HDR (high dynamic range) technology is not just for video. It blends with still images with equal aplomb.
In fact, it works like a charm when you implement it correctly and for the right shots.
But is the difference HDR makes to photos as significant as with videos? Does it add actual value to an image or just boosts the saturation to make the photo color-rich and overtly bright?
Most importantly, how big are HDR image compared to regular photos? And if it’s bigger, how will that impact your workflow?
Read on to find the answers to the above questions and more.
How is an HDR Photo Different from a Typical Photo?
If you don’t like how photos shot under a shade blow out the open background, you may like what HDR offers.
HDR, in photography, is essentially merging pictures (at least three) to create one image.
If that doesn’t mean anything to you, the following shall educate you on how HDR photos are different from regular images:
HDR creates perfectly lit pictures with no loss of color or detail in both the dark and bright areas of a shot. HDR improves the dynamic range of a photograph.
Humans can easily see and appreciate a dark subject against a well-lit sky. But a camera struggles to handle those high contrasts due to its limited dynamic range.
HDR addresses that exposure problem, ensuring well-lit imagery in dark and bright areas of a given image.
An HDR picture is usually four times the size of a non-HDR snap.
The increased size is courtesy of the multiple shots your camera snags to assimilate an image of a higher quality.
The multiple images taken will not be available for access in your phone or camera’s storage. You’ll see only one HDR image instead.
The processing happens in the backend, and you usually do not have the option to choose between an HDR picture and the multiple images that helped realize the HDR photo.
The increased file size means more processing time at the camera level and on the editing table.
Because the camera needs to take multiple photos at varied exposures and merge them into one picture, it can take longer for your camera to grab and process the shot.
That’s particularly the case with a phone camera.
How Does HDR Work in Photos?
As mentioned earlier, HDR works by capturing multiple shots of a single photo and merging them all to create one image with balance exposure and light.
Back in the day, photographers shot multiple images of a single scene and edited them using Lightroom and Photoshop or other similar editing software to set the tone of the image right.
HDR now takes care of that, saving time and effort.
That, however, doesn’t mean HDR completely replaces professional photo-editing tools.
Professional photographers would still require those tools because HDR is not foolproof or doesn’t always get things right.
And then there’s subjectivity too.
You may like an HDR photo the way it is. Still, a professional photographer may be able to see the irregularities in the picture and would want to eliminate them during editing.
That said, HDR does make the job easier or provides a headstart to the process.
Is HDR Better Than a Normal Photo?
HDR is better than a regular still image, but not always.
HDR works the best with landscape pictures or with variable or tricky lighting.
In the case of indoor pictures, where the lighting is bright and uniform, HDR may not make a lot of difference—for instance, when photographing a model in a studio.
However, HDR can liven up images with significant effects if the light is in short supply. Shots of a property’s interior will benefit tremendously from HDR.
Another example of where HDR shines is when dealing with dark shadows.
HDR brightens up shadows in an image while ensuring well-exposed highlights.
You Need the Right Display
Kindly note that HDR photos look better on HDR displays or color-accurate screens. There are two parts to a good HDR photo: capture and display.
Even the best HDR images would fail to look their part on a crappy display.
So, what is an HDR-friendly screen? A display that:
- can achieve a broader color gamut
- has a wider minimum and maximum brightness range than regular displays, and
- can exhibit the subtlest tone gradations from deep blacks to the brightest points
Currently, the JPEG images cameras produce are designed to be viewed on regular SDR (standard dynamic range) displays, limiting the amount of dynamic range shown on a screen.
1/ Does HDR ruin photos?
HDR doesn’t ruin photos if you know when and how to use it.
If you like the contrasts in your shots to be high for those dramatic compositions, turning on HDR would not help achieve that effect.
And before moving on to the next point, do realize contrast (or shadows) is not bad.
While high contrast could render a picture dark, decreasing contrast significantly could outright flatten the image, making the photo look less natural or exciting.
HDR can also be debilitating if you want the subject to look entirely black against a light background. Turning on HDR will ruin the desired dark silhouette effect.
Also, HDR can be a disadvantage when capturing moving subjects, thanks to HDR’s nature and exposure bracketing.
The multiple positions the subject is likely to be in due to their movement can cause exposure incongruity, often resulting in blurry images or ghosting.
Although HDR has gotten better at eliminating ghosting in images over a period, it’s not perfect yet to be usable with moving things.
That also means no HDR when clicking animals or if there are multiple moving subjects in a shot—for example, a street with pedestrians.
The motion issue also applies when you cannot keep the frame steady while taking a photo, particularly in low-light photography.
Long story short, the wild HDR images that pop up on the Internet are not HDR’s fault but the over-indulgence of some photographers.
2/ Does HDR make a lousy shot look good?
HDR isn’t meant to make pictures with abysmal composition or poor lighting look good. HDR cannot instill new interest and impact into an otherwise dull shot.
No amount of processing can rescue a poor photograph, and HDR isn’t an exception. Applying HDR to such images could make the picture look worse instead.
3/ Do you need unique cameras to shoot HDR photos?
No, you do not.
Pretty much all modern DSLR and mirrorless cameras come with the HDR feature that you may enable or disable at will.
HDR, after all, isn’t a premium feature assigned only for high-end photography equipment.
Even your smartphones (iPhones and Androids) let you shoot HDR pictures. If you’ve played with your phone’s camera settings before, you’d have found HDR.
Google, for instance, has an HDR feature built into its Pixel phones’ camera app.
HDR is a great tool when used correctly. But be sparing and selective with its use, for not every scene or image warrants HDR treatment.
Because it offers so much to a shot, it’s easy to get carried away and implement HDR when not needed, making images look overcooked.
Its biggest selling point is its ability to manage contrasts and dynamic range. But, as mentioned above, high contrast or darker segments in a shot are not always a bad thing.
So don’t look to eliminate them. Just learn how and when to implement HDR. Otherwise, HDR could, as some people say, “ruin” your images.
The last thing you want HDR to do is to create an unrealistic image, and a large one at that.
Catherine Tramell has been covering technology as a freelance writer for over a decade. She has been writing for Pointer Clicker for over a year, further expanding her expertise as a tech columnist. Catherine likes spending time with her family and friends and her pastimes are reading books and news articles.