, then is it just a matter of education—-teaching people how to do it right?)

(c) Is it shots where there’s no black in the photo—it’s all midtones–showing too much detail?

(d) Is it shots where the image is over sharpened, like too much High Pass sharpening?

(e) Or, is it like a Supreme Court Justice’s view of pornography, where you can’t really describe it, but “you know it when you see it?”

While you’re here, go ahead and take the Poll below:

Here’s my problem with all of this. I’ve seen way over-the-top HDR images that look horrible, and I’ve seen way over the top HDR images that look absolutely stunning. Which means; there’s more to it than just the post processing.

Recently, one of the images that won Best of Show at the Photoshop World Guru Awards was an image that had literally tons, loads, mountains of HDR effect applied to it. But it rocked! It looked really great, and the judges chose it as the winner hands down (even though some would technically consider it “over the top.”)

I guess my point here is; HDR is like any other effect you do in Photoshop. Too much of it looks bad. Usually. But not always. It just depends on the photo (and the person doing the processing).

So what I’m hoping the anti-HDR crowd will do is this; instead of dismissing a  photo as “over-the-top” HDR, and automatically hating it—instead judge it on the merits of that particular photo. Give it a chance.

But beyond that—try making an over-the-top HDR image yourself. You might find that you like it more than you thought, and that other people like your shot more than you do (like I mentioned yesterday with my HDR shot). Real HDR tonemapping is built right in to Photoshop CS5. Give it a try. You might be surprised at how it changes how you view HDR images moving forward. Even those dreaded over-the-top ones. ;-)

  1. Great shot of the Drum Room in Kansas City RC. I generally like all HDRs that don’t scream HDR. But to your point some that scream HDR still can look great. I think the bad wrap for HDRs come from the fantasy style photos that started popping up years ago.

  2. To me the main HDR that I really don’t like is the ones showing clear halos around objects. Beyond that, it’s all just style and much like a regular image that has been processes. Over saturated colours can kill a normal image, or HDR the same, same as the lack of black/dark areas, works sometimes, but not others.

  3. Again, thanks for the pushing the topic hard Scott. It is great to see a wide range of views on this and i think its helping other people form their perception as well. Personally, to me an over-the-top HDR shot is one where the dynamic range truly is very high (way beyond the human eye – im guessing there is a limit of tonal range human eye can register) and then some artists choose to push the envelop and saturate the image even further. i guess i tend to like hdr images which, while over-the-top, don’t seem completely unreal … mostly landscapes in my experience (because we’ve all seen landscape images that have a very wide tonal range but are still believable as completely natural – the real gems (not the fake HDRs ;-), just kidding).

  4. As I mentioned yesterday, I consider HDR as a “filter”, an post processing effect such as B&W, sepia toning, etc. It enhances the content of the picture (hopefully) but doesn’t necessarily make the picture better. “I’ll know it when I see it” because it may provide an emotional impact which is my main goal as a photographer. If its an everyday image in my life why take the picture (a Maisel pearl), but if that same picture is unique to you it may make a great picture and its “filters” may make it even better. Life is funny sometimes and photography is part of my life. Just do it, that’s why they make more than one camera.

  5. “Lack of black shadow areas in the photo” is a fairly big part of the process. I agree with your view Scott. The over saturated look along with crazy halos and too much unwanted detail in the photo is a definite killer… but like all things sometimes fad runs its course before it quite literally die out… a lot of people seem to ONLY shoot HDR just because they can, not because the frame and the lighting needs it… SO I guess at the end of the day a part of it, is what people like and how they want to see the final image but also a big part of it lies in the fact that they do it cause others are or they just to get on the HDR bandwagon(even if there is little need for it) Pretty hard to explain to people who like HDRs or don’t understand the different between natural and unnatural look :)

    1. Photographs don’t look natural, though. It’s not natural to see long-exposures that give us streaks of light or cotton candy waterfalls, yet we accept them. It’s not natural to see in black & white, but we accept them. It’s not natural to see shallow depth of field around your subject, but we accept them It’s not natural to see high contrast everywhere, but we accept them as photographs.

      Why is HDR excluded from all these other unnatural aspects of photography?

      1. Long-exposures, black & white, shallow depth of field, high contrast are all essentially about one single frame. Not 3, not 5, not 7, 9 or more. While all the above techniques look great HDR is the only one that makes everything look ‘fake’ unless of course its very subtly done.

        Also blending, tone mapping 5 frames to bring out more depth and colour and over the top saturation doesn’t necessarily make a bad photo good. Anyhow, that my opinion.

    1. John,
      My understanding is that the purpose of the poll is to produce a one way result. It is asking people the reason they consider some HDR shots as “over-done.” The poll is generic and is not asking anything specific about the example shots.

  6. Halos, especially against the sky seem to be my “limit”. I can accept over-the-top HDR as a form of art but when it looks like the photographer missed the highs or shadows in the capture then I that’s the point where I think they just stink. When I do my captures I make sure I go just a little farther than the photos would appear to capture the entire EV spectrum. When I process the HDRs then open in Raw and see a blown out spot then I feel that I have missed some of the extremes. I have noticed that in Raw a HDR processed image doesn’t seem to have a full stop of recovery. I can pull recovery all the way and adjust exposure and still the blown highlights will not recover. This is when its back to the drawing board.

    1. Agreed. I don’t mind tone mapping and heavy post processing but the halos are a turn off.

      I was browsing HDR Spotting trying to decide why I don’t like some of them and realized I could probably do that for any style of photography. Over saturated, over sharpened, lack of shadows, poor processing are all not necessarily the fault of HDR. HDR is just getting a bad reputation because of it.

  7. I have tried to shoot some HDR but in the end always settled for a proper “old fashined” development in Lightroom. HDR can create very eye-catching effects, and I was certainly pretty amazed by the first such images I saw. However, as the effect was handed down to the less artistically minded who know how to move a set of sliders, it quickly became rather too much, too obvious, too eager.
    With respect to the images you’re showing, I’m quite tempted to ask if they are still photography. There’s an open border between photography, computer graphics, paintings, drawings etc. Just because it’s based on light that has passed through a lens, it doesn’t mean that after a whole lot of post processing, it still is photography in any narrower sense.
    Those two pictures rather nicely illustrate what I mean: they both have the look of typical computer game graphics. Lights and shadows don’t look quite natural, which gives the image a strangely unreal look. The second one actually almost seems flat to me, probably because of the strange distribution of light.
    HDR, if done well, is probably here to stay. I don’t like the effect much and I think we can often tell a better story with classical photography (just as b/w often tells a better story than color) but photography is such a wide field, there’s always room for new development.
    It does, however, always sadden me a bit when I see that a badly done HDR effect will often get raving comments while a quiet, well done b/w might go unnoticed on flickr and the likes. I guess we all want candy, and HDR is candy for the eye.


    1. Peter,

      I was just about to post a comment myself saying essentially what you have said above — and far more eloquently than I could have. To me, the two examples above are very nice images, but I too would question whether they have gone beyond the point of being photographs. They are still great art and worthy of praise and appreciation. It may sound like semantics, but I think a great photograph can also be a great image, but a great image isn’t necessarily a great photograph. HDR, done well can produce great images, but I hesitate to say they are “true” photographs. Doesn’t make them any less worthy of being considered art — in a different form. Confused yet?

      Trev J.

    2. Hey Peter:

      I agree.. there is a line somewhere in there when photography is turned into something.. Its hard to say where that line is actually defined however.

      Heres a perfect example. Take a look at the image on your website called “Deep Blue Skies”

      For a second, I seriously thought that was just a blue gradient in Photoshop. Matter fact, I did it in Photoshop, just to see if I could- Pretty simple. Does that mean that it makes your photograph -less- and my Photoshop art -more-. Does that mean that your sky picture ceases to be an image?


    3. How much fun would it have been to be a fly on the wall (since there was no internet) at the Ye Ol’ British Camera Club when Velvia film was introduced? (The following dialogue is much more fun when you read it with a really stuffy, stuck-up British accent.)

      “Well Old Chap, I’ve been on safari in Africa and I’ll tell you what, the sky does not look like that. And the colors! I’m sure the Queen is simply having a fit!”

      “I don’t know ol’ boy, I love the look, but it this really photography?”

      The argument of “is it really photography” is such a strange one to me. Who are we, as individuals, to question the intention or authenticity of an artist, using a camera, when we have no idea what the goal of that artist was? Take Ansel Adams, he would spend many, many hours in a dark room dodging and burning to essentially expand the dynamic range and bend the image to his intent. Is that photography? You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who will say it is not. Take it back a huge step farther since the term photography was essentially coined as part the early development/invention of film, do we have to use silver chloride film to call something a photograph? Am I a “photographer” or a “Camera Obscurist” since I shoot digital instead of film these days? Where does this imaginary line start and stop when it comes to an image being a “real photograph?”

