How HDR Photo Editing Can Ruin Your Travel Photos

When I was hiking last year in northern Laos, I came to a break in the​ forest near the top of the hill. The view was astonishing. The sky was filled with shadowy clouds and where bright sunlight broke through cloud cover, it settled on karst formations hanging with vivid green foliage. I whipped out my DSLR and snapped some shots so I could relive it later. When I loaded up the photos that night, I was beyond disappointed. The greens were dull and the forests were too dark to make out any detail. In my longer exposures where I could see the forest, the sky was blown out. My eye (or rather my brain compensating for my eye) saw the bright colors and dramatic shadows. My camera didn’t.

The human eye is still miles better at imaging a scene than even the most powerful DSLR. That’s why spectacularly lit scenes will often look terrible on a laptop screen. Enter post-processing. On-board camera programs, be they Instagram or other native digital filters, can do all sorts of things to improve your photos. It used to be that red-eye filters were all the rage. These days, even freely available photo manipulation programs can saturate, contrast, tint, blur, invert, soften and cross process. The more powerful tools, like Lightroom and Photoshop, can do pretty much anything imaginable to a photo.

These tools are a blessing, but unfortunately they’re not inherently good for travel photography. These tools are just as readily used for evil. For every photographer who has fixed a screwy white balance in post-processing, there’s another who has maxed out the saturation bar in Picasa or applied an infrared effect just for the hell of it. I, too, have been guilty of these sins. But if there’s one image-editing gimmick that really brings out the pitchforks, it’s HDR: high-dynamic-range imaging.

You’ve certainly seen HDR images before. They’re often eye-wateringly vivid and look off. High-dynamic-range imaging allows a photographer to take multiple exposures of the same scene, and combine them digitally to achieve a better combination of light and dark in the photo. Say you’re trying to capture a beautiful sunset. The range of light intensity is simply too high for any standard camera to pick up both foreground details and the beauty of the sky. HDR offers a magical digital fix for this problem.

Early HDR techniques were massively involved and complicated. Even when digital photography came around, computers were still too slow to handle the complex algorithms. But now, it’s extremely easy for anyone to apply the effect to any photo. In business terms, the barriers to entry are low and everyone’s doing it. The glut of faux-HDR filters and simple HDR compositors like Photomatix has opened the door to runaway misuse. Few people use HDR correctly. And when done incorrectly, HDR images look terrible.

The point of HDR imaging is to make the image look more natural. The high range of tones that the camera can’t pick up by itself can be manipulated and expressed digitally. More often than not, though, HDR images end up looking fake and weird. Why is that? Simply, it’s because people tend to go overboard with the effect. Since the shadows and highlights are easily manipulated during the process, it’s easy to end up with glowing buildings, apocalyptic clouds and cartoonish people. The key to proper HDR use is restraint. The effect works best if no one can tell you’ve used it. If you apply HDR to a set of exposures or you’ve used an HDR filter, ask yourself: Does this scene look real? If it looks weird, don’t use HDR. If you think it looks cool anyway, it probably doesn’t. It looks weird, and don’t use HDR.

Take a look at these two photos, which don’t glow and hum with cartoon colors, but rather use HDR to highlight shadows and tones that would be impossible to capture in one exposure.

Even the second one gets a little saturation-happy. It just goes to show you that it’s easy to let the reins slip.

The backlash against HDR has been extreme. If you Google “HDR sucks” you get numerous websites decrying the glowy menace. Sample blog titles include: “I Hate Your HDR“; “HDR Is Stupid And It Sucks“; and the somewhat hyperbolic “HDR Is Bad For Amurrica, And Kills Kittens.” There is a subreddit devoted to shaming particularly egregious examples. Even the Washington Post was obliged to explain itself after it used and HDR photo on its front page.

When you’re traveling and you’re desperate to capture an unforgettable scene, oftentimes using HDR is the only way to pick up on the light and tone variation that your eye is loving. But everyone knows that the Hong Kong skyline doesn’t glow white in the day, and that forests aren’t technicolor. If you’re going to use HDR, show some restraint and don’t just slap on filters willy-nilly. As for me, I deleted my crappy photos of the Laos jungle. My memory of the scene is more vividly colored anyway.

Take a gander at these egregious uses of HDR, and think long and hard if you want your travel photos to look like stills from “A Scanner Darkly.”


Photo of the day (12.03.09)

I’ve mentioned the wonderful effects achievable with HDR software before. HDR, or High Dynamic Range photos are usually a combination of 3 to 5 differently exposed photographs that are merged together to create a very detailed and perfectly lit picture.

This shot, called Brandywine River, by Floyd Dean was created by creating an infrared look with an HDR picture. Most of Floyd’s pictures aren’t manipulated to this extreme, but the results in this shot make me want to look over some of my HDR pictures to see how they’d look with some different effects applied.

Yet another nice job, Floyd!

