Realistic vs Surreal HDR – Is it important?

As photographers we inevitably have a style that is uniquely our own. Our tastes are influenced by a myriad of factors, most of which will remain unconscious to us. Conversely, there are people or styles that we consciously aspire to, or allow ourselves to be influenced by.

We, as intelligent humans, know that there is no ‘correct’ style. Yet even in the world of HDR there is a very noticeable divide between surreal and realistic photography, which sometimes leads to snobbery. Fortunately, this negativity isn’t often present between photographers, but it shows up commonly when photographers describe their own style.

I recently came across a photographer who described his style as ‘Truly realistic HDR – none of that fake looking crap’. On the other hand, I’ve never seen anyone describe their images as ‘Truly surreal HDR – none of that realistic crap’.

I wonder why this paradigm exists?

A photographer on facebook asked for my feedback last month on a photo he took. Rather unexpectedly he sent me two pictures; one realistic and the other surreal. He said the surreal one was just him having fun, and the realistic shot he would publish on flickr and facebook. It struck me as odd that he wouldn’t publish both, that the one he did mostly for the enjoyment he would keep under lock and key.

Even during the short life span of this magazine we’ve experienced negativity towards surreal HDR. The comment below was posted in the first edition:

“Is’nt there a way to distinguish between a good realistic HDR image and one that has become something else? While I like the looks of images such as your Kings Cross Station shot, I dont see much true HDR in your first edition. I hope we will see some in the future.”

I have to stop myself before I begin to sensationalize the situation. Essentially there isn’t this huge divide between realistic and surreal HDR. Most of us enjoy a touch of both. Sometimes a scene is so magnificently beautiful it seems a shame to try to embellish it. On the other hand, some scenes cry out to be tampered with, to have that fantastical dimension added to them. Nevertheless, there are some, we could call them ‘HDR purists’, who are openly and unnecessarily critical of surreal work, even when the photographer hasn’t asked for their opinion. Yet you would struggle to find HDR surrealists openly criticising work for being too realistic.

As an HDRist I’ve gone through a number of stages, none of which I regret, all of which have helped me to develop a skill set that I regularly use. When I first started with HDR most of my images were certainly surreal. As I began to make finer and finer distinctions between well-processed and poorly-processed images, I started to sway towards natural looking HDR. Then, I began to consider realistic HDR the supreme form of processing.

In my own mind I would think ‘This sky should be less dramatic” or “These shadows shouldn’t be as bold”. I was using a yard stick of ‘shoulds’ to determine how my image should look. I wasn’t living by my own motto. In my first article of HDR One I wrote:

“While guidance can help an individual find their true footing in a particular art from, the word ‘should’ seeks only to constrict creativity. When our imaginations begin to fire it is the word ‘should’ that dulls the flame. ‘Shoulds’ are the walls that we surround ourselves in every day of our existence. We ‘should’ go to work. We ‘should’ get a pension. We ‘should’ do our homework.

In art there can be only one ‘should’. We ‘should’ not be bound by the limitations set by others”

However, on this occasion I was living on the limits that I set myself. I was failing to enjoy each image, and bring it to its full potential, be it surreal or realistic. I got caught up in a race to realism that I’d invented. I considered myself a ‘realistic HDR photographer’.

Time has moved on since then. I no longer label myself, nor do I even consider the terms ‘realism’ or ‘surrealism’ in my imagery. My only guide in processing is emotions. I ask myself what emotions I want my images to evoke and then I go from there. Ever since, I’ve enjoyed HDR more and more.

As usual with my posts, I’d like to know what you, the reader, think about these things. Is one form of HDR superior? Have you gone from phase to phase? Do you subscribe to one form over another? What is your philosophy when you edit shots?

