HDR Does Not Have To Look Garish

I have been asked by photographers who are new to HDR—High Dynamic Range—why the images look the way they do. In this post I explain the basics of HDR, then I discuss processing options using Nik HDR Efex Pro 2. Another popular tool is Photomatix. HDR does not have to use excessive processing.

Note: Normally I would do additional editing (with Lightroom) on the HDR images. I did not edit these for the processing differences to stand out.

The primary goal of HDR is to capture the range of light and dark that the human eye can see. Camera sensors are limited and cannot detect the same range. Below are 3 bracketed shots. In bracketing the camera takes 3 shots: the first is “normal”, the second is under-exposed, and the third in over-exposed. I set my camera to automatically bracket +/- 2 EV. EV stands for Exposure Value and is 1 “stop”. The first image below was what the camera chose when I used Aperture Priority (Av) at f/6.3, ISO 800, 1/25 sec. The overall exposure is ok (if a little dark), but the windows are a little too bright and there are no details visible in the shadows.


The second image was taken 4 times faster (2 stops) at 1/100 second. The lanterns and windows look pretty good and you can see outside, but the room is way too dark.


The third shot was 4 times slower at 1/6 second. The barrels are clearly visible and you can read the writing on the crate. However, now the windows are “blown out” (too bright) and they are a blur of white.


The first HDR image uses Nik’s “Default” processing. It’s a pleasant photo with both the bright windows and dark corners clearly visible with proper exposure. This is what makes HDR such a powerful tool. With a little more editing it would be a nice photo of a well-lit room. I never use this preset because I want to add some punch to my images.


The “Balanced” preset is also nice, but I think this image looks a little soft.


The next pair are like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The first image, using “Bright”, is too bright and the second is too dark. As you might expect, the windows are blown out. The colors are intense and the room has a cheery feeling.


The “Dark” preset goes to the other extreme. The windows are perfect. This mood suits the room better, but it’s too dark.


A compromise was reached with the “Deep 1” preset. It’s an artistic scene that does not look unnatural. With some additional editing around the windows and barrels it could be a very good image.

Deep 1

The “Structured 2” preset gave results similar to the previous image. Adding structure (clarity) to an HDR image enhances the textures.

Structured 2

This set contains the kinds of images that people associate with HDR. “Pale & Structured” is like the previous image except the colors are washed out.

Pale & Structured

The “Dramatic” preset is aptly named. I like this pair of images but they are too gritty for a kitchen.


This is the first time that I’ve used the “Granny’s Attic” preset. I generally do not like images that have a filter applied to them like this. In this case the combination of HDR plus the preset gave the look that I wanted. It’s not the image that has aged, but the room itself. The washed out colors, deep shadows, and textures give the room the feeling that it was taken during the Civil War when the kitchen was being used.

Granny's Attic

To summarize, HDR is not good or bad. It all depends on how you process the set of images. While a normal image may be processed to varying degrees, from very natural to artistic to overdone, the current fad is to over-process HDR images.

Here’s the final image with additional editing done in Lightroom. mainly to lighten it a little bit.



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