10 Ways to Avoid Bad HDR

Don't let bad HDR define your work!

When I was in graduate school, in the early days of the Internet, my colleagues and I came across the original Bad Candy webpage. Having personally experienced the pain of Dubbel Zout, I not only enjoyed the commentary but also wondered why in the heck people continue to manufacture stuff like that. Now that my attention is focused on photography, I realized that if I really wanted to, I could devote an entire website to Bad HDR. Of course, there are plenty of online galleries that already showcase it.

HDR photography is fun to do, but it’s easy to get carried away and create overcooked images that just look bad. I’m not saying that all HDR has to be natural, but sometimes people go just a bit too far, either because they think it’s neat, or they just don’t know how to use their software. Unfortunately, there seems to be an equal number of people who see ridiculously overcooked HDR shots and fawn over them… just because it’s HDR.

Given that high dynamic range software offers photographers tremendous creative latitude but also tremendous room for error, here are some tips to consider when producing HDR images.

  • Avoid shooting hand-held. Yes, you can do it, and software alignment tools are very good, but you can still run into problems when shooting hand-held. The longest exposures might be blurry. If you’re using a very wide focal length, foreground objects may not align right due to lens distortion.
  • Use a low ISO. HDR tone-mapping will exaggerate noise, so this fits right in with the previous point.
  • Shoot RAW. Not only will doing so let you make global corrections to your images, but you’ll also have the maximum amount of tonal range to work with. Blending JPEGs into HDR can lead to banding issues.
  • Correct as much as you can in the original RAW images. Get the WB right, and remove any color fringing. You might wish to perform lens distortion corrections, too. If you shoot RAW, this is not a problem at all. Don’t forget to batch any changes you make across all your images in the sequence.
  • Avoid over-saturation. Most HDR programs have a tendency to oversaturate. Start with files that are low contrast and low saturation. You can always add more contrast and color later if you want a surreal look.
  • Sharpen later. Don’t send sharpened images to your HDR tone-mapping program. You’ll end up exaggerating halos around objects and making things look far too gritty. You can sharpen at the end of your workflow in your external editor.
  • Shadows should be dark and highlights should be bright. One sure sign of a bad HDR is the “flat” look. For all but the most surreal images, our eyes expect to see shadows and highlights. If everything is the same tone (see tone compression, above), then the image will look artificial. Avoid maximum tone compression and try using local adjustments, either in your HDR program or in your external editor. I’ll use Control Points, either directly within HDR Efex Pro or externally with Viveza 2/Capture NX2 to make necessary local adjustments to shadows and highlights to avoid the Flat HDR of Death.
  • The Devil is in the details. While it can be fun to play with the myriad “detail” tools in your HDR program, be aware that you’ll quickly create nastiness if you don’t’ know what you’re doing. Detail tools, like micro contrast and Structure can create noise artifacts, uneven skies, and produce weird halos around objects. Not every image needs radical micro contrast, and toning it down is a great way to make images that look like they belong in a gallery and not on mommy’s refrigerator.
  • When all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. Yes, it’s fun and relatively simple to make HDR images. After all, pixels are cheap. But sometimes you have to realize that a particular scene just doesn’t work in HDR, and you might get better results by simply processing one of the individual images from the bracketed sequence. HDR is a great tool, but it’s not the only tool. There are plenty of scenes that work well with a single image.
  • It’s about the composition, stupid! It doesn’t matter how good you are at tone-mapping; the best shots still need to have a creative eye behind them. A bad tone-mapping job can make any image look horrible, but even the best tone-mapping job won’t transform a weak composition into a work of art. You still need to have a subject and good framing if you’re going to go far in the photography biz.

Got more tips you’d like to add? Leave a comment for me.

Proper use of your tone-mapping tools can produce stunning HDR scenes (click to enlarge).

Save 15% off Nik Software’s HDR Efex Pro (and all their other plug-ins, too) just by shopping from this link.

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9 thoughts on “10 Ways to Avoid Bad HDR”

  1. Interesting comments !. What I can’t never get is a good sharpening in Photomatix. I would love to find a good tutorial on how to sharpen in Photomatix Pro.


  2. Jose-
    Photomatix doesn’t have a sharpening function, as far as I’m aware. I sharpen using very mild settings with either Nik’s Sharpener Pro 3 in Photoshop or with Unsharp Mask in Capture NX 2. The sharpening you choose can exaggerate halos in strongly stylized images, so you’ve got to be cautious in your approach.


  3. I don’t understand why so many people try so hard to create really bad HDR images. It doesn’t take any more time or energy to do a good job. The easiest way to get a handle on it is to spend a little time with your ebook and video.

  4. Actually, Charles, the “default” settings of many HDR programs are quite over the top. HDR Efex Pro is one of the few applications that produces a very “natural” look right off the bat.

  5. I think some beginners become so overwhelmed with the initial “wow factor” they loose their sense of esthetics when working with HDR processing.

  6. One comment and one question for you. I’m finding that HDR is rarely appropriate for my landscapes. Nature just simply doesn’t sit still. Somebody suggested that I shoot a passing deer in HDR since she was under forest canopy. I could only respond with “uh… she’s moving…”.

    I’m finding that luminescence masks are a lot handier to me for landscape & nature photography. Do you have any thoughts on that?

    Thanks for writing up the blog post! This is a topic that’s been on my mind for a while. –sean

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