The Subtle Difference of HDR

by | Sep 15, 2016 | Tips & Tricks | 5 comments

I tinker around with HDR merging every once in a while, but I’m seldom pleased with the results. Like, even after merging a series of photos together, I still feel like I’m limited with the amount of detail I can pull out of the highlights and shadows. All too often, I feel like I could get the same result (if not better) using a single RAW file as I would in a multi-file merge.

But then I ran into a situation where I think I discovered the reason why HDR may still be necessary sometimes. Scouting for pictures the morning after the Green Lake Conference in Wisconsin two weeks ago, I came across this tree that really stood out to me. The curve of the trunk, the buckled root, the branches emanating distinctly, and the bright, pre-dawn glow in the center of it all beckoned me to pause and consider. It was the perfect setup for sunrise. And, silhouetted up against the sky, it was a perfect subject for an HDR merge.

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Notice the detail in the leaves? The smooth look of the water? The lack of grain in the shadows? The softness of the sky? It’s on the verge of surreal, but it still retains some integrity of realism. And I think all these elements point to what makes HDR better than the developing of a single RAW file sometimes. The shot above is the merge of 9 different exposures, encompassing the entire dynamic range. I had plenty of freedom with the sliders in Lightroom.

The following image is a processed version of just one of the shots I took for the HDR merge. Almost identical (which continues to prove to me that multi-image HDR merging truly isn’t necessary most the time) but not retaining the same level of definition as it’s HDR counterpart. I think HDR, when used properly, is still an excellent choice for those ultra-high-contrast situations one might find themselves in.

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Finding the time to break away and spend time behind the camera like I was able to on that morning in Wisconsin is not easy. There always seems to be something more important to do. In fact, a PRO Member recently asked, “Do you have any tips on balancing photography with work, family, daily tasks and time with the Lord? I’m finding it challenging to fit the photography studies in!” I can totally relate to this question! Do you? If so, and you’re a PRO member, then head over to the newly released PRO Report to read my thoughts on the subject in the front page article, Finding Time For Photography Amidst the Busyness of Life.


  1. Robert

    That is such an awesome composition, James!! Wow, what a shot. The subtle enhancement of HDR is really nice.

  2. Anthony

    I find that sometimes the HDR is a lifesaver, but I’m more concerned with filing up my drives. I recently took a shot of the Smokey Mountains, both single and HDR versions. I found that I lost a lot of detail in the clouds and the trees(extreme highlights and shadows). But when I processed the HDR, I retained all that information. The same problem always happens to me when I am taking a picture of extravagant cloud formations. I want to retain as much detail that the sensor can give me, that leaves me with no choice but to use HDR. And comparing a single to the HDR, no comparison at all. The unique looking clouds have amazing detail in them. So that’s my thoughts about HDR.

    • James Staddon

      That’s interesting using HDR for clouds. I’d like to see one of your comparisons between HDR/non HDR. Do you have any posted online you could send a link for?

      • Anthony

        Sure! Here they are. The “Clarity” slider and the brush tool is your friend when dealing with clouds. Using the massive dynamic range(the HDR consists of 5 merged photos), I took the brush tool over and over again adding clarity and contrast and exposure adjustments. Cameras are SO limited when it comes to clouds and receiving even a little of what the eye can see is amazing. The clouds in the picture where phenomenal to look at, so I tried to replicate what I saw.

        • James Staddon

          Oh wow, yes, I see! I will have to experiment with this next time I see a beautiful cloud formation like that. I should like to get the same level of detail that you did.


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