The HDR Conundrum
For the past couple of weeks, there’s been this brew of comments popping up on the Interwebs concerning the topic of HDR. For quite some time now, we’ve been seeing HDR crop up in popularity, and with any rise in a technique, there is almost always an equally rising backlash for it. This year’s HDR was last years “Dave Hill” technique/ Lucis Art phase. Last year’s “Dave Hill” tech / Lucis Art phase was the year before THAT’s “Infrared Photography” craze. The fever has long since died on THAT! (And, for the record.. I happen to -like- Dave Hill’s work.. I make it a mention as how persnickety we can be as a group, and not a critique of his technique).

What’s HDR
So, let’s talk the basics for those of you who dont know. HDR is short for High Dynamic Range photography, or High Dynamic Range Imaging (HDRI). The premise is simple – the human eye can see more of a tonal range than a camera can see. Let’s say for example, you can stand in a room with a window on a somewhat sunny day. If you have a normal eye, you should technically be able to see stuff outside the window, and see dark and light areas in the apartment – the couch thats partially in shadow, and the shoe you left under the couch not being hit by any of the light outside at all (well.. not really). A regular camera would have a problem – expose for the sky outside, and you’re losing the entire room. Expose for the room, and all you will see is white where there should be windows. What do we do when the range that our eye sees cannot be captured through a camera?

One solution would be to take a series of exposures of a scene and blend them together, creating an image with a higher dynamic range than the previous image. Sounds like a great idea, right? Well.. kind of.. and that’s usually where the arguments start..

ab black and white

Tonemapping = Weirdo Art
You see.. most of the processing of these images are done with a process called Tone Mapping and in the process of creating your HDR work of art you usually walk into the land of “wow.. this looks really artsy/surreal/harry potter/lord of the rings” with your image. Gone is the idea that you wanted to create a greater range of tone for a user. Gone is the desire to bring out the subtle nuances that your camera couldn’t seem to pull out. Now, all you want to do is make weirdo art.. and you’re just fine with that.

While you’ve settled into your weirdo art status, out come the droves of people: “HEY HDR is about expanding the tonal range! You’re supposed to be doing it to faithfully preserve the range! This is supposed to help you retain those shadow areas! It’s about reality! It’s not about garbage! True to the last couple of conversations.. both are correct.

Here’s my take on it: The human eye is capable of producing a tonal range impossible for a mere camera to produce. I’m going to go out on a limb and say the LCD screen in front of you cant do the same either.. nor can the printer, no matter how much HDR ink we throw at it (can you get close.. sure! I mean, look at Epson.. amazing stuff coming from printers there). Point of the matter is, All of the technology that we have at our disposal makes for an approximation of what that scene looks like- so why focus on it’s authenticity so much. Like all of the other phases, people become of the process, and forget about the intention.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the special effect portion of HDR work. Prob the best quote i’ve heard about this topic was from Matt not too long ago “The only people tired about HDR are Photographers.. the general public LOVES it” This suits me just fine from a selling point of view. If I can take a picture, and sell it with a technique that has mass appeal.. guess what, I can buy another SB900.. I’m not so in love with my passion that I wouldnt forsake a print for a speedlight.. School will be open on my birthday.

What Not To Forget
You went into that image -wanting- to create a great image. Why are you now getting lost in the debate of the process. Focus on what you wanted that image to do, and use whaetever process you think brings that out. If that means it’s a Harry Potter produced image, then that’s what -you- wanted. If it’s a closer representation of the natural scene.. great.

When you focus on the Process rather than the Intent, you start deluding yourself to think that if you master the workflow – ‘When done Properly… no Defense” type mentality. That’s when you hurt yourself. Out goes your knowledge of composition. Out goes your knowledge or light and exposure. You even forget camera technique, or tripod stuff because hey.. you have a Process.. the process wont fail you.. will it?

Pretty soon, HDR becomes your “Hail Mary” pass when you take a horrible photo, rather than just deleting it, and working the image again.. Don’t be that person. Look at the technology as a way to realize your Vision (whoa.. isn’t that a Within The Frame moment right there.. that book’s rubbing off on me) rather than the workflow that’s going to replace it. A cool HDR of a junky picture is still a junky picture..