      You are as entitled to your views as I am mine, but I’m always just shocked when I hear this argument out of someone who I imagine to be a lot like me – Someone who “wants” to make great photos and not to be dismissed based on process by which those photos are made. Really, my photos (and any photo for that matter) can suck on their own as an artistic failure, not just because they were processed using HDR techniques.

      1. Johnny:

        You HAVE to read my comment (which is long as can be) at the bottom.. I think we were totally on the same wavelength!


  8. For me over the top is anytime one the first things you think when you see that image is “HDR”. The content should always trump technique. Any combination of the items you mentioned can be distracting and therefore detracts from the image.

    In the case of your boat image (before her) your composition was good your subject was interesting but the lighting was flat and the image lacked contrast. In that case the flat lighting is the distraction. The viewers first impression is flat. So using HDR to get your image to pop was actually removing a distraction. The first thing I thought was “that’s a cool old boat” and not “oh look Scott went all stuck in customs on us”

  9. Peter, you bring up a good point. If I take a photograph and paint it in Corel then is it still a photograph? I guess the same for several images that we manipulate to make an impossible photo. I don’t know where we draw the line on describing art as a photograph, but just our discussion of the subject itself is the endless enigma!

    I will pause next time someone asks me if one of my HDRs is a photograph. I get that question frequently.

  10. I think that one aspect that determines if something is too much (or too little or just used on the wrong image) is the context in which the image appears. Too much in one context could very well be too little or just wrong in another. The danger is where people see HDR as a crutch. Where the process determines the image rather than the photographers vision being the guiding light. If you see a subject and at the time of taking the image feel that HDR is what you need to realise your vision it is the right choice. If you did it just because it is your habit to do so, I think there is a problem.

  11. Scott, I thought for example that your HDR on the boat was perfect except for one thing- the ropes were too bright/cartoony-looking. Other than that you nailed it- perfectly balanced shot with great tones and lighting. That’s how my eyes see it, yours and everyone else’s eyes will see it differently. At the end of the day, as long as you feel good about it, that’s all that really counts.

  12. I don’t like the first photo – everything looks like molded plastic.

    Second photo looks OK so I voted “I’m not sure, but I know it when I see it”

      1. I really should check back here more often. I wasn’t really voting on the photos themselves. I generally like HDR if done “nicely” but in my opinion the first reference photo was the type of HDR that I don’t like, whereas the second photo looked OK to my eye, hence why I voted the way I did.

  13. I jude every photo on it’s own. So saying: “Well, if a photo has this of that it’s over the top” is too arbitrary. Rules schmooles;-)

    Whenever I see an HDR photo I try to see through the effect and see if I like the composition and subject matter. Which is difficult, because the human vision is a sucker for visual candy.

    I create a lot of Long Exposure photos with a 10 stop gray filter from B+W and it’s basically the same as with HDR: The trick(talk bout over simplifying) must fit the photo and its content, otherwise it’s just that, a trick.. I don’t really care about over the top colours at all.

    Also, a lot of HDR beginners do make the misstake of trying to open up every shadow in the photo. That is something that will ruin the photo for me.

  14. I think option 2 “poor processing” is a bit of an all of the above option – it really encompasses all of the other options. For me though the real killer with HDR is the haloing effect, almost every good HDR photo I’ve seen has been halo free. That and the fact that pretty much everything becomes a midtone.

  15. I think it boils down to this; There is no un-suck filter. If you take a crappy shot, no amount of post processing is going to make it a good shot.

    A good shot can be enhanced with post processing techniques, such as HDR and tone-mapping, but the image has to be right in-camera first.

    1. What is “right?” Let’s take HDR out of the equation for the moment and talk about concert photography. I shoot one of the musicians, but unfortunately, it’s in red stage light. Nobody looks good under red light.

      Now using your technique, I can throw away the image because it isn’t right in camera. Or, I could convert it to Black & White and find that it’s a perfectly acceptable image, maybe even great. It just wasn’t right in-camera.

      We throw out a lot of platitudes about photography. If we followed them all precisely, we’d have no innovation and fewer images to admire.

      1. Good point.

        My meaning of getting it ‘right’ in camera is that the file you come away with should be the best possible in order to achieve the output you envisioned when you hit the shutter. Taking your example of the concert photograph… you’d have known at the time of capture that the stage light was red. So unless you thought you’d have use for the photo (i.e. convert to B&W) then why bother to take the shot??

        My point was more about composition, focus and exposure than pre-visualisation. Again, going back to your example, if the shot of the musician was completely out of focus, poorly composed and poorly exposed then it wouldn’t matter one bit about the red light, because no amount of post processing is going to save it.

        My only issue with over processed looking tone-mapped images is that many of them are just plain sh*tty photos. The post processing technique used isn’t going to undo that.

        PS… forgot to compliment RC on the photos here. Well done.

  16. I voted ‘b’ – poor processing by the photographer, but I’d also agree with most of the other answers as well.

    I’ve read some great books on HDR, shot quite a few and I’m still confused sometimes when it comes to getting the results I want. I think we’re lacking some in depth instructional material not only on tone mapping, but on the creative possibilities of working in 32 bit space as well. The CS5 Help files for tone mapping 32 bit are a clear example of what’s missing – less than one page to describe the local adaptation controls, and if you don’t understand why the options are there, and how they work both independently and inter dependently, it’s all to easy to get carried away and produce something over the top.

  17. If the image is processed to a point where it looks too much like a painting or has halos around the edges…that looks bad to me. If you capture little details in the shadows that usually go dark, details you see with your eye that the camera doesn’t, then it’s decent. I like the example that Matt Kloskowski had in his HDR tutorial recently for CS5 with the tree and rocks in the morning. That was done well. Other ones that look too processed like they should be in a video game…thats a bit too much.

  18. My 2 cents: The first photo is weak…composition is poor, cool subject but…lighting OK. Add HDR into weak photo which makes it even worse …for me.
    Second photo is solid, great depth and use of leading lines …HDR accentuates a cool scene by adding detail you couldn’t get in 1 exposure…serves a purpose
    Boiled down…what’s the role/purpose of HDR…without one it detracts from photo.

    1. See.. and this is where I disagree with you.. I dont think HDR makes or breaks an image.. I think the person at the controls does.

      HDR doesn’t have to have a ‘role’ or a ‘purpose’ in a photo. Its not a technique to ‘fix’ a photo – it’s a technique in of itself – with it’s own stylings and rules and stuff.

      I’ve taken the liberty of diagraming the flow of the picture here:

      There was some thought to -why- the elements were placed where they were in the frame.. it just may not be apparent.

      I love the open dialog that criticism can bring though- that’s a good thing.

      I went to your site and saw your images and the first thing that I thought was that you spend a lot of time thinking about leading lines for your images and not enough time on the image as a whole.. making them not as strong

      obviously my two cents as well

  19. I usually think of all HDR compositions as “over-the-top” when there are visible halos running along the edges where darker and lighter zones meet.
    Take a landscape shot for instance – too much of HDR-ing produces noticeable halos along the edge where the ridge of the mountain or field meets the sky.
    It’s the same with indoor shots. Too much HDR-ing produces halos over the edges of all windows that may be present in the composition.
    I hate when I see that. Oversaturation can of course tip the cart over as well.

    I like HDRs best when I can hardly tell it’s HDR I’m looking at. Or should I say, I prefer HDR in its pure “exposure-blending” variety.

  20. I think HDR is over the top when my reaction is wow, that is a great computer drawing. I wonder if they used Adobe Illustrator. That is not always bad, but sometimes I am caught off guard that some of the HDR begin with a camera.

  21. I think there’s a difference between photography and imagery. HDR has its place, sometimes I like it sometimes I don’t, but I know it’s not for any of us to knock it or those who love to create it. To me it’s another form of imagery and art, as is painting, cartoon or sketching. We all see a picture and we want to recreate it, capture it in what ever is our chosen medium. I’ve taken a few shots with HDR in mind and I find it makes me look at the subject differently. I look harder at my subject, picturing it as a final image, simply because it’s new to me and to do a half decent job I’ve got to work at it. Anything that makes us try a little harder can’t be bad. We’ve all taken a shot which we don’t like that much and someone else says they love it. As photographers we’re very critical of our own work, as are many creators of images. It’s an art and we should not be quite so critical of it and let our ordinance decide what they like or dislike, but it’s always nice when our peers compliment us. I don’t know about everyone else, but everyday, as a photographer, I realise I have more and more to learn.
    As for your HDR image Scott, I like it. I’m sorry you don’t like it but I think instead of comparing the HDR with the “3 star” image you should set them apart and judge them separately.
    Just my thoughts, I hope I didn’t step on any ones toes….


