Web Culture

It’s Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography… [Opinion]

Tim Brookes 05-10-2011

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] logoHDR stands for High Dynamic Range, and in photographic terms generally produces an image with even highlights, midtones and shadows so the entire scene is balanced, and evenly exposed. Recently I’ve not been seeing much of this when it comes to HDR on the web. I’m talking about overdone, blown-out seizure-inducing “photographs” where each and every slider has been cranked up to 11. What happened? Did the novelty wear off or am I just a miserable sod?


It’s time for a step back. Let’s all reflect upon HDR, its overuse and what else is necessary to take a good photograph 12 Ideas On How To Take Better Photographs Here are some ideas for those of you who haven't got out with your camera in a while and made some photographs. Read More or become an accomplished photographer.


These two examples were both intentionally created to be bad but perfectly capture the essence of overdone HDR:

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] hdrdisaster

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] clownhome

1. Learn How To Use Your Camera

So you’ve bought/inherited/won/found a decent camera. It’s a digital SLR, it shoots RAW, has changeable lenses and a lot of modes and settings to play with. Before googling the sweetest “how to HDR the crap out of your back yard” tutorial, it’s worth taking the time to master your camera.


Photography is an extremely accessible hobby these days, but also one that requires a bit of technical knowledge. This shouldn’t put newbies off. Basic concepts that will vastly improve understanding of photography and how your camera works include aperture, shutter speeds, ISO settings, your camera’s primary modes, metering and white balance (amongst others).

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] 1learncamera

It might take you a week to get the basics right but months of practice are generally required before you’re at ease with every function. Don’t fret, it’s a rewarding process with results you can admire as your technique improves.

Download: MakeUseOf Guide – Essential Guide To Digital Photography A Beginner's Guide To Digital Photography Digital photography is a great hobby, but it can be intimidating, too. This beginner's guide will tell you everything you need to know to get started! Read More


Read: How To Read Your Camera’s Histogram And Take Perfectly Balanced Images How To Read Your Camera's Histogram And Take Perfectly Balanced Images Read More

2. Composition & Subject

Unfortunately, simply squeezing the shutter and firing off 3 bracketed shots is not enough to create an interesting image. What I’m saying here is Photomatix or Photoshop will not produce a particularly interesting photograph.

Composition is one of the most important considerations to make before taking a photograph. Sure, you can spruce up a dull photo in post but if the photo is dull in the first place it is likely that no amount of burning, dodging, masking or tonemapping will save it.

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] 2composition


Learn about the rule of thirds. Hit up Amazon or head down to a good bookshop and pick up relevant guides on photography, other photographers work and do your research. When looking at a striking image ask yourself what it is about the image that makes it so powerful? For the most part subject and composition have far more value than darkroom or Photoshop tweaks.

Links: Digital Photography School – Composition Tips

3. Critique Or “You’re Doing It Wrong”

Flickr doesn’t count. Sorry, but I’ve seen plenty of badly overdone HDR shots on Flickr awarded all manner of dancing animated .GIF “Ur photo rox” awards – and it’s really not helping anyone. Getting proper critique will improve your technique as you learn from your mistakes. Flickr is not the way to go.

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] 3critique


Message boards are usually the answer. There are a huge amount of dedicated photo communities out there that encourage proper criticism. I can’t help but feel endless lists of “this is amazing!” comments on uninteresting and gaudy tonemapped images are only fuelling the fire. Add to the fact that Flickr allows the deletion of comments….

Links: Photography Review – The Power of Photo Critique, Jim M. Goldstein – Top 10 Most Annoying Photography Critique Comments

4. Photoshop

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] photoshoplogoAll modern digital SLRs shoot RAW, which is an uncompressed image format that allows for some serious processing in Photoshop or other image editors. RAW files allow values such as white balance and exposure to be modified in order to save or enhance a photo. Learning how to tidy up non-HDR photos before diving into tonemapped HDRs bodes well.

There are also alternatives to HDR in some occasions, and it’s probably worth learning about those too. Masking and precise adjustments require more work than selecting 3 files and moving some sliders about, but generally produce more natural and refined images. Check out our Photoshop articles and guides for some great advice.

Download: MakeUseOf Guide – An Idiot’s Guide To Photoshop [Part 1] [Part 2 Learn Photo Editing in Photoshop: Get the Basics Down in 1 Hour Photoshop is an intimidating program—but with just one hour, you can learn all of the basics. Grab a photo you want to edit, and let's get started! Read More ]

Read: How To Edit RAW Photos In Adobe Camera RAW How To Edit RAW Photos in Adobe Camera Raw Read More , 4 Great Tools For Editing RAW Photos In Linux 4 Great Tools for Editing RAW Photos in Linux These days most digital SLR cameras include the ability to shoot in RAW, an uncompressed image format that gives you great control over a number of photographic variables. This can vary from the basics like... Read More

5. Using HDR Appropriately

I’m not saying all HDR is bad, and there is a time and a place for it. Graduated neutral density filters are great for exposing perfect skies for stunning landscapes, but unless your horizon is fairly straight you’ve got an issue. In these instances, sure – why not?

