12 HDR Mistakes That Will Make You a Better Photographer

By YPHDR, Tutorials

“What on earth can I possibly learn from grungy HDR images?”

I can’t read your mind but I can guess what you’re thinking! =)

I’ve had my fair share of overcooked HDR images and was deep in the HDR hole for the longest time. But I managed to pull myself out eventually. (you can read my story here)

When I looked at the HDR images from my early days, I could see the HDR mistakes I’ve made, where it had gone wrong and why it looked terrible. By the way, some of these images are still on my Flickr.

Contrary to what every self-conscious photographers may have done, I’ve decided to leave it there to serve as a reminder for myself - to think before I execute so I continue to be a photographer, not a photo snapper.

In this post, I’m going to share with you 12 common HDR mistakes I've learned over the years, how you can fix it and what valuable lessons can you get from it.

Now, here's a common reaction when people see an overdone HDR image...

Uneven Lighting Effect

uneven lighting hdr mistakes

One of the most attractive features of HDR for the first-timer is the unusual, out of the world lighting effect. Shadow areas can seem to be brighter than highlight areas, which quite often defies the physics law of light. This “amazing” effect often dies down and becomes “horrific” as the adrenaline rush is over.

Solution: Go easy with the slider for the effect. This may be called differently depending on what software you use. For example, it’s called Strength in Photomatix Pro. Also, avoid “Surreal” or “Surreal+” in Lighting Effects.

Lesson: Don’t try to re-invent light. We are pretty happy with how things are in this world. Highlights should be bright and shadows are dark. You can certainly brighten up shadows to bring back some details to avoid shadows clipping and vice versa. Having dark shadows and bright highlights (not to the point of clipping) can create a dramatic effect for your image. In Photoshop, you can also move Gamma and Offset (in the exposure adjustment layer) sliders slightly to the right to create a matte look.

Globally Saturated Color

over saturated hdr mistakes

It’s very tempting to try improving the color of every single little thing. This can be seen as complementary to the HDR effect to boost the oomph of your image. Although a colorful image tends to draw attention, having too much saturated colors can have a reversed outcome.

Solution: Try not to increase color saturation uniformly to the entire image. If you really have to, do so in a subtle way. If you need more color boost in certain areas, use the targeted adjustment tool instead to increase saturation selectively. Most HDR software today has this option or you can do so with layer masking in Photoshop.

Lesson: Having all colors in an image equally saturated causes them to compete for attention. This is visually unpleasant especially when you have contrasting colors. (Get more practical tips on color theory for photographers here) For landscape images, the distant objects should always be less saturated than the foreground objects. This is normal because of the haze in the atmosphere. Having areas of different saturation also helps to emphasize depth in your image.

Lack of Contrast

lack contrast hdr mistake

When you try to fiddle with the strength of HDR for too long to brighten the shadows and darken the highlights, you can end up with an image that looks flat. This happens when you think you’ve found a “balance” between the shadows and the highlights. By “balance”, I mean lack of contrast! It’s the phase before you achieve unevenly lighting effect as explained above.

Solution: Similar to Unevenly Lighting Effect, keep the strength of HDR effect to the minimal.

Lesson: Every image could do with some contrast adjustment, even if it’s a subtle one. Increasing contrast darkens the darks and brighten the brights. But too much contrast can cause clipping. Personally, I like to use Curves adjustment in Photoshop because you can adjust highlights and shadows separately.

Underexposure

underexposure hdr mistakes

HDR software, particularly Photomatix Pro has the tendency to make image underexposed after merging multiple exposures into HDR. This can be worsened after adjustments for strength, contrast and lighting.

Solution: The solution is not to brighten up your computer screen for sure! Instead, check the histogram of your image. Most HDR software these days has the ability to display the histogram of your image. You should always refer to the histogram when you apply adjustments to ensure you’re not shifting the graph too far left or right. (Learn more: Deep dive into histogram)

Lessons: One of my biggest mistakes in the past was relying on the brightness of my computer screen to judge the exposure. This can be deceiving as screen brightness does not affect the image itself but your perception of the image. The real solution? Yes, you’ve guessed it right - use the histogram!

Murky Clouds

murky clouds hdr mistakes

This is kind of a trademark for HDR software. I know I’ve talked about Photomatix many times but this applies to most HDR software. Don’t know how murky clouds look like? Check out the image below. The shadows in the clouds are darkened and this makes the clouds look rather dirty.

Solution: There’s the hard way and the easy way. The hard way would be to play with the adjustments and you may have to compromise to make the clouds less murky. The easy way is to save the HDR image in TIFF and open it together with one of the multiple exposures (the one that is exposed for the sky) in Photoshop. Use layer mask to blend the original image into the HDR image to “clean up” the clouds.

Lessons: Not everything needs to have shadows and highlights. Yup, I’m talking about clouds. This also applies water and whatever that moves or has motion. These elements usually look better when they are smooth, soft and fluffy. Leave them alone.

Hyperdetailsm

hyperdetailism hdr mistake

I may have just invented a word. I just googled it and there is no search result! Most HDR software allows you to adjust details. You might come across this as Detail Contrast or Clarity, same difference. It makes your image pop by increasing the local contrast. This may appeal for some images occasionally (especially when you’re going artistic) but I recommend you to avoid it if you’re a beginner in HDR photography.