Now, below are 3 people that stand out for me in the land of HDR (and yes.. there are TONS more.. equally as important.. these are just the three that I find very meaningful to me, and that you will get the most from)

1. Ben Wilmore: Right now, probably considered the godfather of the HDR movement.. at least in my eyes.. you can learn an AMAZING amount from him.. so wherever he is.. follow him. I want go check out his HDR Mastery DVD. When I do, i’ll let you know!

2. Terry Reinert – Terry’s a buddy, and has a blog over at TKRPhoto. He did an amazing piece on HDR photography, explaining the process in a lot more detail that I did, and giving you a WEALTH of information on getting started with all of this. He’s also someone I would put in the “This is what you could do, if you got the technology and camera craft part right” Definitely a must read. Click this link to get to the post.

3. Matt Kloskowski and I are doing a Photoshop World Pre-con called “Real World HDR” where we go on a shoot, and talk about the HDR process from start to finish. I’m really excited t o get out there with you guys and do some shooting. All day… photography and photoshop.. who could ask for anything more You can also get up to speed with Matt’s Real World HDR class online at Kelby Training

Contest Winners
Congratulations to Sherry James for winning this week’s blog contest as well as to Michael Wise II for winning the Layers TV contest. Monday is Memorial day, so we will continue the giveaways on Tuesday next week, while I take some R&R…

Enjoy the Memorial Day everyone.. and take a moment of silence for those we’ve lost in our Armed Forces.. we owe so much to them..

Want to chat about this? Make sure you follow me on Twitter!

Share & Enjoy


  1. Terry Reinert (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Another great post! I really like what you said about focusing on the intent and not the process. That sums up the things it normally takes me multiple paragraphs to say. Oh, and I have to admit that every time I read the sentence you wrote about the “Hail Mary” pass all I can hear in my head is the General from the new animated movie “Monsters Vs Aliens” when he was talking to the President. :)

  2. sharon (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I have to admit, I love playing with Matt’s Surreal Presets in Lightroom. And now I want to get a plugin to see what I can do in Photoshop. I think the surreal and realistic effects have their place. To me, this is where you leave the technical aspects of photography and move into the artistic.

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  4. Jay Allen (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I can’t say I know much about HDR photography, but everything I know came from one person you didn’t mention: Trey Ratcliff.

    Frankly, I don’t care what the naysayers think. Looking at Trey’s photography makes me feel like I was with him on all of his incredible travels.

    You can take a look at his photos and the incredible breadth and beauty that HDR produces on his blog and his Flickr account. Don’t miss his Top 100 photos chosen by his Flickr fans.

    Amazing amazing stuff…

  5. // popular today…

    story has entered the popular today section on…

  6. breezingthroughcustoms (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Trey RATcliff is a hack. To promote himself he perpetuates the myth that he has discovered a new technique and does so at the expense of all the hdr photogs who came before him. The guy is a clown.

  7. Gavin Seim (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Glad to see this being brought up. HDR has gotten a sort of stigma. I think much of the problem is that people don’t relay know how to leverage it.

    Like any technique I think it’s about balance. The “Wierdo Art” can be fun, but often looks overdone. HDR is just more light being captured and when used correctly is can be amazing. Trey Ratcliff does some great work. I’m a fan too.

    Not sure is I’m allowed you plug myself, but I started working on HDR in my wedding and portrait work a few years ago and have had really good success with it. I keep it bold, but not over the top. I have favs posted at


  8. Oleg (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Only Words What I Can Say is: I Love HDRing!

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  11. Douchlandbugger (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    See you completely missed the point with this article. HDR is a tool that enable sucky photographer (e.g people who cant wait for a decent sunset/sunrise to come) to improve their photos like a real professional would do. Expect in 99% of the times the output look cartoonish and crap.

    Thats why REAL photogrpahers hate HDR, and HDR photographers love it.

  12. David (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I agree that tech has overcome art. People forget (or never learn) that photography is graphics with light i.e. optics comes before computers. I haven’t been in photography since through-the-lens-metering came in. Most of my stuff was Tri-X at 1K ASA sometimes shooting a brick of 35mm (4×5=20 rolls) per day. Today I see many people with nice looking TLR cameras but w/o a stop-down button. The owner can rattle off all kinds of tech gibberish but has NO idea of depth of field vs aperture and wonders why final pix is cluttered. “That’s OK, I can always Photoshop-It!”

