Posted by: David Vernon | April 15, 2009

Let’s have the HDR talk

Matthiessen Surprise 2We’re going to be talking landscape photography with the Intro class at the Art Guild next week. And while it’s an Intro class, invariably the question comes up. The question about HDR. What is it? Is it real photography? How do you do it? That’s a lot of questions for an Intro class – especially one that isn’t necessarily into post-processing – but they’re all fair questions so let’s talk for a moment – about the HDR birds and bees. Please sit down. *gulp*

First of all, like many of these “talks”, I wasn’t entirely prepared to go here yet. But a simple little link on Scott Kelby’s blog changed that the other day. I’m holding off on the link until later but it finally provided me with a good excuse to sit you all down. Remember – this is harder for me then it is for you. 

So what does HDR stand for? Anyone? That’s right. High Dynamic Range. Okay – thrilling. So what. Well let’s just focus on the last two words – dynamic range. When you stand before a scene on a bright sunny day, the cameras in your head – i.e. your eyes – do a fantastic job of rendering the scene. You can see details in the highlights and you can see details in the shadows. You are a rockin’ good camera – you get it all in one shot – because you have a very dynamic range. But your SLR – not so good. No matter how much you spend – you have a limited dynamic range. Sure, you can expose for the highlights. You’ll knock ’em out but your shadows will be black. Oh hell. Alright – so be it. Expose for the shadows. Gulp. Your highlights have gone nuclear. There’s just no simple way around it. You can’t easily get both.

You can put a nice graduated neutral density filter on the front of your camera – but that assumes a nice horizon line where all the highlights are on one side, and all the shadows are on the other. The real world may not agree. You can composite an image. Take one shot for the highlights and take one for the shadows – and spend the next hour in Photoshop making it work. Maybe. Pretty soon you admit – it’s time for HDR. 

Now one would think that I’d pull out an HDR photo for this very entry but to be honest I don’t have a lot of HDR images – and I’ve used them all on previous posts – so you have to settle for this old fashioned… WAIT A MINUTE – this is an HDR image. Well – how can you tell? Well like we said above – we can see the highlights and the shadows – with detail. That’s how we know. Click here if you want to see it bigger.

Now before we get into the nitty-gritty details (we’re gonna cheat on those anyway) – let’s look at the two knocks on HDR photography. Knock #1 – HDR isn’t real photography. Knock #2 – HDR looks fake. 

Let’s address number two first. HDR looks fake. The proper statement – to me – is that HDR can look fake. HDR can be over-processed. And when it is – then I’m mostly with you. It looks very unreal. It looks very other-worldly in fact. Fake? Well “fake” is one of those words that is open to interpretation. And that gets us to number one. HDR isn’t real photography. Without digressing into the whole post-processing isn’t real photography argument, I’m gonna say that HDR is definitely real photography. Yes – you have to post-process an image (or much more often – images) taken with your camera – and sometimes you have to really post-process it – but I’m sorry – to me – that’s still photography. Let’s have this argument in person someday – I’m ready to go – but we’ll not do it here in the body of the story. 

So to me – HDR is very much real photography – especially when it comes to seeing what the eye sees – and with a deft touch it will never look fake. 

So that leaves us with one chore – the How To. And that – my friends – is where we get back to that link Scott Kelby mentioned on Monday morning. Austin, TX-based shooter Trey Ratcliff got a mention on Scott’s blog. Trey is a very good travel shooter. Trey shoots almost everything with HDR in mind – and while some of his images do look other-worldly – they also seem to really, really connect. Trey is also very giving. He’s going to give you a completely wonderful blow-by-blow on how he does HDR with THIS very complete tutorial. And this is where I cheat – he can explain it all to you – so I don’t have to do it. Before you rush off however – a few words of warning. You must, must, must use software to do this. There’s no getting around it. And that software is not free. Nope. Photoshop CS3 and CS4 has some support for HDR built-in – but frankly it isn’t as good in my opinion as software called Photomatix Pro 3. And Photomatix is free to try, but $99 to use. There’s a great plug-in for Lightroom however – and give Adobe time – they’ll eventually hit it out of the park. Trey also uses software products from LucisArts. These products are all about enhancing detail. They’re easy to use and produce fantastic results – but they’ll set you back hundreds of dollars (there is a free 30-day trial). That part is not for the faint of heart. But you don’t need the LucisArts products to do HDR – they’re an optional add-on for enhancing your final image.  Trey also has discount codes for all of these HDR products on his website so that’s a good way to go if you decide to buy.

Let me also make a pitch for Matt Kloskowski’s take on HDR in DTown TV episode 2 (and 2A). Matt walks you through his method – it’s slightly cleaner and definitely uses the Lightroom Plug-in to make the workflow dead simple. And if you shoot Nikon – DTown is pretty darn good – especially for beginners – but even us old Nikon farts can learn stuff too.

Alright – that wasn’t too bad – was it? We’re still friends – yes? Okay – well think about it. And if we’re not friends – you are SO GROUNDED.


  1. Nice article, thanks 🙂

    Nearly everything’s in there. The only thing I would perhaps mention is this little free tool called Qtpfsgui creating at least quite acceptable results for free.

  2. Indeed – Qtpfsgui looks like a nice little program – available at I think they need to work on that name – too many consonants – until the very end when it goes all vowelly.

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