Tools + Techniques: The Controversy Over HDR Imaging

October 2, 2010

By Theano NIkitas

Whether you love HDRI or hate it, you’re going to have to get used to it since High Dynamic Range imaging is here to stay. Camera manufacturers are incorporating “HDR” features that automatically bracket and merge several images in-camera to increase dynamic range, but this is only a modest (and not terribly effective) step. Even more telling, though, is the ubiquitous spread of HDR software apps and features.

My first encounter with HDR came by way of a small but useful feature in Ulead’s PhotoImpact program that made it easy to merge bracketed exposures into a single image. Adobe started down the HDR path in CS2 and now offers vastly more developed HDR tools in Photoshop CS5, complete with presets.

There are also a number of plug-ins and standalone applications that are dedicated to HDR including the new Nik HDR Efex Pro as well as Photomatix Pro, Unified Color’s HDR Expose and 32 Float, among others. [See sidebar for more info.]


Photorealism vs. surrealism is probably the biggest controversy in HDR photography. According to photographer Jack Howard, author of the newly released 2nd Edition of Practical HDRI ($34.95; Rocky Nook Press), many people associate HDR with “Velvet Elvis, over-the-top, 1970s blacklight piercing colors and crispy edges.”

Subject matter, the amount of dynamic range captured and, most importantly, the amount and type of processing (i.e., tonemapping) can take an image from one extreme to the other or anywhere in between, he says.

Photographer Tony Sweet, who runs HDR workshops and takes students on field trips to the intriguingly decayed Eastern State Penitentiary, has an interesting but straightforward take on HDR.

 ”The issues with HDR appear to be that it doesn’t look natural,” Sweet says. “Well, okay. Did Fuji Velvia 50—the choice of professional nature photographers—look natural? Does a 14mm lens look natural? Does the bokeh of super fast lenses look natural? The answer to all of these questions is ‘no’ so I’m not sure why HDR is such an issue.”

Sweet acknowledges that there are a “ton of really bad HDR images out there” but he doesn’t see any “cons” in HDR use. “Ultimately,” he explains, “it’s just another tool to realize and extend one’s creative interpretation.”

Architectural photographer Michael James started using HDRI in 2005 and it began dominating his workflow by early 2006. James says HDRI provides a great solution for tackling difficult exposure issues.

For architectural work, says James, HDRI is used “in virtually every shot” especially since most of his clients rent upscale homes and condos on the beach where “the dynamic range of the scenes is tremendous.” Because HDRI provides “enormous exposure latitude and nearly unlimited relighting control in post,” he doesn’t have to set up complex lighting, an important benefit since James sometimes has only 1-2 hours to shoot an entire property on “turn day”—after the cleaning crew and before the next guest checks in. Additionally, HDRI allows him to show the properties as they are designed to be seen. “There are no flash units overwhelming the existing lighting,” for example, “so the images my rental clients put online do, in fact, look that way when the vacationer arrives.”

Surprisingly, James adds, “I was shocked to find that some of my clients actually liked some of the images that I had trouble editing to a natural color palette early on.” While he felt they were oversaturated and not photo realistic, he assumed that the clients liked the HDRI images because “they are selling a vacation experience and the images convey a certain mood to the would-be vacationer.”

But subjects with great detail that can be pulled out in processing such as old trucks, decaying buildings and landscapes seem to be among the more popular HDR subjects. Sweet, who generally employs HDR when shooting structures or high contrast scenes, says he rarely uses the technique for more natural settings. But he points out that outdoor scenes with clouds are also good HDR candidates.

In fact, says Sweet, “We refer to a certain type of overcast cloud texture as HDR clouds because they can render dramatically after tonemapping.”

People and moving objects, of course, are more difficult to produce in HDR style due to problems such as ghosting. But we’ve seen a few portraits—including one of a boxer with amazing detail and texture by Jack Howard (shot with the Nikon D3 with a 9fps burst)—that work well. For now, however, using a tripod to shoot static subjects seems to deliver the best results.


If the purpose of HDR is to expand the dynamic range of a scene by taking multiple exposures and merging them via software, then the best HDR starts in camera. Unfortunately, there’s no magic formula to capture the appropriate image.

According to Howard “most cameras don’t have AEB (Auto Exposure Bracketing) sequences that are wide enough” to capture a scene’s full dynamic range. He goes on to say that, “It doesn’t matter how many shots you take; what matters is capturing the full dynamic range of the scene [as indicated by your histogram] to give you the best information set to work with.”

