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To HDR or not to HDR?

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Tricky01 View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Topic: To HDR or not to HDR?
    Posted: 17 September 2018 at 22:33
I recently shared some photos (here) from a final photography wander in Delft before leaving to return to the UK. I also shared the same photos over on a mainly UK based forum, talkphotography (here) where I received some quite strong critique of the images, particularly around the use of HDR.

This really made me think. It's funny, but sometimes I go out with the clear intention to 'shoot for HDR' and so I bracket on tripod and then immediately process in HDR software (HDR Efex Pro 2) without considering using a single image to process independently. But the feedback made me revisit this and see if I was wrong to to this.

As a side note, it's really interesting the difference in feedback I get from photographers versus non-photographers. A prime example being image 3 in my original post, which received some strong comments on talkphotogaphy, yet is one of my most popular images on my photography facebook page (here). But the prime reason for this post is feedback on one specific composition, and the best way to process it. Below I share:
1. the original HDR processed version I shared (which in hindsight, had some automatic alignment that makes the sky odd)
2. a reprocessed version using the same three images but without the alignment issue
3. a version of just one of the images processed in Capture One
4-6. The three original exposures (in case anyone wishes to use them - RAWs available on request)

Personally, I feel the lighting means HDR helps the image, but I would really appreciate your input on whether you agree with this, or think a more considered approach to editing one of the inidivual images would serve me better.


1. the original HDR processed version I shared (which in hindsight, had some automatic alignment that makes the sky odd)


2. a reprocessed version using the same three images but without the alignment issue (Please ignore the 'dust bunnies' until I get the chance to upload a version with them removed!)


3. a version of just one of the images processed in Capture One


4. -2ev


5. 0ev


6. +2ev


Edited by Tricky01 - 17 September 2018 at 22:39
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Basil View Drop Down
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Basil Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 17 September 2018 at 23:08
Personally, I think the HDR versions look a little too unnatural. I like the fact that the foreground flowers are more visible, but the grass and leaves look strange. What would happen in you took image #2 and then played with the color saturation by reducing the yellows a bit?
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Phil Wood Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 September 2018 at 10:25
Is it me or is the tower marginally out of focus? This may be due to the small image size, but it just jars. And yes, the sky in the HDR version is odd.



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Post Options Post Options   Quote Miranda F Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 September 2018 at 11:12
Okay, you asked, so here's my view!

I have a fairly strong belief that the way the camera captures scenes is fundamentally different from the way the human eye does, and for various reasons this is not cancelled out (as you might suppose) when you stare at a photo, whether printed or on-screen.

In particular, I am convinced the eye has something akin to a logarithmic response to intensity which is quite different from the mostly linear curve used on 'straight' digital image capture.

So, I almost always use DRO on the A58, to lighten the shadows and make the image more like what I think I see. The exception is when I deliberately want the shadows deep, but I can always do that in PP. Now you can do all of the curve bending in PP, but as a jpeg user I prefer to lift the shadows before compression so the noise doesn't creep up, even if I want to push them down later.

Obviously HDR is an alternative to this, but I find it useful mostly when the composition contains things like doorways or tunnels where the DR exceeds the sensor (not just the jpeg), and I want detail in the highlights and shadows that would otherwise be blown out - I've never found it necessary in normal pictures; DRO does all I need for these.

Now DRO and HDR both reduce contrast in some part of the curve. HDR tends to reduce it everywhere which can make the picture look flat, whereas DRO tends to reduce it in the shadows without flattening the rest too much. I prefer that.

Much will also depend on the subject. You pic contains a shaft of sunlight on the tower which I suspect adds much to the appeal of the original, and this is lost on some of your images (I prefer 2 and 3 which show this). Also you don't have any clouds, which are the real test for me (what I call the 'Ektachrome look', with cloud and shadow detail still with lots of contrast). Clearly the non-HDR loses brightness in the grass and bushes, whicha re neither well enough lit to be attractive nor dark enough to make a good silhouette; curve bending and advanced PP is one approach to this; moving your feet and adjusting the composition is another!

Another issue with HDR is the need for three separate images. Clever sony software can cope with some subject movement (eg people walking) by selecting just one image on these parts, but I always think the single DRO image is going to be better here.

So, HDR can be very effective in some scenes (doorways, views through windows, etc), but I wouldn't use it for this one!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote waldo_posth Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 September 2018 at 22:46
That's an interesting issue.

