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Is a Lightroom HDR "Effect", Really HDR?

I posted a smaller version of this to my Google+ page yesterday but the comments got me thinking more about the topic. So I figured I’d write about it here since, well, the post-processing involved in what you’re about to read was done in Lightroom.

So here’s the story
I saw this post the other day on 500px (link: and it got me wondering. The photographer, Jose Barbosa (who’s work I think is fabulous by the way), wrote “No HDR” next to his photo. But the photo (to me at least) looks like an HDR photo.

Some Research
So RC Concepcion and I did a little digging in the metadata of his photo and saw lots of adjustment brush work done with Clarity (Basically the HDR effect slider in Lightroom). And in the comments on 500px post, the photographer himself wrote “processing in Lightroom and Viveza 2”.

The Question
Now, honestly, I don’t really know the meaning behind his disclaimer, so I won’t pretend to guess too much about it. But that’s not really the point of this post. It got me thinking about something else. My point (and question to you) is whether HDR (that’s not really HDR), is still HDR? Hasn’t HDR simply just become and effect? Kinda like Black & White or the cross-processing effect. Do we still need 3 or 5 or 7 bracketed photos that were processed in a program like Photomatix, to classify an image as an official HDR photo? Or is HDR simply the effect of bringing out more detail in the shadows and highlights (and maybe a little gritty/surreal look to it). Lightroom 4 is incredibly good at faking HDR nowadays right? Heck, I’ve even got presets that do it for you. The end result is a photo with lots of detail in the shadows and highlights, and almost a surreal look to it.

The Actual Definition of HDR
As many of you know, HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. The actual definition on Wikipedia is: “HDR is a set of methods used in imaging and photography, to allow a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image…”. It goes on to talk about how HDR “can” also include multiple photos and certain HDR specific processing programs. But honestly, you can read what you want into the definition. Some may stop at the beginning where it reads that HDR is just there to bring out greater dynamic range in the shadows and highlights – and some may use the whole paragraph to define HDR. In the end, does it really matter what the official definition is, if photographers have pretty much redefined it in their minds?

My Take
I guess my thought is that HDR is simply an effect these days. Forget what program you use to create it. Using the Shadow and Highlights sliders and pumping up the Clarity in Lightroom in your photo makes it “look” like HDR. Does it really matter whether you really did the official 3-shot-bracket-Photomatix thing or not (again, I really like his photos and post-processing, so this isn’t a critique).

A Mini-Point to All of This
While you’re pondering, think about this too. By posting “No HDR” what do you accomplish? If you’re an HDR enthusiast, then you don’t care if it’s HDR or not. And if you’re not an HDR enthusiast then what do you gain by reading “No HDR”. Well, the photographer himself may have thought it could be mistaken for an HDR photo, so he had to write it. So if you hate HDR, then you’d likely be turned off by the photo whether it was HDR or not. Why? Probably not because of the actual term HDR itself – instead, it’s probably because you don’t like the surreal-hyper-detailed “effect” those photos seem to have. So I guess I’m not sure what is gained by saying you didn’t use HDR. Those who like it don’t care, and those who don’t like it don’t care – you don’t get street cred either way. I personally think his work is beautiful no matter what he writes about the way he processed it.

Again, it really goes back to my question. If it has the HDR look to it, then isn’t it really an HDR photo in the end?

I think so. How about you?

Back to my question. And before you answer, please consider this. The comments on my G+ post really took a turn toward whether or not HDR was ok, or not ok, or when it was ok, etc… That’s not what I was hoping to discuss. You already know my feeling on it, and we ALL already know that topic is polarized. I’m really after the question I posed here. And I think that whether or not you like HDR, your answers can still be very different. Is HDR beyond bracketing and Photomatix (or whatever program you use)? Has it evolved and now become an effect that we can achieve in Lightroom (or Camera Raw, Topaz, or Viveza, or whatever other program you use). Thoughts?



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  2. Uncle Buck 15 October, 2012 at 17:46 Reply

    I didn’t read all the responses, but my take on HDR is that it’s a fad. Maybe I’m old school, but I try to get as much information as I can in the camera in one frame and then enhance it in post processing, if I need to. Besides, what would you call what Ansel Adams did when he would expose 1 frame, but get detail throughout the entire frame? I guess you could say he was the father of HDR, huh?

  3. julio 15 August, 2012 at 01:34 Reply

    well. is irrelevant only if you like the look . but if you are ” by the book person” think this is a ferrari whith a ford motor a ferrari? just see like ? only 3 or more pictures make a real HDR because you need all information oterwise is just a look justo a tone mapping looks really nice but just looks like is the same on video never be a film just can plug a looks like film

  4. GaryPaulson 31 July, 2012 at 12:45 Reply

    Reminds me of a photographer’s booth I saw at a recent art fair. He had a big sign saying his photos were not digitally altered. When I asked him about it he said they were all straight from his camera but that he had used special camera settings to produce the results.
    I was impressed by his work but just because it was done ‘in camera’ does not mean that the resulting JPGs were not digitally altered.


  5. Doug 23 June, 2012 at 01:53 Reply

    HDR seem to be a hot topic and generally gets way to emotional for my tastes. To me, photography is about using the available tools to create and image of what the photographer vision is and share it. THe real question is when does post processing become graphic design vs. digital darkroom? I seems to me that the origins of HDR revolved around the inability of a camera/sensor to capture the entire dynamic range of scene with a single exposure. If the camera recorded all the usable data to enable the processing of the shadows and the highlights with out the necessity for multiple exposures that’s great and may not be “HDR”; even though that singular photo may contain a broad dynamic range worth of data. I’m sure some purists back in the day thought burning and dodging were cheating as well.

  6. slackercruster 21 June, 2012 at 10:09 Reply

    Some togs hate to be associated with HDR. I love HDR in all its forms. From surreal to low key.