  22. How much poop does it take to ruin and ice cream cone?…..I’d say any, but some might eat around it and tollerate a small amount….I’ll bet you get a lot of diverse opinions on what is too much HDR, also! Art is subjective, and so the experience is different for us all. “Can’t we all just get along?”…….lol

  23. Hey Scott, there is one thing that I always try to avoid in my HDR images and I guess, to me, it would make it over-the-top and that’s big halos. They usually show up in skies around darker objects but they can happen any time you have large areas of light and dark together. So that’s one of my measuring sticks for when I have taken my image too far. Leave the halos to the angels.

  24. Both of the photos included are obviously HDR photos. I don’t think there is such a thing as “over the top” when it comes to art. Is there an “over the top” painting? Sculpture? Not really.

    That being said, I don’t think either of these photos is interesting, and the use of HDR ads the only visual interest in either of them.

    A visitor to my gallery recently told me that HDR grabs your attention right away and demands your attention. But that attention doesn’t last… it is too forceful. Photos that hold your attention over time are more subtle, more natural. I don’t know if he is correct, but I suspect he might be. Though, when most photography is consumed online perhaps that doesn’t matter at all.

  25. Will said something that really made me think. “For me over the top is anytime one the first things you think when you see that image is HDR”. In most cases, “over the top” would be considered bad I think. Maybe that is why when I show non-photographers HDR images, they seem to be more well received then they are by photographers. To them, they do not know it is HDR, they do not care if it is photography, they simply know they like it, or they don’t like it. To me it’s a bit like music, music can be technically great or not so good, but some music that experts may claim is not technically that great can still be very very popular.

    As has already been said here, HDR is simply processing, simply another trick in the bag that we can choose to use or not use, abuse or not abuse. HDR is not bad or evil anymore then making a color photo black and white. Black and white can also be over the top – it depends how you do it. I don’t think I have ever heard anyone make a blanket statement about black and white processing being bad yet I have heard that about HDR. Why is that? Both forms of processing significantly change the image. I would say B&W changes images more then HDR does, yet we are very accepting of black and white.

    I do a daily photo blog and got quite a few responses to an image I put up recently. I am going to put up another image of the same location and will be interested to see how it is received. Most of my viewers are non-photographers and I bet the comments will be skewed differently then if my readership was mostly photographers.

  26. I have to admit I have become a HDR addict but I also struggle with just how far to push it.

    My preference is towards the photorealistic. If someone wants to push it towards the surreal that’s ok with me, I don’t have to agree or like it.

    To Scott’s point yesterday about non-photographers reaction to HDR. If I put the same image, HDR and non HDR next to each other- the HDR gets the most positive responses as to being more appealing than an “plain” photograph.

    When I first started to use CS5 HDR Pro I was not sure whether it was the tool for me over Photomatix Pro. But after several weeks of learning the feel of the adjustments, it seems to solve some areas that make some HDR images over the top or less appealing to me. In particuliar the Haloing, as mentioned several times above.

  27. Scott,

    I realized I didn’t address the actual poll question in my first comment. For me, your question is like asking, “When is abstract art TOO abstract?” or “When is the color red TOO red?” Perhaps the question should have read something like: “At what point do you consider an HDR image no longer a photograph?”

    Also, although I know (from experience) RC can take constructive criticism as it was intended, I’d recommend that in the future when asking for opinions on specific photographs, you will get more honest answers if you don’t identify the photographer. People are far more likely to pull punches when critiquing the work of a “friend” than a stranger.

    Trev J.

  28. I voted “e” not because I don’t know what is “over the top” but because it can be “any or all of the above”. Over-saturation can be over the top without HDR. Muddled application of any adjustment which is done solely for the sake of effect (Wow, what a cool effect!) without consideration of how it relates to the image it is being applied to, the total elimination of blacks where the viewer would naturally expect black, over-sharpening to the point that there are massive halos, all are “over the top” IMO. OTOH I am a landscape photographer who is photographing the world as it is.

    I have filtered some images to reduce extraneous detail and the result looks more like a watercolor painting. When I show these there are some people who absolutely love them, to the point that one friend suggested that I should do all my photos like that “because they’d sell better”. However I was (and still am to a degree) uncomfortable with the idea that I would be depending on a gimmick. That feeling probably goes back to my admiration for Ansel Adams work. I know that he manipulated his prints and so do I, but there is a line that I call artistic verisimilitude, the threshold of believability. Ansel’s images were hyper-real, not real but still believable as something that you would/could see standing in his shoes when the exposure was made. Over the top HDR is surreal, over the line of believability.

    What is appropriate of course is your intent. If you envision a surreal rendition as you are composing the image in your viewfinder then OTT HDR may well be the technique you need. I don’t see things like that through my viewfinder. YMMV

    1. And thus.. I FINALLY see someone use the word Verisimilitude in an Actual Sentence!!! I love it

      Before the flamewar starts, I actually -Know- Jim.. and i’ve slept on his couch during my years in college with his son.. so its done out of love.. and great respect..

      Hes a great photographer!


      1. No offense taken RC. :-) I like your photos BTW. They just not the way I see the world, therefore not something I would create. If we all saw the world the same, our photography would be very boring.

  29. I neither love or hate hdr. I take each image on its own. I’ve seen some really good images and some really bad ones.

    I do like the the first image, but it’s been so processed that I now can’t call it a photograph anymore. To me it is an image or computer drawing/art.

  30. The big turn offs for me are 1) poor processing and 2) inappropriate subject matter. As far as poor processing goes, halos, noise, blue clouds, etc. get me moving off a photo about as fast as I can click. Inappropriate subject matter is a bit harder to pin down. I think it goes without saying (but I will, anyway) portraits generally don’t lend themselves to HDR or tone mapping. I’ll go a bit further and say that “most” photos don’t lend themselves to the “full” treatment. Having stepped out on that limb, I’ll back off a bit and say that a lot of photos shot in flat, ugly light might be improved by a touch of tone mapping or (better) Topaz Labs Adjust (again, please don’t overdo).

    I shot a series of photos a couple of years ago where HDR was of immense help. It was about noon and I was photographing a series of buildings from ground level. The sky was bright with very nice fair weather cumulus clouds, and I really wanted that sky and those clouds to show. The buildings were all in hard shadow. The only solution was multiple exposures to capture the images, and HDR with very, very subtle tone mapping to finish off the images.

    Finally (congratulations if you’ve gotten this far), I’d recommend that newbies place their early HDR masterpieces in some deep dark space on their hard drive, or prints in a drawer for a week or a few weeks and then take a fresh look before sharing. Please, please, please: no halos, noise or blue clouds.

  31. I love HDR shots and I almost exclusively do mine that way now. Whenever I see a traditional photo I almost usually think to myself, “It would look so much better in HDR.” I’m not sure what constitutes over the top because some have commented that mine look that way, but yet people still like them. I think they look more natural than the aforementioned traditional, but as with all art forms, beauty is in the eye and all of that. Just like Scott says above, there are really good ones and really bad ones, just as in any type of photography. It really boils down to what the artist is trying to convey and if he/she is successful at doing that. Don’t knock it unless you try it!

  32. everyone see a picture in in own way.it is like going to see a movie some will like it other will not like it. we all have different taste.same with art peaple like picasso other do not like it.

  33. Personally I don’t believe there is such a thing as “over-the-top” HDR. I do believe there are a lot of instances where someone makes a photo HDR just for the sake of HDR when there is no need for it in the particular shot. I guess that would be the closest thing for me to call “over-the-top” HDR. I grew up an artist, drawing and painting since I was a little kid and I love pushing HDRs to the point where they look like an illustration. I know a lot of people don’t like that but it’s art, you put your heart into it and get what you like and that’s all that matters.

    I have this attitude that if you don’t like my HDRs or any other of my photos for that matter, fine then it’s not for you, move on to the next photo. Personally I don’t like Rap music, but I don’t go into a music store and walk over the the Rap music section of the cds and look through them and then complain to the manager telling him they shouldn’t have them in the store because I don’t like Rap. If everybody liked the same thing then there would only be one genre of music. That will never happen and it will never happen with photography.

  34. Scott, I am a big fan of HDR & don’t have a problem with it’s use. I think it comes down to HDR looks good with certain images & looks bad on others. I think it comes down to choice of Image & how HDR is applied.

  35. IMO
    If you can look at any part of the image, and there are no atmospheric or lighting conditions under which it would ever look that way to the human eye, then you’ve gone too far. Lighting can make a color brighter or duller and even change it’s tone, air quality can produce a misty haze, or make everything look crystal clear. If the HDR produces something that could only be seen with the assistance of medication, then it’s no longer a photo, it might be a stunning picture, but it’s not a photo anymore.

