Realistic HDR and Beginners’ Mistakes

Sometimes I wonder if HDR stands for Horribly Disastrous Results… even when I look back at my first HDR images they make me cringe! I see so many badly processed HDR images and really, it doesn’t take much to get them looking so much better…  So what makes a great HDR image?

HDR is just a process, just like converting an image to black and white, it works with some images and not others, however, you still need to follow the basic fundamentals of photography to create a great image, HDR is not a magical cure that will fix a badly taken photo, if your subject is dull and boring, HDR won’t bring it to life…

Understanding some of the negative side effects of HDR processing will help you learn how to overcome these and end up with much nicer images. There are so many different programs for creating party bouncy castle your HDR image, and they all work slightly differently, although, the side effects are similar. The main issues you will suffer are halos, ghosting and noise.

Halos are created in high contrast areas, so you will mainly see this around buildings and trees, to get rid of these you will need to be less aggressive on the adjustments as you make your HDR image or use masking in your software of choice to fix it later. For example, I will use Photoshop layer masks to bring through my favourite sky from one of my exposures. This in some cases fixes the noise issue, as the most noticeable noise will be in the sky. In other circumstances I may use noise reduction software, or often I will make a layer copy in Photoshop, reduce the noise on the entire layer copy then using masks I will paint through the areas I want it reduced.

Typical Halo

After halo removal

As for ghosting, this happens when you take several exposures and something in your frame is moving, a person, vehicle or sometimes it can be the wind blowing a branch on a tree. The only solution around ghosting is to use a single RAW file or use layer masking to bring through the best part of one image from one of your exposures.

HDR also has a tendency to turn a beautiful sky into a terrible one, so pretty much every image you process with HDR software will need to be further processed to make it look good. I use Photomatix to process my tonemapped HDR image, and will concentrate on what I want to look good, usually I will just let the halos and the yucky skies run wild… as I know I can fix them later in photoshop, and I focus on getting my main subject to look how I want it to. Here is a classic example, the sky in this image is terrible, it is nothing like what it looked like when I was standing there…

After a little work in photoshop here is what I ended up with…

The dreaded halos in this one…

And after layer masking in photoshop…

Here is one of Long Jetty on the Central Coast, it was very windy and you can see ghosting in this first image in the reeds in the foreground and in the water line. I don’t mind a little bit of ghosting to depict movement but this is way too much…

After layer masking in Photoshop I was able to remove most of the ghosting and I fixed the over saturated colours on the water. I also like to apply a little sharpening to items of importance as HDR processing softens things a little…

In this image I have sharpened the jetty to make it a feature.I will quite often process an image then leave it a day or two before I look at it again. Often there will be parts I am not happy with or that I missed the day before, and I will re-process parts of the image to get it right. I hope this article will give you some ideas and confidence to give it a go yourself. It really is about trial and error, so get out and take some images and do not be afraid to play around with them until you get the image how you want.

Ben Fewtrell is based in Sydney, Australia and has been a keen photographer since the 1990’s. He fell in love with HDR in early 2012 and now processes 95% of his images this way. His main interest is landscape photography and most mornings you will find Ben with his Nikon D800 on the coast of Sydney waiting for the sun to rise… you can find him at or follow his blog
  • Zhan

    I remember being a newbie and thinking averything I processed looked cool. I look back on it now in shame :) Helpful article

  • R Thomas Berner

    Useful article. It will be in my mind every time I process an HDR. You’ve given new issues to watch for and think about.

  • Juju

    like this. Some nice advice

  • Photog65

    Zhan, I think most people go through that stage with HDR. The big problem is trying to tell someone that they are over cooking their image. They won’t believe it and they just get pissed off. Halos are the most difficult since we seem to not see them at first. Occasionally, they look good, like back lighting.