Just to start with my first impressions: For me #1 has the best balance of colors and tonality. It's fresh, a morning light's shot - I am ignoring here that it is suffering from a range of problems - particularly halos. Did you use a CPL-filter (that may have added to the sky's problem)?

#2 is rather a late afternoon light's shot. The balance is shifted toward less light - a different mood altogether (and here the question comes up: What mood did you experience in the real situation? Which one, #1 or #2, would give a more adequate account of it?).

#3 is not much different - but it makes clear that HDR helps to uncover the information in the shadows in a way which I perceive as "natural" (but I might have developed a habit to do so - therefore the quotation marks). But #2 still has some trouble with halos (on the top of the trees) - that sets a limit to my perceived "naturalness".

Personally, I see HDR as an important tool. Most of my images which I post are HDR images. I am aiming at "naturalness" - so in #1 I would try to get a version without halos, with a completely smooth sky and less color saturation - but keeping the information in the shadows that #3 cannot show.

The current software for HDR is far from perfect (all kinds of halos!!). Often it's a lot of twisting and blending to achieve an acceptable result. I regularly use NIK HDR EFEX and Photomatix, less frequently the HDR tool in PS (last resort, if all other options fail). I usually work from a slightly underexposed RAW file - which I use for creating - on average - three different "exposures" (TIF-files) - in steps between 1 and 2 EV.
Of course, manipulating lights and shadows directly in ACR/Lightroom or via DRO could achieve similar (but not identical) results. Noise is always something to take care of.

HDR is not something you try to create results that amaze you - some hidden message to be uncovered (well, it's fun to do that sometimes). It should rather help you to - exactly - get at the impression which the reality in the image created in you, your perception. The "exactly" is the real hard stuff in PP.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote artuk Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 18 September 2018 at 23:15
Originally posted by Phil Wood Phil Wood wrote:

Is it me or is the tower marginally out of focus? This may be due to the small image size, but it just jars. And yes, the sky in the HDR version is odd.





The sky in the original HDR version looks.like a HDR processed shot, complete with "halos" where the HDR local tone mapping has artificially created halos in areas light and dark areas meet.

The second version looks better, marginally more natural, but still looks rather artificial.

The Capture One version from a single exposure returns some reality to the image, and is probably my favourite.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 10:40
Originally posted by Basil Basil wrote:

Personally, I think the HDR versions look a little too unnatural. I like the fact that the foreground flowers are more visible, but the grass and leaves look strange. What would happen in you took image #2 and then played with the color saturation by reducing the yellows a bit?
Thanks for the suggestion. I think this is what you mean, and I quite like it...

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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 10:42
Originally posted by Phil Wood Phil Wood wrote:

Is it me or is the tower marginally out of focus? This may be due to the small image size, but it just jars. And yes, the sky in the HDR version is odd.
It's probably the small image size because the bricks are pin sharp in the original. Sorry it jars though, but not sure there's anything I can do to fix that.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 10:50
Originally posted by Miranda F Miranda F wrote:

Okay, you asked, so here's my view!
Fred, thanks for your detailed analysis. I completely agree on your perspective on HDR, in fact I wrote a blog post to that effect a few years ago here. My belief is it's the dimension of time that our eye has the benefit of, quickly scanning the scene at different 'exposure settings' to create our HDR view of the scene. But that might be a nice hypothesis with no scientific support...

After a big white balance fail on a ski trip a few years ago, I now always shoot RAW - so I can rescue myself from myself. But maybe I should start playing more with the DRO settings. Waldo's approach of using a single image and producing three 'exposures' from the single RAW is an interesting solution to the ghosting/alignment problem too.

It's a really good point about the 'shaft of light' too, it looks very flat on the first HDR image (1), and while I like the variety of brick colours in that image, losing that light is not worth it. It's a good explanation as to why that original HDR doesn't work. Thank you!
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Post Options Post Options   Quote beautiophile Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 11:00
I once heard from a tutorial video that the importance of realistic HDR is the highlight elements must remain brighter than the shadow items in the blended image.
I think that in your first photo, the green branches are as bright as the sunshined bricks and "yellow" leaves. This might has caused the surreal feelings in comments above.

