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5 Tips for Tasteful HDR Photography

by Andy Hendriksen on 02/23/2012

HDR, or “high dynamic range” photography could divide a nation: either you love it, or you hate it. The problem is, HDR gets an increasingly bad reputation for being “hyper realistic” and painful to look at. There’s no denying that those photos exist, but there’s also a tasteful way of going about HDR, and creating a photo that is not only beautiful, but more accurately represents how the human eye witnesses a scene. Trey Ratcliff, a photographer that has built his entire portfolio around HDR, is often used as an example of someone who is able to put together absolutely stunning HDR shots.

See, The human eye has significantly higher dynamic range potential than the digital sensor in a camera, so images we take in situations with relatively high dynamic range can end up looking flat, and we lose detail in shadows and highlights. The goal with HDR photography is to bring those details back, and present a single image that does our scene justice. Here are a few tips on how to go about creating “tasteful” HDR photography.

1.  Avoid Faces

There are exceptions to this, but generally human skin doesn’t take well to being HDR processed. You see, a face looks most natural to us when it has shadows from our various features, and HDR often removes too many of those natural shadows and shading, causing an odd sickly look. HDR of a person’s face brings out the worst of their wrinkles, pores, and blemishes, and your subject will hate you.

2. Less is more

The purpose of HDR is to bring out the detail in the shadows and highlights that a camera’s sensor couldn’t capture in one photograph. The problem is though, when we compile an HDR photograph made up of 5+ different exposures, we’re losing any sense of it being a realistic photograph. There becomes so much detail in the shadows and highlights that we lose sense of them existing to begin with, and the photo ends up looking flat. Making an HDR out of just 2 or 3 exposures, often just bracketed 2 or 3 stops is a great way of preventing the “hyper-realistic” look.

3. Shoot Raw

If you’re not already shooting RAW anyway, you certainly should be, but it’s even more important when shooting HDR photos. A good RAW file is capable of changing exposure entirely in processing. What that means is that you can often create faux-bracketed exposures out of a single RAW file to create your HDR photo. This ensures that there’s no camera or subject movement between exposures, thus creating a sharper HDR. This method doesn’t necessarily work well in all scenarios, and varies greatly based on your equipment and the environment, but it can certainly be a valid reason to begin shooting in RAW if you haven’t already.

4.  Use a Tripod

If you’re shooting landscapes, particularly at night, there’s a good chance you’re using a tripod already. But it’s importance cannot be overstated when creating photos that require multiple exposures. Most HDR processing software (including my favorite, Photomatix Pro) has file alignment built-in, but your image certainly won’t end up nearly as sharp as it would if you were stabilized somehow to begin with. In addition, if you’re merging long exposures, consider a remote shutter release as well, or at the very least, use your self-timer. These aren’t necessarily HDR-specific tips, but when you’re merging photos, any small inconsistencies (including high ISO sensor noise)become glaringly obvious at the end of the process.

5. Be conservative with the sliders

Hideous, right? We’ve all seen the all-too-common “hyper-realistic” HDR photos that make our eyes bleed. When processing, It becomes so tempting to crank the tone mapping sliders all the way up, but it’s important to back off. Make it subtle. Our eyes have greater dynamic range capability than a camera’s sensor, so the point is to create a photo that better reflects the way our eyes witnessed the scene. Over-the-top HDR isn’t believable, and pleases nobody.

HDR is not perfect for every situation, but it can add a unique beauty to an otherwise difficult to capture scene. Shooting bracketed photos is so easy, and HDR processing has gotten cheaper and easier as well. Try it out, you may be surprised with what you come away with!

You can buy my favorite HDR processing software, Photomatix Pro, here on Amazon. Also, you can view more of my photos (HDR or otherwise) here on my 500px page.

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