A Tale of 3 HDR Processes

It’s amazing how a little processing can change the look of an image.  This is especially true when the image process is HDR in nature.  There are so many looks to HDR and it seems that most folks really like that hyper-realistic look that comes from pushing the sliders to their max.  If you aren’t sure what I’m talking about, check out this image from inside the St. Salvator’s Cathedral.  I shot a 3-shot series of images for this picture and then used Photomatix Pro to create the HDR and tone map for the final look.

Please click on the images for a larger view

As you can see, it has some extreme stuff going on but it does have great information in the shadows and highlights.  Unfortunately the colors are way too vivid and the mid-tone contrasts are way over the top.  Or perhaps I should say that they are way too over the top for me.  That’s the thing about HDR, some folks really prefer the way this image would look over the ones below.  For me though, it’s just completely unrealistic and doesn’t come close to representing what I saw.

To get things a little more on track, I ran the process again but this time I was less aggressive with the sliders.  It still has that classic HDR look to it but there are less halos, the colors aren’t nearly as bright, and the tonal contrasts are a little smoother.

Still though, when I sent this to a buddy, he kind of snapped me back to reality that this image was still not very “true to life”.  After giving it another look, I decided to process my image one more time, just to see if I could tone things down a bit more while still getting the benefit from the HDR process, which is better tonal values in the shadows as well as the highlights.  To do this, I ran the bracketed images through HDR Photostudio 2.  I find that this program has a much smoother look to it when creating photo-realistic HDR images.  As you can see from the result below, there is much less of a gritty look to this image and yet it still has great tonal values thoughout.

I guess the moral of the story is that when it comes to HDR processing, there is definitely more than one way to move those sliders and it’s all about where your personal preferences lay as to how much is too much.


  1. I’m with you, Jeff. I know the extreme HDR has lots of fans, but I’m not amongst them. The last version is the most realistic and, to me, that makes it the best version. Hope to talk with you at PSW next week.

  2. Julie McLeod says:

    I favor the final version as well. But, this does make an interesting comparison between several different ‘takes’ on the processing.

  3. The photograph should convey your sense of being there. Whether that is “true to life” or not is really up to you. Impressionist paintings are not exactly true to life, but that doesn’t make them any less artistic or beautiful. I guess we have to decide if the photograph is a historical record or a work of art.

    That said, I’ve seen a lot of very bad HDR photographs and I was hesitant to get into it. Now that I’ve started, I think I’ve found what works for me. I just need to start visiting some places that are a bit more interesting to capture.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve also tried HDR Photostudio 2, but I think I prefer Photomatix right now. You can use the latter to get more “true to life” images if you choose. Perhaps each program has its place. It’s pretty cool that we have the choice to make the images we want to express.

  4. Great demonstration Jeff! Is it okay to like all three? For me, I think each one has merits. Yes, the first is really juiced, but it’s pretty cool as well. The second and third are more realistic, and I like that too. In the end, it is all about preferences. Nice that you put all three up to show people through the possibilities.

  5. Hi Jeff,
    It is a great article.Thanks for sharing your ideas.


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