  13. asscmdr (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Yes, never use HRD to express your self and make “weirdo art” only use it to capture shadows and nothing else. Remember, this is a tool and not an artistic medium. Never use a hammer to build!

  14. [...] HDR Conundrum By RC Conception on – For the past couple of weeks, theres been this brew of comments popping up on the Interwebs [...]

  15. [...] it. Instead of focusing in on the image, many photographers are getting lost in the process.Source: Posted by Andy B at [...]

  16. Scott Bourne (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    RC the thing that resonates for me in your post is the mention of focus on process rather than result. I see this as a constant problem for photographers. In camera clubs, professional association meetings and on the Internet forums, folks get into heated arguments about the PROCESS of making an image when I think they’d be better served to focus on the IMAGE. Thanks for pointing that out.

  17. Thorpeland (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    “Remember, this is a tool and not an artistic medium.” – David

    I could not disagree more. Photography is an artistic medium. Half the fun is creating. If someone is going to begin exploring HDR, they need to learn both types.. the realistic and the un-realistic. There are uses for both, but neither are “wrong”.
    HDR is a tool AND an artistic medium.

  18. [...] does HDR bring out the best/worst in you as a Photographer? Why does HDR bring out the best/worst in you as a Photographer? | Layers Magazine The HDR Conundrum For the past couple of weeks, there?s been this brew of comments popping up on [...]

  19. Alex (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Trey Ratcliff is anything but a hack. This is taken straight from his about me section on his blog:

    Im best well known for, well, I suppose, this site,, which has become the #1 Travel Photography Blog on the internet with around 350,000 visits per month including one from my mom. In addition to this, Flickr, and other online communities, my work first became popular after I had the honor of having the first HDR photo ever to hang in the Smithsonian. After that, I was fortunate enough to be represented by Getty, been featured on the BBC and various other shows, and have had numerous showings around the world.

    I am known generally for my interpretation of HDR photography

    Wow that really sounds like an egotistical bastard trying to claim credit form something. Oh wait no it doesn’t!

  20. [...] it. Instead of focusing in on the image, many photographers are getting lost in the process.Source: Jun [...]

  21. Brent (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I’m really sick of HDR… I work at an ad agency, and every other photographer’s mailing that I get is overdone HDR. The technique can be quite powerful when used properly, but because of it’s quick rise to popularity, every bozo is doing it. It’s like hearing a great song so many times that it loses its power.

  22. [...] Why Does HDR Bring Out the Best/Worst in Photographers? For quite some time now, weve been seeing HDR crop up in popularity, and with any rise in a technique, there is almost always an equally rising backlash for it. Instead of focusing in on the image, many photographers are getting lost in the process.Source: [...]

  23. Richard Uchytil (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I have to agree with Jay Allen, Trey Ratcliff’s stuff is amazing! It might be a little overdone, but in his hands, you don’t notice it as much as others.

    If you’re going to talk about HDR, including him is a must!

  24. [...] Why does HDR bring out the best/worst in you as a photographer? [...]

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  27. Pete Carr (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    “Look at the technology as a way to realize your Vision” I agree. I’ve just written a book on HDR and the approach we took was a simple one. What HDR is. What gear you need. How you do it. Then another 7 chapters on real world situations like landscapes, cars, people, etc. duChemin makes a great point about people being overly technical or arty. The need for balance. I think HDR is a really great example of that. Theres the nerdy types getting into the technology, the dynamic range and contrast ratios and the arty types throwing whatever at a jpg to get something “arty”. Balance is key imho, well doesn’t hurt to be weighted to the arty side. You need a solid understanding of what HDR does and also the “vision” to then apply it to you work. What I’m hoping my book helps people do is get the understanding and then they are inspired by the examples so that they can then find their creative vision.

  28. [...] of the HDR fence, and it’s started some pretty lively debate (and that’s being kind). Here’s the link to join in the [...]