    The term pseudo or fake HDR is thrown around a lot from a single image being tone mapped.

    Here is the deal…

    If an image is tone mapped and there is no increase in the DR, then it should be just labeled as tone mapped. But if tone mapping causes an increase in the DR, no matter how small, then It should be labeled HDR.

    But, I don’t know if tone mapping a single image alone will increase the DR? I’m a newbie, while an old time film tog, just started with digital in Feb, so still learning. You guys figure out how tone mapping alone works on a single image. But I will say HDR processing 1 image into 3 *will increase* the DR over the single image.

    .I experimented with a single RAW image. Made a +2, -2 with LR and when processed with the ‘0’ image it proved to show much more DR that could be obtained with the single RAW image. So to me the single image processed as 3 images was an HDR.

    Maybe the landscape tog in question processed a single image into 3 and can claim it is not HDR under the technicalities that 1 image is not considered HDR?

    There is no argument from me claiming the single image processed into 3 images is going to offer the DR of a 9 image HDR stitch. But there are all sorts of images that an HDR processed image can fit into.

    I’m also experimenting with LDR lower dynamic range. Produces some interesting effects.

    Keep blasting away guy!

    Take care,


  7. Mike Nelson Pedde 19 June, 2012 at 16:44 Reply

    My opinion is that we need to separate ‘HDR’ and ‘tonemapping’. To me, and I may be wrong, HDR is a method of creating an image that contains more shadow/highlight information than can be captured in ‘one’ image. Lightroom 4.1 for example now allows imports of 32-bit .TIFF images that have been made in something like Photoshop’s HDR aspect. 32-bit images contain a LOT more information than a 16-bit image. That to me is HDR. We won’t get into whether a 16-bit image is really 14 bits or whatever…

    The second part of this question is what we do with that information. Some people like the blown-out ‘HDR-look’ and with modern cameras there’s almost always enough information in a single RAW image to do that. That’s the tonemapping part of it. Personally I don’t generally like that look but I respect that others do. I wrote a blog post called ‘Why Use HDR’ that you can read here: but in many ways I think this one is better:

    My $0.02


  8. Jim Smith 7 June, 2012 at 21:53 Reply

    HDR- High dynamic range. As compared to what? What is standard DR? I am not really that experienced with HDR but always understood it to be created by combining multiple exposures because the camera could not capture all the range in one frame. Is a standard DR equivalent to the information contained in a ruler and HDR equivalent to a yardstick? If so, then is a camera capable of capturing that range in a single frame? If not, then HDR is only possible by combining multiple frames. But it must contain that defined range of information. Obviously there is a certain look obtained with an HDR picture. If that look can be achieved by processing in LR, but doesn’t contain all that data, then I think that should be called an HDR effect. Bottom line is there will always be confusion unless there is a specific standard that can be measured. Technology is always changing. Photos of today probably have more DR than color photos of 30 years ago. Should we be calling standard photos of today MDR ( More Dynamic Range)? The end result is the most important thing. Is the photographer happy with what he sees? Labels just cause confusion.

  9. José Barbosa 3 June, 2012 at 06:32 Reply

    Let me list what I think it’s involved in DR:
    SDR – the scene dynamic range (in my case, most times it’s huge).
    EDR – the eyes DR.
    CDR – the camera sensor dynamic range.
    HDR – here we add some fstops at each end of the CDR.
    CSDR – the color space DR (?).
    MDR – the PC monitor DR.
    PDR – the printer DR.
    PPDR – the paper DR.
    WDR – the dynamic range you see when you frame the photo and hang it on the wall to impress your friends 😉

    What a mess!

    I think that if we get too much worried about all those things each time we try to make a photo, we can only make long expositions… 🙂

  10. dtpancio 2 June, 2012 at 15:36 Reply

    We are in a transition phase. When DSLRs will shoot natively with an increased DR, there will be no need to specify the term HDR. In any case, the answer to your question is yes, it’s an HDR regardless of the bracketing or Photomatix, and only partially it can be considered an effect. Without pushing the clarity slider, you get an increased DR without the gritty/surreal effect.

  11. Corey THompson 2 June, 2012 at 01:23 Reply

    The wonderful thing is, we all have opinions. Why not just appreciate Jose’s art for what is is? What’s the point in spending so much time to research and criticize the terminology he uses?

    All technical aspects aside, HDR today has come to mean multiple exposes from dark to light, blended together to create a single photo with a high dynamic range.

    There are some photographers that frown upon photos that have been overly processed on the computer. Some photographers prefer to “get it right” in the camera by means of use of true photographic techniques (i.e. using filters and understanding the exposure triangle).

    Photographers who tend not to go overboard with building composite photos from multiple exposures pride themselves in knowing how to capture a single beautiful photo which required nothing more than basic levels adjustments in post.

    I tend to use filters. All of my photos are single exposures. I don’t do composites. The question I often ask is, are you a photographer or a digital artist? The “No HDR” comment the distinguishing difference between a photographer and a digital artist.

