A rather bland sunrise photo of the US Capitol (left) is transformed into a bright and colorful scene (right) with manipulation by HDR software.  This is an example of single exposure HDR.  Do you think the HDR image is optimized, photographic art, or a Photoshop nightmare?  (Kevin Ambrose)

Does that weather photo seem too good to be true? It just might be.

High-dynamic-range (HDR) photo techniques have become popular over recent years. It’s not hard to see why, as the enhancements can create eye-popping imagery, even sometimes from relatively uninteresting scenes.

It’s a one stop shop to getting a photo noticed. Or at least that’s the impression some seem to have. Unfortunately, it very often goes too far.

Below, we examine the ins and outs of the technique and offer ideas as to its future use. 

What is HDR (high-dynamic-range)?

HDR is a set of techniques to add light and color to the shadows and dark regions of a photographic image.  In addition, bright, over-exposed regions of a photograph are given rich color and darkened. In theory, this can better approximate what the eye is able to see and a camera cannot.

HDR can be done by software manipulation of a single photographic exposure or by merging multiple exposures into a single image file.  It has been increasingly popular with both skilled photographers and novices.

Often, HDR processing will increase the color saturation throughout the entire image. Then there’s the extra oomph and image tweaking that many give it.

“My iPhone takes better photos than my camera”

Have you heard that statement before?

This is an example of in-camera HDR. The photo on the left is a single exposure and the image on the right is HDR with multiple exposures combined inside of a Sony a99 DSLR camera. (Kevin Ambrose)

Many smart phones, including the iPhone, have built-in HDR capabilities and increased color saturation algorithms.  They produce striking images.

Recently, camera manufactures have also started putting sophisticated HDR capabilities into their cameras, from consumer-level to professional DSLRs.  Thus, “straight out of the camera” doesn’t always have the same meaning as it used to.  Many photos today come out of the camera or iPhone already enhanced.  Seeking vibrant scenes is less tricky with these techniques, as rich computer-aided tones are attainable all around.

Enhancing images is easy in 2014

Ansel Adams knew the fundamentals of photography and he knew how to process images in the dark room.  It was a challenging process and he was very skilled.

Today, learning how to set a camera to the HDR mode and then post processing the images in sophisticated software such as Photoshop is relatively easy. You can get into it deep for years and still not know all the features as pro photographers do, or just play with the main sliders and dials until you get the image you are seeking.

Will there ever be another famous Ansel Adams photographer in the future?  Maybe not, but a proliferation of excellent digital camera equipment mixed with a bevvy of enhancement tools may just fool you!

Unaltered photo (left), true-to-life HDR (middle), and surreal HDR (right). HDR comes in many different types depending upon the tools, skill, and eye of the photographer. (Kevin Ambrose)

Going down to wacky town

Another powerful HDR software program is called Photomatix. Load up one shot, or a series of them from well underexposed to well overexposed, tell it how to merge them right, and boom: the software has 35 one-touch HDR settings. Photomatix can produce very nuanced results if you spend the time with it, but it also can produce outlandish if also perhaps “striking” stuff at the press of a button.

After scrolling through the popular program’s options and seeing what they do to an image or set of images, it’s very easy to see that a lot of photos passed around on social media without any question get the 3-second treatment here.

Programs like Photomatix make scenes “pop” with just one click. A single-frame exposure looked pretty stunning as well though. Note: image quality lower than actual due to making it a gif. (Ian Livingston)

Super models and supercells are both Photoshopped

Just like models in magazines are Photoshopped to look more appealing, storm photos are increasingly being processed with HDR to look more impressive.

There is a market — an increasingly saturated (no pun intended) one — for storm imagery. HDR can help get a photo noticed by making it stand apart. Examples of this are all around. What may have been the most noticeable occurred earlier this year in May when one of us hit a storm in Wyoming that was incredible on its own, but it was the surreal HDR images (that certainly went further than the eye did) which gained the most traction.

HDR sells

Storm chasing and supercells aside, it’s evident that HDR imagery sells well.  This is particularly true for sunrise scenes, cherry blossom scenes, and city landscape scenes.  Many buyers don’t understand  HDR imagery but it doesn’t matter because the bright and colorful scenes catch their eye.  Going forward, it may be more difficult for traditional, color photography to compete with the more vibrant HDR imagery that is flooding the market.

Capon Springs, West Virginia in October 2013. Only very subtle differences are noted between a single-exposure shot on left and the HDR on right. (Ian Livingston)

HDR can be realistic, and fully natural photos can look like HDR

Extremely colorful sunrises, sunsets, and other nature scenes do occur in nature. Blue hour, a favorite time to shoot for some photographers,  in some ways acts as natural HDR by smoothing out the light for a brief period in between sunset and total dark. Sometimes, when a photographer does catch an other-worldly scene in nature that resembles extreme HDR, it becomes necessary to explain it has not been manipulated.  We’ve all become accustomed to seeing manipulated images.

How to spot HDR

There are often giveaways to HDR, especially sloppy HDR.

A few tips: 1) If the image has “halos,” or brightness, surrounding edges where lines meet, that’s usually a sign it has been manipulated too strongly. 2) Colors that pop all over. If it looks over-saturated, it might be HDR. 3) Shadows. Shadows are natural. In some HDR cases you won’t even really notice them thanks to highlights being brought out in dark spots.

We could probably keep the list going, but another main one might be “ghosting.” When taking multiple images back-to-back at different exposures, some objects move. It could be the same person in more than one spot, a cloud that shifted, or tree leaves blowing in the wind.

This is not HDR and the photo is not manipulated. It was an amazing sunrise that filled the sky with color. It’s becoming necessary to note that these type of photographs are not manipulated when posting due to the spread of vibrant HDR imagery. (Kevin Ambrose)

When HDR doesn’t work well

Not every scene is well-suited for HDR.  Foggy scenes with shades of gray against a white background set a mood that is not well suited for HDR.  High contrast scenes with bright sunlight behind black silhouettes look bizarre when HDR techniques transform the black objects into bright, colorful objects.  Also, scenes with motion don’t work well with multiple exposure HDR.  Objects in motion create “ghosting” which is described in the previous section.

HDR is here to stay

Even the begrudging HDR holdouts will tell you that it’s not going anywhere, especially given it’s being added directly into the features of more and more cameras as time passes. In many ways the ideas behind HDR are not new either. Photographers have been using light filters over their lenses for ages, they’ve been burning and dodging in light rooms to bring out highlights and soften shadows.

As photographers, we owe it to consumers to not go overboard. This is more difficult in practice than in contemplation, especially the more comfortable you get with using HDR. As sharers, folks should be cognizant when proliferating heavily manipulated images. If nothing else, maybe it’s not quite truly amazing.

A single-frame “best exposure” shot of a sunset in November 2013, vs a 3 exposure HDR image. The HDR was the one shared in this case, and that was noted when posting. (Ian Livingston)

Should HDR be used with serious weather reports and in the Capital Weather Gang blog?

HDR imagery, when done well, can look very cool.  Some HDR is very true-to-life and most people enjoy viewing HDR even if the images begin to approach surreal.  It’s OK to include the true-to-life HDR with weather reports and in CWG with a note in the credit line that it’s HDR.  The surreal HDR images can be considered on a case-by-case basis.  Also, if an image is not manipulated but looks like HDR, it’s worth noting that in the credit line too.

It’s often hard to tell what’s real and what’s HDR.


25 HDR examples

The Parliament with HDR

How HDR works