Learning HDR by analyzing bad HDR

In terms of HDR, we all start on a weak footing, even if we are not aware of it. HDR is not a simple technique, not if you’re looking to create good quality, clean images. The process is undoubtedly a long one to master to any degree. Some people pick it up relatively quickly, while others never seem to progress, which can be a real cause for frustration.

In all honesty, while I’m still teaching myself new techniques in digital editing and deepening my understanding of photography daily, my HDRs of the past were truly awful compared to the work I produce today. As photographers, we never stop learning, or at least that’s what I hope. I still look at my images and think about ways that I can improve upon them. I imagine that will always be the case.

For us to develop our skill-sets and photographic eye, it is essential that we know where we are today with our abilities and where we want to be. Of equal importance, we must believe that we can get to our desired level and have the motivation to take us there.

I sometimes look at my past images and wonder what it was I enjoyed about them. My understanding of photography, digital editing & HDR and light were so limited that I was convinced what I was producing was pretty good. Since then, I’ve been my own worst critic. I sometimes examine my older images and try to breakdown where they were falling down. By the same token, I try to extract the strong points of my more successful images, and images I particularly enjoy from other photographers.

I truly believe that opening your eyes to your biggest failings in HDR is the most important move you can make to progression. In that vein, I’d like to present to you one of my first HDR images that I processed 2 years ago. At the time I enjoyed it. Now I find it difficult to find a positive word about it. I’ve number and labeled below some of the many faults that exist with this image.

List of faults by letter:

A – There’s a massive amount of noise in the sky. Through noise removal software or cleaner HDR processing, this is no longer an issue. It’s often better to apply noise removal selectively. Applying noise across the entire image pulls details and sharpness out of the final shot.

B – The street lights and other areas are over/poorly-exposed. In awe of the fact that I had created such a ‘cool’ image, I had no understanding of covering the full dynamic range of a given scene. Remember to check your shots in camera to make sure the brights and darks are fully covered in your brackets. It’s okay if your final photo has blown-out areas or dark areas low in details, as long as it’s managed correctly (Like the side lights in the image below).

C – This is a general point about contrast. The histogram was a mystery to me. I would apply general contrast adjustments and assume it was fine. The image above is completely flat. It doesn’t have a single shadow or a natural distribution of light. Now, I apply contrast and lighting adjustments selectively, looking at each part of an image and trying to understand how the lighting in that area affects the mood of the entire image.

D – Not removing ghosts correctly. Here, I probably left the blurry human trail thinking that it was such a small issue no one would notice it. However, every aspect of an image is important to some level. In terms of ghost removal, it’s important to control your image and make micro adjustments through manual ghost removal or masking in Photoshop. Ghosts, or movement of people, can have a positive impact images of course. Knowing when to keep them and how to remove them is the hard part.

E – The colouring in this photo is truly terrible. There’s a huge degree of pink colour bleeding in the road and on the trees, not to mention the general mess of colours in almost every other part of the photo. It is absolutely vital that you establish a white-point, or even more effectively, a 50% grey point. I would also suggest that you selectively control the colour of individual elements of the image. Stronger colours doesn’t necessarily equal a good image. However, contrasting gentle colours with a few stronger primary colours has a far greater impact.

F – There’s a very typical side-effect of HDR processing at work here. You can see that the top edges of the building and trees have a darker shade than the rest of that particular object. There’s no logical reason for this. Textures, colours, & light distribution should be fairly even on objects unless there’s an obvious reason otherwise, or you wish to create a vignette of sorts.

The truth is, I’ve only mentioned a few week aspects of the processing involved here. I’ve said nothing of the poor composition or general use of what is clearly unfavourable light. Yet, I’m aware of these failings and have looked for ways to overcome them.

In one of my recent images which proved to be quite popular (see below), I’ve already began to pull it apart, to figure what works and what doesn’t work.

I feel at times like I’m playing a game with no end. In fact, it’s a game I don’t want to end. If I ever think that I’ve reached ‘artistic maturity’ in photography then I would have clearly lost the reason why I took it up in the first place – as a form of self expression. The more impacting my processing becomes, the more accurately I can express myself. And since we, as human beings, change throughout our lifetime, so will our methods of expressing ourselves. I digress…

Become your own worst critic, in a productive way. Don’t get down because others are producing better work than you at the moment. Work hard, watch tutorials, enjoy the learning process and remember that the only way is forward if you remain positive and motivated.

To speed up your HDR journey, I have two tutorials available – Photomatix & Photoshop tutorial and an Advanced Digital Blending tutorial.

I hope you’ve found this information useful. For more tips and HDR photos, feel free to join me on facebook or Google+.


  • http://www.facebook.com/kkros2k Kris Kros

    Bravo Maestro!!! Gr8 piece.

  • Mark Hammond

    Let the haters hate, this is an article that is so me. I’ve done a lot of “what was I thinking” moments I read nothing that should have caused all the vitriol towards you. Trust there are more of us who agree with you than disagree

  • Eric Walker

    Great article. It’s sometimes useful to go back and reprocess an image as understanding and expertise improves. It’s a nice way to gauge progress.

  • Pyxel Mixer

    Like almost everything in this world, perspective & opinion rule. I see some technical issues with the image such as ghosting but (as an example) the noise issue could be used as an effect by increasing the noise to give the image a gritty effect.

    To be clear, I’m not saying your perspective of your work is wrong (it’s your work) but when we say, “this” is how a thing is supposed to be done & to do it any other way, is wrong, that creates issues that border on sensorship.

    • http://throughstrangelenses.com/ Jimmy McIntyre

      Hi there, thanks for the comment. If you look through the article you’ll see I never used the term ‘supposed to’. Instead I wrote sentences like ‘It’s often better to’ so that I wasn’t creating hard and fast rules. And for many of the points, I gave positive and negatives for each approach.

      As adults, we all know what applies to one person doesn’t necessarily apply to another, but I think we are at the stage now where we don’t have mention this in our articles as a kind of disclaimer. It’s already assumed, or it is when I read articles by other photographers, at least.