Putting an end to the HDR debate

The ongoing HDR debate is about to end

HDR DebateWhy do I say that?  I am going to prove to the world why the HDR technique really can come in handy or even save the day.  Will this post really put an edit to the HDR debate? Most likely not but all I can do is try, right?  This post is my opinion so don’t tell me I am wrong because an opinion can not be wrong.  Read on…

Why I do it

I photograph HDR because I love the technique and I love the detail and power that a HDR photograph can give.  I always love the technique because it can literally save a job.  Let me explain.

Art is art. It’s about creating something. Whether you take an image straight out of the camera and print it to a canvas, or if you spend hours on HDR processing to get the vision you want, it’s all about you conveying something to the viewer. – Mike Olbinski

The Situation

No, this is not “Jersey Shore”.  The following example was not a paid job however pretend it was. You are at Eastern State Penitentiary and head down the steps in to “The Hole”.  When you get to the bottom there is a very low ceiling (enough that you are almost on your knees) and cell gate blocking your way inside.  Well, how is one supposed to photograph “The Hole” when you can not stand or even get inside.

The Hole - Original Exposure
The Hole - Original Exposure

Looking through the cell gate all you see are exposed pipes being lit by hanging shop lights.  Our eyes adjust for lighting like this so we’re able to see most of what is inside, even with the horrible lighting.  Cameras can not do this naturally.  If we expose for the pipes then everything surrounding the lights will be too washed out.  If we expose for the lights then the rest of the room will just be black without any detail at all.  This is a problem.


There are a few solutions for this problem.  One is photographing a longer exposure than normal and hoping that the lit area is not unusable.  Risky but doable.  Another way would be to photograph two shots.  One exposing for the dark areas and one for the bright areas.  Then in Photoshop, mask the two photographs together.  Doable.

The HDR Solution

My solution had been to take nine bracketed exposures to create a HDR photograph.  Yes, a HDR can be overdone and “out there” but if done correctly it can create a stunning photograph.  The reason I chose to use the HDR technique down in “The Hole” was so I have all the detail captured so there is enough to work with to create a perfectly exposed photograph from dark to light.

The Hole - HDR
The Hole - HDR

The Hole - HDR - Redux
The Hole - HDR - Redux (click to view large)

If this was a paid job

So here we are.  A final HDR photograph of the scene.  Hypothetically, the client paid you to photograph this very difficult scene to be sure that the structure was safe for people to go inside.  Hypothetically, there was a problem and the risk of a ceiling collapse was high.  Hypothetically, the museum needed a photographer to capture what is happening down there as a safety.  The museum needed a photograph that didn’t miss a thing and you produced a result with detail throughout the entire frame.  I think that is a win in my book.

It’s not to say that it’s a saviour for any given rotten image or that in every situation HDR will make an ordinary image  into something more appealing, but it certainly, I believe, has it’s place in the photographer’s tool bag.  – Jacob F. Lucas

The HDR is not done

Please do not comment telling me that the HDR I showed you above looks fake.  I know… it is not done.  I created this HDR quickly to prove my point.  My point being that sometimes using the HDR technique is the best solution to a very difficult scenario.

So let this be the end

There you have it.  My point, my reasoning and my result.  Still hate HDR? Then why are you reading this?  Won’t try HDR?  Then why are you reading this?  If you love photography then stop the hate and try something new.  Enjoy shooting and have fun with it.  Hey, it could even make you some extra money.  You can tell me I’m beating a dead horse and posting this was a waste of time.  In the end it doesn’t matter.  I have now shared my feelings on the subject.  All I can say is lighten up, have fun with all photography and keep an open mind.

I think that it’s generally a good practice to know what it is that you are about to engage in before actually engaging in it. – Brian Matiash

Still need more?

