True High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is the future of photography. It presents an exciting new opportunity for professional and enthusiast photographers alike, by allowing the display of images with much more dynamic range than possible with so-called Standard Dynamic Range (SDR) displays and conventional picture formats (for example, JPEG). If you already have a compatible display and system, please enjoy examples of HDR photographs – using a YouTube HDR slideshow and (below this) individual AVIF image files. On this page, I demonstrate the benefits of true HDR photography and identify the scenes and types of photography where HDR can be transformational. As with any new technology, HDR can be potentially problematic with some scenes, and I discuss how these issues can be addressed. At a time when there have been such negative views about the future of photography, and professional photography in particular, HDR could potentially kickstart a new golden era of photography.
YouTube HDR photo slideshow
Below is a slideshow (using HDR video) of photographs I have taken (edited using the video editing software Final Cut Pro X) to demonstrate the impact that HDR will have to photography. The slideshow directly compares JPEG images (in Standard Dynamic Range) with AVIF images (in High Dynamic Range). I used Adobe Camera Raw to first process some of my RAW images and then save them in JPEG format (which restricts the image to Standard Dynamic Range). Using Adobe Camera Raw again, I re-processed the same RAW images but used the software’s new HDR capabilities, saving them in the new AVIF format (which supports High Dynamic Range). I then created a video slideshow (in HDR 4k format) using Final Cut Pro X. I was easily able to directly import the JPEG and AVIF files.
You can also access this on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/@markheath5827/videos
For maximum quality, please ensure your display/system is able to display HDR videos and ensure playback is set to 2160p HDR 4k.
Sample HDR photographs (in AVIF format)
The images below are in the AVIF format. AVIF is a new image file format that has been developed to offer better image quality and smaller file sizes than JPEG. If you are using a compatible browser (for example, Chrome) and if your system/display can show HDR images, the images should appear very colourful and striking. They should really ‘pop’ against the background of the page. Many people I have spoken to say HDR makes images “look like 3D”. The brightest whites will appear brighter than the white background of the page. I edit and display my images on a recent Apple Macbook Pro so I know they work and look great on this, using the Chrome browser. More and more devices will become compatible shortly.
Crown in Rosenborg Castle in Copenhagen, Denmark
I think this image really brings out the benefits of HDR. HDR is able show specular highlights, which are the bright spots of light that appear on shiny objects when illuminated. HDR makes gold glisten like it does in real life and provides a 3D ‘true-to-life’ quality (even though the image is still in 2D). Because HDR enables more intense colours, colourful images really stand out from page background, rather than looking muted against the (white) page background.
Water Filling a Lock on the Rhine River in Germany
Water looks great in HDR as HDR beautifully captures the glistening from water droplets reflecting the light from the Sun. With a standard dynamic range version of this image, significant parts of the water look overexposed, matching the white of the page. HDR reveals amazing detail in the brighter parts of the image that is simply lost with standard dynamic range. HDR has the potential of turning what seems a relatively boring, drab image into something much more dynamic, vibrant and what you actually see with your own eyes.
Berlin Cathedral in Germany
Photographing cathedrals and churches for standard dynamic range displays can be a hugely challenging task because there can be big differences in light levels across a scene, making it impossible to display (at the same time) the amazing colours and intensity of stained-glass windows as well as the details and colours in dark areas. As you can see below, HDR allows you to much more successfully display details at different light levels. Furthermore, the presence of gold in this scene shows HDR’s ability to capture the glistening of gold (and other metals) seen by the human eye.
Spider in Warner Bros Studio Tour in London, UK
While HDR allows the display of very bright scenes, this isn’t (to me) what HDR is all about. HDR can bring a special magic to scenes with low average light levels but where there are points of light and/or specular highlights. As shown below, with HDR, spotlights actually look like the intense circles of coloured bright light they are in real life, and it is possible to distinguish different spotlight colours rather than them being ‘blown out’ and all appear the same muted white – identical to the webpage background in fact. Another benefit of HDR is the ability to display much more intense individual colours. In stage productions, a very popular lighting effect is to use a ‘wash’ of blue light for dramatic effect or to indicate night time or darkness. With standard dynamic range images, each pixel has a level of red (0-255), green (0-255) and blue (255). Pure black is R0 G0 B0 and pure white is R255 G255 B255. This means that the maximum for capturing a purely blue light is R0 G0 B255. This will always mean that the displayed blue (even at maximum intensity) will appear relatively muted, and less bright than white (R255 G255 B255). With HDR, it is possible to display much more intense blue, reflecting what the human eye can see, which could be more intense than any white objects in the scene.