  36. To define “over the top”, you would have to establish where the “TOP” is. That bar is going to be different for everyone. I don’t usually have a problem with extremely processed images of any type as long as it enhances the image. When it’s done for it’s own sake, it may grab your attention at first but then you realize it’s just a mediocre image with a lot of stuff thrown at it. My analogy is that of a really GREAT song. If something knocks me out on first hearing, I find that I usually tire of it quickly. Really good sings hook into the back of your cranium and grow and grow inside – and usually last forever.

  37. Scott, what I don’t like about HDR is when it’s used in Photography competition on a local level. Our club doesn’t have many photoshop users even in the A category and then it seems that the judge goes gagga over a shot that uses it. Guess it also comes down to training and personal taste. I like the HDR good stuff that I see, yours and RC’s that you’ve presented here for example.

  38. Peter raises a very good point: image editing is a scale ranging from “RAW straight out of the camera” to “digital painting” and for Peter, probably HDR. Not only is it important to understand where you think an image falls on that scale, but it is equally important for us to understand where WE are on that scale. Our judgements are relative to where we stand, not on any non-absolute scale.

    As for his suggestions that HDR is too much, his description sounds like any editing is too much. For me, HDR is a valid tool and an over the top image is a valid result if that is what you are looking for. I love the top image but not the second. I can say nothing else about them since I can only say and comment on how _I_ feel not how anyone else should feel about something.

    For me, HDR that works most often is what reflects what the human eye can see: an extended dynamic range, localized exposure and a greater range than the current camera can capture. But I still do like some “over the top” HDR images like the first one. I lack the language to describe why I don’t like the second.

  39. My personal opinion is that HDR is over done when it resembles a ‘cartoon that almost looks real’. HDR is just another tool in the editors/photog’s bag that can be used to make a pix better. But like any other tool, it can be used to make a pix worse. What’s the difference between better or worse? Well, that is similar to asking which do like, Landscapes or Portraiture? It is a matter of personal opinion. And if you don’t agree with me, well then, you are just wrong ;-)

  40. Were people (artists) having these same conversations way back when oils, watercolors, pencils, CAMERAS!, etc. hit the stage? Probably! Some like Picasso, some Renoir, others Ansel.. Point is.. What you like others won’t.

  41. I’m not a fan of HDR. I feel like I just don’t have the control I want when I process an image. But then, NIK software just recently announced a coming new product – their HDR processing package that will allow for CONTROL POINTS to locally dial in the desired effect to specific areas of an image. Now that I could get to like …. a lot!

  42. Interesting Read, I have to say that I find the HDR effect more art than Photography, but I enjoy exploring the art as well as the photography and my clients do as well. I can with HDR and Photoshop create mood and emotion that may have been lost in the true photograph. I am allowed to interpret my feelings and thoughts into something that is more readily ascertainable than by the mere description. Just my thought.

  43. What constitutes “over the top” HDR?

    As you have shown by your last two posts, it is hard to define “over the top” characteristics of HDR. Isn’t it up to the artist to define if the saturation of color is too great for a particular image? Don’t we leave it to the artist to show the work as they see it? Everyone has a different “eye” for this which is probably why it is so difficult to define, so who is to define what is right and wrong? Is it the “comic book” look and “unnatural” appearance that upsets so many? There are billions of comic books that have sold all over the world. Are the artists wrong to have generated these works? Can the definition of unnatural be applied to many works of historical art? Maybe instead of viewing HDR as photography we should be viewing them as works of art? Be it appealing or not.

    In close, to me the HDR effect loses its appeal when the halo effect becomes visible, but to the artist it may be the presentation they were looking for.

  44. Many fine comments here. The expression “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” comes to mind in all the results that can be had with HDR.

    My take on HDR’s value is to provide an image that is more like what we can see with our eyes. If you consider the detail in the range of light to dark that you can see with your eyes, and if you really analyze what you are seeing – such as in a daylight landscape scene, then it is in a sense a very well done HDR image. No halos, no oversaturation, no etc. Then, I think, you are staying within the realm of photography and using HDR as a tool to that end.

    But artistic license is in the photographers hand. After all it is his photo. And we have the right to personally like his (or her) creation or not.

  45. For me it’s the halos or when the colors don’t look quite right (not necessarily over saturated but not something that you don’t see in nature). So for me the first photo is slightly overdone and the second one is not.

    I liked it when I was having a critique done and a professional photographer didn’t know that I had used HDR until I told him.

  46. Wow this discussion is awesome. I read through most of yesterdays comments too. I didn’ta comment myself well because I don’t do HDR. I’m still trying to get a hold on understanding the capabilities of my camera and finding light. I guess I’m just into more natural stuff right now. Though I do admire some HDR. I’m not amazed at how passionate people get about it though. its like any up and coming technique it goes through its motions. I think for me personally. When I see an image and I can’t tell if its a photograph or an illustration then that miIght be too much for me. Like the first image looks like an illustration of some kind, and the second looks like an really heavy in HDR photo borderlining (yes i made up my own word) the illustration look. But, I like both images, for what they are. If we were to compare them to other HDR’s or just other images that changes opinions. To me its what purpose will the photo serve? Is it like an impressionist painting or a representation of the real? Is it a still shot in a film or is it just a visual aid to an article? Or will it simply stand alone or with a series of other images of the subject in a portfolio or on someone’s wall. Its like contemporary paintings for me…I have a hard time getting through to abstract art…but the old masters and the impressionists really move me and I see things in them and can stare at them for hours if I had the time. I’ve seen HDR images like this that just draw me in and others that I just take a look and keep moving.
    Either way its all art and art is crazy and limitless and everyone has their tastes mediums, purposes, points of view, techniques. The discussion about it can get people so fired up it can ruin friendships or even client relations. Not many topics in life can do that other than maybe politics or religion.

    So like it or not, I just add it to the toolbox of toys to help me or any other artist create their vision.

    Awesome discussion Scott and RC. And Scott for what its worth, I don’t think yesterdays image was your best, it was pretty cool mind you very cool in fact. A great view point and it did tell a story for me. I liked seeing the detail in the boat. But I’ve seen other images of yours I’d rank above it, just for me personally. And heck who am I, just some young creative pro trying to make it in this cut throat artsy fartsy world ;)

    (and loving every minute of it)

  47. Scott, in your vote choices, I could have checked off more than one option. In addition to the over-sharpened effect, saturated colors akin to those you get when you tinker with LAB adjustments are also a big factor in producing the other-worldly garish colors. Also, you have to take into consideration the person at the controls. Yes, deliberate over exaggeration can be useful, say, in ads and commercials to attract attention, much like a blinking neon sign on a cheap motel. In your ferry boat example, it was a tasteful HDR effect in the immediate foreground but went overboard (some nautical humor) when you inadvertently brought into sharper focus the background shoreline of buildings. They should have remained subdued. I believe many become enamored with HDR’s ability to produce brightness on screen but, again, fail to realize that many of those same colors will be out-of-gamut for printing. How do you resolve it, assuming you are at some point going to print. Chances are your final result will be compromised. Thanks for reading my rant again.

  48. Hey Guys:

    Thanks for the positives and negatives on the two images. Believe me – with the company I keep, you need to make sue you can take it when you hit “Print” and put it on a wall. We give as good as we get; it keeps us on our toes.

    Here’s what I get confused on. I think that as a whole – HDR is a Style with a very wide range.. no different than Photography.

    Is a Photograph a Photograph
    Peter brought up the point where he said “I’m tempted to ask whether it’s photography” and thats where the argument falls apart. Some argue that Ansel Adams was a big B&W HDR person. Does that mean that his work is not really ‘photographic’ at all anymore?

    What about the people who do Infrared photography. Trees arent white- they’re green! Does that mean that it’s an illustration now? Or the concept of star trails – where giant circles appear in the sky – is -that- photography?

    They Aint Pictures Unless you Smell Like Fixer
    There are photographers who spent an Immeasurable time in the darkroom – more than they spent out shooting – working an image. If I shot Tri-X 400 and spent 10 hours listening to “Dark Side of the Moon” pulling the image (Good times.. good times..) Does that make the result not as much of a Photograph?

    I also take issue with the fact that HDR Photography is seen as ‘just a set of sliders’ that even the most simple person can use. Heck.. a camera has a P button – it does it all for you. It has an A button – where you dictate one thing and it takes care of the rest. Does that make Photography simple? Simpler – yes.. but not Simple.

    There is a Such Thing as Software Specialists
    I think that point goes with an opinion of some that Software is just a series of buttons and that it’s not hard. I argue – old school photography was pouring liquid into a plastic container, holding a paper under it, and pulling it out.. big deal.. you want extra credit for knowing “Just When” to pull the paper out?

    Point is – BOTH have a technique to them.. and knowing it is what makes the person an expert in it.

