Is HDR processing worth the trouble?

July 27, 2013

In Montana it would be difficult to not take landscape photos when the opportunities present themselves.  I took these photos over 3 visits the summer of 2012 and did most of the processing toward the end of the summer and in the fall.  Three of these images did NOT receive heavy processing.  The rest of the images are HDRs, most of which required heavy processing in Photoshop afterwards.


I have mixed feelings about HDRs.  The hyper-real, painting-like qualities they have are kind of cool.  Some photographers look down on HDR processing.  Like it’s cheating or something.  I see it as a separate art, a related genre.  It’s not really a fair comparison to put an HDR against a photograph.  Most HDRs I see look photographically unrealistic.  Colors are saturated and bright, dynamic range over-enhanced, and there’s an overall cartoonish quality to the image.  Nothing wrong with that look if that’s what you want to see.  When the technology came out so many years ago, it totally blew me away.  It was rare to see an HDR image.  Now cell phone and in-camera HDR processing have diluted any specialness they had for me.  The fact that a person can take a sunset photo with their iphone, hit a button, and end up with a beautiful image is wonderful, but cheap.  I don’t mean inexpensive (even though it is), I mean like hitting someone when they’re not looking.  A cheap shot.


I made these images below while learning Photomatix Pro.  I burnt myself out on processing and landscapes with these images.  All that work, all that time spent, just to be lumped in with cell phone shooters (and lazy NEX shooters – I expect better from you guys).  On the positive side, I ended up with some fun images, and the whole experience caused me to streamline my processing.  Getting bored with landscapes pushed me to focus more on street photography, and I’m having even more fun with my camera than in the past.


Fun and frustrating.  Here’s a few things I learned while shooting and processing HDR images:

– As you might expect, RAW files give much better results than JPGs

– You don’t need a tripod as long as you hold your camera fairly steady

– It’s easy to amplify unwanted noise in HDR processing….be careful

– I often had to make 3 or more different HDR versions of an image, then combine them in Photoshop to get results that satisfied me


Is all the processing work worth it?  Speaking very generally, I think no, it’s not worth all that time and effort…..from my perspective.  But on a case by case basis, it could be.  I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’d rather spend as little time processing as possible.  Every minute I spend processing is a minute I could have been snapping photos.  In my new processing pipeline, I can now make better images much faster.  I’ve even found a way to create a high dynamic range image that does not go through traditional HDR processing.  And I have a tutorial in the works for it.  But as my tastes have evolved over the years, I find I’m looking for the impact of the composition and subject matter to take first priority, followed by sharpness and DOF as second priority, with dynamic range and colors to be least important.  Dynamic range and color will always be important, but an image that is emotionally powerful because of the subject and composition can be contrasty and desaturated just as easily as it can be beautifully toned and radiant.  I’m not saying people should not create HDRs, that’s like saying people should eat tangerines instead of oranges.  If I were to make an HDR image through traditional or in-camera processing again, it would be because it adds visual value to the image, not for the sake of doing it just because I can.

3 JPGs from a Panasonic TS4 - Very heavy processing

3 JPGs from a Panasonic TS4 – Very heavy processing

Processed from RAW

Processed from RAW

The very first HDR I made.

The very first HDR I made.

Old Barns

Cloudy Sunsets in Montana are AWESOME

Cloudy Sunsets in Montana are AWESOME

Probably my favorite HDR image of this set.

Not an HDR, not the best frame or photo, but such a beautiful place.

Not an HDR, not the best frame or photo, but such a beautiful place.


I wish I could remember the name of this lake.

Not an HDR.  I wish I could remember the name of this lake.

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