  12. Jose Barbosa 1 June, 2012 at 11:15 Reply

    Hi people!
    First things first. I was out for a few days and only today I saw a comment of a friend pointing me to this discussion. I am glad for the attention received for my photo and I’m so bloated that I cannot fit on the doors at home. ;-)))
    About the “(no hdr)”:
    In previous photos on 500px there were comments from people congratulating me for the good hdr processing. In those occasions I replied that it was not an hdr processing, just LR + Viveza.
    In this photo, the very first comment referred to an hdr processing, and I thought may be it was wise to write that clarification on the description.
    I do not dislike the hdr. It’s a tool that anyone can use or not at will.
    More than a year ago I tried the photomatix on some photos and I found it very difficult to masterize and produce good work and that was very easy to make rubish work. There was a great number of controls whose tweaking was so critical that a good result could only be achieved after finding the perfect combination of all of them at once. After some time I put it appart. I was never satisfied with the results, certainly by my fault. But even in 500px I can see sometimes very greyish hdr images that I don´t like very much.
    At the beginning I used Digital photo professional (canon) and PS to develop my photos but soon I changed to LR. When I tried the viveza plugin it was like heaven. I enjoyed very much the possibility to apply local adjustments.
    About the photo:
    In this photo I used 2 ND filters: 3 stops ND standard and a 2 stops GND. There was a tremendous diference in luminosity between the iluminated part of the sky and rest of the scene. If I had one, I certainly would use a 3 or 4 stops gnd. So, I ended with a slightly overexposed sky and underexposed rocks and clouds. I pushed a little the shadows and decreased the highlights and also fiddle with structure and contrast.
    About the water.
    That point of the rocky coast has no sand and the sea is ‘strong’ and clear. The most wanted acessory is a kitchen towel to clean the filters. As some of you may know, a few Km from there, there is a place where Garret McNamara last year rode a 27 metres high wave!!!. The water is immaculate clear and have a beautiful green color that my photo was not capable to show in its full beauty. My ND filters are Hitech and you know what happens : an annoying magenta cast. The cast from the ND standard filter is easy to compensate but the cast of the GND is not uniformly distributed to the image. So there is a compromise at expense of an unbalance of the green in the water. I have to live with it until I buy some lee filters.
    About the place:
    Most part of my photos were taken near home. Here at this Atlantic coast we have incredible sunsets that never cease to amazing me and everyone that come here.
    About me:
    I’m almost a beginer always trying to learn.
    About you:
    Thank you all for the time spent looking into my photo and leaving your kind comments.

  13. Math Lind 1 June, 2012 at 07:06 Reply

    What a lot of words and opinions, guys 😉

    If you try to increase the dynamic range and succeed, what have you got?
    The obvious answer is… a higher dynamic range.
    Be it – slightly higher, just plain high or really extremely high.

    By whatever method you used – higher dynamic range is always ……

    /Greetings to you all

  14. Mike Procario 31 May, 2012 at 22:49 Reply

    I recently took a photo that had no detail in the sky. I have successfully recovered detail in photos like this before using the recovery slider in Lightroom 3. I was traveling and I only had my MacBook with iPhoto. I used iPhoto’s highlights slider and brought back the sky detail. It did look like an “HDR” photo.

    I have created some multi exposure HDR photos with Photomatrix, I made a comment that it was not “HDR” to indicate that it was not a multiple exposure. It is clear to me that that there are many cases where HDR effects can be produced with single exposure.

  15. Margaret 31 May, 2012 at 12:36 Reply

    Is B&W any more “real” than HDR? They are both treatments of a photograph to enhance the dynamic range of the photo. When I look at a mountain and stream, it’s not B&W, so why is B&W more ok than HDR? It seems like an unnecessary distinction. If you see a photo, you can tell what has been done to it, whether a little or a lot. It’s all in the level of processing applied.

  16. Mark Druziak 31 May, 2012 at 09:52 Reply

    What is the difference if it is an effect or “really” HDR? The end result if a photo that looks a certain way. Why does the technique that got you there so important?

  17. Bill Griswold 31 May, 2012 at 02:42 Reply

    What I like about the “No HDR” comment is that it says to other photographers “You can do it, too, without a tripod, without special software, and of moving subjects (like waves)!”

  18. Stan 31 May, 2012 at 02:36 Reply

    I like the article on HDR and would like to attend one of the June seminar, specifically the one in DC – $#x2022.


  19. Gizmo 31 May, 2012 at 01:41 Reply

    To me HDR needs multiple images to get the data for really increasing the dynamic range in an image. Single images no matter how they’re processed don’t count as true HDR.
    I think the look of an HDR image can be created a variety of ways,but they’re not working with the same base of data.
    All said, I still like the HDR look either way you get it.
    I’m just looking forward to the day camera makers spent more time increasing the dynamic range of the sensors and stop worrying about megapixels.

  20. Jeremy 30 May, 2012 at 21:43 Reply

    To me, an image is HDR when the starting point was a file that contains more dynamic range than can be captured in a single exposure.

    If you were working in a darkroom and dodged and burned a photo to add details to the highlights and shadows, would that be considered HDR? I think most people would say “no”. Taking a single RAW file and processing it, whether via tone mapping, the Lightroom adjustment brush or layers & masks in photoshop is the same thing in my opinion. You’re taking the information in the original negative and using your darkroom tools to produce the print you envisioned.

    It’s only when you start combining multiple exposures that you get into what I would consider HDR.

    And as for the “No HDR” comment on the photo, I agree with what some of the others have said before – tagging it with tells me something about how that photo was processed, and I can learn from that. Similarly if it is tagged as “HDR” even though it has a very natural look with no obvious HDR artifacts.

  21. Dave 30 May, 2012 at 20:11 Reply

    HDR as a term of art can mean a tone mapped effect. HDR as an acronym is a technique. As a technique HDR enables you to capture extra detail at both end of a tone curve. You can’t create lost detail in highlights, for example, by tone mapping an image with tone mapping. Thus, tone mapping a single image can never give you the same amount of data multiple combined exposures.

  22. Joop Snijder 30 May, 2012 at 17:57 Reply

    Here’s my opinion. Technique or effect really doesn’t matter to me. A photo moves me or not. I like it or not. So why to discuss we have to call it HDR or not? Stating something is or not is photoshopped, is or is not HDR falls in the same category of all stories behind taking an photo. How cold it was, how many miles someone walked. I really don’t care, because I just judge the end result, the photo itself.

  23. Scott Sanders 30 May, 2012 at 17:25 Reply

    Here is my simple interpretation…
    •HDR-like or faux-HDR is an effect
    •Bracketing shots = HDR

    Until Merriam-Webster adds HDR to their dictionary there will be a debate and that is OK. Why get worked up about it. In the end it is art, you either like it or you don’t.