    HDR Purists are the most Closet-ed HDR users
    The other part of the HDR argument tends to fall on the “I like to use HDR in such a way that no one would EVER say that it’s an HDR. In essence: The HDR is a technique to repair what the camera -cant- do.

    Now.. you use HDR to fix your landscape image. You subtly kiss it with HDR and put it on your port.


    Your client says “Oh my goodness.. what a wonderful landscape shot”

    I’m willing to bet the LAST thing out of the photographers mouth is “Why thank you.. it’s an HDR”

    My point: If you’re looking at the technique as just a repair technique – chances are you wouldn’t even ‘see’ it as an HDR image.. so why be included in the spectrum.. or give opinions on it?

    Judge the Cha Cha for the Cha Cha – Not the Ballet
    Arguing that we can do better photography if we went back to X, is a slippery slope. For every person who wants to go back to Film, theres another who wants to go back to Polaroid. For every person who wants to use a Holga, theres another who wants to go back to Collodion. For every person who likes sitting on IKEA, another one wants to whittle out a chair from a stump.

    Looking back in the past of ‘what used to be’ doesnt help judge what is. There are a set of loosely defined rules in this technique.. and you should judge based on that. If we were in a dance competition judging an act, and we were told “Next up is the Cha Cha”. Then we saw someone come out and do a beautiful ballet. I think we’d agree that it was a beautiful dance, but that it wasn’t the Cha Cha.

    We wouldn’t sit around and go “Ahhh!! To be back to the days when we just pranced around in a circle around the fire… THAT was a mean Cha Cha”

    Or would we… :)


    1. RC,

      When, in your mind, does an image cease being a photograph? I don’t know the answer myself, but am curious for your own thoughts. If I pick up a paintbrush, some acrylic paints and apply colorful brush strokes to one of my photos, maybe paste in a magazine cutout of a big yellow sun, the scene may be representative of my vision of the scene as I saw it. BUT, is it still a photograph? Now, if I do the exact same thing digitally in Photoshop, is it any more a photograph than when I applied acrylic paints and collage to my picture?

      Just where do we draw the line? Perhaps the notion of what is a “photograph” is no longer relevant and everything simply becomes an “image.”

      Trev J.

      1. Addendum:
        Virtually every self-respecting newspaper and magazine in the world would rightly credit HDR photographs as: “Photo illustration by…” as opposed to “Photo by…” Not saying there can’t be such a thing as “fine art” photos, but the journalistic standard is one to consider.

      2. To your addendum, there’s an interesting post on Black Star Rising today about the ethics of HDR in journalism. It appears they’re starting to question why HDR needs a disclaimer, or should be considered unethcical for journalistic usage.

    2. RC,
      Great post. Okay, so I’ll admit it – I’ve used the term “over-the-top” and “overdone” for some photographs that are indicated as HDR-processed. I have also used the process by employing Photomatix, Topaz and of course Photoshop layers and masking and have submitted photographs to hdrspotting.com (which focuses solely on the HDR process). I have intentionally toned-down my images, as I like them better that way. I’m betting that many viewers of my images who only do HDR would say that mine are not detailed enough. But I need to get over that and do the best I can to represent my observations and ideas that I want to express in my photographs. Some will love my work and some won’t.

      In the end, one’s feeling about a photograph is so personal that there’s little logic in saying that HDR is good, bad, overdone, etc. However, my personal opinion is that the HDR “movement” has gone out of its way to label the process. If Ansel Adams named his process “Light dodging” for example and lot’s of web sites focused only on the Light Dodging Process, maybe the same type of arguments and disagreements would be vocalized.

      It would be great to look at a photograph for its own merit instead of focusing on the process that was used to make it. After all, it’s art. HDR-processed photographs do look very different than traditional one-shot out of the camera photographs. So what — one either likes it the photograph or not.

    3. RC,

      I like the tone you set. And I agree that “photograph” is a continuum of styles with a very broad range, if it has an end point at all.

      I’m a newbie photographer. Right now, I’m lucky if I can compose and expose an artistically and technically coherent image in my camera, let alone learn any sort of sophisticated post-processing. Whether I will one day learn HDR remains to be seen. I have nothing against the process itself.

      So, take this comment as basically from an average Joe on the street looking at some prints. There are two types of HDR prints I see out there: (1) the “cleaned-up” kind illustrated by the mountain + lake landscape in this post, and (2) the “hyper-real” kind illustrated by those used by Scott to set off this discussion.

      My own personal subjective opinion on the matter (since that is what this conversation asks for) is that I don’t like the first kind because they look too perfect and I don’t like the later because they look like video games. In both cases, it’s a gut-reaction against something that just doesn’t feel authentic to me. Reality is seldom that clean, sharp, vibrant, and orderly, as seen through my own eyes.

      Thus, I feel disconnected from HDR-style photographs, in a way that is different from how I feel in front of, to use the popular example here, Ansel Adams’s work. Even though he clearly was intent on manipulating his negatives to expand the dynamic range and detail of his images, there was a certain comforting and familiar “messiness” and “randomness” to his work that I find lacking in most contemporary HDR work.

      A quotation of his from “Examples. The Making of 40 Photographs” I think expresses what I feel when I look at an HDR-styled image: “Contriving a situation is very different from analyzing actuality. If a composition . . . is too perfect, I am convinced the viewer recognizes its artificiality . . . . The clothes are too clean or too theatrically mussed, the models too slick, the environment too manipulated.” p97.

      Similarly, the same can be said for the exposure of an image. In all the HDR I have ever seen, the colors, the details, the overall impression, are all too “perfect” and all too manipulated into an idealized reality to which I cannot relate.

  49. God I hope HDR goes the way of Betamax. There’s no such thing as a good HDR image. I really think you post topics like this just to cause controversy and keep people interested in your blog. Anyone who posts blog topics on HDR or Mac knows what’s coming but does it regardless for some sort of sense of self importance I’m guessing.

    1. Hey Jason:

      Yet you’re still here.. and felt the need to comment. What does that say about your need to tell us how displeased you are over what someone -else- is doing on -their- blog?

      I think interesting questions are being asked.. and people are actually thinking about what’s being said.

      Till this..

      1. rc, I like a good HDR photo. When a client asks “is that a photo?” I tell them “yes”. I realy don’t make that many HDRs and it depends on the scene if I think I can prosper by doing one. I have noticed, however , that when we have these discussions I tend to get the itch to go out and do one. Every one has their opinion on this subject but why not keep an open mind to new things and try them? I still find myself trying to convince people to switch to digital.

    2. Would you be so kind as to give us the definition of a “good” image, and perhaps tell us where we can see some that you’ve developed? I need to know how to measure my work against the standard bearer.

      1. Thanks, Ken. The question was for Jason, but I’ll take anyone’s point of view. I just kind of bristled when I read “there’s no such thing as a good HDR photo.” Nonsense. I’ve seen many of them, including RC’s work. I’d like to know why I’m not supposed to enjoy these photographs or what makes them “not good.”

  50. Thanks for keeping this interesting topic on track Scott. I’ll keep this post short. I’m somewhere between option b) bad technique and e) I know it when I see it. RC’s shots were definitely “over the top” in terms of processing. However, in my view it served the mood and content of the image, as well as RC’s artistic vision. Therefore to me, it isn’t bad HDR.

    Here’s an analogy that I live with every day. In addition to being a photographer, I’m a professional recording and performing musician. I have a plethora of physical and virtual tools at my disposal in my studio. However, the tools must serve the musical statement. Otherwise its a technical showcase, rather than a composition. I don’t shred on every tune and sometimes (though not often), I don’t even include my guitar work. The music dictates my direction, as do the subjects in my photographs.

    Nicely done RC!

  51. Ultimately it’s a “I know it when I see it” thing, because there are exceptions to everything I’m about to say.

    Halo artifacts, noise, and ghosting are usually deal breakers for me. When I see those things I usually think “Doesn’t know how to use the software” rather than “artistic decisions”.

    A lack of contrast. HDR tonemapping is about removing contrast – and usually results in a very gray, drab photo. Part of making an HDR image is preserving the details that tonemapping makes possible, while strategically putting contrast back in. It’s more about blacks than highlights, but it’s more than *just* the blacks as well. Admittedly it comes down to a very subjective evaluation of aesthetics.

    A photo that just didn’t *need* HDR processing. Again, admittedly very subjective. But there are just some scenes where tonemapping adds nothing or worse, detracts from the subject. Ideally, tonemapping should reveal details or create a mood that would otherwise have been absent – the answer to the question “Why did you tonemap this?” should be obvious.

    A poorly composed base photo. A bad photo run through Photomatix is still a bad photo when it comes out the other side, no matter what you do to it in the program.