Some of my recent images


My name is Jimmy McIntyre and I’m the editor of HDR One magazine. I travel for a living, learn languages, take pictures, and generally strive to enjoy every minute of the waking day! You can visit my daily HDR travel blog or subscribe to my updates on facebook – Jimmy McIntyre

  • Leslie G

    I deffo consider realistic hdr superior. The fact is, it’s more difficult to achieve. Just a few flicks with a slider and you’re done when it comes to the surreal stuff

    • ZubbuZ

      I’ll start this off with the fact that you might just be trolling given the topic here, but for the sake of argument I will assume you aren’t (I mean this isn’t youtube, we usually appear to be relatively mature around here)…

      I’m someone who also usually goes for a realistic looking HDR (not always because sometimes an image wants to be cooked longer) but I still take a lot of issue with what you just said…

      It takes a lot more than ‘just flicking a few sliders and you’re done’ to create a GREAT looking surreal HDR image – it is an art in itself…. You might not like surreal HDRing, but you don’t need to be offensive to those that are surreal HDRists…

      • Bill Fritz

        Thanks ZubbuZ for seeing my point

        • ZubbuZ

          No worries – to be honest, I personally find that it is easier for me to get a good looking realistic image :) When I try to go for the surreal look, it doesn’t usually work out!

          • Bill Fritz

            To be honest its the same for me lol. But I’m also at the point where I don’t try to categorize what I’m doing and just go with my instincts on what I want the image to look like. :)

      • Jimmy McIntyre

        I have a feeling that Leslie is playing Devil’s Advocate.

        Either way, I couldn’t agree with ZubbuZ more. There are vast numbers of carefully crafted surreal HDR shots out there that simply can’t be replicated. It’s an art, and relies heavily on a strong imagination and a willingness to often explore unknown territory, neither of which are commonly expressed traits in most people.

    • Bill Fritz

      I disagree with that somewhat. I do agree that it is more complicated and time consuming to get a really great realistic HDR process. But the same also goes for the surreal look, if its done correctly. If your doing a few flicks of a slider in any style it will be bad. I have been classified as a “surreal” HDR photographer but I am also a writer for this magazine because I take pride and care in my work. Hours and Hours of fine tuning. But I also do realistic HDR and I think they are both great and they both have their place. It all depends on the scene and the vision of the artist

      • Paul Mitchell

        I think as the name implies High Dynamic Range, is the driving force behind an image that is assembled from a number of shots taken at different shutter speeds. The aim is to put some detail in both the highlights and shadows without affecting the mid tones. When this is done and it is processed with as little tone mapping as possible then we have a High Dynamic Range image. If we tone map the image to death, we no longer have what should be called an HDR image but rather a Tone Mapped Image. There is a big difference between the two. Jack Torcello quoted John Barclay when he said if it looks like an HDR image then it is an HDR image. But if its a poorly tone mapped image, its often given credit as being an HDR image. This is really unfair. There is nothing wrong with either style as long as they are separated and people understand the difference. What is happening now is the purist HDRtist is being painted with the same brush as the surreal Tone Mapist and this is both not right and unfair. I dont think its any more difficult to create a realistic HDR image than a surrealistic Tone Mapped image. Its up to the photographer which way he/she chooses to go. But it would be nice if we can recognize the difference and agree that there is in fact a difference between the two.

  • Stanley Harper

    I have a very simple philosophy when it comes to HDR, whatever makes the image work according to my mind :)

  • Lois Bryan

    I completely agree .. it’s all about where the image takes me … emotion!!! When I wrote fiction I’d start out with a general idea of what would happen next but the characters would inevitably take me places I never dreamt I (or they!) would go … it’s the same thing when we create. Put on the music, open up the computer … have some fun!!!

  • Andrew Steel

    I’d like to think that the HDR I produce covers a range of differing scenarios, I’ve never really thought about whether it’s real or surreal in trying to reach a finished image. Some of the places I take photographs of were beautiful long before I turned up with a camera and when precessing these I guess I’m going for the real look, wanting to share what I’ve seen with others, at other times I see potential within a scene, something that is felt, a lot more effort goes into the processing stage to turn out something that is surreal but again I am trying to share what I have seen/felt with others.

  • Glenn Gilchrist

    I was at an art show recently, and saw a big sign, prominently displayed in one photographer’s booth that said “NO Digital Photos. All photos taken with FILM.” Then, of course, there is the “NO PHOTOSHOP” phase. Now it is HDR.

    I would worry more about the emotional content of the image, and less about how it gets there. I have seen HDR used to make a nice scene taken in boring light, look better. Better is often still flat. I have seen HDR flatten spectacular light that needed no help at all (if judged by traditional photographic standards). It’s a tool. Like Photoshop, like camera technology.