Edited by beautiophile - 19 September 2018 at 14:15
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 11:04
Originally posted by waldo_posth waldo_posth wrote:

That's an interesting issue.

Just to start with my first impressions: For me #1 has the best balance of colors and tonality. It's fresh, a morning light's shot - I am ignoring here that it is suffering from a range of problems - particularly halos. Did you use a CPL-filter (that may have added to the sky's problem)?
No CPL, but I did have HDR EFEX set to auto alignment at 100%, which seems to make the sky very problematic.

Originally posted by waldo_posth waldo_posth wrote:

#2 is rather a late afternoon light's shot. The balance is shifted toward less light - a different mood altogether (and here the question comes up: What mood did you experience in the real situation? Which one, #1 or #2, would give a more adequate account of it?).
Interesting philosophical question here about whether an image is to capture what you saw, or to create an attractive image for the viewer, but we can save that for another day . The scene was bright and warm. Probably a little brighter than the neutral exposure, but the warmth was the strongest aspect from my memory.
Originally posted by waldo_posth waldo_posth wrote:

#3 is not much different - but it makes clear that HDR helps to uncover the information in the shadows in a way which I perceive as "natural" (but I might have developed a habit to do so - therefore the quotation marks). But #2 still has some trouble with halos (on the top of the trees) - that sets a limit to my perceived "naturalness".
Those halos were a b***** to deal with, but you're right, it's not quite perfect. It's interesting how us photographers notice them, but rarely does anyone else seem to. Nonetheless, it's good to strive for perfection . I think the main reason for using HDR is to try and get that foreground nicely lit - I should have used a flash...
Originally posted by waldo_posth waldo_posth wrote:

Personally, I see HDR as an important tool. Most of my images which I post are HDR images. I am aiming at "naturalness" - so in #1 I would try to get a version without halos, with a completely smooth sky and less color saturation - but keeping the information in the shadows that #3 cannot show.
Thanks - I think the new version shared above perhaps goes some way towards that. and very interesting that most of yours are HDR. You certainly achieve the 'naturalness' as I wouldn't have guessed this was the case. I really enjoy your images so will start enjoying them with this in mind too.

Originally posted by waldo_posth waldo_posth wrote:

The current software for HDR is far from perfect (all kinds of halos!!). Often it's a lot of twisting and blending to achieve an acceptable result. I regularly use NIK HDR EFEX and Photomatix, less frequently the HDR tool in PS (last resort, if all other options fail). I usually work from a slightly underexposed RAW file - which I use for creating - on average - three different "exposures" (TIF-files) - in steps between 1 and 2 EV.
Of course, manipulating lights and shadows directly in ACR/Lightroom or via DRO could achieve similar (but not identical) results. Noise is always something to take care of.

HDR is not something you try to create results that amaze you - some hidden message to be uncovered (well, it's fun to do that sometimes). It should rather help you to - exactly - get at the impression which the reality in the image created in you, your perception. The "exactly" is the real hard stuff in PP.
It's odd that HDR processing hasn't developed much in the last 5 years, particularly around halos. I have no understanding of the complexities technically here, and massively appreciate what great software it is, but there is still work to be done.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote Tricky01 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 11:05
Originally posted by beautiophile beautiophile wrote:

I once heard from a tutorial video that the importance of realistic HDR is the highlight elements must remain brighter than the shadow items in the blended image.
I think that's in your first photo, the green branches is as bright as the sunshined bricks and "yellow" leaves. This might have caused the surreal feelings in comments above.
Really good input, thank you. I think you're right, I've flattened that part of the image too much. I like the bright green leaves, but they take something away from the light on the towers.
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Post Options Post Options   Quote jkp1 Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 12:07
Do we really need HDR when we are shooting raw, and using one of our modern linear response sensors ?

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Post Options Post Options   Quote artuk Quote  Post ReplyReply Direct Link To This Post Posted: 19 September 2018 at 16:37
Originally posted by jkp1 jkp1 wrote:

Do we really need HDR when we are shooting raw, and using one of our modern linear response sensors ?



It's an interesting question whether a raw file exposed to protect extreme highlights could be developed with local adjustments to bring out shadow detail.

I often use digital graduated filters or local dodging and burning to balance areas of an image.

I use SilkyPix to develop raw files, which has useful global dodge and burn controls as well as HDR, which are often better when used alongside global changes to exposure, contrast and some local adjustments.
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