Lightroom TipsNews

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?