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HDR: Pushing photography to the limit — and beyond

HDR: Pushing photography to the limit — and beyond

HDR is an abbreviation for high dynamic range digital imaging — three letters that have created quite a buzz in professional, and amateur, photo circles. So big that Adobe had to include it in its newest version of Photoshop.

The no-frills explanation is that HDR is simply shooting three to five  exposures of the same scene, then using specialized software to make one stunning image. Technically, this is a lot harder than it sounds, but the software makes all the calculations for you and spits out your digital masterpiece, making you look like a genius or a pro. Or both.

But let’s be clear about one thing: I would never use this for my photojournalism work. It would not be acceptable because, well, it isn’t photojournalism. However, for my personal photos of landscapes and nature – definitely.  It’s a matter of maxing out a more artistic vision of a scene. And in some instances it may even give a truer version of the scene, closer to how your eyes actually processed it. Because the truth is, your fancy DSLR, with the best digital chip, is no match for your eye – which, in some ways, I find reassuring.

Truth is, you can get into some pretty technical explanations of HDR. It even makes my head spin. Wikipedia says:

“High dynamic range imaging (HDRI or just HDR) is a set of techniques that allow a greater dynamic range of luminance between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods.”

OK, maybe that wasn’t as bad as I thought, but there’s more. Get the aspirin ready. Now I need to mention tone mapping, another important aspect of HDR. One more time back to Wikipedia:

“Tone Mapping techniques, which reduce overall contrast to facilitate display of HDR images on devices with lower dynamic range, can be applied to produce images with preserved or exaggerated local contrast for artistic effect….”

OK, never mind. Like I said at the outset, you really don’t need to get into the mathematics of HDR because the software does it all. For you, the weekend photographer, it’s pretty simple:  Start by shooting three exposures of the same scene: Two stops underexposed, one frame normal exposure and two stops overexposed. It is best if you use a tripod, although it’s not necessary if you can hold the camera steady. Most DSLR and advanced compact cameras have a bracketing setting for just these kinds of images.

My single best tip for HDR photography is to use aperture priority (or f-stop) to shoot your frames so your exposures differ because of difference in the shutter speed. This type of setting will keep your depth-of-field the same for all your exposures, which helps a lot with HDR. Further, I divide HDR into two categories:

Pedal to the metal – This is my personal favorite. This is where you pull out all the stops, crank out every bit of pixel, pushing colors out of your different exposures with amazing 3-D-like images, and incredible lighting and shadow detail. You’ll see your photo is starting to look more like a painting and less like a photo. I figure if you’re going with HDR, make it look as dramatic as possible. Then there’s …

The natural look – This is where you take the HDR subtle approach. You take those different image exposures and make a natural-looking scene, stretching your range with a lot more detail in the shadows and highlight.

An example might be a home interior, the kind you’d see in a glossy real estate brochure, with sunlight streaming through the windows. Prior to HDR, you’d likely need to set up a bunch of strobes to boost the interior light of the house enough to match the bright sunlight coming in through the windows. Not any more! Simply take your three different exposures and let the software do the hard work. With a little software magic, readily accessible to even the amateur, you’ll have a nicely balanced scene — worthy of a glossy real estate brochure.

Plenty of software companies have tossed their hats into the HDR ring.

Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro are my favorite software products to create HDR images. Both are simple to use but offer slightly different features.

I use Photomatix. It was the first HDR software I tried, and I have stuck with it because the results have been great. The Efex Pro software does offer a nice selection of presets with example windows, which makes it easier for  beginners.

Both offer a trial version, which I recommend before buying. Good HDR software does not come cheap. Photomatix Pro Plus Bundle is priced at $119, and EFEX Pro is 159.95.

Once you have the bug for HDR, be sure to check photographer Trey Ratcliff’s., a very popular website and an invaluable HDR resource. It includes free tutorials as well as recommendations on books and DVDs for sale.

Ratcliff, the author of  “A World in HDR,” has been working with HDR for years. He has a background in computer science and math, which made him think in terms of algorithms when he first started taking pictures using a digital camera. At first, he thought his photographs would be a lot closer to what the eye actually saw, but instead his results looked flat and boring:

“Traditionally with photography, when you take a photo it takes a happenstance slice of the light. So many times when you get home and look at your photo you think that is what you saw. It’s because the camera is just doing its best to emulate what the human eye and brain can do. HDR allows you to capture all of the stuff you really saw at the scene. “

From here, Ratcliff began analyzing his photographs more like a  computer:  “I thought that the lens was a lot like the human eye and the computer is a lot like the brain that would process it . Only there was no processing going on — there was a disconnect. There must be some algorithms out there that can help me process it in an automated way, that  is when I stumbled into some of the HDR algorithms and that was the genesis of the creative process.”

Eventually Ratcliff started his to teach people how to do HDR. He did it mostly as a personal experiment in visualization, never expecting HDR to catch on in such a mainstream way.

“The more you shoot, the more you recognize the best HDR situations,” Ratcliff says. “When you’re at a location, you will become more sensitive to how many light levels are hitting you at the same time. Sometimes your eyes don’t have to work very hard to take in all the light levels. A good example would be a very foggy morning when everything is flatly lit and there’s not a lot of extreme brights and darks. It doesn’t mean it’s uninteresting, it just means there’s not a lot of light levels there.”

