What is HDR and when to use it?

I’ve been asked a LOT recently about what exactly HDR is, and when/why one should use it? Well, the answer is pretty simple. By Definition, HDR means High Dynamic Range and what that essentially means is to take a series of images, each with a different exposure from Dark to Light in rapid succession. You then take these HDR brackets and combine them to get the best parts from each. 

Picking pieces from the overexposed, underexposed, and balanced shots to create a dramatic image with beautiful balanced shadows and highlights! Basically, HDR images enable you to capture and display more exposure information than what any standard image sensor can capture on its own with a single image. 

Why use HDR? Well, without HDR you will often be left with one of two scenarios. Either your subject is perfectly lit and the rest of your image is washed out, or your background is perfectly lit/exposed and your subject or foreground is too dark and often out of focus.

Now to address the “When” part. There are a plethora of situations where using HDR photography will be to your advantage. I’ll detail a few situations and explain why for each...but please note, there’s no “rule” saying when you should or shouldn’t use HDR, there are just situations where HDR can provide even greater detail and wow factor for your images.

When To Use HDR!

Landscapes in nearly every situation can benefit from HDR photography! Wide sweeping landscapes with a lot of contrast between the sky and the ground is a perfect situation for using HDR. It’s very difficult for a camera to capture the grounds detail without making the sky look blown out and overexposed and Vice Versa!

Portraits in bright sunlight is another situation when HDR can come in handy. Now I know what you’re thinking, “Why use HDR to shoot a portrait when there’s already “enough” light hitting the subject?” Well the reason is sometimes, too much lighting on a person's face, like hard/bright direct sunlight, can cause deep shadows and blown highlights when taking a single “balanced” frame. A quickly shot HDR can even out all those details and make a much more flattering exposure for your subject.

Interior images such as Real estate photos where you want to show off a room’s awesome decor as well as the gorgeous views through the windows or doorways to give the viewer a real life perspective of the property. This also applies to Low-Light or Backlit Scenes where your images can be a little too dark when you’ve exposed for the bright lights (and vice versa). Using HDR can balance an image with an increased tonal range to select from. With proper tone mapping you can create a more realistic representation of what your eye can see.

When Not To Use HDR

Scenes with super high-contrast like “Street Photography” may not be great for HDR. Sometimes these situations the image will look much better with that stark contrast. This leaves you with a great dark shadow or silhouette that will be the focus of your image. HDR will make those shadows flatter and less interesting.

Photos with Lots of Motion will not look great with HDR. If your subjects are front and center of your frame, moving through your shot like a busy street with lots of people/cars, or even a landscape with REALLY active weather and winds (Think about leaves and grass blowing like mad in the wind). HDR will increase the chances of a blurry photo since we’re typically taking 3, (or more), images giving the people and objects in your frame opportunity to be in different positions from frame to frame. Thus, your final image may not look great.

Bright and Vivid colors is another situation where HDR may not be the best choice. In scenarios where it’s too dark, or too bright, HDR can work wonders for you and bring a lot of those lost colors back. However, if you’re in a well-lit area with colors that are already very vivid, HDR can possibly wash those out on you, leaving you with a dull or flatter image.


With the advent of digital cameras, without the cost of developing film, the ease of shooting brackets and inexpensive storage solutions, it never hurts to shoot at least one set of HDR brackets with everything you’re doing. No matter what you’re shooting, you might create something unique and beautiful that can be used somewhere else down the line. You never know what happy accidents you may create!. If you approach Landscapes, Bright Portraits, and HDR Interior/Architecture scenarios knowing that HDR can provide you with significantly better results, shoot ‘em. You’ll come home with the images you need to tell your perfect photo story!

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