To HDR or not to HDR...

Often times I am asked questions at workshops and presentations that go like "Is there more detail in a HDR shot than a single frame shot processed to look like a HDR shot?" or "How do I know when I should take a HDR shot vs. a single exposure?" or "How much difference is there in an HDR shot vs. a single frame shot?".

Well, I always answer the "When to take a HDR shot" question with an answer like "Whenever the dynamic range in your scene is greater than your camera can handle within a single frame.".  This basically means if you can't get all of the highlight detail and all of the shadow detail in a single shot, then it's time to HDR.

As far as the other questions about "Is there more detail in a HDR vs. non HDR" and "How big a difference is there" questions...I thought I'd try to show you.

This image is a single shot processed in Adobe Lightroom and OnOne Perfect Effects Software.

This was shot at F/16, ISO 100 and 1/3 second.  The focal length was 50mm.

Now, here's a shot that was 5 combined shots at 1 stop apart with the same aperture, F/16, same ISO and focal length.

Right away there are several differences I notice.

  • The detail in the barn behind the firetruck is better in the HDR shot.  (I don't really want you to see that, so I like how it looks better in the non-HDR shot)
  • The detail in all the shadow areas of the hoses are far greater in the HDR shot.
  • Highlight detail is much better in the lights in the HDR shot.
  • All the fine details are greatly enhanced in the HDR shot.

None of these are "goods" or "bads" for either case.  In this instance I personally perfer the non-HDR version.I believe having the shadow areas "plugged" creates a mood that I am going for.  Not to mention, these areas I couldn't really see with my eye standing here either.  I'm also able to isolate my subject better in the non-HDR shot and not have as many distractions.

So, to answer a few questions....

Is there more detail in a Merged HDR shot?  Absolutely!  There is simply more data to work with, so there will be better detail and information.

When should you shoot HDR vs. not?  It's all personal preference, really.  In this case, The dynamic range of this scene was greater than my camera could capture in a single frame, however, I ended up liking the non-HDR version better.  Mostly because it fit the mood I was going for on this particular shot.  

When I am in a place like Old Car City, where this photo was taken, I typically bracket for HDR and then decided when I'm at my computer if I like a single frame shot or the HDR shot better.  

I'm a big HDR fan, it just happens that this time the single frame shot won me over.