Realistic HDR – The Elusive Search Continues

Normally I like my HDR images to look natural

However, Natural HDR is often a contradiction in terms

Unnatural because the user likes the “HDR-look” or

Because the program can’t “do natural well”

The former is fine; the latter is not


Coffee & Pastry at Buck Hollow Overlook

Shenandoah National Park



Background –

I’ve written numerous HDR posts. The common theme in each is that I prefer the resulting image to be 100% natural looking

The reason for HDR is to extend a camera’s limited dynamic range

It does this by combining several exposures which, combined, cover the scene’s entire tonal range

If you use HDR with a single image your true goal isn’t a natural looking image – or you’re misguided 😉

If you use HDR with multiple images but with over-the-top HDR-program grunge-like settings, again, your goal isn’t a natural looking image

Some HDR-programs have great difficulty “doing natural” no matter what the user wants or does; making a cartoon is easy


Yesterday I went to Shenandoah National Park  more to acclimate our prone-to-car-sickness puppy to long rides than for photography – but of course I brought my gear.

The first stop, after Panera’s for breakfast pastries was

Buck Hollow overlook – the best breakfast spot on the planet

While there, I put my coffee mug on the overlook wall, pastry on the mug, and made this post’s image which I’ve shot 100’s of times in 100’s of weather conditions

To check the current state of the art in HDR programs I also made four bracketed exposures.

My original exposure is the EV -0.67 below (I always make a “good as possible” image before moving on)

The brackets were 1-stop increments around this starting point – one below & two above

With minimal comment here are the results.

I’ll comment more tomorrow because Photomatix Pro just came out with a new release which seems very nice (based on a quick look).

Neither of my other two HDR programs, HDR Efex Pro (HEP) & HDR Photo Pro (HPP) have been updated in a long, long time

In the interim Photomatix has made significant improvements and further increased their lead over competitors.

I put the four exposures through the three HDR programs with the results shown (all using default settings).

Note that the EV – 0.67 exposure (my original exposure before deciding to bracket for HDR) is just fine. Check the histogram – the camera’s dynamic range was not exceeded.

This should lead to an acceptable image – especially if you shot RAW which retains some dynamic range (beyond what the histogram shows) that is lost in the conversion to jpeg.

I took that exposure in Capture NX2 and did nothing more than use NX2’s D-Lighting shadow/highlight recovery option.

Next, I used my Color Efex Pro 4 Basic Processing Custom Recipe to improve tonal & color contrast.

From the camera – after NX2 – after CEP4 (click to enlarge)


More tomorrow….


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4 thoughts on “Realistic HDR – The Elusive Search Continues

  1. “If you use HDR with a single image your true goal isn’t a natural looking image – or you’re misguided”

    What do you mean by that? Increasing the dynamic range by using multiple images is OK but using a single image is not? I can’t understand what you are trying to say here. You can certainly increase the apparent dynamic range of a single image by highlights/shadows, tone mapping, Lightroom sliders, etc. And that’s misguided? Please explain.

    • I was referring to a single exposure capture of a scene where the tonal range exceeds the sensor’s capture ability. Specifically, a scene where the capture loses either shadows or highlights or both.

      My “misguided” was directed at a user thinking that an HDR program could perform magic with this single exposure and somehow bring back the tonal data that was never captured to begin with. It can’t. Black is black & white is white. If some of the shadows were captured as black (or highlights white) because the scene’s tonal range exceeded the sensor’s range then the black stays black and white stays white – period. There is no dynamic range to be increased in this single exposure – it can only be “increased” by using more than a single exposure if the scene’s range is greater than the camera’s.

      If the histogram is “well behaved” such as the EV -0.67 exposure above then sure, the HDR program can do something with it – but so can any other P-P program. To repeat, I was referring to it being misguided to try to make something (more range) out of nothing (S & H lost at capture). HDR isn’t magic.

      A quote from Photomatix FAQ – “….the range of “workable” exposures you can get from a RAW file is limited. If you are shooting a high contrast scene, you are unlikely to match the results you would have with taking the scene under different exposures that can cover the whole dynamic range.” I agree with this quote except to note that “unlikely” is stretching the facts.

      I don’t know what the term “apparent dynamic range” means.

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