  24. David Olshan 30 May, 2012 at 16:30 Reply

    I did the exact same thing with my photo on 500px ( The reason I did it was just to show how impressed I was with what LR4 could do compared to previous versions. I usually don’t care if something is HDR or not and just judge the image on its visual quality, but in this case, I really wanted to share how much I liked using LR4 on this particular photo. Had I posted the photo publicly, like on Facebook, I wouldn’t have titled it that because nobody other than other photographers would understand it or care how it was processed.

  25. Bazza 30 May, 2012 at 16:12 Reply

    He probably wrote “No HDR” for the same reason Queen used to say “No Synthesizers” on their albums, they wanted people to know what they could achieve without synthesizers, or in this case, with just one photo.

  26. Dominic Dorey 30 May, 2012 at 15:26 Reply

    For me its a simple case of the classification being in need of updating to keep pace with the abilities software such as LR4.

    What I mean is his shot should have been classified as One Shot HDR or Single Shot HDR, because as we can see a single shot has the ability to show the true characteristics of old skool HDR where as before 3/4/5+ shots were needed.

    I figure his meaning behind “No HDR” is that he was simply trying to say “Look what I achieved from a single shot”


    • Dave 30 May, 2012 at 20:17 Reply

      Isnt it basic physics that a single exposure can not have the same amount of data as several exposures. You are always going to get more data and thus more detail with multiple exposures than one. LR4 cant create detail that never existed in a single exposure. Detail that does exist when multiple exposures are combined.

      • Dominic Dorey 4 June, 2012 at 05:25 Reply

        True enough, yes there will be lots more data in several exposures, I don’t deny that, but what I was trying to say was that the power now stored in the likes of Lightroom 4 can pull details out of the most horribly underexposed and overexposed shots like never before.

        Maybe I shouldn’t have said that his photo ‘should’ have been called single shot HDR but more like ‘could’ have been called single shot HDR. At the end of the day there was obviously enough data, regardless of physics, in that single shot to create a picture that has HDR throughout without any noticeable loss of detail or quality.

      • Marsel 20 June, 2012 at 04:53 Reply

        It is a very nice composition ineded.My guess is that Carl exposed on the darker areas in the foreground such as Lin’s hair and reduced the background exposure a bit perhaps by half an EV step. This can be set directly in the camera prior to taking the shot, but also in raw development if you don’t get the settings just right.

  27. Topher Pettit 30 May, 2012 at 15:25 Reply

    I think you are messing up on terms in photography. He has tone-mapped his photograph, not HDR. HDR is a camera process of photographing and tone-mapping is editing process (post) to the photo to bring details out in shadows and highlights.

  28. Chase 30 May, 2012 at 15:17 Reply

    Knowing the whole Kelby Media Group/NAPP HQ is enamored with HDR photos, I would side with Jose in that he didnt use a series of bracketed photos to create his image. No HDR.

    I thought HDR died a few years ago?

  29. Marcus Taylor 30 May, 2012 at 15:10 Reply

    Saying “No HDR” makes about as much sense to me as showing a color photo of a completely monochrome subject and saying “No Black and White”. If the result is the same it doesn’t really matter to me how you got there. Likewise, I’m sure people who don’t like the HDR/Tonemapped effect, aren’t going to suddenly find merit in a grungy, surreal image just because the result was achieved in Lightroom.

  30. Eric 30 May, 2012 at 13:45 Reply

    Before there was digital HDR, there was Zone I-X and overexposure/N-1 and underexposure/N+2 development, combined with burning and dodging *by hand*. They both achieve the same end, presenting the detail of a given scene. Like those, HDR is a tool and technique to achieve a result. I enjoy re-reading “The Negative,” because Adams describes how he made a given image, so that a rube like me can at least try to replicate it. HDR to me is just an evolution of those processes; “No HDR” may be useful to another photographer, but for enjoying the image, is irrelevant.

  31. Paul C. 30 May, 2012 at 12:22 Reply


    You have raised a fundamental issue that I think many of us photographers get caught up in, that is to define our art by labels that impose a set of expectations on “how” they were created vs. why and by proxy how they should be consumed and interpreted. Perhaps it is a defensive mechanism to justify the art in photography, or our fascination with the process rather that the outcome. In either case, why is a label of any sort appropriate? Did the impressionists assemble and label their paintings “This is an impressionist painting” under every caption? Or, as I would suggest, did they simply respond to what they were seeing and translate that vision in a whole new way, with the tools available to them at the time; with the label of “impressionism” coming later by the art world.

    Photography is an art form uniquely designed for the masses like no other, and yet in its most masterful application it is as moving as a concerto or a painted masterpiece and is as difficult to construct. As photographers, we have to stop giving credence to the community by labeling and thus defining the “how” and turn our focus on the “why”. When we focus on the technique, we give permission to the art community to look at photography as nothing more than a collection of filters, programs and styles. Our art, and how it moves our audience, deserves much more than that.

    • Paul C. 30 May, 2012 at 15:20 Reply

      After jumping off my soapbox, I did want to share one additional thought. We photographers are a teaching/learning community and to that end, our labels and techniques help each other become better artists. To the extent that this is true, I’ll concede that sharing the “how” is constructive. To the extent that we want our art to be taken more seriously by a broader audience, I stand by my “no label” sermon. 🙂

  32. MCurtis 30 May, 2012 at 11:52 Reply

    Back in the “old school” days of black and white, you could do dodging and burning to a print but you would never call it a “Zone system” image. This is a great image however I believe that HDR is a method not a style. I like my HDR images to look real and not look like HDR does that make it not HDR?

  33. Cris Da Rocha 30 May, 2012 at 11:07 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    have you my chance spoken to the photographer?