Are you a Flickr user who’d like to share a travel related picture or two for our consideration? Submit it to Gadling’s Flickr group right now! We just might use it for our Photo of the Day!

Photo of the Day (5/14/09)

I’ve mentioned the wonderful effects achievable with HDR software before. HDR, or High Dynamic Range photos are usually a combination of 3 to 5 differently exposed photographs that are merged together to create a very detailed and perfectly lit picture.

But this picture by Larsthrows was done by manually merging seven layers in Photoshop CS. A process that can’t possibly be easy to master. The results are stunning surprisingly natural looking.

Nice job Lars!

Are you a Flickr user who’d like to share a travel related picture or two for our consideration? Submit it to Gadling’s Flickr group right now! We just might use it for our Photo of the Day!

Cockpit Chronicles: Picture Perfect Paris

During the sterile-cockpit period we don’t get into non-essential conversations; we’re required to limit it to only what’s required for the safe operation of the airplane. This keeps all of our attention focused on flying and reduces the chance that a distraction could lead to a potentially serious mistake. This sterile period is defined as anytime the airplane is moving under its own power and below 10,000 feet.

That said, whenever we have a chance to set the parking brake while we’re on the ground during a delay, or when we’re above 10,000 feet, it’s a great opportunity to get a picture, especially when I’m a relief pilot sitting in the jumpseat.

I’ve been struggling to properly expose both the inside and the outside of the cockpit, which can be challenging. I managed the nice shot below because the sun was reflecting off the instrument panel from the left side and behind us slightly.

But what about the times when the sun isn’t helping you out? In the past I’ve used a flash to ‘fill’ in the cockpit areas while exposing for the outside of the airplane as seen in this picture:

But I’ve found a great way to get just the right exposure using HDR (high dynamic range) software.

I picked up Photomatix Pro, which is available for the Mac or a PC for $99. It works by taking a picture at three (or more) different exposures, and then letting the HDR software merge the images to form a stunningly detailed picture, even in some of the most challenging light conditions.

Here are a few of my attempts, showing the difference between a non-HDR adjusted shot and the HDR version.





I couldn’t contain my enthusiasm for this method so I shared the technique with Mark as we each ate a business-class chicken dinner.

The menu changes almost every month it seems on the European trips. I was rather impressed with a new dish offered which is chicken covered in a white chocolate sauce.

I had no idea there was chocolate in this until I complimented the purser on such a great dinner. The white chocolate sauce makes for a surprisingly tasty combination.

While we’re on the subject of meals, I have to share this next picture.

Have you ever wondered where the flight attendants find extra silverware if you drop or misplace one? I was surprised to find out that there’s an entire drawer of cutlery on this particular Trans-Atlantic flight. I doubt they’ll run out.

The Velibs are becoming our favorite way to get around in the city. Fortunately Mark had his trusty American Express (the only credit card that we’ve found to work in them–unless you have a Visa or Mastercard with a chip in it) and we all rented bikes to go from our dining restaurant back to the Latin Quarter for dessert.

Mark found Amorino, an Italian ice-cream place that’s quite popular, with more than ten locations in Paris.

I’ve since been back to Amorino a few times and I’ve found the line to get in has exceeded my patience. So I guess the word is getting out.

I’ll leave you with two other interesting photos. Here’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen. I’m glad I had the camera handy to capture it. Looks kind of like some sort of vortex, no?

Finally, on the way home, we noticed a few Coast Guard helicopters hovering over the water. They’re easy to spot from altitude from the donut shaped imprint they leave on the water.

As we approached Boston, there were thunderstorms reported in the area. As Captain Mark descended below 300 feet on approach, we had a rather large increase in airspeed of more than 20 knots. As we went slightly high on the glidepath as a result of the increasing wind, Mark elected to go-around.

By the time we landed and were taxiing in, the rain began to fall and lightning shut down the ramp, which meant that our ground crew was unable to park us. So we sat and waited for the weather to pass through.

Sorry I’ve been away for the past few weeks. We’ve recently moved and the process has taken almost all of my time and effort. It’s been a challenge getting settled in the new place. I don’t have a defined place to keep things which led to my leaving this morning with my wife’s car keys, preventing her from getting anywhere while I’m gone. As we get settled, I hope to do a single catch-up post to bring you up to date with the past month’s worth of flying.

I’m just too far behind to write about each of the Paris trips for July. But I do want to share some of the highlights in the next post.

I’ll leave you with a gallery of the shots taken on this very photo worthy trip. See if you can pick out the HDR photos:


Cockpit Chronicles takes you along on each of Kent’s trips as a co-pilot on the Boeing 757 and 767 out of Boston.

Lights of Tokyo

This dreamy High Dynamic Range (HDR) photo was taken at the top of the Roppongi Hills Mori Building in Tokyo, Japan by /ltus. I love how the vibrant lights make the city appear alive.

HDR imaging composites a range of camera exposures of the same subject. The technique usually produces a gorgeous picture with brilliant color and deep contrast.

(via Boing Boing)