a19 March 2014

Thoughts: When HDR is not necessary

Thoughts: When HDR is not necessary or HDR-addiction

When you start taking HDR photos, you can quickly become obsessed with it (HDR photography is really addictive, isn't it?). Every time you take a photo - you bracket. You bracket on a sunny day, foggy day on cloudy day and when it's raining. During sunrise & sunset, inside the buildings, when you shoot cars, portraits and even your pets... every time. Sounds familiar? Well, at least it looked this way for me a few years ago. I remember returning from one of my trips (I think this was Barcelona) and realizing that virtually every photo was taken with HDR in mind.

There were some gems, photos I still love after few years that passed since then but the problem was that not every photo required HDR - some had so low dynamic range that they couldn't benefit from taking HDR. It took me many months of practice until I figured out when to take HDR photos and when it's not necessary. It also required a bit of self-discipline and thinking about the effect I want to achieve - they are the most important after all.

What you have to understand here, and what I tend to repeat over and over, is that HDR is just yet another tool in your toolbox (excellent one but still a tool). It doesn't differ much from other tools you use like tripod, lenses, denoising software and so forth. You probably don't use tripods when shooting street scenes. You also probably don't use ultra wide angle lens for shooting macro photography. You probably also don't denoise images that don't have any noise in them. I sometimes even don't edit my photos in Photoshop and choose Lightroom in which I can do it faster and easier despite the fact Photoshop in general gives me more control and possibilities...

It's the same with HDR - you should use it only when dynamic range of the scene is so wide that it won't "fit" in a single photo. You should use it when the scene requires it. Of course it means that you can or should use it quite often (and some of the scenes likes mentioned sunsets are great candidates for it) but there are cases like mentioned foggy day when your photos won't benefit much if at all from taking HDR photos.

If you read my recent tutorial about understanding histograms, then you can think that you should use HDR when either highlights or shadows are clipped. Well, it isn't that simple I'm afraid but it would be this way in an ideal world. Unfortunately if you did this way, you would often end up with rather noisy images if you tried to brighten up the shadows. It's because due to design of cameras, darker parts of the image don't contain as much information as brighter areas.

So unless you use camera with very wide dynamic range (like Nikon D800 or Canon with installed Magic Lantern - in both cases it's amazing 14 EV) it's good to take HDR when:
  1. You have so broad histogram that either highlights or shadows get clipped.
  2. Or when your histogram is very broad, expanding through whole range from shadows to highlights (but neither highlights nor shadows are clipped) - in this case capturing HDR makes sense if you intend to brighten up the shadows.
It means that you don't need HDR when your histogram is rather narrow and doesn't get clipped on either side. HDR stands for high dynamic range. It won't do magic and change low dynamic range scene into high dynamic range one.

Daily photo - Blue Waters

Today photo is an example where HDR wasn't necessary (and I didn't take it). Original image had low contrast and dynamic range as it was taken quite some time after sunset when there wasn't much light available.

Contrast that you see was added by me in post-processing phase.
Sunset in Quintana Roo in Mexico

Finally some EXIF info:
Technical details:
Camera: Sony NEX-6 (read my review here)
Lens: Sony E 10-18 f/4
Focal length: 11 mm
Aperture: f/10.0
Exposure time: 0.6 s
ISO: 100
Number of exposures: 1
E.V. Step: n/a
Flash used: no
Tripod: yes
Filters: Cokin ND X variable density filter
Technique: luminosity masks
Software: Lightroom 5.3, Photoshop CC, Topaz Clarity

Where was this photo taken:

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