Using his computer and photography skills, Ratcliff has created the No. 1 paid photography app in the iTunes store: 100 Cameras in 1. Look out Angry Birds.

Lately, I am starting to see HDR photos on websites everywhere. It seems HDR is becoming the norm. But let me reiterate: As a photojournalist, taking this type of photograph, using three to five exposures for a single image, while great for any artistic use,  it would not be ethical for the newspaper.

According to John Long, chairman of the Ethics Committee for the National Press Photographers Assn., “In journalism, in order to create honest photographs, we must work within the boundaries of public expectations…. I see HDR as an artistic tool, wonderful for creating artwork, but inappropriate for journalism.”

He continued in his e-mail to me, “The HDR technique is definitely great and allows us to make photographs that were never possible before. Someday this – and all sorts of new technologies – will become commonplace, part of the normal grammar of photography. However, in this day and age, the public has a perception of what makes an honest photograph, and HDR is not part of this perception — at least not yet.”

Good luck using HDR. Drop me a line and let me know how you fare.

Photos, from top:

Three-image HDR photo of the downtown Los Angeles skyline at dusk. Credit: Robert Lachman.

The interior of an Angels Flight Railway car in Los Angeles. Credit: Robert Lachman.

Cover of  the book “A World in HDR,” photographer Trey Ratcliff and an HDR photo of a bamboo forest in Kyoto, Japan. Credit: Trey Ratcliff.

Read more reviews and photography tips by Robert Lachman


  1. February 11, 2011, 3:30 am

    Superb! I see John Long's viewpoint, but I'm not sure I agree that the world isn't ready for HDR in journalism. As you say, "it may even give a truer version of the scene, closer to how your eyes actually processed it." "Truer version" is the goal of journalism. I'm sure we'll get there, albeit gradually. Thanks for the article.

    By: Tim
  2. February 11, 2011, 10:44 am

    Thanks for the what/how of HDR, Robert.

    I have to say that I'm even more impressed now, after seeing Apple include this HDR functionality into their camera in the iPhone 4.

    Btw, regarding your comments (and Mr. Long's) relating to photojournalism & HDR, as a news consumer, I can't DISAGREE more. The whole point of journalism (I thought) is to illuminate and inform. I don't understand, if HDR photos are MORE comparable to what one sees with the naked eye, how can that be a bad thing…?

    If shadows & highlights & depth-of-field are not accurately scrutable in a news photo, determinations of perception & war & crime cannot be assessed by readers or viewers. The scene in the photo cannot be real-life, if not shown via HDR, I think (or until cameras become as discerning as the human eye). And I would point to news video improvements as further proof of this…going from grainy black & white reels to color video to HD. Anything that gets closer to the human eye, it's more informing, I think…

    By: ktt
  3. February 11, 2011, 11:57 am

    […] HDR: Pushing photography to the limit — and beyond – Framework – Photos and Video &#82… Share on bebo Bookmark on Delicious Digg this post Recommend on Facebook Share on fark Share on FriendFeed Share on Linkedin Share via MySpace Share on Orkut Share on Posterous share via Reddit Share with Stumblers Share on technorati Tumblr it Tweet about it Buzz it up Subscribe to the comments on this post Bookmark in Browser Tell a friend Posted by Richard Sisk at 11:57 am Tagged with: bracketing, hdr, hdr photography, hdr software, high dynamic range, tonemapping […]

  4. February 11, 2011, 12:05 pm

    Great article. I put a link on my HDR Photography site:
    Richard Sisk

  5. February 12, 2011, 5:42 am

    Strange to here the Ethics Committee say, "In journalism, in order to create honest photographs, we must work within the boundaries of public expectations". Is honesty based on public perception rather than an absolute standard ? I hope our legal system sees things differently.

    By: shibuya246
  6. February 12, 2011, 2:44 pm

    I shoot primarily in HDR and love the technique when it is applied correctly. Another great photographer that I have interviewed on FPR is Justin Kern, check out his work to see some superb examples of HDR! ;0)

  7. February 12, 2011, 9:40 pm

    Robert Lachman seems to think that combining multiple exposures together violates some journalist code of ethics. I don't think it's quite that black and white, if you'll pardon the pun.

    Combining multiple exposures with the intent and result of changing the CONTENT of the picture might be journalistically unethical, because you're no longer depicting reality. But that simply doesn't apply when you're doing it for HDR with a static, non-moving subject.

    In fact, if anything, you're more ACCURATLY depicting reality because the image will now include details in the highlight and shadow areas that would be left out of a non-HDR image.

    By: Mike Fulton
  8. February 15, 2011, 4:03 pm

    […] HDR: Pushing photography to the limit — and beyond – […]

  9. March 29, 2011, 1:55 pm

    I would totally disagree that HDR should not be used in photojournalism. After all the HDR process is suppose to bring out the tonal values and detail of the image you are trying to capture. By taking 3 exposures, you bring out the detail in the shadows and highlights that better represent what the eye can actually see. As this relates to a photojournalistic shot, what better way to give the viewer the most information in the image as possible. The problem I see for this technique would be how often could an HDR shot be possible. Unless you're shooting something like the Japan Nuclear Power plants, or earthquake damage in a static setting, any movement in the scene could ruin the shot. HDR does not alter the reality of the scene, it just enhances the detail in it. Wouldn't it have been great if HDR was around and used on the grassy knoll in Dallas in 1963….


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