HDR is stupid and it sucks

or, "the most senseless, absurd, and immature article on photography I have ever read" -- thanks Matthew!

Ha! Ha! I just discovered QTPFSGUI!1one

This was re-written from a post on my former blog. In retrospect, I made the point way too delicately, and I know that because I never got any hate mail because of it. So:


Sucks, sucks, sucks. It sucks so bad that it should be considered an existential threat as it threatens to suck the entire universe into its horrible, sucky gaping maw. It sucks so bad that even the author of one of the more popular HDR tone-mapping algorithms disowns most of the HDR pictures out there.

Yup, there are people out there who can do HDR well. If you're upset by this, this might even be you. Relax. I'm not saying you should stop doing HDR. I'm saying why I don't, and why I wish fewer people did. You don't have to agree with me. You should be eaten by a shark, though, because HDR bites more bags than I ever knew existed. Here's why:

It encourages reliance on post-processing tricks.

"I think he covered it best when he said he was an idiot." -- thanks "Bynx"!

Things like colour, contrasts, lighting and composition are critical. "Range of luminances" is a specification, which has about as much to do with what gets a good photograph as "what I had for breakfast today" (bacon, egg and cheese sandwich, by the way; feels good man). Photography has been hijacked by nerds that think that kind of shit matters when it really doesn't.

Look, any picture that would make a great HDR picture would also make a great picture otherwise. Similarly, if it's shitty, no amount of HDR is going to save it. And yup, nearly all HDR out there is thoughtless snapshots made visually stunning (in the same way that having a cattleprod shoved into your eyes is "stunning", but slightly more painful to the eyes of people who do real photography) by post-processing trickery.

"But", my two readers say, "can't you take a great shot and then make it even better with HDR techniques?" Maybe. You know, there are people out there who have done heroin or meth just once, too, and I admire them for it. But it's too easy to think "this will look good in HDR!" rather than "this would make a good photo". I know because I'm a bigger idiot than anyone. I fell into this trap when I first went digital, and my photography stagnated for months because of it.

Improvised macro
Not an HDR shot, because HDR sucks.

It looks shitty.

Hmm... his point would be more powerfully made if his example photos weren't so poorly framed. -- thanks TroyPDX!

OK, just kidding, I just put that there because I want hate mail from people that read just the section headers. What I really meant is that it is really, really hard to do right, where "right" means "doesn't look like HDR", which is to say "isn't shitty".

You can't automate away the process. Even with the very clever tone-mapping algorithms we have today, a computer cannot judge when a photo looks shitty and when it does not. You'll have to set parameters by hand, for each shot individually, and tweak it over and over until it looks right, and without a good eye you're still going to end up with something crappy-looking. Thanks, but I'd rather spend time with my dog.

The Ouse and trees
Not an HDR shot, because HDR sucks. And the HDR geeks cry, because oh noes, the shadows are totally dark!

There's nothing wrong with limited dynamic range.

Really, there isn't. Dark shadows can look good. Contrast between light and dark is a critical part of a good photo.

Oh, and by the way, the sun is meant to be bright. Really, go outside, look at it. It's bright. You can't justify turning it to a dim orange on the basis of realism. Stop fucking doing that seriously.

Not an HDR shot, because HDR still sucks.

It means carrying a tripod.

"Seriously. Pull the fucking stick out. Then you'll have room to carry a tripod with you. ;)" -- thanks Jeff!

HDR depends on each shot in the sequence being very precisely aligned. If you're not a hand-holding superhero or you're not blasting a D3 at 9fps, that means sitting on a tripod. Tripods mean carrying more stuff with you. Tripods mean that you have to take time to set stuff up, rather than shooting and moving on.

I am aware, by the way, that qtpfsgui (and others) are capable of automatic image alignment. Nothing can correct for the tiny parallax errors caused by rotation along any axis other than that of the entrance pupil, sorry.

Pole. Not an HDR shot, because HDR sucks.

And related to that:

It takes time.

"His article comes across as [...] whiny bandwagon-y 'HA HA HDR SUX'" - thanks DonutsCureCancer!

By the time you've turned on auto-exposure bracketing, set up your tripod, taken your three shots, and taken your camera off your tripod, and packed it away, and hauled your gear away? I'm half a mile ahead of you with my A-1. You've wasted most of the time in which the best light happened setting up equipment, and I've been making the most of that light. Then you have to spend another half-hour at home tweaking and rendering each shot, and I put my feet up.

This isn't about laziness. It's about spending time on things that matter, like taking photographs and drinking cider when you get home.

Sunrise by lake
Not an HDR shot, because HDR sucks.


Shoot a black-and-white film with a red filter if you want scary skies, or use an ND grad, or a polariser. Shoot a slide film if you want images that jump off the screen with 3D awesomeness. Pop your flash if you want to fill in shadows. Put your time and effort into taking photos that don't suck rather than messing around with post-processing tricks.

Friends don't let friends do HDR.


"Clearly, [Lewis Collard] doesn't need HDR to suck. Telephone poles, cat photos, etc. Perhaps instead of moving on, he should take some time to think about his composition and why anyone would want to see it." -- William Beem

Oh boy. So I wrote this, and it kinda ticked over for a few months. And then Jim Goldstein tweeted about it, and well, it pretty much went a bit fucking nuts from there, spreading across a whole bunch of places, and generating me quite a bit of hate mail (MISSION ACCOMPLISHED), and sparking quite a lot of discussion on forums. I've added the best of the flames to this article because I find it funny.

Still, some people got upset by my immature trolling, so for those people, here's a picture of a cat:

Picture of a cat.

Feeling better now? Good.

Anyway: To those that said "if you're using an ND grad, you're reducing the dynamic range of your scene and thereby doing a form of HDR", well pat yourself on the back for being awesome. That's missing the point, but you should still be proud of being so clever. Let this be clear: I have nothing against photography that captures a higher dynamic range than your sensor or film is capable of all by itself. Okay? Re-read the article, and you'll see that according to the way I like to work (mostly, that I hate spending time at a computer editing pictures, and getting HDR right is hard), HDR sucks for me. And it makes for shitty photographs for most people, because HDR makes it way too easy to make superficially stunning pictures without any of the hard work of having to get composition, framing and lighting right, and without having to look for the stuff that really makes a great photo. If you like spending time at a computer and you have a really good eye for things, well, you go girl. Just don't be surprised if your photo ends up here. Heh heh.

And in case that doesn't make you feel better, well, here's another picture of a cat to help you out:

Another picture of a cat.

Sweet dreams. :)

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