    Eventually what he meant by “no HDR” was “not the traditional bracketed HDR material to which a tonal mapping is applied using photoshop HDR, or Photomatix, or any other HDR software, just a single shot tone mapped with Lightroom and Viveza”.

    Not like HDR good or bad, but like tonal mapping/HDR look make easy.


  34. Efraim Perl 30 May, 2012 at 11:03 Reply

    The never-ending HDR debate is like debating politics and religion.
    Photography is art. The photographer is free to express himself in any form he wishes and the viewer is free to like or dislike the work. What difference does it make what process is used?

    The bottom line is: does the image evoke an emotion or not. This is no different than viewing a painting. I don’t like Picasso’s work but you may love it, and that’s ok.

    Personally, I find some HDR images breathtaking and others plain ugly. I am sure that the ones I dislike are very much loved by their creator. That is what’s it’s all about. If we all strive only to be liked by others, what a sad life it would be indeed.

  35. William Chinn 30 May, 2012 at 10:44 Reply

    OK, here’s my 5 cents after inflation: We all asked ourselves, “HDR, how do I do it? OK, it works best with bracketed but differing exposures, but how do I do it? Oh, with the proper software I select the exposures and push the button. Immediate, great! But what if I only have a single exposures? The software will attempt to do the same thing, great! If I get the result I’m looking for (or are given) immediately with this software do I care how it did it (much like using a preset). But if my software could do it then obviously if there was enough time I could do it step by step, pixel by pixel (not really but you get the idea). Time goes from immediate to multiple hours. But is it HDR? Sure it is, but just a lot slower and not as flexible. Could Cory or Jose do it without an HDR button and unlimited time? Probably, but I’m not them with their skill sets but stuck with my impatience. We were given HDR with an immediate button essentially from the very beginng and that’s what made it popular other than the visual results. It was always a process and an effect. They are not mutually exclusive.

  36. KC 30 May, 2012 at 10:28 Reply

    Traditionally, HDR is popular thought to be the blending of multiple images to create a larger range of light within an image. Also traditional is the grungy/gritty feel of HDR images being pushed too far.

    With that said, are the following also HDR?
    – single-image HDR, like Moose Peterson processes
    – single-image dual-processing/blending via Adobe Camera Raw and smart-object layers within Photoshop
    – Barbosa’s method of good original capture and post-processing
    – use of polarizers and/or neutral density filters to bring the light within the range the camera can take (probably part of Barbosa’s original capture)

    Personally, I do not view Barbosa’s sample image as HDR. There are appropriate highlight and appropriate shadows in the image to give a sense of depth—something that ‘traditional’ HDR attempts to avoid. If Barbosa’s image was what is ‘traditionally’ considered HDR, then the shadows in the ocean, clouds, and rocks would have a lot more detail and light to them.

  37. Chris Kalafarski 30 May, 2012 at 10:22 Reply

    I tend to be very restrictive in my use of the term HDR; I don’t consider it an effect, just a process. And that process requires using more data than would be available from the DR of a single frame.

    I realize that the term becomes somewhat arbitrary in that context though. Consider the DR of a D1 and a D4. To get X number of stops of DR on a D4 you only need one shot, but on a D1 you need two or three. So what’s the point of the term HDR then? I don’t know, it doesn’t need to have a point. For me it just describes the process.

    As far as the “HDR effect”, I’m generally happy calling it tone mapping, or just saying that the photo was heavily processed.

    For me, calling something HDR when it isn’t would kind of be like telling someone a image you cropped from a 50mm shot was actually taken with a 105mm lens. Sure, they may be pretty similar, but the only reason to bring the numbers into the conversation is because they’re the facts. No one labels an image as “105mm style” or “105mm effect”.

    I guess my biggest thing is: what’s the benefit of using the term HDR when it isn’t? If someone’s looking at a photo, having that label shouldn’t change their takeaway, they can see that it’s highly stylized or that it’s well balanced and realistic, regardless of if it’s true HDR or not. If the use of the term HDR stays reserved for a specific process, then when someone asks “how did you make that photo”, the answer “it’s an HDR” actually means something. There can/should be a different term for “lightroom hdr effect”, but those processes are so different it doesn’t make sense to try to lump them together, even if the end result is similar. Would you ever describe creating an image straight on T-max and optically printed and another digital, processed in Lr, and printed on an inkjet using the same single word?

  38. Frank T 30 May, 2012 at 10:13 Reply

    I for one don’t see any use to the label and this isn’t the first time I’ve seen this. I was at an art show and a photographer there posted a sign at his booth that he didn’t use Photoshop. I wasn’t sure what the meaning of that was either, so I asked him and he told me that he was proud that he could do these composites without using a computer and that he wanted people to know that he cut each one by hand, assembled them and then photographed the result and then added that he didn’t think Photoshop constituted art.
    Well, right or wrong I’ve always judged art by the finished product so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me then. Would the Pieta be any less magnificant, had Michaelangelo used an electric hammer?

  39. Gary Walters 30 May, 2012 at 10:10 Reply

    Interesting question. I want to say yes but have to say no that it isn’t HDR in the true sense.

    It has a grungy HDR effect but if faced with say having to do a room interior where the range of tones far exceed the range of one exposure and you are commisioned to do a realistic image of the room without the use of extra lighting then there is no other way except to do the extra exposures and create a HDR but just without the grunge.

  40. Nikhil Ramkarran 30 May, 2012 at 10:04 Reply

    Very thought provoking article. I enjoyed it, particularly as HDR always seems to be a controversial topic. I think there is (or ought to be) a difference between the HDR “look” and HDR as a photographic technique. Several of the early software packages developed this heavily processed look that used the dynamic range benefit of multiple exposures merely as a starting point. And this has come to define the popular idea of what an HDR is (as opposed to the definition provided by Wikipedia).

