What is High Dynamic Range (HDR) in Photography good for?

I am sure by now you have at least seen HDR photography. Some photographers hate it, typically consumers love it; but either way, there are times you use it and times you don’t. We will dive into how to understand exactly what is HDR for your camera and how to decide to flip it on or not. So, let’s get to it!

What is HDR in Photography?

HDR photography or high dynamic range is nothing new. Today, in HDR mode, your camera will take a series of pictures (typically three), at different exposures. One darker exposure making your blacks much blacker, one that is at the exposure you set, and one that is brighter than your set exposure. Back in the “old days” of DSLRs, a photographer would do this manually and incorporate the best features of each of the three pictures together to make one image.

Why do we do all this? When you are looking at a scene with your eyes, you are seeing something your camera cannot capture exactly the same. A camera is limited to a much smaller visual spectrum or “dynamic range” than your eyes. Below is a chart showing how the human eye can have a dynamic range of almost 24 “stops;” a professional camera is more in the range of about 8-11 stops.

HDR photography vs the human eye

Example, please?

So, to explain this better, image you have a bright sun setting behind some mountains. The sun is so bright that, if you stare at it, nothing else is really going to be in focus. With a camera, you have to expose for certain elements. So, if you focus on the sun, everything else will be too dark. Focus on the mountains or foreground and the sun will be overexposed (too bright). This is the limit to the camera’s dynamic range. Your eyes can see the foreground, the mountains and the sun at the same time.

That’s where HDR comes in. You can take that picture with your light metered on the sun; so, you get a beautiful sunset orange. Then you can take a picture of the darkened mountains to bring out their details (since they would normally be silhouetted by the sun behind them). Then you can take a picture of your foreground that has some light from the sun. Your camera goes in and automatically combines these three images and like magic, you now have a similar dynamic range as your eyeballs!

When to consider HDR

So how we know what it is and how it helps, let’s see when to use it!  Well, we know landscapes are great because there is often dark shadows and bright lighting, but another great use is in any low light situations or back lit settings.  Just like the sun on the mountain, a backlit subject is going to turn out as a silhouette; and sometimes that’s exactly what you want!  But when you want the beautiful sun toned down and not over exposed but also want to see your subject in front of the light, you need HDR. Another situation is when taking any kind of picture in really bright lighting. HDR can capture object hidden in the dark shadows and can tone down areas that are over exposed, so it’s a great option at least to consider.

When to not use HDR

Movement… Any time you have movement, and you are wanting to take three pictures and merge them, you are going to get the same effect as slowing your shutter speed. So, unless that is your intention, HDR is out of the question. But another is with any image where you can properly expose for either high contrast or vivid color. Remember that HDR is merging three different pictures. So, your high contrast won’t have as much contrast to it once the three images merge. And with colors, one of the three pictures may be a bit over exposed. That means your vivid color might get a little faded.

So, if it looks great in the camera as is, don’t even bother with HDR. Remember, there are tools at your disposal in programs like Lightroom and Photoshop too. They can manipulate light to give you the same effect. So, when in doubt, at least take a non-HDR picture in case your HDR image just doesn’t work out once you get to your editing stage. That way, you have a backup!

Last thing to consider (from my experience)

I always, always, always recommend shooting in RAW if your camera is capable. HDR does not shoot in RAW on all cameras, so before shooting, make sure you check and make sure your camera has this ability. If you always shoot in JPEG, then it isn’t a concern for you. But for someone that shoots in RAW exclusively… I have taken a day of landscapes and come home only to realize that my HDR setting automatically shot in JPEG, so I couldn’t make major edits without massively degrading my picture quality. You can imagine my surprise!  So now, if I shoot in HDR, I remember to flip back to RAW when I leave the HDR option, so my whole day isn’t wasted shooting every type of picture in a lower quality format.

Don’t let anyone knock you for shooting HDRs. Just like anything in photography, it is a tool in our arsenal to create amazing new pictures and push the envelope of photography. Photography is about experimenting and constantly advancing, so leave those folks in the dust and advance your skills with any options available to you!

Happy shooting everyone.

Written by: Jon Frederick, Lead Photographer for Seven11

Click to read my Bio!

Jon Frederick

I am an internationally exhibited fine arts photographer, blog contributor, and published Christian author. Along with my wife, Kathleen, we are the founders of Seven11 Photography and co-authors of “Immersion: An Inspirational Christian Photography Collection”. “Immersion” is the first devotional of its kind to combine “faith-inspired” photography with individual messages of Christian encouragement, creating a more immersive study you can read, see, and spiritually feel. Our goal is to help fellow Christians deepen their relationship with God by creating studies that go beyond written words. If a picture says a thousand words, our unique approach reaches deep into your thoughts, memories, and emotions, through visual engagement, to deepen your study and actively strengthen your relationship with Jesus Christ.

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