What You Think You Know About HDR Photography Is Wrong

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Everyone knows what HDR stands for. The term has become increasingly popular everyday that it confuses people who don’t understand it well. For example, I was reading a subreddit on HDR photography the other day and I saw this…

wrong hdr forum

Someone was asking a question related to HDR TV in a forum about HDR photography.

It makes me wonder if people really know what HDR is in the context of photography and electronic displaying devices.

Then it strikes me…

For those who does HDR photography, do they actually know what they are doing?

I’m not trying to be smart or anything. But if you don’t know what HDR is, how do you create a good HDR image?

With all the information on the internet, you’ve probably read, watched and listened to everything about HDR photography, how to do it and all. So, I’m not going to repeat that because I’m don't want to waste your time.

Instead, I’m going to share with you what HDR photography is NOT about.

At the end of this post, I hope I’ll clear any doubt you may have on what is and what is not an HDR image.

Learn more: The ultimate guide to HDR photography.

HDR Photography Done Wrong

Enter "HDR photography" into any search engine and you'll find yourself and endless supply of grungy HDR images. I've even tried to click "show more" every time I hit the bottom of the page and it just doesn't end!

If you haven't tried before, feel free to do so 🙂

But to save you time, I've taken a screenshot for you.

google search result for hdr photography

Ok, what did you see?

Can you really blame people for hating HDR photography?

I think one of the reasons why these images look horrible is because people don’t know how to do HDR photography the right way.

What is the right way? This is subjective, you can click here to see my personal view on this.

5 Things You Thought You Knew About HDR

One of the things I’ve learned in my profession (I'm not a professional photographer) is that never approach a problem with the same solution more than twice if it doesn’t work.

There are already loads of voices in the internet trying to educate photographers what HDR really is. Sadly, that hasn’t worked very well.

This is why I thought I’ll go the opposite. Rather than explaining dynamic range and all that again, I’m going to tell you what is not HDR photography.

1. It’s Not A Magic Wand

Do you still remember the impression you get when you saw an HDR image for the first time?

That’s what most people think about HDR - a special effect, a wow factor that can turn any dull image great.

What people don't realize is...

HDR is merely a tool. A tool to be creative.

If your image is poorly composed, underexposed or even worse, ruined by motion blur, no amount of HDR is going to save that. You still need to have good skills to photograph.

2. You Can’t Do HDR With A Single Raw

single raw hdr

The reason we create an HDR is because we cannot include the entire dynamic range of a high contrast scene within a single exposure. We bracket exposures so that each image captures a part of the dynamic range, in which we merge all of them together in the end.

So, how can you increase the dynamic range with just a single image?

Let's be clear. There’s no such thing as a single raw HDR.

It’s technically impossible. You can tone-map a single raw to make it look pretty but it is not an HDR.

Tone-mapping merely remaps the tones of the entire image, making it look as if you’ve combined multiple exposures. That might be sufficient if all you’re seeking is the “HDR look”.

But if you’re serious about HDR photography, that’s not the way forward.


If you inspect the tone-mapped image closely, areas with highlights or shadows clipping will remain clipped because the dynamic range has not changed.

3. Multiple Exposures From A Single Image

I have a confession to make. But you’ve probably guessed it already!

Yup, this was how I used to create my HDR images.

multiple exposure from a single raw

"HDR" created with "multiple exposures" from a single raw image. Noticed the highlights clipping?

When I was a complete beginner, all I knew was 3 exposures to create an HDR image. I didn’t know about exposure bracketing back then.

So what did I do? I took a single image (I shot in JPEG only back then) and created 2 more exposures from it in Photoshop before merging them all in Photomatix.

That’s not it...

I took the merged image and created 2 more exposures from it in Photoshop and merge them again in Photomatix.

They say you should never go full retard, but I did....I was an idiot.

Why is this wrong?

Just like “single raw HDR”, manipulating a single image doesn’t increase the dynamic range. Plain simple.

4. Adjusting Highlights and Shadows To Make It Look HDR

highlights and shadows adjustment in lightroom

Highlights and Shadows adjustments shifts the two ends of the histogram towards or away from clipping. In other words, you can use it to reduce the brightness in the brightest brights and the darkness in the darkest darks.

Sometimes, the first step I do in post-processing is to drag the slider for both to the opposite end to see how far I can stretch the histogram. This is just to give me an idea how much I can push the brightness and the shadows.

Most of the time, your image can look pretty good by just doing that. But you have to bear in mind that making it look like HDR doesn’t make it an HDR image.

Ultimately, as before, you haven’t increase the dynamic range of the image.

5. In-Built Auto-HDR Function

Strictly speaking, this creates a true HDR image but it’s not the best way of doing it.

What the camera does is to merge the bracketed exposures and tone-map the image. All are done automatically without any human input. This means you don’t get to control the adjustments applied to the image.

I just wanted to highlight this because it’s a relatively new function is the newer cameras but I feel the technology is not mature enough for us to get excited yet.

This is definitely not what you should do if you’re serious about HDR photography.

Are We On The Same Page?

HDR is a genre of photography. But unlike other genres, it's not a very popular one and I'm yet to find a good HDR community.

I've always thought of forming one myself where people are allowed to post any kind of HDR images. It will be friendly (no HDR haters of course!), supportive and constructive where members get to learn from each other instead of being harshly criticized.

For that to actually happen one day, we need to have a common understanding of what HDR photography is.

Lastly, if you want to dive in further in HDR photography, please check out the HDR resource page!

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