  52. I’m compelled to repeat my comment from a previous HDR discussion:

    Responding to a pounding from the critics, Billy Joel said “there is no such thing as bad music; there’s music you like and there’s music you don’t like, but in the end it is still music…”

    Love HDR, hate HDR; in the end it is still someone’s art.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head here, Don C.. This is ART, not science. In science we might argue whether it’s good or bad, true or not true, but with art, it’s up to the individual. Two different sides of the brain here. :-). Art beauty is an opinion based on YOUR taste only, NOT those of others. Whether you like it or not is up to you. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, right.
      Is it a photograph? Without question. It’s a “touched up” photograph …. just like every photograph you see published today. Now if you are taking a photo for the purpose of documentation, then that is science, not art.
      I wonder if people were having this same type of discussion when cameras were invented? Did people hate photos because they didn’t include the feeling that a painting might produce?

  53. HDR is like Picasso’s art work. It represents an artists desire to create art out of what he or she sees. Picasso’s work was a seareal represetation of what he saw. He exagerated colours, shapes and form all elements of design. HDR exagerates colour, value and texture again all elements of design.

    In the end art is personal and can’t please every one. I think a true photographer can see the value of a HDR image as art. It doesn’t mean you have to like.


  54. I think this topic has gotten way too complicated. Scott has already said it. HDR is a style, like any other. Be it Black & White, Split-Toning, or the popular sports portrait over sharpening. HDR, like all these other styles, is relative to the artist, and I’ve liked and disliked them all. Asking why only sparks the debate, aiding its popularity. If you truly hate “over the top” HDR, keep quiet and let nature run its course. If you want to see more, complain away.

    One point to make is that HDR at its very core, offers the opportunity to produce a closer idea of what you saw in the view finder. Who doesn’t want that opportunity?

    1. I would say it offers an opportunity to produce a closer idea of what you see in your mind. Photography is an art, not merely replication of a 3 dimensional space on a 2 dimensional media. Art is accomplished in the mind of the artist, not the glass of a viewfinder or the surface of a canvas for that matter.
      I don’t do HDR, because I don’t see things that way in my mind. I find that HDR images that are appealing to me are simpler, more “toned down.” Probably because that’s the way I see things in my mind. Other people, artists, see things with more detail, vibrance, etc. So, the “overdone” HDR images appeal to them more.
      Artists should make art that appeals to them first, if they don’t then they’d probably be happier as accountants or air conditioning repairmen.

  55. What cracks me up is that many of the people I’ve run in to who “hate” HDR will do similar edits to their photos – but since it’s a single exposure, they are “not doing HDR”. Yet, they will boost colors/saturation, sharpen like crazy, lots of dodge/burn….all of those things. HDR-like.

    So when you review their image and ask “So, did you edit anything” they will then admit what they did, almost reluctantly. It seems some people love the “wow” effect but like to make people think it’s right out of the camera that way or it’s their camera skills ONLY that produced that wonderful image. With a “good” HDR, it’s a little harder to hide the fact that you did something to the image to produce that result – especially if you understand exposure.

    It’s hypocritical (to me) to make all sorts of other tweaks and edits of an image and that’s ok, but drawing the line at HDR processing with such a cut/dry opinion. I really don’t see how it’s different. If you go to that extreme then you should look at a black and white the same way since the image it represents is not “real”.

    It’s my image. I took it. I tweaked it. I’m showing it to you. If you like it or don’t, I don’t really care. As long as I like it. I’ve actually learned a lot about exposure and photo taking just by trying HDR and seeing what can be done. I’m a fan. There are plenty HDR shots I don’t like, but there are plenty of non-HDR shots I don’t like too.:)

  56. I have to admit that I’m amazed to see a number of people who commented that HDR is not photography. You can’t produce one without a photograph, so I’m unsure of the logic behind those statements. My gut feeling is that some people aren’t comfortable with it because HDR is different than what they’ve accepted as photography.

    We accept a lot of unnatural effects as photography – bokeh, light streams, high contrast, lens flare, desaturation, oversaturation, black & white, graduated filters, artificial light and more. None of these techniques seem to be dismissed as unnatural or not part of photography. They’re accepted.

    Things change. When I was young and watched the evening news with my parents, cameras were not allowed in court rooms. To tell the story, sketch artists created images of the events. The TV cameras would pan across the sketches, as we now call the Ken Burns effect, to convey the feeling of being there. We accepted it as a device to tell the story.

    HDR is a technique to tell a story. It’s a tool to help us share what we experienced at a given scene. Evoking a reaction in the viewer is ultimately the objective (for me). Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail. That can happen using any of the techniques I mentioned, not just HDR.

    1. “I have to admit that I’m amazed to see a number of people who commented that HDR is not photography. You can’t produce one without a photograph, so I’m unsure of the logic behind those statements.”

      But… Using that logic, William, you can’t create a wooden table without a tree, but the table is NOT a tree. The table is a byproduct of the tree.

      As I said earlier, maybe the term “photograph” is simply no longer relevant, certainly less definitive than ever.

      Trev J.

      1. Trevor, next we will have to start calling them “manipulated photographs” by the photo police. (rhetoric here). Wait, all photographs are manipulated the min. they enter the lens. This “discussion” will never end. I like them, thats all that matters (sarcasm). :)

      2. I disagree with that analogy.

        Photos = Photons (aka light)
        Graphos = To paint

        If photons were captured in the image, it is by definition a photograph. Whether it “looks” like a photograph is an entirely subjective matter open to interpretation. But lets be clear, the technical description is 100% correct.

      3. I like that you keep bringing this up – that is what bothers me about this discussion.
        What is a photograph?
        My spin on that question is – Is that relevant?
        I’ve never considered the end result of my work as a photograph. I’ve always called and considered them ‘images’. By defining what a photograph is and then working within those boundries we limit the possibilities of creating great images. Photography is a physical medium that we use to create visual images. As oils is medium, water paint is a medium, etc.
        You could use these same arguments against Picasso, the Impressionsts, Jackson Pollock – anyone who went outside of the ‘accepted’ bounds of their medium.

      4. Scott, now thats the correct term to use…relevant! If I like my images however I have created them thats great. If my client likes my images and will purchase or even compliment them then thats great too. I know one thing that is ablolute, you cannot please everyone all the time. I am just happy that every now and then there is no frustration in what I do. Like Scott Kelby said to Jay Maisel, he gets frustrated with his photography (that makes me feel better) and I do too. If I can create one HDR that satifies me then that is relevant.

      5. Trevor:

        I think I understand your point, though I disagree with it. However, I do see one enormous advantage to not calling an HDR image a photograph.

        The next time I’m at Downtown Disney and they want to question me about my photography, I can wave them off by saying, “This isn’t photography. It’s HDR.”

        Maybe that will leave them scratching their heads and I can get on with my shots.

    2. Agreed. I think this debate is mainly about a resistance to change.

      I don’t think photography purists should shun an image with HDR effects. You might as well say that even adjusting RAW data of an image no longer makes it a photograph.

  57. I like some over the top HDRs and dislike others, just like any effect or style. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. However I wish someone would come up with a different name for the over the top images and stop calling them HDR. HDR (High Dynamic Range) is intended, as I understand it, to capture and reproduce in one image information and detail in the bright highlights and deep shadows of a scene. This is something that no film or digital sensor can do in one exposure. The idea is to create a photo that looks much the way the human eye sees a full range scene. This is not a new idea. Photographers have been trying to do this since the inception of photography. It usually involves additional light and light modifiers. This works great for people and many interiors and small sets, but very hard for landscapes, large buildings and so on. If non-photographers think HDR means fantasy photos then it may already be too late to give them a different name. In that case I’d like a new name for normal looking HDRs. Maybe N-HDR for normal and F-HDR for fantasy.
    Again I like both when the process fits the image.

  58. Whether we are talking about art, photography, music or any creative endeavor – we owe it to ourselves to push the limits, experiment and develop new ways of eliciting a feeling or reaction. How boring would it be if everyone took the same types of photos and processed them exactly the same way. We get better at what we do by pushing our creativity. Impressionistic painters were thought to be without talent because of how they chose to render a painting. What a difference a few hundred years make. HDR causes people to stop and look – to stop and comment. To think about the image. That can’t be all bad.

  59. What constitutes a Photograph? Let me explain what does. Using William Beem’s analogy and applying Trevor Johnston’s theory I came up with perfect solution to what constitutes as a Photograph.

    Turning a Tree into a Chair…
    The Tree is there. Some one comes along with his/her tools: Axe, knife, and maybe his butt cheeks. He whittles a chair out of it. Now the chair is there.
    That’s the same thing with Photography.

    The tree is a representative of the subject/object being photographed. The camera, lights, reflectors, and any other photographic tool needed to capture the Photograph are the tools. Once the picture is captured the Photograph is made. Just like the chair was made from the tree.

