"HDR: Do We Still Need It?" - Digital Photography Podcast 128


Can you really get that much more out of an HDR photo than a top-drawer Raw file? And on average, how much more image information can you really use? In this week's podcast, I discuss High Dynamic Range photography, then compare it to the powerful Raw processing tools we have in Aperture, Lightroom, and ACR.

I have a hunch that many people with disagree with my conclusions, such as this wildly popular Flickr HDR pool. It's not that I don't like HDR... I'm just wondering if I can get similar results with the careful use of Raw. Listen to this week's show and decide for yourself.

New Monthly Photo Assignment

Pool of Light is this month's photo assignment (that's right, we're revisiting the Dec. 2006 assignment). I think this is one of the most striking effects you can capture in photography. Your subject is illuminated and the light falls off all around it. You can assist with this effect using the "vignette tool" if you photo application has one. You can read more about how to submit on our Submissions page. Deadline for entry is May 31.

Listen to the Podcast

Now that I've piqued your curiosity, it's time to listen to today's audio show titled, "HDR: Do We Still Need It?." You can download the podcast here (21 minutes). You can also subscribe to the podcast in iTunes

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HDRI (High Dynamic Range Imagery) is not going away at all. It has a lot of uses. A better RAW file is great, but will not replace the need for floating point light values. I used it in the 3D rendering world long before I took any exposures in a camera to make them.

I shoot 14-bit RAW files now, and they are amazing. I still do Hybrid Exposure Compensation as part of my creative workflow because scenes that have a dynamic range beyond the sensor can still be captured with exposure bracketing. I don't label any of my work as HDR. I don't like wonky contrast, strange saturation, halos & glows, obvious contrast shifts, etc. I want control. Often a 14-bit file gets us there like a bride in white and a groom in black - amazing files. But when the exposure range is 10 stops let's say, one capture is not going to get me the creative control I want. If you never shoot a scene that hase more than 5 to 7 stops of light value it it, then you will find single RAW files work great. If you want shadow detail and highlight detail at night, in full sun, dark foliage below bright sun/clouds, etc., one RAW is not going to get you there most likely.

All in how you approach your creative expression and control it.

Good points indeed, Landon.

How do you control subject movement with multiple exposures? I'm guessing high speed burst mode with auto bracketing turned on. Are you able to use your HDR processing with people pictures?

Landon brings up some very good points.
It seems to me that having files with more dynamic range is always going to be an advantage other than the workflow needed to obtain the extended range and the storage space needed for the file. Yet, as Derrick mentioned on the podcast, for many photographic needs a RAW file from a quality sensor is sufficient and can be processed very efficiently with todays image management programs.
If I understand the issues correctly, perhaps the real issue is tonal mapping. Since we can't view a wide range of tonal values on a screen or print, we would need to choose those values from a high dynamic range file that are most important to the final image. Derrick, perhaps you could educate us more on this issue of tonal mapping.
Even with todays sensors, it seems it wouldn't be hard for a camera manufacturer to have an automated HDR option with one exposure from a scene. Couldn't an under-exposed and an over-exposed version be interpolated from the initial data of an image? Then the camera could output the composite file with an extended dynamic range that could then be adjusted for output by some type of tonal mapping software.

Interesting comments from both Landon and Kevin. I think the issue I have with HDR is that it doesn't necessarily reflect what I see (or what I thought I saw) in the same way that a typical jpeg snapshot doesn't. I suppose what I'm saying is that despite it's wonderful acuity and dynamic range, the human eye also has limits in terms of what it sees.

HDR images so often appear "fake" while tone mapping seems to get the job done 9 out of ten times. Okay so there are still going to be inherent limitations on what you can get out of one RAW image, but it seems to me that as camera sensors become more sophisticated and have more dynamic range, that 9 out of 10 ratio is going to get closer and closer to 10 out of 10.

As Kevin implies, the day may not be too far off when the dynamic range inherent in one exposure may be sufficient for in-camera processing to create an image that very, very closely resembles what you actually see with the eye. If and when we get to that point, HDR will be relegated to an "effect" in the same way that "posterization" or "water-colour" are effects within image-editing software. Tone mapping in-camera will have produced an image that is a 99.999% facsimile of what the human eye sees.

Just wanted to give you a shout from the valley of the sun, great information. Much appreciated.