How do we define HDR photography?

A few days ago a stunning landscape shot appeared on my facebook news feed. When I see such wonderful works I like to invite the photographer to add their shot to our galleries. I asked if it was HDR, to which the photographer replied that he would never do HDR. In fact, his reply got a huge amount of Likes. Seemingly this wasn’t a page of HDR fans.

However, shortly after I discovered that the photographer in question had manually blended multiple exposures to create the nicely balanced effect in his photo.

Along the same lines, we recently published this photo of Singapore by Partha Roy which, again was the result of manually blending multiples exposures, no tone mapping.

Sometime after, a commenter remarked that this type of photo wasn’t technically HDR.

This leads us to ask the question, what exactly is HDR? Typical definitions consider it a process of capturing a high dynamic range of light and rendering it in a single image. However, despite this, tone mapping seems to have become synonymous with HDR. In other words, if it isn’t tonemapped, it isn’t HDR.

Complicating matters furthers, a great deal of HDR enthusiasts also practice manual blending of different exposures with an image that has already been tone mapped to create a more realistic image or to reduce artefacts from the often messy HDR process.

Does that make them psuedo-HDR?

While most would agree that the point is a trivial one, it does tend to lead to disagreement and difficulties for photographers wanting to submit work to HDR One but not knowing if they fit the criteria.

What are your thoughts on the matter?

  • Lee

    It is a tricky one. I suppose many people associate HDR with a slightly surreal look that manually blending doesn’t often have.

    • ZubbuZ

      People associate HDR with the surreal look when they shouldn’t… People’s preconceptions of what HDR actually is need to be corrected.

      I usually process my HDR images to look more realistic and most people (people who don’t have experience in this area of photography) don’t know that they are HDR’d unless I tell them. This though, does not make them any less of an HDR…

      If someone manually blends several bracketed images, then that is an image that has a higher dynamic range compared with what can be achieved with one shot out of the camera – this therefore, I feel meets the definition of HDR.

  • Glenn Hubbers

    Personally, the “blending of image exposures”, manually or via software algorithms, meets my definition of HDR. I process and publish some single exposures out of the camera, some are blended exposures if the situation calls for it, and the majority of my “HDR work” usually involves tone mapping with Photomatix and blending in areas of the source exposures. You could say this is to make it more realistic, but the better choice of words is that I do what I need to in order to get a resulting image (or piece of art) that I’m happy with.

    People are too hung up on labels, in my opinion. Let the image speak for itself.

  • Tod Grubbs

    Tone mapping is one part of
    the HDR process and does not make a HDR a HDR. HDR (high dynamic
    range) photography in my opinion is taking and merging multiple
    exposures to get a higher range of light, bright to dark, than what can
    be captur
    ed by the camera with a single
    exposure. I do multiple exposures or HDR method for most of my work
    but not every thing is tone mapped. I recently re processed the
    Horseshoe bend photo using the 32 bit process described on the HDR
    one-online mag a few weeks ago and got what I think was a much better
    photo with out tone mapping. I will send in a write up on it shortly
    to compare the before image, the tone mapped version vs the new version
    that was not tone mapped.

  • Jr Wappel

    In my opinion…. tonemapping
    a single image is NOT HDR… merging multiple images taken at different
    exposures IS HDR… merging multiple images with different exposures
    from a single RAW file, maybe psuedo-HDR.

  • Phil Bleau

    Technically HDR is neither
    tone mapping or exposure fusion. It’s simply an image that covers a
    -High Dynamic Range- of light between shadows and highlights.. With
    certain cameras you need 5 images with different exposure values to
    cover per
    fectly the lighting of a scene..
    But the same scene can be captured with a digital medium format camera
    in a single shot.. So.. How you get an High Dynamic Range image is not
    what defines HDR itself. The tone mapped look sure does not define HDR

  • Phil Bleau

    Since HDR came mostly from
    photographers without super cameras that could capture 15 stops of
    lighting.. the definition of HDR took a complete different meaning.

  • Jimmy McIntyre

    It appears as if the common
    agreement is that any image, regardless of tone mapping or manually
    blended, as long as it has been created using multiple exposures is HDR.

  • Mike Hardisty

    Interesting point, I’ve always considered HDR a technique involving more than one image which are then blended together. To me there is no right or wrong way to do the blending, personally, these days, I prefer to get a more natural look, but each to their own. Is tone-mapping the only way of doing HDR? I’m not so sure now after looking at the results from the 32 bit process and my own experiments with the poor-man’s 16 bit process.

    And while we are on the subject, what about in-camera HDR? The Pentax K-30 takes 3 exposures but gives one final image. I can set the bracket range, so is that “true” HDR? I don’t know.

    Finally, do we really need to shoot RAW for HDR? If the answer is yes can anyone explain why PhotoMatix, probably the most popular of all the HDR programs, chooses to convert the RAW to something else before it processes for tone-mapping?

    • Jimmy McIntyre

      Interesting points Mike.

      It would be difficult argue that in-camera HDR isn’t HDR. But the majority of us probably wouldn’t call it well-controlled HDR due to the lack of input from the photographer.

  • Michael Reed

    I’m no expert. My opinion is that any photo that illustrates a high dynamic range(HDR) is a HDR photo regardless of the process. One raw photo can be made into a HDR photo right.

  • Mike Dooley

    I would have to say that any means increasing the range in the final image beyond what the camera could normally record in a single image. I think this can created from many RAW images, or one RAW image processed to expand the exposure range. I do not think that you need to use Tone Mapping for an image to have an expanded range. In my mind Tone Mapping is a process that helps me create an HDR image. That does not make it the only way to get there.

    This is a really interesting conversation Jimmy, thanks for bringing it up!