Nick Carver Photography Blog

Photography Tips, Tutorials, & Videos


Why I Don’t Do HDR

I sometimes get asked about HDR (high dynamic range) images. Those who haven't browsed my website extensively will ask if I do HDR. Many will assume I do HDR or some sort of variation on it. Those who know me a little better will ask why I don't do HDR. Whatever the case, I thought I'd post this entry to lay out my thoughts on HDR.

First things first: I don't do HDR. I've never done an HDR. None of my images on my blog or website are HDR, nor have they ever set foot in Photoshop. I never airbrush, combine, dodge, burn or heavily alter my images. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I'll tell you that I make very minor adjustments to my digital files in order to get them to more closely resemble the film I used to use - Fuji Velvia. I'll also tweak the white balance on the RAW file because I don't like to think about white balance when I'm out in the field. And, of course, I'll straighten crooked horizons.

Now that that's all cleared up, let me tell you why I don't do HDR.

1. Time

HDR images take too long. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you HDR guys have some Photoshop plugin that does it in a snap, but that's still more time than zero minutes of no HDR. Also, you are spending more time in the field bracketing exposures, loading the files in your computer, opening multiple files, processing them, blah, blah, blah. Besides, the auto-HDR plugins aren't perfect and you usually have to spend a decent amount of time tweaking it/correcting it so that it looks "good."

2. Look

To me, HDR images are hideous. I can usually spot them a mile away...then I'll get a taste of vomit in the back of my throat. I know, those weird halos around trees are absolutely gorgeous, but they scream Photoshop.

3. Skill

I know I'm going to offend a few people with this, but don't worry, you don't have to agree with me (no angry letters, please)...

I feel HDR, for the most part, is a tool used by bad photographers to make up for a lack of skill behind the camera. These people are great (I'm using that term loosely) with Photoshop, but don't know squat about photography. Yep, you need HDR if you shoot at the wrong times, under ugly light, don't know how to manually meter, don't know how to use split ND filters, don't understand your camera's limits, don't know how to use those limits to your advantage, don't know what makes a great picture great, can't use light to your advantage and/or just haven't practiced enough. If you learn to be a photographer and not a graphic designer, you'll get better results without the need for HDR.

4. Contrast

Let me say something that I hope the entire world, especially camera manufacturers, will one day understand: a limited dynamic range is a good thing! Photography is an art form, and like any art form, it doesn't simply document the world perfectly so that others can see it exactly as it is. The limited dynamic range of our camera is a tool to create art that represents the world differently than we see it in real life. Photographs that capture the scene EXACTLY as it was are boring and unimportant. Constantly battling our camera's limited dynamic range is a battle no one should want to win. This contrast we get from our camera's limited range is partly what makes photography a beautiful art form. Just stop shooting in the middle of the day when the contrast isΒ too strong - the light is ugly then anyway.

5. History

The old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind when I think of HDR. If you were to take all the best photographs ever taken in the history of the human race, I'd bet less than 0.0000000001% are HDR. All the gorgeous photographs taken by Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, etc. etc. utilized nothing more than a piece of film and what they could put on their lenses. Thank God they never had HDR because their pictures wouldn't be nearly as dramatic. Yeah, HDR is new and that might be part of it, but the contrast and limited dynamic range in all these iconic photos are partly what makes them gorgeous.

6. Auto-Tune

Ever hear of Auto-Tune? It's that annoying sound effect hip-hop artists have been using on their voice lately that makes them sound kind of robotic. It was cool at first, but then we all realized it's just ugly. Well, HDR is the auto-tune of photography. It's new, people with no taste think it's awesome, it's been overdone and, really, it's just way worse than the old way of doing things - with skill and practice.

7. Split NDs

Learn to use Split NDs on your landscapes (or better yet, hire me to teach you πŸ˜‰ ). They take 5 minutes of work in the field and will negate the need for HDR. Plus, you'll get the added satisfaction of getting the image perfect in the camera without spending an hour and a half combining multiple images later. Oh, and they look way better than an HDR image.

Before you start writing a long-winded rebuttal, understand that I'm not looking for a debate. These are just the reasons why I don't do HDR and why I don't like HDR. I'm sure there are some exceptions to my arguments and I'm sure there are a few awesome HDRs out there. If you do HDR, cool. Have fun. I'll stick to my split ND filters. And we can still be friends...we don't have to agree on everything πŸ˜€