Photographer Tony Sweet, who shoots with a Nikon D3x and 14-14mm and 14-70mm Nikkor lenses for almost all of his HDR images reports that “auto bracketing can work” and he’ll use that “on occasion.” He adds that, “It’s not uncommon to have a series of +1 to -4 rather than the customary series of +2 to -2” but each image is different and “unless the light is constant on location, the exposure series may be different on each image.”

If your camera isn’t capable of capturing a broad enough bracketing sequence, you might want to check out Promote Control ($299;, a tool used by architectural photographer, Michael James.

“When I shoot interiors,” says James, “I attach a Promote Control to the [Nikon] D3 via USB which allows unlimited bracketing options that go beyond the capabilities of the D3.” This allows him to “capture large brackets with tighter stops without ever needing to touch the camera.” (Promote Control also works with other Nikon and Canon bodies.)

Although every scene is unique, James reports that about 90 percent of his architectural interior shots are bracketed 2/3rd EV steps for 11-15 frames. He’ll go with 1/3 EV jumps for extremely backlit interiors. Outdoors, he generally brackets at 1EV steps for “as few as 3 [shots] and as many as 11-13 shots for backlit properties.”


The three photographers I interviewed for this piece all started exploring HDR around 2005-2006, using whatever tools were available at the time. Among the current software apps used are Photomatix Pro, Unified Color’s Expose and 32 Float, Adobe Photoshop CS5, FDR Tools and the latest addition to the group, Nik HDR Efex Pro.

Howard, who works with multiple software applications, explains that each app has its strength. “I’ve worked up some shots that have moving elements and one application might get it right 90 percent of the time while another might get it that other 10 percent but I haven’t seen anything that works every single time [to correct ghosting].” He suggests, “If you’re having ghost issues in Adobe Photoshop CS5, change the anchor image and see if that works.”

As mentioned earlier, James suggests shooting a few flash frames after completing a bracketing sequence. He explains that you can use one or more flash frames in Photoshop for white balance control by placing a well-exposed flash frame over your tonemapped layer. “Then turn the blend mode of the flash frame to ‘color.’ It will wipe out a tremendous amount of the mixed lighting issues. . . .Adjust opacity of that top layer or mask in just the trouble spots as needed.”

He’s also a big fan of Unified Color’s HDR Expose and their Photoshop plug-in 32 Float because “both allow me to do extensive exposure adjustments while maintaining color control throughout luminosity adjustments. I can adjust white balance and even target specific colors to shift tones and luminosity as needed to deal with the mixed lighting conditions I often encounter.”

For Sweet, Photomatix is still the “big dog”. . .but “after a long and successful reign, there are other programs on the horizon,” namely Nik’s HDR Efex pro, HDR Expose and HDR Darkroom.

“However,” he adds, “Nik’s HDR Efex pro’s use of their U-point technology will add power, speed and control to the HDR creation process. And the way that HDR Efex Pro handles white, puffy clouds, clear blue skies, and chromatic aberrations is quite good.” (P.S. When he’s not shooting with his Nikon, Sweet has been doing amazing HDR work with his iPhone 4.)

HDRI post-processing is still in its infancy and, as James explains, “Early to market programs made it easy to create surrealistic looking photos but many applications are now coming to market that are appropriate for more realistic post processing.”

Whatever your HDRI esthetic, it seems prudent to explore the wide range of software applications to see which ones fit best with your needs. Fortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a lack of options in the HDRI space.


There are plenty of HDR applications on the market and we expect their numbers to grow in the coming months and, possibly, years. Even the Apple’s new iOS 4.1 update has an HDR feature, which speaks to the popularity of HDR as well as the increasing enthusiasm for iPhone photography.

Whether you’re just starting out in HDRI or want to broaden your software horizons, here’s a short list of applications to help you get started.

Adobe Photoshop CS5Upgrade from $199; full version $

Dynamic Photo-HDRUpgrade $25; full version $

HDR Darkroom$99 Standard version

Nik HDR Efex ProPlug-in for Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Lightroom and Apple AperturePrice TBD (October release)

Photomatix Pro 3.2 (version 4.0 in Beta as of press time) $99

Photomatix Pro Plus Bundle (standalone program, which includes Lightroom plug-in plus plug-in for Photoshop CS2/CS3/CS4/CS5 and/or plug in for Apple Aperture) $119

Photomatix Light $39

Photomatix Plug-in for Apple Aperture 20 or 3 $79

Tone Mapping Plug-In for Photoshop CS3/CS3/CS4/CS5 $

HDR Expose (standalone and plug-ins for Aperture and Adobe Lightroom, which replaces HDR PhotoStudio) $149.99

32 Float (Adobe Photoshop plug-in) $