Really?  My post didn’t help end the debate at all? Do you need to read more opinions?  Here you go…

Thanks for reading and happy shooting,


This Post Has 19 Comments

  1. Scott, you forgot the other obvious solution to this problem – carry 200lbs of lights and batteries :-)

  2. Very good point ;-)

    But still, where would you put the lights? There is no way inside

  3. I agree. HDR can be magnificent. And everyone has his or her opinion on the matter. Even some of Trey's images are too much for me, but I respect the art. Those people who constantly bash HDR have either never tried it or don't fully understand what it means to be an artist in the photography field.

    (I just took over 300 bracketed shots in the mountains yesterday!)

  4. While I agree with your argument wholeheartedly, the photograph doesn't in any way back it up. If you'd have used something less overcooked, it would have supported the text much better.

  5. Sure, but if you want to describe how you tasty a cake can be, it's best to let us taste the cake instead of showing us the batter. :)

  6. It takes a lot of time to make a good HDR. I wanted to get my opinion out there instead of waiting. The photo still proves the point that every bit of detail can be seen in one photograph.

  7. Great post Scott! I personally think it's all about your goals as a photographer. My goal is to capture what my eyes are seeing and HDR allows me to do that but for some it's to create more of an "art form" out of their photography. To each their own!

  8. How arrogant!
    You can't end a debate about personal taste by 'educating' those who have a different opinion!
    Especially not with photographs like yours.

  9. Hardly. I was suggesting a cleaner render would sell the argument better.

  10. I agree 100%. You should mention that there are 2 schools of HDR photography – the realistic and the saturated or hyper-realistic photo. One is not better than the other. It depends on the effect you are trying to achieve.

  11. I love HDR. I’ve been shooting it for close to 5 years now. I soon tired of the limitations that tone-mapping places on the process. It’s tone-mapping and not HDR that has a bad reputation. When you use a tone-mapping operator such as Photomatix’s Detail Enhancer you are handing your image over to a bit of code that was written to produce images that somebody else thinks are proper. I no longer use tone-mapping, and yes you can compress and HDR to an LDR without tone-mapping at all. I work entirely in information rich environment of 32bit HDR images. It gives you access to vastly more possible outcomes than any tone-mapping operator can every offer. Do you notice how so many of you images have the same look of too much local contrast? Noticed how they look a bit flat and never quite what you saw in the scene? It’s the tone-mapping. When you use it you loose most of your image data without ever having a chance to use it. This is why I find Trey Ratcliff’s images so boring.

  12. HDR is a lazy way to create exposure. Been there, done that. It’s a gimmick, a toy, not a “tool in the bag” like you said at Duchemin’s site. It’s just an extension to push-button photography that is prevalent in modern digital photography.

    In the above example, either use a longer exposure on a tripod, or learn how to light it via strobist-type techniques. I am sure you “client’ will be happier because you will provide him or her a superior product.

    1. Rob, if you do not have access inside, then using Strobes is out of the question. We will have to disagree on this one. “Strobist” is a tool or technique, “HDR” is a tool or technique, “Long Exposure” is a tool or technique.

  13. Scott, I am so tired of reading post after post of negativity toward HDR. I am all for it because it’s a beautiful form of photography. Those “fuddy duddy traditionalists” who hate HDR are like people who hate rock music and only listen to classical. I have just recently been getting into HDR and am an amatuer photographer. I have viewed some of Trey Ratcliff’s photos and find nothing “boring” about them. Those that do should stop doing their own post processing of their own photos otherwise they might corrupt themselves! All I can say is any amount of argument for HDR is not going to convince HDR haters to start liking HDR, so we should stop trying. If those people who don’t like HDR want to continue not to like it, no problem because everyone’s entitled to their opinion, but don’t bash HDR because if you do, you’re bashing the whole idea of post processing ANY photo whether it’s HDR or not. And I’m sure that anyone who’s a photographer does just that on his or her computer. If you don’t consider it a usefull tool for photography, fine, don’t use it, but stop criticizing those of us that do and let us enjoy the beauty of it.

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