Are Lightroom 4 Images Still HDR Photography?


Today I was adding some of my images to an HDR group on Google+ when I realized that I didn’t use Photomatix or HDR Efex Pro to create any of them. They were done completely in Lightroom 4. They look like a lot of my HDR images, but are they really HDR?

What do you think? Can I still call this HDR photography? Let me know in the comments if you do these types of images in Lightroom and if you consider them to be HDR or not.

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When I’m not staying up all night figuring out the details of our next Out of Chicago Conference, you’ll find me at the park with our son and daughter, playing my guitar, out on the golf course, or following my favorite (Detroit) sports teams. I love Chicago, but I’ll always root for my Tigers, Red Wings, Lions, Michigan sports, and Pistons.

Latest comments
  • I wonder the same thing Chris, most of my more recent images do not use Photomatix either but they have that look. I love Lightroom 4, it has changed my work flow and it is just amazing the details that can be brought out.

    • I should have said that you need to choose a side! 🙂 Next time I’ll make it a poll.

  • Chirs, I’m agnostic on this question. Lightroom, Photomatix and HDR Efex Pro are all tools that help us to realize/create a particular image. If HDR tools have artifacts that are undesirable and you are able to obtain similar/better results with lightroom alone, it shouldn’t matter whether or not you used an HDR tool. It’s the quality and impact of the final image that counts.

    • So, Alan, if I want to add my images like this that were done completely in Lightroom 4, you wouldn’t have a problem with me posting to groups on HDR and claiming that I’m doing HDR work? But I completely agree with your philosophy.

  • I would say they are not HDR images if you didn’t use photomatix. Those are the rules, Chris. 😉 But in all honesty, I don’t think they are considered HDR unless you do some blending of exposures through a software package like photomatix, or manually through Photoshop. National Geographic wouldn’t consider them HDR, but they also wouldn’t allow you to drastically alter any original image outside of dodge and burn.

    • Brian, I think you’re probably right. The issue may be that it’s not tone-mapping. But I think that the line will only become blurred more as cameras get a higher dynamic range and software like Lightroom can pull more data from it. Eventually, there may be no reason to blend exposures. And when that happens, what makes an HDR image HDR?

      • I agree, Chris. Have you used the in-camera HDR that the Canon Mark III has to offer yet? It’s really impressive compared to the shit my Pentax cameras have built in them. The varying degree of applications and tools used to get an “HDR” image is all up to the artist. I hate it when a photographer calls out an image as “NOT HDR”, it’s like we get it. you’re cooler than me.

        • I borrowed the 5D3 for 2 weeks and never thought to try the in camera HDR. A big reason I enjoy HDR is that I get to fiddle with the image after I take it.

          BTW, I’ve never said “not HDR”, but I am cooler than you. 🙂

  • Chris, I said that I don’t think it matters which tools you use to arrive at a specific image. However, I don’t think you can call it HDR or submit it to an HDR group as an HDR image. However, if you are submitting the image to an HDR group and disclose that it was made from a single image processed in lightroom, I would be OK with that. You might excite the puritanical impulses of the group and they might burn your image at the virtual stake, but it would be ethically defensible.

    • Now that’s the kind of passionate response I was looking for Alan! This will become more and more of an issue in the coming years.

  • I think the photography world need to come up with a new nomenclature to replace HDR. HDR seems to have become a term for something that looks overdone, over-saturated with a radioactive glow around it, and this pic above doesn’t look like it was taken anywhere near Chernobyl 🙂 On a whole I think a good….. I’m going to say it again “HDR” can be created in Lightroom, Aperture, or the popular PhotoMatix Pro or CS6 and its new HDR Pro system which is what I use. As long as it brings outs what is best in the shot, and opens it up some, it doesn’t matter HOW it was created.
    I work in the music industry as a producer as well, and I can tell you that no one listens to one my client’s tracks on the radio and thinks “hmm that song was definitely mixed in Pro Tools, and mastered using a different acoustically treated room”
    At the end of the day, as long as we bring out the best of what we can do in a shot, then I feel it doesn’t really have to be called anything other than a success. This shot attached was a multishot of 5, and I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone say “oh its an HDR”. Thats my goal. So let’s all keep it a secret and not tell anyone. sssssssshhhhhh 🙂

    • Amen brother! Well said. Exactly how I feel about the whole thing.