    • Mike Dooley

      I ran into a very similar thing Glenn. I went to a very well respected arts and crafts fair in my area and a photographer there had signs like you describe all over his booth. He would loudly proclaim “All my photos are real, shot on film, not like the fake stuff you see at other booths” to people as they came in. The gentleman was an amazing photographer, there is no doubt that he had skills that he worked hard at for years. Not sure that I can even begin to understand that outright anger, almost hatred, that I saw him exhibit towards other photographers and they way they did things.

  • Mike Houge

    This has been a great conversation starter on several blogs lately and it’s always fun to see the different views. In my humble opinion, if photography is to represent the emotions/feelings of the photographer – lets worry about the quality of the image, not the makeup. Lets strive for “Fine Art Photography ” .

  • Paul Mack

    I think the problem is that it is hard to differentiate between surreal images that have been done in that way for artistic reasons,and those that look “surreal” because of inexperienced processing.

    • Jack T

      But if your inadvertence brought with it a photo you could be proud of – one that went on to gain critical acclaim – you’d still take the credit for it, wouldn’t you? :) Many a famous and award-winning photograph was made thru inadvertence – the camera was jogged just as the shutter release was pressed (one such photo is regarded as a milestone of avant-garde photography – two children with monstrously mis-shapen hands, and all because the camera was wildly (and accidentally) shaken at the time of the photo being made). The world-famous photographer cringes with embarrassment when he is given “credit” for his creativity. So inadvertence can prove to be a good thing too – take credit for it when it happens!

  • Jack Torcello

    HDR is more about the style – the look – of the photograph. It is not (strictly) about shooting raw, using a specific program to blend these raw files etc etc. But it is a look/style in a photograph that is about a balance, an interplay between shadow that has been opened out, and highlights that have been toned down. As John Barclay would admit, any photo that looks HDR – effectively IS HDR. And that includes a shot straight from camera with absolutely no post-processing at all! How grungy that look is (and that would point to early-adopter, old-school processing), or how subtle with light that the HDR shot is, is necessarily down to the kind of audience you have in mind: who is the shot for? My avant-garde, cubist buddies? A more conservative seniors photo-club? A magazine shoot? For an art or photo competition? For those who resolutely believe that a photo has to have a beginning, a middle and an end? The great Stanley Wells once defined performance (and that is what a photo is – its a performance – it is for someone other than just the person behind the camera) – a performance is an occasion that gives rise to a unique event – the experience or interpretation by the viewer(s) of the photo. Each one that sees your photo has a completely unique response. We can to a certain extent, aim our photos at those that appreciate our more realistic output, or at those that groove to the surreal. That may include a large group that can appreciate both – and to two groups that are exclusively one or the other. Then again, if you’re better at one than the other, then go with that one. But all HDR at its inception was ‘gross’ (imho) sooty, grimy, UrBex-meets-Gossamer-and-Crystal. I am glad that in its maturity, HDR is now channelling the most incredible experience with light that perhaps a photographer has ever had the opportunity to avail of. Plus ca change!

  • Jack Torcello

    But if your inadvertence brought with it a photo you could be proud of – one that went on to gain critical acclaim – you’d still take the credit for it, wouldn’t you? :) Many a famous and award-winning photograph was made thru inadvertence – the camera was jogged just as the shutter release was pressed (one such photo is regarded as a milestone of avant-garde photography – two children with monstrously mis-shapen hands, and all because the camera was wildly (and accidentally) shaken at the time of the photo being made). The world-famous photographer cringes with embarrassment when he is given “credit” for his creativity. So inadvertence can prove to be a good thing too – take credit for it when it happens!

  • Jim Trant

    I have been straddling both methods lately which I have seen in others photos as well. I try to make a photo look somewhat realistic but at the same time have a little extra punch to it. Beauty is in the beholder!

  • Jon-Paul Jones

    Before I edit my photos I think back on why I took it. What was so interesting that made me take the photo, and what feelings did I have about it. Sometimes, like an old abandoned building, car or antique I want HDR and a surreal feel to emphasize the feeling. Many times with architecture and landscape I am going for a realistic HDR look and try to show the image as I remembered it. For event photography I may or may not do HDR I might go B&W or soft and dreamy. It really is about trying different things to give a sense of feeling. I want the person viewing my images to have some sort of an emotional feeling or memory. If just looks like a snapshot of a random thing I feel I have failed.