  29. Hans Watson (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Trey is definitely not a hack and he never claims to have invented hdr. He also frequently reminds people that he is the CEO of a game company, not a professional photographer. He makes money with his photography but it isn’t his main income.

    I think what makes his images so strong is that he was one of the first to really learn to capitalize on the stenghs and weaknesses of hdr. For many of his images he combines hdr in with the original image so that the parts that look best as hdr work well with the parts that are unmodified. He also realized early on that there were certain subjects that hdr excels at such as large indoor areas like cathedrals and nightime city scapes as well as the faces of older men or chrome in bright daylight.

    HDR is an art and a delicate balance but in the end is purely subjective like any other piece of art.

  30. Mike Le Gray (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Very interesting posts here. What I fail to understand is why should anyone really care that much about what someone else is doing? If you don’t like it, fine. Go look at something else.

    There’s plenty of room for all types of photography, be it fine art, reportage, landscapes, HDR, or whatever. What has happened is that the line between photography and art has been blurred and I think this is what some people are really getting upset about. Along with the fact that with the advent of digital photography and Photoshop, it’s not such an elite club anymore.

    To those people, I would say “Relax! Just because everyone now has a camera and a computer, doesn’t mean they’re going to challenge you. If you’re an expert in a given field and don’t like what someone is doing in another, so what?”

    Art (including photography) has evolved and will continue to evolve. It’s pointless worrying and complaining about it. I’m sure some of the early photogs were annoyed when Kodak delivered an affordable camera to the masses, but that didn’t hurt, did it? ;o)

  31. mike meyer (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Well I’ll say this, If Ansel Adams were still alive he would be all over the HDR technique. That’s what he did with film and the Zone System. I think in a few years after 100 megapixel cameras are common they will also have incredible Dynamic range and we won’t need the software for High Dynamic Range. It will already be built into the camera.

    mike meyer

  32. hdareeeeeeeeeepirate (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Trey seems like a very nice person, however I find his work to generally just be overdone and poorly composed, kinda touristy snapshots thrown through a HDR program. He’s great at marketing his photography, bad at doing it.

  33. Carolyn Fahm (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I love this, RC. You are spot on as always and your writing style is always entertaining.

    I recently saw an exhibition of Karsh portraits and they reminded me of the restrained purity of my photographic heroes: Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham, Edward Weston, Edward Steichen, and Galen Rowell. Then I think of the HDR style that Matt describes as “Harry Potter”. It is certainly visually arresting – but it is another beast entirely from what came before. I have Photomatix and do use it on my daytime landscapes. But in my heart of hearts, I dream of creating just one image that my heroes might recognize as one of their own.

  34. af (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    “wierdo art” – so funny. (…maybe a new column for Layers).

  35. [...] it seems to be all the rage. R.C. from Layers magazine wrote a great piece on HDR so check it out here. HDR is a ton of fun to play with, and frankly, I think it really adds another level of [...]

  36. [...] Concepcion popped up a great artcile, “Why does HDR bring out the best/worst in you as a Photographer?“ Good piece, I enjoyed it. The comments were pretty interesting. Pro and Con HDR folks [...]

  37. kg (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Great discussion RC…this topic really gets people talking…and its a good thing if they all have an open mind.
    I think some photographers are so into themselves that they feel threatened when someone who is not a professional photographer comes along and does it better.
    Trey shoots his stuff on the side, while he’s traveling on business. He doesn’t do it for the money necessarily he enjoys taking pictures of the extraordinary places he visits.
    Same can be said for big_pixel_pusher on Flickr (…his HDR stuff has evolved because he keeps shooting and experimenting with the tools available on the marketnot fancy equipment, just average consumer-grade glass…practice and a good eye make for better photos and HDR.
    I think some of these “purists” are so focused on trying to take a picture for profit, they lose their artistic perspective. I dont’ think a painter who chooses to mix up mediums on canvas to achieve their vision would be denigrated as being less of an artist for the techiniques used to create the final piece.
    HDR isn’t something that should be used on everything. Depending on the subject matter, it can be overdone; used subtly, most people wouldn’t even know HDR was involved without being told.
    They just can’t see that if the composition sucks, regardless of whether its straight from the camera or processed after…crap will still be crap.
    And no, I am not a photographer, I’m a graphic designer, but i do take pictures for fun.