Solution: It’s simple. Don’t crank up the adjustment for details. Use it sparingly. A subtle effect is always the better option.

Lesson: Use local contrast to give your image an extra punch. It works by affecting mainly the midtones and sparing the highlights. Increasing details enhances the texture to give the impression of “sharpening”. But increasing details too much will result in shadows clipping. Sharpening, on the other hand, increases the contrast at the edge between the light and dark pixels so your image looks higher in definition. Once again, not everything needs to have high details. Apply this selectively and avoid areas like clouds, water, skin or anything that shouldn’t really have too much details visible.

Not Knowing When Not To Do HDR

It’s very easy to bracket exposure for everything you shoot. This is why some people fall into the HDR hole. Doing HDR when it’s not necessary is just a time waster. You wouldn’t achieve anything different from what you can with a single exposure. This may also show that you’re not thinking or have no idea what you’re doing.

Solution: Use your camera’s histogram to decide if you need to extend the dynamic range of what you’re shooting. It’s not as technical as it sounds and you can read this article to learn how to do it.

Lesson: Learn how to read the light and become a photographer, not a photo snapper. Your camera’s histogram is THE MOST valuable tool to help you decide if HDR is required. Mastering histogram will not only improve the quality of your photograph but save you tons of time wasted on bracketing and processing unnecessary multiple exposures.

Image Noise

image noise hdr mistakes

HDR software has the tendency to exaggerate any imperfection in the image. This is worse when your Raw files already have some degree of image noise (e.g. shooting at high ISO). After merging into HDR, you’ll find these image noise become more exaggerated. This is one of the known drawbacks of HDR tone-mapping algorithm. 

Solution: Go easy with the HDR strength is a good start. An alternative way is to always shoot at low ISO (which means you should always have a tripod). You can also apply a denoise filter in post-processing or use one of the bracketed images exposed for the sky to mask out the noise.

Lesson: Use a tripod and keep your ISO down if possible. Unfortunately, it's hard for your image to be noise free if you use HDR software. Why not use exposure blending instead? Don’t know what is exposure blending? This article will make you realize why exposure blending is the better option (and my preferred method of creating extended dynamic range images).

Halo

halo hdr mistake

Halo is the rim of light that typically surrounds an object in your HDR image. It happens when you tamper too much with the micro-contrast, highlight or shadows smoothing, lighting effect, etc. Halo can ruin a perfectly merged HDR image if you’re too heavy with the adjustments.

Solution: Don’t happily move all adjustment sliders to the other far end. Watch your image as you apply and pay attention to the image. A quick tip is to save your file and re-visit later on the day as you might notice halo with a fresh mind. Alternatively, you can tweak the contrast and play with layer mask in Photoshop to try to get rid of it

Lesson: Your image will always be prone to have halo when post-processing with HDR software. Not all halos are easy to fix and I often find prevention is better than cure. Exposure blending is another technique that has literally zero risk of creating halo.

HDR Presets

I get it. Presets are awesome because you can transform any image from boring to amazing in one click. That might be true but HDR presets are from a different world. Most software these days come with a whole set of presets. 99% of these are huge mistake and shouldn’t really exist. It does turn your image into something amazing, amazingly painful to view.

Solution: For the sake of sanity, don’t use presets that come with the software.

Lesson: Instead of using the preloaded presets, create your own. This forces you to be creative and you get to create your own style and build character.

Posterization

posterization

Posterization appears as color bands on your image. It happens when you post-process images in different bit depth and overly stretch the histogram with contrast adjustment. This happened to me a lot when I first started doing HDR. Then I realized it was because I saved my HDR images in 8-bit Jpeg.

Solution: Always save your freshly merged HDR images in TIFF or PSD if you use Photoshop. This saves all the color information so you have the flexibility to do further post-processing in the future if necessary.

Lesson: One of my biggest mistakes as a beginner photographer was shooting and saving images in Jpeg. (Read more about my horrific experience here) Now, I save all merged or blended files in TIFF or PSD. The file size is significantly bigger but external hard drives are so much affordable now. So, why not?

Poor Composition

When the reason you’re shooting is to get that HDR look you want, everything else will be ignored. This includes one of the fundamentals in photography - image composition. Your tunneled mindset tells you to keep shooting bracketed exposure and nothing else. This is how you fall into the HDR hole.

Solution: HDR is exciting and fascinating for beginners. This is why I think it’s very easy for someone who is new to get sucked into the HDR hole. A photography mentor will definitely help you to avoid common mistake like this at this stage.

Lesson: A good image composition is more important than having good light. Spend some time with your subject. Walk around, get closer and go farther, standing or lying on the floor. Try experimenting with different angle to capture the subject from a various perspective.

What Is Your HDR Mistakes?

I hope you don't take this the wrong way. I am by no means mocking HDR photography or HDR software. I consider myself a HDR photographer and I'm trying to share what I've learned from my experience so you don't make the same mistakes.

Have you made any of the HDR mistakes above? How did you fix it? Let's share it in the comment below.