All that’s wrong with HDR

Lightroom 6's Merge to HDR feature

When about half a year ago Adobe released Lightroom 6/CC, the latest iteration of its popular imaging software, the two most noticeable additions were a panorama and an HDR feature. Since then the latter has received a great deal of criticism, much of which I consider to be misplaced and even factually wrong. One of the strongest pieces of criticism came from renowned American landscape photographer Trey Ratcliff. He was so disappointed by the new feature that he called it “Mega Lame Dot Com” and even created a Twitter hashtag, #WTFAdobeHDR – I don’t think it caught on, but I wouldn’t know because I’m not on Twitter. While I do like much of his work, I think that in this instance he has missed the point and been factually wrong on some aspects of the issue at hand. I didn’t plan to start this blog with a post criticising a well-known photographer, but Trey’s article perfectly exemplifies a host of misconceptions that are commonly held about HDR, and includes pretty much every point of criticism levelled against Lightroom’s new feature. So let’s look at it in detail.

Trey lists three main points of complaint. 1) The LR HDR results look “quite boring”, 2) LR HDR appears to be significantly slower than Photomatix, and 3) there are no options to adjust the “intensity of the HDR” and the resulting image has many sliders pre-moved, leaving little room for additional recovery.

The one point I cannot argue with is 2). I have never used Photomatix and don’t know how fast it is, but I have noticed that the LR HDR function is pretty slow. And not only that, it actually significantly slows down my whole computer to a point where I can’t even switch between applications and windows any more. But that’s about it. I’m not in a hurry, I just make myself a cup of tea and stare out of the window.

Now to 1) and 3). Trey complains that the end result is quite boring and claims that by simply moving three sliders on the middle exposure “you appear to get the exact same result” as with the HDR function. First the ‘boring’ part. What many of these critics fail to understand is what HDR actually is – it is not some sort of defined image style. Today the majority of images posted under the HDR label might easily be mistaken for surrealist paintings, or the work of some graffiti vigilante, but that has nothing to do with HDR per se. It’s also not a predefined field of photography, something different from say landscape or architectural photography. HDR (High dynamic range) is simply a method of extending the dynamic range of an image by combining several images made with different exposures into one large file. You bracket your shots – customarily five of them in 1 EV steps from -2 EV to +2 EV – and then feed them into appropriate software. However, the resulting 32-bit file’s dynamic range is too large for any monitor or piece of paper to display, so the file needs to be processed in a way that it can be displayed on a medium with a more limited dynamic range. This is usually done through tone mapping, a technique that reduces the HDR image to a more manageable LDR image. Actually, pulling up shadows and reducing highlights from a single RAW is just one form of tone mapping, only with less data to work with.

An example of tone mapping gone wild  (
An example of tone mapping gone wild (“The Raw Power of Nature” by Jan J George licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0)

It is at this point that a lot of people go apeshit on their HDR images and turn them into some sort of surrealist Walt Disney nightmare, and it is software like Photomatix that encourages this specific ‘style’ of HDR processing. In contrast to what has been purported there actually is no ‘HDR intensity’, just the choice of how far you go with your tone mapping, how far you force the saturation and contrast sliders and all the other stuff Photomatix offers. Trey also failed to realise that the pre-moved sliders are the result of him having left the ‘auto-tone’ option ticked. Un-tick it and you are free to edit away at your discretion.

So Adobe actually delivered exactly what they promised. The added LR feature combines a number of images featuring different exposures into one, big 32-bit TIFF file, containing way more luminance data than your average RAW file and giving you a much larger processing latitude. Thus Trey is also wrong in claiming that you can get the same results as LR HDR from a single RAW. Pull the shadows up by +100 in a normal RAW and even the likes of a Nikon D810 will show some loss of detail and added noise, do it with a 32-bit HDR TIFF and the loss of quality is minimal. Pull down the highlights in an overexposed RAW and you will recover very little detail at all, do it with the HDR and you get a much better result. These advantages make HDR an immensely powerful technique in the toolbox of many photographers, especially those doing landscape work. It allows you to manage dynamic ranges that would traditionally call for a graduated neutral density filter to be used. It’s simply the fact that most landscape photographers don’t tag or advertise their images as ‘HDR’ that creates this distorted public perception that has lead to HDR being almost exclusively associated with the kind of surreal tone mapping I mentioned above. I think some less benevolent commenters of Trey’s article referred to this style as ‘colour-vomit’. It is also noteworthy that many of Trey’s HDR images are of scenes that technically don’t even require the use of HDR since the dynamic ranges are totally unproblematic and manageable with a single RAW file.

So to wrap it up: HDR does not equate to surrealism and it is actually a very useful technique in creating realistic, natural looking images. Yes, there may be software out there offering more control and better results than LR’s built-in feature, but it comes with a much higher price tag. I have frequently used the LR feature to create HDRs in the past couple of months and have been satisfied with the results more often than not.

Here are some images that look a tad bit more realistic than the example above. Yes, the colours are pretty saturated, it’s a sunset after all – in the first example I even moved the saturation slider into negative territory. Both were made with the ‘Merge to HDR’ feature in Lightroom 6.

Sunset over Namib-Naukluft Lodge, Namibia
Sunset over Namib-Naukluft Lodge, Namibia
Sunset over the Firth of Tay, Scotland.
Sunset over the Firth of Tay, Scotland.

What do you think about LR’s new HDR feature? Feel free to share your thoughts below.

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