    Personally, I don’t like what the HDR “look” has come to mean, but I do think the combining of multiple exposures to subtly expand the viewable dynamic range is a useful photographic technique.

    I really think, though, that there is enough room in the world for both perspectives to exist. Maybe what is needed is a change in terminology, so there isn’t this constant battle to prove who is “right” and who is “wrong” about HDRs.

  41. Deb Scally 30 May, 2012 at 10:03 Reply

    Matt, I think it’s a great philosophical question you pose. To me, high dynamic range photography is simply a creative choice for the photographer–just like creating an image in black/white, in high contrast, or in soft focus/blur… all are processing choices that reflect the visualization of the photographer. It boggles my mind as to why HDR sets off such polemic discussions. Black and white photography is certainly just as “surreal” as a non-realistic representation of the world, and yet no one dismisses it as a legitimate and creative art form.

    So to your original question, yes, I think high-dynamic range processing is “HDR” no matter what software, or camera technique, is used to achieve the result. But perhaps those who bristle at the term “HDR” should instead refer to images that are “tone mapped” or processed with “fusion” to distinguish them from images that simply have been processed to achieve greater detail in highlights and shadows. For myself, I do not usually try to achieve the surreal effect that is often a result of Photomatix (tho sometimes for urban photos it’s exactly what I want), but I certainly look for a higher dynamic range each time I process landscapes, portraits, etc, using Lightroom to bring out the full scope of detail in my shots. Does that make me an HDR Photographer? No more than it makes me a B/W Photographer, or a Soft Focus Photographer. It’s all semantics.

  42. Tony Blackwell 30 May, 2012 at 09:57 Reply

    In my opinion, and I know everybody has one, HDR is exactly what it says “high dynamic range”, a wide range from shadows to highlights. It doesn’t matter how you got it, it’s the same thing whether you can achieve it with one or multiple images.

  43. Cliff 30 May, 2012 at 09:29 Reply

    IMHO, HDR is the effect of evening out the highlights and shadows to gain more details. Now if there is a question about what to call a single image HDR vs a 5 image HDR, I would suggest a naming convention; HDR-1 for singles, HDR-3 for three images, etc.

    Love the site and the presets you create.


  44. Eric the Half-bee 30 May, 2012 at 09:27 Reply

    I agree in that I don’t think it matters. It’s just a tool. Before there was digital HDR, there was over-exposure/N-2 development, or under-exposure/N+1 development, not to mention selective burning and dodging *by hand*, to achieve a desired outcome. No one complains that Adams’ images don’t “look real.”

  45. Jim Bullard 30 May, 2012 at 09:09 Reply

    Computers can display a 256 range of tones. Contemporary digital cameras can record more a broader range of tones than that. HDR is nothing more than taking tones that exceed the 0-255 range and compressing them to fit into 0-255. Whenever you are taking the broader range of tones in a RAW file and compressing them into 0-255 it is HDR. It doesn’t matter whether you did it by shooting multiple images and combining them, reprocessing multiple copies of a single image in Lightroom and combining them or doing extensive brush, clarity, highlight recovery and graduated filter work in LR, if you pull in shadow and/or highlight information that otherwise would have been out of the 0-255 gamut, it’s HDR.

    Here’s the real question: Does how you processed an image, whether you call it HDR or not, make the image better or worse? Answer: It is irrelevant. IMO there is too much obsession with technique today and too little concern for content.

    • John Richardson 4 June, 2012 at 02:34 Reply

      Agreed. If the data is there on one frame, then yanking it out to see is all we are really concerned with. If you have to do it in several shots and use the traditional method then that’s what you need to do. In the end the process or stacking or tone mapping seems a moot point, if you photo looks realistic or like clown vomit is also a moot point. Why? Because we are shooting and processing art, a very subjective subject. IMO I really don’t care how a person got his or her results, as long as they are happy then I am happy that they are, if I like their photo and it makes me happy then, well, I’m happy. If it doesn’t then I just move on … no harm no foul.

      What ever Mr. Barbosa’s methods used obtain his result falls under different definitions, but his effect made me happy, it may be a simple way of looking at it I suppose. I will stack or tone map or whatever to get the result I want.

    • Barbara 20 June, 2012 at 10:13 Reply

      Photomatix sounds cool..the idea of bldienng exposures sounds fun! I may want to try that sometime I like this photo very much for it appears to be timeless. Lovely lovely lovely!

  46. Dennis Zito 30 May, 2012 at 08:22 Reply

    Hey Matt,

    Great subject to discuss! I’m not one for over the top HDR. I have RC’s book and have used it a lot on my bracketed photos. However, since LR 4 and ACR came out with the new sliders, I’ve start doing a lot of single photo HDR! I think that HDR is an effect that enhances shadows and highlights. If you can reach that effect without bracketing, that’s fine. I also think that not every photo is a candidate for HDR.

    I have a question for you. Hope you’ll be able to answer it. I have a problem with my LR 4 (also had the same problem with LR 3). The problem happens on PC and iMac. When I use “edit in” (doesn’t matter what plugin, Nik, Topaz, noise ninja) after I exit the plugin every time I move a develop slider, the program pauses and reloads the photo. This really slows down my workflow having to wait for the re-rendering of the photo. If I close LR4 and re-open, it works fine until I use “edit in” again. This doesn’t happen if I go into PS and then back again. It only happens with the plugins. Does this happen to you? I’ve left support messages to Adobe and they tell me it’s a plugin problem. I don’t buy that, because all the plugins do the same thing. Any idea what I might do?

    Thanks for your insight and help!


      • Mark 20 June, 2012 at 10:21 Reply

        These photos, and the whole HDR thing brroeds on magic. It’s amazing to see. Even the after samples on Photomatix’s site are astounding. This is definitely my next thing to try.Wonderful work on these, and what is that rusty tube thingy through which you took the lower photo?Hi, Thanks for the comments. The rusty tube is some sort of tank along the shoreline, sorry I don’t know the story behind it.

