Is HDR equivalent to eye exposure?

In a rare non-web related post, I had a thought on HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography I wanted to share. Some people seem anti-HDR, I’ve just been trying it out and explaining what I’ve found. NB: I’m relatively new to photography, so this is my experience, I’m not trying to be authoritative.

TL;DR version

When your eye looks around a scene, it will automatically adapt to the differences in brightness. In photographic terms, your eye creates many ‘exposures’ as you look around a scene.

When you take a photograph at one exposure, it isn’t as adaptable so the contrast in a dark and bright scene is very harsh.

Therefore, an HDR pictures (multiple exposure combined into one) is more like what you would see than the ‘normal’ pictures.

However, like any effect, it can be taken too far.


Wondering around Bristol last weekend, a saw the sun behind the main Cathedral, which is a pretty impressive building.

The ‘normal’ shot looks like this:

Shot of the cathedral, wide angle from quite close, with very bright sky and quite dark building.

Ok, but nothing special. By normal, I just mean that I set the aperture to F5, and the camera took an average reading of the scene and decided on the exposure time. A lot of the time that means the sky gets washed out to white, as shown above. You can’t actually see the clouds that were there.

In this case, I took a bracketed shot, where you set the camera up to take three (or 5) shots. The first is the standard one, and then it takes an under-exposed version, and then an over-exposed version.

Those shots look like this, and you can see the sky properly in the middle one:

Three shots, standard, dark and light.

You then stick those shots into a programme like Photomatix or Photoshop and it blends them together to even out the exposure.

A lot of HDR looks rather fake, but the default isn’t necessarily unnatural looking:

A more even version of the cathedral image.

The sky is a bit blue and the clouds a bit yellow, but you could handle that with any photo-editor.

You can also go mental with it, and you’ll see a few shots like this around:

An un-real looking picture where the cathedral is actually brighter and more colourful than the sky!

However, if you aren’t so heavy handed, I quite like this version, especially at full size (click through for that):
A reasonable looking shot of the same thing, moderate shadows and sky.

For me, that is closer to what I was seeing, because at the time, my eye would flick to the building and I could see the details, and then flick to the sky and not see a washed-out white thing.

People, sky and water are not easy to capture with HDR, but it has found a place in my arsenal. If you are interested in HDR photography, I recommend checking out Trey Ratcliff’s StuckinCustoms. Apart from using Pixelmator instead of Photoshop (which I can’t use to save my life), I learned about HDR from his site.