Wide histogram, single capture image

My last article sang the praises of HDR processing. I don’t want to over sell it. Today I will try to balance it by showing we typically do not need to use HDR.

The good

My previous article attempted to show when and why to use HDR. There is a time and place for it. In general, if a histogram shows more than about 7 stops of needed information then I would consider HDR, if the subject and situation allows it.

The example I used was a scene with the sun visible in the frame but where I also wanted to preserve the deepest shadows. Back in the film days we had to use a split neutral density filter over the lens to try to compress the dynamic range in these situations. Whenever you would have reached for the split ND filter is the time to consider if you can use HDR instead.

The bad

But HDR has some problems and limitations. There is the dreaded “HDR look” that most people want to avoid. In addition, there are problems with subject movement and extra processing steps to do.

When HDR first became available, people tended to go crazy with it. It was almost a symbol of showing off the new technique. The HDR look was over compressed with flat tonality and lack of true whites or blacks. Sure, I could shoot that scene with a 20 stop range and make a print. Too bad it looks weird. It became almost a cliche. Many “serious” photographers shunned it as looking artificial. It got a bad reputation.

But the problem was how people used it, not the technique itself. Almost any technique can be over used to create unappealing images.

There is also the problem I mentioned with subject movement. To create a good HDR image there must be very high correlation between the pixels of each exposure bracket. That is, there can’t be significant movement.

And there is the extra processing. This is not too big of a problem anymore. We can quickly do HDR processing from within Lightroom or Photoshop or your software of choice. It is probably easier now to do it than it was to adjust a split neutral density filter and figure out the exposure.

Why we don’t usually need it

Trust your sensor and the processing software on your computer. Modern high-end camera sensors are amazing. They record the greatest dynamic range of information that has ever been possible in photography. I’m sure it will only get better with new generations of equipment.

My camera records a far greater range of information than it is possible to print. Prints are my gold standard. They are the expected outcome of my work. A surprising fact to many is that, although it is hard to compare because the physics are totally different, the effective dynamic range of print media is around 6 to 8 stops. So making any print has some aspects of dealing with HDR data, since the captured data is probably much greater than the final print.

OK, so I am shooting a high contrast scene. I am careful to allow a little space on each end of the histogram, so say I am dealing with about 12 stops of range. The reality is that, for most needs, this can be used to make a great print.

But that 12 stops of data has darks that are down dangerously close to an unacceptable level of noise. And the brights are dangerously close to clipping. Is that imperfection OK?

How to process extreme ranges

This is not a tutorial on photographic processing. You can find too many of them on the web. I will just give some suggestions. In Lightroom (Classic – the only version I think is worth using) just the 6 controls in the Tones section of the Basic panel can do wonders. And I seldom use Contrast, so there are really 5 most important ones.

Use Whites and Blacks to set the overall white and black points as desired. Then I often use Exposure to balance the overall tonal range. Finally I use Highlights and Shadows to fine tune the tones.

These simple adjustments, along with some tweaks in the Presence section, can do amazing things to “rescue” most images. These are probably an 80% fix for most situations.

Of course, when I select an image to print, I will spend a lot more time working on it. A lot of work will be done with curves and masking and doing fine adjustments. Sometimes I will send it to Photoshop for very detailed tasks that cannot be done in Lightroom. Editing an image can take many hours. Most of us are pretty obsessive about our work.

My point here, though, is that most single captures have enough data to make a great print or other final image. Sometimes we just have to work with it a little.

Maybe you don’t want it

The look of your final image is an artistic decision. It is not dictated by the “reality” of the original scene. You or I as the artist decide the look we want. What we decide is “right”, at least for us.

So I may not want to create a perfectly balanced image that retains all the tones and data of the histogram. I may want to crush the blacks to make a moody, low key image. I may want to over brighten the image to make an ethereal scene. It is not written anywhere that the final print must look exactly and faithfully like the original scene.

This is where artistic intent comes in.

It is not numbers

I want to end with the point that we are creating an image, not manipulating numbers. Well, we are manipulating numbers, but that is not what counts. What counts is the look and expressiveness and quality of the finished product.

Photography is the most technical art, but do not be dictated to by the technology. Do not let someone say you can’t do something because the numbers are wrong. All that counts is the final art you create. Emotional response trumps technical excellence. How does it look to you?


The image today is a full histogram spread. Single capture. I think this kind of thing comes out OK. What do you think?


HDR image. Smokey sunset in the Colorado mountains.

HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, is a bad word to some photographers. I think they have been overly influenced by some bad early use of it. It can be an excellent tool for certain kinds of images.

Dynamic range

First, though, what is dynamic range? Dynamic range is a measure of the span between the lowest level signal that can be used and the highest level. In most electronic systems the high end is limited by the point where the signal starts to clip or distort. The low end is limited by the point where an unacceptable amount of noise intrudes. For photography it is that range from the darkest value that is usable to the brightest value that doesn’t clip to pure featureless white.

Modern digital sensors are far better than ones in early digital cameras. High end sensors now are rated at between 13 and 15 stops of dynamic range. That is incredible. Early sensors had maybe 5-6 stops.

But like many things, the numbers are misleading. It is not that the camera makers lie, just that they do not quantify what they really mean. So my sensor may technically have 14 stops of range, but I cannot really use all of that with no cost.

If you want to jump in to a little more technical depth, check out this article.


There is this problem called noise. It is worse at the dark range of exposure. We call what we do “digital photography”, but the reality is that a significant portion of it is based on analog signals. The information coming from the sensor is analog and it has to be amplified and digitized before it is actually digital data. Electronics, even the wonderful systems available now, have a certain level of noise in analog circuits. It is not a design fault, it is basic physics that cannot be entirely eliminated.

So when we capture an image that has a wide range of brightness values, it needs to be processed a lot in order to make a good print or even a good image for social media. A lot of this processing involves boosting the dark values to a more usable level.

But, the darkest values are close to the noise level of the electronics. So boosting them also boosts the noise. You have seen this when you brighten an image a lot and notice it looks very grainy and even blocky.


Enter HDR as a technique for mitigating the problem. HDR software takes several exposures, usually referred to as an exposure bracket, and combines them into a single image with a compressed dynamic range. Typically 3 exposures are used: one overexposed to make sure shadow data is good, one at the correct nominal exposure, and one underexposed to get all the highlight data.

In combining this data, the software can select highest quality exposure value for each pixel. It uses sophisticated algorithms to “compress” the dynamic range. That is, it makes the brightest areas less bright and the darkest areas less dark. I could not explain the exact algorithms used.


This sounds great. What is the problem?

There is actually little problem with HDR as a concept. The problem is, when it first became popular, it was often abused by many practitioners who applied it in a heavy-handed way. Images with the dreaded “HDR look” were obvious and often scorned. The HDR look is an over compressed image with few real highlights and few real shadows. Everything has a bland sameness to the tonal range.

The look rightly was looked down on by “serious” photographers. It tarnished the technique as a whole. That is unfortunate, because HDR is great for some things.

When to use it

HDR can create images that could not otherwise be made and it doesn’t have to be obvious. If a scene has extremely high contrast then HDR is often the only means to get the results we want.

Way back in the olden days we had to use graduated neutral density filters in front of the lens to darken the brightest areas, usually the sky. This would pull the dynamic range down to a reasonable range to capture in one exposure. It was the “analog” equivalent of HDR. Of course, this involved adjusting the exposure to try to anticipate the final capture range. It was tricky, but it was the only way to do it.

Now with HDR, no one I know uses split neutral density filters except the remaining film photographers. Except in one case.


HDR has one Achilles Heal – subject movement. An action scene is very difficult for the HDR software to build a good result.

If only some small parts are moving, like grass or leaves shifting with the wind, the HDR software may use “ghosting” algorithms to try to work around the movement. If you are trying to photograph a high contrast action scene, like a car race, good luck. You probably will not be able to apply HDR because there is not enough correlation between the different exposures.

Today’s image

This is an HDR image. Trying to create an image with the direct sun in it and at the same time preserve the deep shadows in the mountains wasn’t going to work in one exposure. The HDR software was able to pull it all together.

I don’t think this looks like the bad old “HDR look”. What do you think?

Come Alive

Blurred sunset. Movement, dynamics, abstraction.

Does your art excite you? Does the joy or inspiration of your work make you come alive? If not, why do you think it will effect anybody else?

Are you bringing anything?

Your audience can pick up on how you feel about your work. Are you excited? Can you not wait to show this to people? Do you have so much fun doing what you do that you don’t want to do anything else? Why not?

In my opinion, a lot of photographic art I see these days is pretty empty or depressing. Perhaps you are compelled to try to make a statement about environmentalism or social justice. That probably means you should consider yourself a photojournalist. Document your cause if that is what drives you, but can you also bring beauty and interest and hope? Can’t it be visually or emotionally appealing? Just because it is a serious subject doesn’t mean it has to feel like a news story on CNN.