  47. Sami Serola 30 May, 2012 at 08:11 Reply

    Beloved child have many names… Some call it as “high dynamic range”, some speak about “tone mapping”, and once it was probably called as “zone system” during film era:

    I have understood the idea is to either get multiple exposures, if the camera does not have very “high dynamic range”, or just do the tone mapping for a single shot if the picture already contains high dynamic range. So, HDR is more like a feature on a camera. Some cameras can capture high dynamic range, some can’t. Then on post processing that dynamic range is utilized doing some tone mapping.

    Tone mapping can be done either well or very badly. If the edge between light and dark areas gets a sort of halo effect, then I would call it bad. And if areas that are supposed to be in shadows look like they illuminate some internal light, then I would again take that as bad editing. Then tone mapping is done well when you don’t even notice it.

  48. alenpasalic 30 May, 2012 at 07:46 Reply

    That photo is HDR to me…i dont care what did he do it is HDR.
    it looks like HDR and everyone knows that you dont need 10 photos, not even 3 photos to make HDR so…let it be what it is i dont see the reason why would you say “no HDR” as if that technique is not as good as every other.

    if photo is good, i dont care for your program, technique or Canon/Nikon/Phaseone fact…give me a good story.

  49. guiie 30 May, 2012 at 07:32 Reply

    HDR stands for High Dynamic Range and I think that is the best way to tackle the thing. You can achieve a High Dynamic Range in any given photo by using several techniques and that is okay.
    TL:DR – I think of High Dynamic Range as a technical quality, not as a definition of techniques or preset styles. Why? Because “dynamic range” is a one of many things you can evaluate in a photograph.

    As for the Jens Bentsson comment on Wikipedia, I would advise him to read a lot more about the process involved in publishing Wikipedia articles and the policies around that process.

  50. Don 30 May, 2012 at 07:26 Reply

    Personally — and I emphasize that this is only my personal opinion — it would seem to me that if one is expanding the dynamic range of a photo, then by definition that photo becomes HDR. As long as the photo’s dynamic range remains unchanged, it would not be, but increasing it — regardless of the method — would make it an HDR.

    Which is one of the really nice advantages of Lightroom — no more need to shoot 3 to 5 bracketed shots.Get the best shot you can, and let Lightroom work its magic.

    Just my 2¢.

  51. Jan Winther 30 May, 2012 at 06:48 Reply

    To me, HDR has become an effect, and I would call the process to get to the end result some sort of stylization of the image. In which case you use masks and adjustment brushes to enhance or control certain areas of the image. I would say that an image processed in Photomatix is tonemapped, and ready to be finished or stylized further in LR, PS or plugins. To me thats when the best HDR effects are achieved.

  52. Mike 30 May, 2012 at 06:02 Reply

    I suspect, the semantics of the term ‘HDR’ are simply moving towards describing the effect of an increased tonal range in an image. Back in the old days (about 1 year ago) HDR had to be a composite of a minimum of 3 separately shot images (even 3 obtained from a single RAW was considered ‘not true HDR’) or so I was told.

    It’s just the old war between a technically correct definition and a more easily usable one.

    Targeted exposure and clarity adjustments via LR or similar will probably have an ‘HDR effect’ but there’ll always be some technical purists who insist that it isn’t ‘true HDR’…


  53. Mario Kreutzfeldt 30 May, 2012 at 05:57 Reply

    Dear Matt,

    i agree with you that the HDR-look resulting from 1) clarity / shadow /highlight adjustments on a single file or 2) badly done fusing (halos) of multiple exposures is everywhere today.
    But I don’t think the definition of HDR leaves room for expanding it on scenario 1. Because there is no increase of dynamic range (increase in the ratio between the lightest and darkest area) happening.
    And what about real HDR images that don’t have the “HDR-look”. Is this “no HDR” then?

    p.s.: I think Erik Reinhard nailed it in his discussion:

    Best regards,

  54. foosion 30 May, 2012 at 05:43 Reply

    A lot of people don’t like HDR because they regard it as overprocessed and therefore unnatural, rather than something that exists in nature and can be produced more or less out of the camera. Some HDR-like effects can be done naturally given the right light, a camera with good DR, etc..

    “No HDR” means the photographer used natural methods to produce “unnatural” looking effects, and is therefore a good guy according to the anti-HDR crowd. It’s sort of like labelling things as organic.

  55. Mike 30 May, 2012 at 05:29 Reply

    HDR means “High Dynamic Range”, and (according to wikipedia, for example) is “a set of methods used in imaging and photography, to allow a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging methods or photographic methods”.

    So, I think it doesn’t matter if you extended the DR by using exposure bracketed images or by adjusting highlights and shadows in a raw image using Lightroom or other post processing software capable of this, the final result can be called HDR either way. And yes, Lightroom 4 really does a very good job on this.

  56. Jens Bengtsson 30 May, 2012 at 05:28 Reply

    Hi Matt,
    First I’m always confused when someone refer to Wikipedia as the source of ”Correct” information. It’s free to put in almost any information you want.
    HDR definition should also include the process of development. Bracketing photos and process them in a HDR tool as Photoshop or similar is needed for a wider range of definition. With today´s RAW- files you already have a type of HDR file, with a lot more information than jpg. I think the work that has been done by Mr. Barbosa is more tone mapping than HDR. Or to ask you a question back,
    – what´s your opinion of the difference between HDR vs. tone mapping?

    • Matt Kloskowski 30 May, 2012 at 10:05 Reply

      First off, you can be unsure or “confused” as to the information on Wiki but the reality is that majority of people take it’s information as being fact. So be confused all you want – it doesn’t change the fact that it’s a place people will go to for information on a topic. And as some one else pointed out, there are policies in place to help ensure the accuracy of the information.

