Realistic HDR – The Search Continues….

Click any image to enlarge it

Technical – Nikon D300, Nikon 35mm 1.8 DX , f/8, 1/80 sec, ISO 200, Multi-segment meter, Aperture Priority, WB=cloud, RAW, Circular Polarizer, Hand held

  • Bench as prominent foreground element – adds interest and depth
  • Pretty S-curve line to take the eye through the image


  1. Capture NX2 (with Color Efex Pro 3 plug-in) for tonal and color contrast adjustments

If you’ve read my other HDR posts you know that I’m not a fan – entirely because of the unnatural looking images that result much of the time (due to software deficiencies, user’s tastes, or both).
The image above comes close to natural. For good reason! It’s a single exposure, not an HDR image. Cynical soul that I am, I suspect that many if not most who own an HDR program would have gone with HDR for this image. I, on the other hand, practice what I preach and

First – made a capture in camera as perfect (exposure-wise) as possible, and only then
Second – fired off a 5-exposure (-2 to +2 in 1-stop increments) auto-bracket for HDR, just in case

Here is the before|after for this image.
The usual clue for “I gotta’ do HDR” is that the dynamic range of the scene is greater than the camera’s ability to capture in a single exposure – after all that’s what the “H” in HDR stands for. 😉
BUT – that clue has some gotcha’s in it. How do you know the range is greater than the camera can handle? Oh – that histogram you’re looking at told you? Maybe, but not necessarily – especially if you shot in RAW (which I believe you should always do).

The histogram reflects tonality for the image AFTER it’s been converted to jpeg (a process that destroys lots of useful information – subtle maybe but useful)
The jpeg file, even without the info destruction problem, inherently contains much less data than the RAW (8 bits vs. 12-14 bits). Specifically, the RAW potentially has several stops more dynamic range than does the jpeg – that you will never see in the histogram based on jpeg data. You might suspect that’s the case here, where the jpeg histogram “climbs both walls” but just barely.

For comparison, let’s see how several of the leading HDR programs did based on using the 5-exposure auto-bracket image set. All used the program’s default (or nearly so) for realistic images.
In alphabetical order (no “judgments” about which is better IMO – just the observation that I’d take the single image exposure over the best of any of the HDR results).

  • HDR Efex Pro
  • HDR Photo Pro
  • Photomatix Pro Enhanced Default
  • Photomatix Pro Fusion Default
  • Two Photomatix versions are included since Fusion is a decidedly different technique than HDR; it’s almost like having two different programs

I’ve included three HDR versions of this same location. This way you can compare among programs by scanning vertically and within a program left<>right. Click to enlarge.
Note that none of the HDR programs captured the detail at the end of the bench seat – lettering in the metal – that appears in the single exposure version. This was available to them – the single exposure version used nothing but the center (0 EV) exposure of the five provided to each HDR program! Some twiddling & tweaking probably would have solved this but that’s the problem – too damn many knobs/dials/sliders often with inscrutable effects. 🙁

Single Exposure for comparison

Here is the next post in this series.

0 thoughts on “Realistic HDR – The Search Continues….”

  1. Hi Ed,
    Most of the photography in these 3 galleries spaces and places :: style and form :: Architects work in photography :: is all fusion some are 3 images bracketed a 2 stops apart and some are 5 images.
    I use a small program developed for the mac – intact the reason I changed to a mac was that this software allows me to batch process a whole shoot and prepare images to then go into lightroom and photoshop as necessary. I can’t afford to spend 20 minutes preparing each image to supply a client 100 photos and they then choose 10, so I looked around for software to help.
    The earlier versions of Photomatix was not friendly for batch processing, I’ve not found a single HDR suite that would make my life easy or batch process to a level where I was happy, so Fusion was for me. I’m now on my second mac and the software no longer exists, but I’m happy as are my clients –
    todays gallery –

  2. Thanks for the link. That 3-exposure image on your home page is a great recommendation for fusion. Is the process you used your own, working with PS layers, or did you use a commercial program? I used to “roll my own” using layers & masks – once upon a time; I guess that’s my next post.

  3. Good illustration, Ed. It also shows the effect of even a slight breeze on successive exposures. (Though that doesn’t seem to be the case with the Photomatix Fusion example.) – Mike W

Leave a Comment

Subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.