  38. Greg Jones (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    This thread just about mirrors every HDR conversation Ive ever read. HDR seems to polarize opinions. I think this is because there’s so much bad HDR photography out there.

    The thing that nobody seems to mention is that for a photo to be a great HDR image, it first needs to be a great standard image. This means it should feature an interesting subject, viewpoint and composition as well as appropriate focus and depth-of-field. Without these attributes a photo is unlikely to please the eye or be memorable.

    You can HDR a bad photo all day and all you have is in the end is a photo with all its bad attributes enhanced for all to see. On the other hand, some HDR images are so beautiful it makes me realize that the HDR process itself is only a means to enhance what is already an excellent photo.


  39. vincent versace (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    I think the biggest issues I have with HDR is that it is a technique that is being elevated to an art form for no other reason than it can make an image look like a Harry Potter set.

    HDR photography has been around since the 1800s. But we act as if it’s this new amazing revolation and gift from the photo gods to the few that are worthy…. What do you mean you can’t see the beauty of it?

    Every time I getthat look of disbelief I start to think of the emperor’s “new” clothes.

    When HDR is done correctly, or let me rephrase effectively, you would never know it was used. Which is the point of all technique. What should be left standing when it is all said and done is the image, that which was seen at the moment of capture. No chalk marks. For me HDR images scream “HEY I’M AN HDR IMAGE LOOK AT ME!! DID I MENTION I”M AN HDR IMAGE!! LOOK AT ME!!” I just find them to generally be one large scribble of chalk. Almost every image I did for the SF Presidio project were HDR, that was back in 2000. But unless I told you that you would not know that the technique was employed. The images stand on their own merits the composition, framing stuff like that are what they are about.

    My two cents….. leave HDR as a technique, a means to an end rather than making it in to the leisure suit of art forms.

    As to Ansel Adams being “all over HDR”, yes it’s true he wished he would have been alive to play “with the electronic image” but when it comes to HDR I think he’d be all about it being a symphony where all parts play in harmony. Not a cacophony of the noise of may images fighting to be a picture.

  40. marcus (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Great post RC. I have to admit that I was initially hated HDR, because I had seen so many people using it as an “unsuck” filter (as duChemin puts it). There were a lot of really bad images, with a funky technique applied, that created an association HDR=Really Bad images. Then I started to see some really good HDR images, shots that probably would have been very good shots with dynamic range limits imposed by the camera. So I changed my stance; a great image is a great image regardless of the technique used to make it. And bad images remain bad, no matter how many funky filters you run them through.

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  45. Mike (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    Great brief article on HDR for a beginner and someone new to the concept. A little like the old “what is art” debate, but instead prompts the question is it photography or technology? As an old man albeit budding photographer I am comfortable with the concept of HDR as it all must ultmately begin with an image. Thanks!

  46. ???? ????? (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    ???????? ????, ? ??????? ??????. :)

  47. Mike (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    HDR rocks, the end. If people enjoy it, what does it matter to anyone?


  48. Serge Ramelli (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    hello Rc,

    I have been folowing your shows on layerstv since the first episode and never missed one, I have learned a lot from you guys, i do a lot of HDR pictures mainly for the reason of having all the details, lately I have used less and less photomatix and more and more just layers, ie to get the best out of the sky from the low exposures photos,

    here is some example of HDR Paris, matt actually once made a post on these photos :

    and here is a tutorial in english on my technique,

    you and corey are the best !

  49. John Duffy (Reply) on Friday May 22, 2009

    What a bunch of narrow minded ellitist dorks there are in the world. What if “WE” REAL Photographers made some rules of our own. First only NIkon no other brands or lenses count. Second only 2.8 or better glass after all if you are a REAL shooter you know anything else is substandard. Third no flash or strobe, or any other artificial light, then only true PHOTOS will occur and no fakes. Fourth no Photoshop, and while we are at it only film since digital is so easy to fix it means you did not really have to be creative. Should I go on or have I made myself sound as dense as some the “purists” yet?

    Great article by the way too bad these venues have more to say about crass judgements of “right and wrong” than they do about what Photography really is, fun and creative. For everyone and in all possible ways.
    Keep up the good work RC!

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