The DISASTROUS HDR nature Photos

Have you ever seen HDR nature photos that look fake?  Unfortunately, so have I and I let it destroy my motivation to play around with HDR photography. 

The collection of nature photos below shows how excessive the HDR (high dynamic range) photography technique can give you some unnatural looking photos. Does that mean HDR nature photos are all bad? Of course not!

Without singling out or bashing any other photographers work, take a close look at this screenshot of what a Google search on HDR nature gave me when I first posted this article.

HDR nature photo collection

Don't get me wrong, taking nature pictures using high dynamic range is a great photography technique to use if done right. Whether you use the recently developed in-camera capabilities or HDR software, this technique helps overcome the technological limitations of the the sensors in your digital camera. But first, a quick definition of HDR photography.

What is HDR or high dynamic range photography

It's a technique used to capture a greater range or variation between the lightest and darkest areas of in your photograph. Scenes that have too much contrast in lighting make it hard to see both details in the shadow areas and the bright highlight areas at the same time.

how to take hdr photos

Just about all newer cameras can shoot HDR images. You just need a camera that can use any one of these 3 methods. Use a solid tripod for the best results.

  1. Set your camera on exposure bracketing or auto-bracketing mode (or a similar term).
  2. Set your camera manually to overexpose, properly expose, and underexpose your photo on 3 consecutive shots.
  3. Set your camera on RAW mode and then process the image afterwards, using 3 different exposure levels.

when to take hdr photos

HDR photography has evolved through a few stages and is now being used with better results. Similar to the  excessive blurring of images taken with a LensBaby, and also too much portrait image retouching, it's a technology that was overused used. 

HDR is most commonly used for nature photography
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels

When a new technique or a new technology first arises, it is often overused. Just because a capability becomes available, that doesn't mean it should be automatically used. It takes some time to learn when to use the technology. Here are two examples of when HDR technique should be used:

  • You should use HDR when your shooting landscapes and there's a lot of contrast within your scene. This happens a lot with the brightest of the sky compared to the shadowed land areas of your composition.
  • When a scene has strong backlighting the shadow areas go to dark and you can't see the same details that you can with the naked eye.

is hdr good for photos?

Don't forget, HDR photography involves several different photos (usually 3) and combining them. If anything in your composition moves you'll lose some sharpness and maybe even have disturbing blurry parts in your photo. Your photo won't look as good.

when you shouldn't use hdr

There are time when you want to keep the contrast where it is to get a certain look. Look at the contrasty photo below. I took this photo late on a steamy hot summer day. The air was brutally still. The knats were viciously attacking me and the sweat was dripping down my nose.

I shot directly into a mostly obscured sun and darkened the sky in Photoshop afterwards. The results were good enough for this image to be included in a display in an art gallery and as part of an outdoor exhibition in my hometown.

boat marina"Sleepy Bay"
Bruce Lovelace

I did choose to use HDR technique because I wanted to get a silhouette type of effect. I did do some editing, but it wasn't HDR in nature. Here are  few situation when to avoid using HDR:

  • HDR photography of people usually result in strange looking photos. You get strange flesh tones and often your subject will move between exposures.
  • Don't use HDR when you have a softly lit subject with flat lighting. It looks very unnatural when you see the resulting image.
  • Silhouettes should look like silhouettes and HDR photography ruins the appeal of this particular high contrast effect.

hdr example with a mediocre subject

Basically you intentionally overexpose images to capture better details in the dark shadow areas and combine them with intentionally underexposed photos which will capture details better in the bright highlight areas. You can accomplish this either in the camera with recent digital cameras, or you can do it afterwards with HDR software.

Nature picture using HDR

Then you combine them using a variety of simple or complex photo editing techniques.

Look at these three nature pictures on the right. Not an award winning subject, but stay with me here for a second.

I combined the underexposed image on top with the overexposed image in the middle to get the photo on the bottom.

I used Adobe Photoshop using a simple masking technique to hide and reveal various parts of the two photographs.

The photographs are layers that are visually stacked on top of each other, exactly registered.

You cannot do this particular technique without a tripod. Any movement of your subject including the movement of leaves caused by the wind will prevent you from using this photography technique.

The overexposed photo in the middle is close to the correct exposure. Some of the highlights where the sun was striking the leaves were overexposed.

The path looked properly exposed. I revealed parts of the underexposed photo in the foliage area, so that the path became more prominent in the finished photograph.

Stunning HDR nature photos

Using the right amount of HDR technique turns an overly contrasty scene into a stunning natural looking image. You can bring out the details in the shadow ares and maintain good details in the highlights at the same time.

Stunning HDR nature photoThanks to Pixabay on for this properly done HDR image.

software for nature pictures using HDR

This is just an introduction to the concept of HDR. I purchased Photomatrix Pro, which is software designed specifically to handle this technique. I never even open the box. I was so sick of seeing overdone HDR photos that I was completely turned off to HDR. No offense to the makers of this fine software.  

There are several other options that I have been playing around with for HDR photography, most notably right within recent versions of Adobe PhotoShop itself.

Many of the very newest digital cameras have HDR capabilities built into their design.  You simple set your camera to HDR mode and it will do the blending of exposures automatically. There are a lot of bizarre and unique nature and landscape photos using HDR techniques.  Many of them are too surreal in my opinion. Sometimes when a new technology comes along it is at first over-employed.

Just because a technology exists does not automatically mean it is appropriate to use it.  Don't get me wrong. Experimentation is a great thing to try.  It is the root of expanding your artistic creativity. I recommend you remember what your intended result is, the making of an interesting photograph.  It should come from your vision of what you want to express, not necessarily the need to use the latest technique like nature pictures-HDR.

are hdr nature photos overdone?

I'd love to get your comments on this topic. What do you think about how HDR techniques are done? You can leave your comments below. Feel free to share one of your HDR images too.  Keep shooting. Keep learning. Keep improving.

Article published by Bruce Lovelace


Bruce is the publisher of Better Digital Photo Tips. Read more on the About Page. He's been known as The Traveling Photographer ever since he started his location photography business in 1994.

View some of Bruce's photos on Instagram.   Visit the Facebook Page. Watch him on YouTube.  Bruce runs photo workshops for kids and adults, and provides one on one digital photography coaching.

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