      Your Wiki confusedness aside 😉 I think you make a great point. I think of HDR as Tonemapping. Tonemapping is exactly what was done here. It may not have been with a tool called the “Tonemap” tool, but that’s precisely what was done to the photo. As for my opinion of HDR vs. Tonemapping? I think they’re on in the same. Technically, they may be defined differently, but I think most photographers think they’re relatively the same thing. Tonemapping is what you do to an HDR image. Thanks.

      • RON 30 May, 2012 at 12:15 Reply

        I see this as a style of HDR,

        It may not have been done in Nik,Photomatix or Photoshops HDR.
        To me it is a representation of that style and concur with Mat, it is in fact tone mapped. Adjustments were in fact done to bring out certain tones and to reduce certain tones in the image.
        It may not be as I said, the HDR we think of first that involves 3,5 or 9 exposures but it sure has the look of HDR from its stylization and tone mapping of the image.


    • Justin Morgan 30 May, 2012 at 14:24 Reply

      I’ve seen several sources that claim that the open access of wikipedia is actually what makes it more accurate than other sources on the net. When people are empowered to create the content together, they also monitor it together and take that responsibility seriously. Other sources can be pure baseless opinion with no oversight whatsoever…

      So while I understand your criticism of the wikipedia use, I don’t know that it’s totally warranted.

  57. Petr Klapper 30 May, 2012 at 05:14 Reply

    “No HDR” label is exactly right and tells me everything I want to know about the processing of that photo, that it’s not an exposure composite, what steps was probably taken to process it, etc. I don’t think that adding to HDR confusion by accepting and even promoting favorite wrong simplification “it’s heavily processed > must be an HDR and if not who cares, coz apple oranges, it’s all fruit” is the way to go. It’s probably ok for general public, but it’s really important to me to know how it really is – for a photographer, you know, the guy who thinks about photos, how are they captured and processed to reach desired look. Also, from the opposite side, I also want to know that the photo is HDR even if it does not look like “HDR-effect” and is not heavily processed at all – carefully blended exposures when applicable (night shots, interiors, etc).

  58. Patrik Lindgren 30 May, 2012 at 03:41 Reply

    I´m with you, who cares? As long as the image is the way the photographer saw it with his or her own eyes, right.
    That´s at least how i see it. Nowadays you can just go and buy a Nikon D800 and do easy adjustments in LR4 to darken and lighten it up.
    I can tell you, the Nikon D800 in combination with LR4 is amazing. It beats all other cameras i´ve tried in the past.

  59. Christian Oeser 30 May, 2012 at 03:38 Reply

    Hi Matt,

    I think it’s easy to answer. HDR defines an image which includes all the information in the shadows and highlights, basically a 32 bit file.

    If you edit an 8 bit or 16 bit image in Lightroom to get the HDR look, you only do a tonemapping, simply said. So this is no HDR.

    If you edit a 32 bit image in Lightroom you still have to do a tonemapping, but the original file itself is HDR.

    In conclusion, I think it depends on the original file if it is 32 bit or lower to say your final tonemapped image is HDR or not.


  60. Mario 30 May, 2012 at 03:34 Reply

    Dear Matt,

    i agree with you that the HDR-look resulting from 1) clarity / shadow /highlight adjustments on a single file or 2) badly done fusing (halos) of multiple exposures is everywhere today.
    But I don’t think the definition of HDR leaves room for expanding it on scenario 1. Because there is no increase of dynamic range (increase in the ratio between the lightest and darkest area) happening.
    And what about real HDR images that don’t have the “HDR-look”. Is this “no HDR” then?

    Best regards,

  61. Nate 30 May, 2012 at 03:12 Reply

    Interesting post. I think there are really two concept here that we are talking about. One is the technical term “high dynamic range”, which refers to the about of digital information stored in each pixel. The other is an artistic term, aesthetic or the “look” you often get from tone mapping HDR data to the standard 8-bit range we get in jpegs.

    If we are talking about the technical term, the you can argue if you want about how much data; how many bits per pixel you need to be considered “high”. Do you need multiple exposures, or is the 12 bits of raw data captured with most slrs enough? Some stacked exposure shots do not have that ultra-realistic eye popping details associated with HDR.

    As for the “HDR look” I would say yes, it is enough to apply local adjustments to bring up shadow areas and bring down highlight areas.

  62. Martin Tomes 30 May, 2012 at 03:05 Reply

    The HDRI Handbook takes a very helpful line on all of this. There are two concepts, HDR and tonemapping, what you are calling HDR is actually tonemapping.

    An HDR image is a source file which contains more dynamic range than can be represented on a display or paper, typically that would consist of several exposures combined into a 32bit per colour image file. An image like this might well contain 20 stops of image data.

    Tone mapping is the process of mapping that image data into a low enough dynamic range that it can be viewed on a display or paper. The clarity control is doing tone mapping.

    By your definition of HDR a true HDR image which has been tone mapped to look natural isn’t HDR, at this point we are in a mess because something which really is HDR isn’t and something which never was HDR is. It’s wishful thinking, but we do need a change in the way these words are used or people are going to get even more confused.

  63. Leigh 30 May, 2012 at 03:01 Reply

    For me a bracketed exposure and the use of Photomatix or HDR Efex is just a method to create a High Dynamic Range image. If an image has a High Dynamic Range then it’s HDR no matter what method was used to create it, no?

  64. Marc Poppleton 30 May, 2012 at 02:26 Reply


    I don’t totally agree with what you say about “Not HDR being HDR”. Indeed the mentioned photo (and many others) look like they are HDR photos, but aren’t on a technical point of view. What they look like are tone mapping of HDR photos. Currently HDR photos looks like this simply because we don’t have screens capables of displaying such a wide dynamic range, thus the tone mapping. With “HDR ready” displays, the comparison won’t stand a chance.

    Just my two cents 🙂


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