It's Time We Had a Word About Overdone HDR Photography... [Opinion] 5naturalhdr

Try to resist the urge to jack everything up to 11. Consider your shot first. People generally look a bit alien in HDR, and if there are halos (glowing edges where exposures have been blended) appearing on the image then chances are you went a bit too far.

The best HDR shots I’ve seen were not obvious tonemapped images, and thus didn’t scream “HDR w00t!” upon first glance. Just saying…


HDR is a technique designed to create balanced, evenly exposed images. Unfortunately it’s been done to death, and much of the time is painful to look at. Of course this is my opinion, and we’d love to hear what you’ve got to say in the comments.

What do you think? Awesome neat-o technique or done to death? Do you use HDR?

Image Credits: densaer, Focal Intent, D700 + 24mm f1.4G by Fried Toast, The Rule of Thirds by fd, Rainbow Fuji (natural HDR) by Starfires

Affiliate Disclosure: By buying the products we recommend, you help keep the site alive. Read more.

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  1. seb
    April 21, 2016 at 6:41 pm

    I hate those pseudo HDR as well. I think many people think that this is what an HDR should look like. For me those images are not a photos any more, those look like graphics. There is absolutely no balance, no thinking "hmm I think I wen't to far".

    IMO of course.

  2. Jack S
    January 22, 2015 at 2:14 am

    Nice article. I heard a pro photographer make an comment on this the other day. If you are selling your work, make the the colors 'pop'. If you're showing your work, then strive for a more subdued, natural look.

  3. A While Ago...
    October 6, 2011 at 6:52 pm

    Although I understand the goal of this article, there is something the author doesn't understand or is not taking into account.
    There are several areas where HDR is intentionally overdone(!) and obviously, those who look at HDR as a way of enhancing a photo will criticize, completely out of the context, against that kind of work. No, Flickr comments DO count!The first time I realized how HDR was done, I've enhanced a photo to the point a hobbyist-photographer (friend of mine) said to me that the photo was completely unreal!And I said "Yes, I know! That's the purpose! It's going to be used in a music album artwork!"Overdone HDR is not bad! It depends on the purpose of the photo.Did you noticed that your first photo, that you made to make "fun" of overdone HDR, as an interesting 3D look effect?Did you noticed that your second photo, that you made to make "fun" of overdone HDR, seems like a real paint?There are no rules when using "bought/inherited/won/found" decent camera you can find today. What you are seeing/experiencing is the expansion possibilities given by technology to everyone. You can create anything and everything, there is no wrong or overdone!The last photo you mention has a good balanced HDR effect...to you! In my perspective, it's tasteless! It's just one more photo with a mountain and a lake. A completely normal and common picture.To me, it really doesn't matter if it has a good composition, balanced colors or whatever. What matters is, if the final result is/isn't adequate to what is desired! And that always(!) depends on what the photo is going to used for.Nothing more nothing less!

    • Tim Brookes
      October 27, 2011 at 11:23 pm

      Hi, and thanks for your comment. This article is purely opinion (my own), and let's face it - everyone's got one. I can see your way of thinking, but after about a decade of coming across boring photos that have been tone-mapped to hell and back I've become a bit jaded. 

      My main criticism of Flickr comments is that I see Flickr simply as a popularity contest, much like DeviantArt, and while both resources are great websites for a variety of reasons they simply are not great places to get honest critique. If Flickr was more critique oriented it would have geared itself as such, but that was never their intention in the first place. The fact that comments are two clicks away from deletion further strengthens this.

      My main issue with overdone HDR is that it is more often than not used as a tool to spruce up a photo that had little to no interesting factors in the first place. This should not be how photography is approached! It's easy these days to shoot hundreds of pictures in the space of an hour, but pausing before each exposure to consider subject, composition and your camera's settings will improve your photography far more than Photomatix or some other tonemapping software.

      I think every photographer who's tried HDR has come up with an overly tonemapped image that initially looks quite good, solely because you can never see HDR with the naked eye. Maybe I'm wired wrong, but "unnatural" doesn't necessarily mean "good" or "appropriate" and things like halos, over-saturation and the general "turn it up to 11" factor many HDR suites provide should, in my opinion, be avoided at all costs.

      Thanks for adding your opinion, that's what the comments are for after all! Apologies for this late reply too.


  4. Jerocis
    October 6, 2011 at 3:35 pm

    For a sampling of stunningly beautiful HDR photos, look up +Alex Koloskov on G+. His work is amazing.