    Now once it’s a chair you have the option to leave it like that or you can carve details into it, paint it, and/or add upholstery. It’s still a chair whether you improve upon it or not… It just then becomes a specialized type of chair like victorian, modern, or such.

    That’s what HDR does. It adds details, paint, and upholstery to the Photograph. It’s still an Photograph but now enhanced. If you like the regular old whittled chair then don’t HDR it… But if you think your butt cheeks would like it in HDR then do it…


  60. Well, my personal preference is to use HDR to bring out all the details but keep things looking fairly natural, however I completely agree it depends upon the particular image you are working with.

    Even though I feel that some of his images are a little “over the top” I have to admit that many of Trey Ratcliff’s images over at his Stuck In Customs site are truly beautiful.

    If anyone is interested, here is a shot of mine which illustrates how I like to use HDR, again it’s my personal preference, but I love people to share what they are doing. If we were all the same and all did the same things, it would be a pretty boring world! You can find my image here: http://theblogatainsworthimages.ainsworthimages.com/blog/archives/545

  61. Also on the topic of “Over The Top” HDR… There is no such thing as over the top. There is just good HDR and bad HDR. You can only tell once you look at it.

    The problem lies with people not knowing how to do HDR correctly and trying to get their HDR’s to look like yours. It frustrates them, so they give up and be like “I don’t like HDR”. In that case you’re at the right place. Sign up for Kelby’s Online Training courses and you learn from the best. Then you will be guaranteed to convert. LOL

    HDR is a technique. To me Photoshop techniques are like old flames. Learn it, Love it, and Embrace it, then forget about it one you tapped it a few times. And only go back and tap it when you’re in the mood for it. Try different styles and don’t lock into one… After learning different styles, combinations, and variations, you build a library of techniques that will have them coming back for more…

    Another thing you can’t HDR EVERYTHING…. So many times have I seen something done really good in HDR, so I visit their page to see what other images they have. Then l get scared and run off, NEVER to return…

    1. Yep.. I think HDR is great in a few situations, but it can be overkilled. As much as I enjoy Black & White, I do shoot somethings in color when the BW just doesn’t/wouldn’t work.

      One nice feature of RAW shooting is that I can make those decisions later after getting home.

  62. I’m coming to photography(and this topic) from a different perspective.. 3d graphics and animation. I learned about lighting, lenses and focus using virtual equipment in Maya. It was often the goal to try to get the scene rendered to look as real as possible. Often what you get is a ‘movie’ sort of real where you can see everything going on in the shadows. The top image is what you get when you give an animator way too much time to build complicated textures and render using global illumination(lots of light bouncing around). The top image looks like a scene right out of a video game. Take a look at this wallpaper from the game Bioshock: http://underworld-games.com/wp-content/uploads/2009/07/plasmid-search-bioshock_wallpaper_1280x960.jpg It’s interesting to see Photography and 3d computer graphics meet like this.
    When I realized that images such as these were produced using photography and not hand painted or modeled in 3d it became my goal to master the techniques that would allow me to take an image and manipulate the textures and lighting to see how far I can get from reality. Push the limits! I can always pull back and use less. It’s a matter of seeing what can be done. It’s not unlike giving a model perfectly smooth skin.. then fading the effect to keep her from looking plastic.
    As far as the image being an honest photograph.. try creating a scene like that on the computer entirely in animation software… you have to model every object, create every texture… place every light. hundreds of test renderings, countless tweaks to surface textures and light placements. After doing it that way, just going somewhere and taking a picture seems like cheating! It’s the end product I care about. If the end product is easy to achieve.. it will become commonplace and loose commercial value. But if we take this where only skill and experience can go.. we have a product people are willing to pay for.. just ask Dave Hill.

      1. Agreed, I think that train of thought could be fleshed out more… maybe a topic for another blog post!

  63. I really enjoy debates like this when they stay civil because lots of good questions come out and it makes me think about things from different perspectives. Personally I think that good/bad HDR is in the eye of the beholder. It’s like asking what’s your favorite flavor of ice cream. In my opinion it’s a good HDR if I can look at it and see what the photographer/artist wanted me to see.

    I liked Scott’s shot of the boat yesterday because the extra detail he was able to pull out of the image did not take away from the overall image. I like the stove image today because the processing added to the overall feel of the scene. The second image I disliked because I thought the processing did something strange to the lighting on the roof and I found it really distracting. I loved the image in RC’s post.

    As far as the photograph/not photograph debate, everytime I tried to put my thoughts for this into writing I ran into a contradiction. The best I could come up with is intention. If you are intending to reproduce what you saw as accurately as possible then it is a photograph. If your intent is to alter what you saw then it is a different form of art.

  64. In my opinion there really is no such thing as an over the top HDR photo. The first photo was processed to the point where it looks like a painting … if that was the intended result, then I really don’t consider it over the top. The look of the second photo is what I create for my customers. When I create an image for a designer or builder of a commercial building or home interior I use HDR versus bringing in big lights to illuminate the room. Many designers I work for are very specific about the lighting schemes that they have created for a space and do like when they are altered especially when they are having the space photographed. Occasionally I will have them select from different levels of image processing and 9 out of 10 times they choose the image that has been pushed pretty far. While not for everyone, HDR has been and will be an effective tool for photographers for a long time to come.

  65. As an image creater, photographer, artist, or goofball (depends on who you talk to) thats been using Photomatix for well over 2 years now, I still find it rather fascinating that anyone still has a passionate hate for this. Its simply another tool to help one create art. Some like it, some don’t….just like other mediums. As far as it dissappearing? No way. Evolving for sure, but like all art, it is simply another wasy to express yourselves. This love hate debate will, I am sure, continue for decades as we continue to express ourselves in mediums we have yet to even discover!

  66. In some ways this reminds me of the Introduction to the catalog for the Ansel Adams 100th Anniversary Exhibition. The curator commented that he felt Adams’ changed the way he printed his B&Ws later in life and went to a a more dramatic, contrasty style compared to his original prints which were more subdued. The curator felt that this made for “worse” photos than the original versions. But if Ansel Adams wasn’t allowed to change his view of what looked good to him, where does that leave the rest of us? I think it will take us some time to come to a conclusion about what we like.

  67. Sorry, I voted “I don’t know, but when I see it I will!”
    I use HDR to assist in making my rendition of an image what I believe to be what I saw. (I merge photos) Others use HDR as, “in my mind”, another form of photographic art. I see both sides and strongly feel there is a place for both.

  68. Hey Scott, this is completely off topic but I just wanted to tell you that I really liked the way you handled your book cover appearing on “that site.” Your comment was great and shows what a decent, down to earth person you are. Good job.


  69. HDR can be a barrier to viewing the image critically. Automatically, we assess our bias for or against HDR before we pass judgement on whether the image has any other merits. Our expectations have been modified to the limitations of photography of the past. That’s why for one the HDR images works perfectly, and for the very next person it is over the top.

  70. I spent some time in my garden patio Sunday crashed on the futon with ‘Ansel Adams in Color”. He has many great quotes in there but one stuck out. He said that he had finally realized he preferred black and white over color because of the unrealistic-ness of Black and White compared to the color available at the time, and the extremes that you could get with it. I spent some time just looking at the colors in my garden and realized that I see in HDR unless the sun is directly overhead. There are some HDR’s that make me want to screech and others that I think are beautiful. The picture above of the lake, mountains and rocks is Beautiful. I also liked the second one above that. I didn’t like the first one (sorry – HDRporn). But, I do realize why I don’t like it. One, it looks like a D movie set, two, the other two are realistic and I have seen scenes that I saw in exactly those tones. In most rustic settings the colors are very, very washed out and when you apply HDR to them it is a fine line between HDR (saturation) and over saturation. In some HDR’s the changes didn’t make them look anything but dirty. Not cool dirty but grunge. Lots of people like the grunge effect. Lot’s don’t. Another effect that is very, very similar to HDR that I love in every instance that I have seen it used in was the Orton Effect.

