High Dynamic Range: An Intro to HDR / by Lisa Rakhuba


HDR, or High-dynamic-range imaging, was pioneered as early as the 1850’s. Because of the limitations of photography at the time, it was extremely difficult to capture both the sky and landscape in one image.

The solution was to take two photographs, one exposed for the landscape, and one for the sky.

Here’s an example by Gustave Le Gray from 1856:
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The process was difficult and painstaking, but the results speak for themselves. Back in the darkroom days, photography was one part art, and two parts science.

Just for contrast here is the The State House, Nashville – 1864:

Now, it may have been a clear blue sky, but if even if it weren’t we wouldn’t know. Maybe it’s an overcast day. I’m pretty sure this camera pointed north -west, but I’m not seeing any long shadows indicating this was taken either in the midmorning to afternoon , or on a completely overcast day.
Point is, the photo with the sea and the clouds simply was not possible with a single exposure. Today we have the luxury of having HDR right in our phones. Your phone actually snaps a few photos simultaneously and merges them together for you. This can be helpful in a landscape photo where you want to see the shadows and highlights at the same time.

In professional photography, it is basically the same. A photo for the brightest subjects, all the way down to the darkest shadows.

Here’s an example of what these different exposures look like:

After the exposure photos are taken, they need to be blended or cut together with digital processing. And that’s where the artistry of editing comes in.

In this blog I will only talk about the blending of exposures and some of the programs used to do this.

There are several programs photographers can use to process their HDR images. I have experience with a few different programs, but I typically use a mixture of either LR/Enfuse, or Lightroom’s native HDR blending.

Using the Enfuse plugin allows me to pre-edit all exposures to maximize the results of the final photo. The images are well blended, but often end up flatter then I prefer. This is corrected of course in Lightroom, but something always looks a little “crispy”.

Using Lightroom’s HDR tool, I cannot pre-edit my exposures, and the final output needs a lot of detailed work and custom filters to reach the desired effect.

But what I love about using the Lightroom HDR feature is that it gives me all of the information from all the exposures in one picture. This is not possible with Enfuse, because while the file of the final output is huge, there is less information in the image to work with.

This is the Enfuse output:

I find this to be an acceptable output, but the colors were hard to calm down- there’s something in the Enfuse program that really bakes in strong blues and oranges. The shadows are defined, but the highlights are dulled.

And this is Lightroom’s HDR output:

I really like the natural look of what Lightroom creates. The colors are spot on and no detail is lost. I feel I am missing a lot of color in the window, but over all I prefer this image to the one on the top. I also tried 2 of the most popular programs for blending HDR on this photo and got what I typically see in real estate photos.
Aurora HDR output:

What I don’t like about Aurora HDR is the controls are extremely clunky and sensitive. I had no control of the photos before they went into the program. I didn’t feel like Aurora was easy to use and just ended up getting frustrated. That probably accounts for 50% of why this photo just looks… off. I don’t think I’ll put any more time into learning or using this program.

Adobe Photoshop output:


Over-all- this photo is my least favorite, and honestly a little embarrassing to me. But too often I see photos like this on people’s listings. It’s unnatural and I don’t think anyone wants to picture themselves living in a room like this. To me, it ruins the vibe of the room and makes me feel overwhelmingly unwelcome.

Here they are again for a side-by-side comparison.:

So you see how personal preference, artistry, and even the application to create HDR images can alter the final product.

There are many other programs out there do create these single multi-layered photos. But of the four I’ve used, Lightroom’s native HDR merge is by far my favorite.

Perhaps this is my personal preference, but I think every room is capable of having a “moment” and I think I can find it better when I have all of the information, and that’s what Lightroom provides me with.

I hope you learned a little something about the basics of what HDR is, where it comes from, and some of the modern ways the dynamic photograph is formed.

So which HDR image do you think looks best?