Case Study: The Not-So-Obvious Reason for Using HDR

I do not consider HDR to be a photography style but rather a technology that allows photographers to extend our creative reach.

The main and the most important reason for using HDR is to overcome the limitations of the sensors in digital cameras. When the dynamic range of the scene we capture exceeds the dynamic range of the camera’s sensor it results in the loss of information (details) in the area of the highlights and the shadows.

The HDR technology allows us to separately capture information (details) from the dark and bright areas of the scene and merge that information during the editing. The HDR technology helps us to overcome the limitation of the photo equipment.

Over the years, I used a variety of HDR tools and it is all documented on my blog. I started with Photoshop HDR Pro after it was Photomatix, HDR Expose and my latest favorite HDR Merge module of Lightroom.

But, often the readers of my blog and my followers on social media give me a hard time when I post HDR processed image with the dynamic range that is not extreme. I get blamed for using HDR for no reason and intentionally complicating the editing process.

Today I am going to demonstrate you why and how I use HDR when the light of the scene is not too extreme.

The Alien Landscape of the Eastern Sierra

I took the featured photo during my very first visit to the Eastern Sierra in California.

California. Eastern Sierra
Loc: 37.195831, -118.246602

I was on my way to the valley after visiting high altitude Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest where I got to see and photograph the oldest trees in the world (4.000-5.000 years old). The weather was changing rapidly and the sun was blasting through the openings in the clouds creating interesting light patterns. The whole landscape reminded me of the landing scene from the movie Prometheus. The Sierra looked to me as an alien planet.

The sun was covered by the clouds defusing the light and making it less dynamic. I could see right away that I did not need HDR processing to capture and preserve the entire light range. But, I took 3 bracketed shots anyway just to make sure I collected as much information from the scene as possible.

When I started to edit the photo in Lightroom I only used a singe RAW image (middle bracket). The challenge was to overcome the mild haze in the air. I had to apply pretty aggressive edits (contrast, clarity, vibrance) to bring back the contrast and the colors of the scene.

When I was happy with the result and decided to evaluate the image, by zooming to 100%, to see what noise reduction setting to apply I realized that image started to break up because of my aggressive editing. The deterioration in the image was beyond the digital noise and it was almost impossible to fix it even by using dedicated noise reduction tool like Topaz DeNoise.

This is when HDR came to rescue. I selected three bracketed shots and merge them to HDR using HDR Merge module of Lightroom.

After Lightroom produced a brand new HDR image in DNG format, I used the Sync… functionality of the program to apply editing setting of the original RAW to a new HDR image.

The effect of the edits was identical with the original RAW file, but the image was much cleaner without any traces of deterioration. The newly created HDR file had much more information and as the result I could push it much harder without producing negative artifacts.

The digital noise was mild and I managed to completely eliminate it using Topaz DeNoise plugin.

Check before & after demonstration below to see the difference. Both images are 100% crops without any noise reduction.

Conclusion

By merging multiple images to HDR it not only helps us to overcome the dynamic range limitations of the modern photo equipment but also to produce images that have more digital information compared to individual out of camera RAW files.

With the rapid advances in modern sensor technologies, every new generation of cameras produces photos with the wider dynamic range and better quality. I found myself using this technique less after switching from Canon 60D to Sony a6000 because of a better sensor.

  • Wayne MacWilliams says:

    First, thank you for taking the time to break down both the why and the how of your HDR processing. Some people simply do not get it, for their own reasons-whatever that may be. To me, thats OK. I would only suggest, take some time, educate yourself, then try it yourself. Of course, if you over do anything (grunge effect) you may or may not be happy with the results. But that would be an issue of style, not the concept of expanding the photographic capabilities of present day equipment. Your human eye, with that wonderful quick changing dilating pupil has a greater tonal range (present day) than your camera sensor. If at times-what you see is what you want to get then – bracket and merge. So Viktor, I suggest you keep on taking advantage of your knowledge of your camera’s capabilities and limitations. Let the critics be left behind and not give them 2 thoughts. I do, and love HDR techniques. Worst case scenario is you have a series of bracketed shots. If you decide to layer or merge some or all for a desired effect- great, if not delete. All is good with the world
    again !

    • Wayne, thanks for your support. I am not trying to justify my use of HDR I just want to demonstrate people how to use it in different scenarios. It is great technology.

      • Wayne MacWilliams says:

        Hello Viktor, Totally understand. I only responded because__But, often the readers of my blog and my followers on social media give me a hard time when I post HDR processed image with the dynamic range that is not extreme. I get blamed for using HDR for no reason and intentionally complicating the editing process.
        Cheers

        • do you use HDR the way I described in the article? to increase the quality and not the dynamic range?

          • Wayne MacWilliams says:

            The answer is yes. Mostly because my eyes tell me for dynamic range but being able to give additional “information” to help fill in the pixel/noise gaps can help not hurt. My primary interest is underwater photography is (HDR is not popular because of constant movement). But- we were taught back in the film (slide) days because of limited forgiveness of tonal range-BRACKET ! So, dynamic range limits of highlights and shadows is what comes to mind first, adding more info. would be second.

  • Loved this explanation. Several times I have tried the HDR merge in lightroom but have seen no reason to use it. What lightroom comes up with never looks any different from the first of my bracketed shots. Now I understand it’s the noise I should be looking at more closely. Thank you!

    • also, the image, after merging for HDR in Lightroom, looks identical to the original because Lightroom does not apply any edits, all it does is merging data. When you start edit HDR in Lightroom you will see the huge difference.

  • Hello Victor
    Just wanted to say that I do translations of knitting/crochet patterns for a little family handicraft company, which I then put on a big handicraft community site, so for me it’s essential to make the pictures as nice and as clear as possible, as I regard them as an important marketing tool. However, I don’t always get the original photos, so have to download them from the firm’s blog, which doesn’t always give me the result I’m after. So far it has been a bit difficult to enhance them but after having recently bought Aurora (I only have Lightroom 5), more out of curiosity than anything else, I have discovered that I can get beautiful results even from the downloaded photos, even showing a lot of detail, which is what I like and what I want the customers to see. So very pleased. The only thing is that if I use Aurora as an add-on in LIghtroom, I don’t know how to save the picture back to Lightroom but maybe you could help me with that, please :o)

    • Unfortunately I can no help you here because I am a PC user and Aurora is Mac only program. But it should work the way all of the Lightroom plugins work. When you finish editing images in Aurora and click save it should create a new HDR image and save it next to the original sequence in Lightroom catalog.

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