Formula One Race at Silverstone, UK
Specular highlights, where light is reflected from metal objects, are commonplace in the real world, and human eyes are able to distinguish and interpret these. As shown below for a Formula 1 race I photographed at Silverstone, being able to display those reflections can make a scene more realistic, as if you are looking through a real window rather than looking at a photograph. To me, even though the image is still 2D, there’s a 3D look to images with HDR to my eyes. Furthermore, HDR tends to make images look sharper and more detailed, even though picture sharpness has not been changed.
Lots of Gold at Warner Bros Studio Tour in London, UK
Seeing illuminated gold (or even fake gold) in real life brings home why gold has been highly desired, and even worshipped, for centuries. About 50% of gold produced in the world is used in jewellery. The combination of its rich colour and glistening when illuminated are irresistible to many. High dynamic range allows the incredible look of gold, seen by the human eye, to be displayed.
Christmas Scene at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, UK
When HDR photography goes mainstream, I am expecting the appearance online of many night-time or dimly-lit scenes with candles or other point sources of light. That’s because HDR brings these scenes alive by allowing the brightness of these light source to be displayed and appreciated. Take the image below, which was one of the Christmas displays at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire. To the human eye, the scene looked amazing and was very striking, eliciting a ‘wow’ response from many people who passed the tree. However, standard dynamic range simply doesn’t do the scene justice or match what was seen by the human eye. HDR lets you see what visitors to Wimpole Hall actually saw.
Christmas ‘Laser’ Display at Wimpole Hall in Cambridgeshire, UK
A photograph from Wimpole Hall demonstrates another important aspect of HDR – its ability to display the vibrancy and intensity of colours even in relatively dark scenes. Night time presents event organisers across the world with the opportunity to thrill audiences with intense colours and light, using laser displays or fireworks. As HDR photography takes off, get ready for the deluge of online galleries capturing firework displays and Christmas lights!
Scenes where HDR can be transformational in photographs
In my experience of using HDR so far, HDR can be transformational in capturing and displaying certain scenes, which include:
- subjects that glisten (where specular highlights play a critical role in making them look realistic), such as water, ice and reflections from metal
- dimly-lit scenes with point sources of light (such as candles or individual lights to add dramatic effect)
- theatres and musical concerts, where lighting has been designed to be particularly impactful and vibrant for those watching with their own eyes
- scenes with intense individual or multiple colours in them (such as sunrises/sunsets and brightly coloured objects).
I believe HDR will be transformational in certain types of sports photography (including car and motorcycle racing), air show photography, landscape photography (where images have a wide dynamic range or display dramatic sunsets), night time photography and stage photography.
HDR can be problematic in some scenes
Just as in the real world, the intense display of specular highlights or certain subjects may not always be a good thing, for example, experiencing reflections from the car in front on a sunny day when you are trying to drive. In my experience of using HDR so far, the use of HDR can be problematic in certain scenes, which include:
- having a relatively large, very bright subject (such as the Sun) dominating a relatively dark scene. In the real world, people have sunglasses so photographers should avoid overdoing the ‘HDR effect’, for example, by reducing the intensity of large, bright images.
- scenes that do not have a wide dynamic range. Some scenes (with uniform lighting and no specular highlights) can be adequately captured and displayed using standard dynamic range. It seems silly to process such images to artificially create an artificial HDR effect.
- indoor scenes with large windows but where the indoors are lit with artificial (often relatively yellow) lighting. Processing can be problematic. Setting the white balance to optimise for the artificial lighting will make the light streaming in from the outside look very blue.
- scenes where bright light sources distract the viewer from the subject or photographer’s intent. Just as in the real world, a bright object or light pouring through a window are not always helpful to seeing a subject or scene. Used inappropriately, HDR has the potential of making visual distractions more distracting. It is, therefore, important to capture scenes that make the most of HDR capability.
Realistically, it will take many years for photographers to master HDR photography. Just as with the introduction of past technologies (such as stereo sound, surround sound and HDR video), content producers need to learn and experiment with different approaches to work out which ones works best.
The future for photography is bright, and colourful
I hope that this page has given an insight into how HDR can enhance photography. In recent years, there have been so many articles online about the death of photography, and particularly professional photography. Against this gloomy backdrop, HDR potentially provides an exciting opportunity for photographers and a means, at least to begin with, to ‘stand out from the crowd’.