  71. To add my 2 cents, I’m surprised no one has brought up faux or pseudo-HDR, such as Topaz Adjust and similar plugins and apps used on only one exposure. A photograph is (generally) the type of image that is modified with these plugins, and they’re meant for artistic control and creativity. No app or plugin can make a *bad* photograph into a good one. And by “bad” I mean one that is unintentionally out-of-focus, contains undesirable lens or motion blur or is very poorly exposed and can’t be recovered (unless you want to make it somehow artistic – that’s often done with great success), and so on. “Over the top” is subjective, eye of the beholder, to repeat what many have already said. I’m of the school that photography, whether straight from the camera or manipulated to any extent, is art, except when made strictly for editorial purposes. As such, it’s our our form of freedom of speech. I love using Topaz products, as well as Nik, OnOne and others. Do they make me a bad photographer just because I like getting creative, or that certain adjustments (major and minor) can be done much more quickly with a plugin or preset (which is great for those with hundreds or more images to prepare for a single client!)? Well, that’s a matter of opinion. I get enough feedback (and sales) to believe that I’m a good photographer, but that doesn’t mean that everyone likes all of my images. *I* don’t even like all of my images! But people sure do like lots of them, including my HDRs and faux-HDRs (some more “over the top” than others, although I try not to overdo it). I also like b&w conversions, split-toning, cross processing, and other creative forms of post-processing. They’re still photographs, right? More often than not, I just do the minimal work that may be required on an image, such as applying an s-curve and unsharp mask at the end. And, like Pam above me, I love the Orton Effect (I do mine in post usually). I don’t do it often, as it has to be the “right” image, IMO, but it’s another way of expressing oneself, another form of photographic art. So, to all purists, I say, please live and let live. To all who like to manipulate their photos, whether to make exposure or white balance adjustments, or to get creative (“over the top” or not), go for it! Enjoy it! It’s a form of expression! For me, it’s even a form of therapy. It’s my relaxation for when I can’t actually be out there shooting. My friends, family and clients LOVE my creative post-processing! My newspaper editor needs “pure” images. It all works, depending on the goal. I like what Scott wrote, as well as others. HDR and other techniques, plugins, effects, etc. are photographers’ tools. They don’t make us good photographers, no matter how “well” we use them; they are tools to help us achieve our desired end result, whether it’s to create or recreate a mood, to render an image into “fine art,” to make colors and hues “pop” or whatever your poison. We’re the photographers, not our cameras, not our other tools, although it certainly helps to have *good* tools! HDR or no HDR; if you like it, do it. There. Did I go over my 2 cents’ worth?

  72. I think the controversy is simply a result of HDR extending the limits of what’s possible to capture with a camera. It yields an image whose dynamic range comes much closer to what can be seen with the human eye, so it’s now possible to capture more lifelike images. But here’s the rub: people don’t like change and they’re always slow to accept it. Some folks seem to think the definition of what constitutes a “real” photograph was established way back when cameras were much more limited in what they could capture. Being dismissive of HDR is akin to saying the cars of today aren’t “real” cars, because they go faster and get better gas mileage than the car Ansel Adams used to drive. People will get over it of course, but it’s going to take a little while. BTW, the HDR images you posted with these last two blogs were terrific.

  73. Hey Scott! Am I last? Was this “Sweeps Week”? :>) (Sorry I don’t do emoticons). A great dialogue, but lacking a bit in the history of the medium. The discussion about what constitutes a “photograph” goes way back to (at least) to Oscar Reijlander’s photo montage “Two Ways of Life” 1857 and Henry Peach Robinson’s “Fading Away” 1858 (both involve analogue “selections” the hard way). The discourse was apparently pretty heated at the time. So while it would seem that everything old is new again, the debate shows how dedicated folks are the the medium after 170 years! Pretty impressive. And as a Hong Kong resident, I’m impressed that you rode steerage on the Star Ferry. Cheers.

  74. I think your missing on vote option. I think HDR is over done when the photograph no longer looks natural but rather looks like something that was created natively in photoshop or like method. That does not mean I consider them to be bad “pictures” but I’m not sure if they could any longer be called “Photographs” at that point. Alas since the “No longer looks real.” option is not in the voting lineup I will have to say I know it when I see it.

  75. I tend to agree with Raleigh above… ” think HDR is over done when the photograph no longer looks natural but rather looks like something that was created natively in photoshop or like method. ”

    I guess that to me anything beyond what you could do in developing regular film starts to go over the top.

    It passes from photography to “art”. That isn’t bad but it should be considered or compared with photography.

  76. Scott et al,

    I was one of those people who responded with the “Over the Top” comment about HDR. I can only speak for me and my opinion but I personally believe the “Over the Top” issue is a matter of photographers who use HDR as their ‘go-to’ effect and many of their images are processed as HDR. What then ends up happening is all of their photos look exactly the same, have no depth, soul or emotion and use that effect because it’s cool. Furthermore, the colors are far too saturated and the photos have a FAKE look and not an ENHANCED look.

    I think that the stuff we see here from RC is an amazing use of HDR because it enhances the photo and makes them stand out from an otherwise average photo (similar to what Scott posted with the boat in China). When good post processing takes place (regardless of filter or effect) it ultimately enhances the photo making it more interesting. Unfortunately, many people use HDR way too much to make the image look like, well, um, er, someone using a filter to make the image look cool. Then again, it’s all subjective.

    Here’s my $0.10 my $0.02 are free.

  77. To me, the above images become more like artwork, and not a photography. I feel that it becomes too much of not being within reality. So, when I see those, I don’t perceive or view them as photographs anymore, but rather art.

  78. I think there are certain types of photographs that can benefit from a little HDR work, such as landscapes and architecture.

    I also think that discussing this with examples that are professional level, like RC’s, doesn’t really show what is considered over the top HDR. I consider over the top to be images with obvious halos and where the image is mostly mid tones.

    HDR has become the Thomas Kinkade of photography. Sure some people think Kinkade’s artwork is great while others find it to be a crime against art, the same is true with HDR. :)

  79. I’m a bit late for the party but……………. in my view all forms of Photography is art and as with all art it’s very subjective and personal,

    to one person an image maybe “high key” ……. to another person that same image is over exposed,

    So as for HDR……………….over done HDR or under done HDR ?
    the answer lies in the eye of the beholder.

  80. Photography is the joy of personal expression. If your personal expression pleases you, it’s good.
    If you shoot to please others, and they are not pleased, then I guess it’s bad.
    If you shoot for editors, and hope to receive a check, it matters what they think.
    I’ve done all the above, and I like pleasing myself, with my work, the best…………
    Now, if I like my work and God likes it too, that’s very good…………


  81. Maybe photography is having an identity crisis, again. Like the Photo Secessionist “Movement” of a century ago, digital imaging in general and HDR in particular brings into question what constitutes “legitimate” photography.

    I think that it could be argued that the emergence of scanned photographs and digital printing signaled the end of photography and that everything after that is something completely different. Now that so many cameras capture photons and convert them into a signal, instead of converting that energy in a chemical process on film, doesn’t that make a completely new art form that is only analogous to photography?

    If you take that view it renders mute the whole discussion about whether certain HDR images are legitimate photographs, and opens the field to discuss whether it is a good image or not, and why. It takes us out of discussing the technical process used to get the image and gets us back to composition, intent, and other arty terms.

    At our local County Fair the photo exhibition has separate categories for “Visibly Manipulated”. One of my images in the Color category won a ribbon, and I had used HDR process. Another of my images was re-categorized by judges into the “Visibly Manipulated category. To my eye, all of my images are visibly manipulated. In fact, I think that all traditional wet process photographs look visibly manipulated. So what? That is what artists do – manipulate. It’s time we got past the mistaken view that photography records or “accurately represents” reality.

    Let’s take the viewpoint that all photographic images are telling a story, a fiction. Fiction often represents the fullness of the human experience more completely and accurately than “just the facts” does. How we expose an image, how we crop a scene, how we select depth of field all contribute to the story we want that image to tell. Did Kodak VPS tell the story more accurately than Fuji Velvia or Kodachrome 25?
    Use HDR and all of the Photoshop filters, or print on fiber in the dark room all day, but I say the point is to tell the story you want to tell.

  82. The question is, “What is art?” If you have a poorly done piece of art, it impresses no one. If you have a piece of art that moves or inspires someone, it has done its job.

    What exactly is the difference between photography and HDR enhancement? Who cares? I am looking at these pieces as something that either connects…or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t connect, then it is not worthy of my time.

    There will be some purists that insist that James Cameron’s “Avatar” was not a “real” movie. Ok, it’s not traditional, but it was an outstanding piece of cinematic history (the BEST retelling of “Pocohontas” EVER!) But, is it art? Did it move you? Did it make you believe that it existed? If it did, then it worked for you.

  83. Excellent post and commentary here that is so relevant for the digital digest of todays picture world. As Scott perfectly stated, there is a very delicate balance between proper use and “too much” when it comes to HDR, and I particularly like the point about losing the blacks within any given picture as that is often the main problem with poorly done hdr’s, funny enough, they end up having a lack of contrast that takes away from the picture. I do stand in the party of HDR being rather overdone these days, but it’s usually from mobile phone photography where the user simply has too much fun with it…. when done right, the results of extended dynamic range imagery can be absolutely stunning. All in all, an excellent topic for discussion.

  84. The two samples you show are over the top in my opinion. Because such examples sell doesn’t mean much to me because you can never account for bad taste.

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