And the post-modernism that prevails leads to banal and emotionally void expressions. Just pointing your camera at 2 guys sitting in their back yard drinking a beer doesn’t necessarily make a picture I feel drawn to look at. And just because you used some forgotten wet plate process to print this image in a gritty, blurry way does not make it more valuable to me. Don’t you have anything to say?

Does your work energize you?

This is your art. What you see and feel. Surely you think it is worthwhile. If not, why are you wasting your time and energy?

I have heard the definition that your art is “what you can’t not do”. This is pretty good. Most of us have to create art. We would go crazy if we couldn’t. There is a drive in us that needs this vehicle of expression.

For me, when I fall into a nest of images I am excited and energized. I lose track of time. Even when I am seeing the images before me, I am planning what i am going to do with them and how I will bring them more to life. It enlivens me.

This is one of the things I love about photography: of all the art forms, this is the one with the least barrier between inspiration and capture of an image. See it, shoot it. No real preparation or long time to produce a work. I am very visual and immediate. It suites my makeup very well.

The great Jay Maisel is a wealth of quotes and wisdom about image making. A couple of favorites I continually remind myself of is “If the thing you’re shooting doesn’t excite you, why makes you think it will excite anyone else?” and “Photography is an act of love.”

Why should people be motivated by your work?

There are billions of photographs out there with billions more being added every day. How can I have anything new to say? What a bleak prospect!

But I occasionally do have something new to bring to people. Those times where I am feeling alive and energized and excited can produce images that will stop people and compel them to look.

I am motivated by this quote:

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Howard Thurman

When we’re feeling most alive people can see it in our work. We have something to offer that people need. And it is more satisfying.

So why should people be motivated by my work? I’m an artist. I have a unique and creative point of view and this image was motivated by me bring alive and in touch with what I was feeling. That is hard to find.

Come alive and create exciting art.

The Art or the Artist?

Giant bear peeking into an urban building

Sometimes we forget that anything created has a creator. Which is greater, the creator or the thing created? Ask yourself this. Which is more important, the art or the artist who created it?


I’m mainly talking about art or artistic things here. The idea could apply to much larger contexts.

Anything that exists was created, or at least designed, by someone. By saying “someone” I am stating my belief that an AI is not a creator, because it cannot feel inspiration or passion.

Whether it is a picture or a sculpture or music or poetry or a book, it could not exist unless and until an artist created it. In the context I am talking about here, things do not spring into being out of nothing. There was nothing, then an idea formed in the mind of the creator and something was made real.

The creator can do it again

I guess one reason I felt compelled to write this is because I see people behave in ways I consider unthinking. We tend to be enraptured with some work of art as if it was the most wonderful thing in the world. Ignoring the fact that it was created by someone, and that should make them as the creator even more special than the creation.

Yes, if the creator is dead then the work that is left is a singular entity that cannot be duplicated. This would be true of works by Monet or Mozart or Michelangelo. No more will be created. Respect and admire them as unique works of art. and while you’re doing that, consider the genius of the creators who did them.

But the problem I have, even with dead artists, is our tendency to focus on the creation instead of the creator. If you took any work by a living artist and completely smashed it or wiped it out, the artist could create a new one, probably better. Not a replica, but an entirely new work of creation. That is the amazing thing we seem to lose sight of.

The artist created the amazing work we revere. But he can create a new one, maybe better. That puts the creator in the more important role. The created work may be excellent, but the ability of the artist to create it and others is more important.

Way marker

A great work by an artist represents an idea at one point in time. That is, this was what the artist felt and conceived and had the skill to do at the time. Artists grow. Later he might approach a similar work from a whole new point of view or with new materials or techniques he just developed.

So a work by an artist as a young person may be great, but later works show growth and development and change of attitude. The creation of a great piece of art is not a singular event for an artist. That work does not represent the pinnacle of his career or ability. It is just the pinnacle as of then.

The works are way markers along the journey of the artist. Looking back as a retrospective they may change and evolve over the years, along with the artist.

More coming

I think the proper attitude when discovering a piece of art you love is to say “Wow, that is great. I can’t wait to see what you do next!” The artist is the creative engine. The work is the byproduct.

Our attitude should be to encourage and support the artist. To let them continue to tap into their well of creativity and produce new things to amaze the world. If an artist created a great work, it could have been an accident, a one-off. Probably not, though. Greatness seldom comes out of a vacuum.

A great work is evidence that the artist can create great works and we should expect more to come.