    • Hey, Michael! Thanks for joining in the conversation. You bring up a lot of good points. And I think we may need to rework our naming of HDR. And I totally agree that the general public, our usual audience, doesn’t care at all how it was processed.

  • Another way of looking at it…

    Take it with a grain of salt since it’s from Wikipedia:

    “High dynamic range imaging (HDRI or HDR) is a set of methods used in imaging and photography to allow a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging methods or photographic methods.”

    Did you achieve the high dynamic range in this photo (doesn’t matter in what way it was processed)? If so, then I would say it’s OK to post it to an HDR group. Unless of course there are rules specified that the image had to be tone mapped through HDR software to qualify.

    Otherwise I wouldn’t worry much about it. As Michael stated, HDR is a term that people slap on “the look”. I don’t see a point in having to label my photos as HDR anymore. I used to, but no more.

    • Agreed. Maybe we just drop the labels. I think it’s silly when someone says they’re “an HDR photographer” anyway. You’re a photographer.

  • Great discussion. The whole HDR label thing sort of drive me nuts. There are a bunch of different ways to increase dynamic range, or achieve the “look” of HDR. What really matters is the end result.

    I think the more interesting question is what is gained or lost by processing only in LR4. When to bracket and combine exposures and when not to. I think that the reason many single shots look just as good processed only in LR4 is because they didn’t have a super wide dynamic range to begin with. Those shots with a very wide dynamic range will still benefit from multiple exposures. Plus I think a lot of shots can benefit from multiple exposures, even if most, but not all, of the shot is in a narrow dynamic range.

    Let’s use your shot, Chris, as an example. It is indoors in what appears to be a well lit building. It seems like most of this scene does not have a huge dynamic range so one shot may be enough.

    At the same time, there are definitely very bright and shadowy areas in the shot that might have been brought out more with multiple exposures. For instance, the upper center of the shot is very bright. An underexposed shot may have captured the details of the first floor that you can see trough the circle. Or the 2nd floor door to the outside which is a bit blown out so you can’t see the trim. Or the lights in the fixtures, which are a bit blown out so their shape is lost a bit.

    On the shadow side, the doors on the lower left and right are shadowed and some detail is lost. And if you look the shot at 100%, you can see noise in walls and other places. We know that Photomatix kicks out noise when tonemapping. LR4 also generates noise when the highlights/shadow sliders are pushed to the edge.

    These are nitpicky things, the shot is still great. But there are small areas in the photo where multiple exposure may have given additional processing options. And not all of them need to be taken. You might decide to keep the upper center area bright, since that helps draw the eye up into the shot.

    While LR4 is amazing and does a great job on single exposures, I’m not giving up on multiple exposures yet. Particularly with my camera, which has 1-3 EV less dynamic range than higher end cameras.

    What would be interesting is to process the same shot differently to test out the the pros/cons of LR4 only. Compare one exposure processed in LR4 vs. multiple exposures combined either with an HDR program like Photomatix or combined by hand using masks.

    • Carl, I love this entire post. Thanks for taking the time to do it. I was wondering if anyone would bring up the point that people are doing “HDR” to images that don’t really need it. If you really can get all the detail in Lightroom, then you don’t need Photomatix.

      But in this image, you’re right about the upper center. I intentionally left to bright. I could have brought the highlights down even further, but it was beginning to feel flat. I think the brightness adds to the image. I think an HDR “purist” may want details in the highlights and shadows. But I care more about the impact of the overall image.

      I wonder if I need to take more time working on noise. It very rarely bothers me, but maybe others are turned off by it. I hear other photographers talk about doing multiple layers of Nik DeNoise in photoshop. I’d rather go mow the lawn than spend that much time removing noise. I hope I don’t come to regret that in the future.

      And I did process this in Photomatix. I thought it looked too flat tonally and 3-dimensionally. And when I saw the result in LR4, I didn’t want to spend the time to get something just a little bit better possibly.

      I hope that I don’t sound like I’m defending what I’ve done. I am annoyed by Flickr comments and it is refreshing to actually hear something helpful. Thanks!

      • Not at all. This is a good discussion.

        I don’t use any noise software either. LR4 seems to do a pretty good job, but then I’m not doing any big prints where noise gets really noticeable. Still one of the reasons I do less tone mapping and either use the 32 bit merge or blend the exposures by hand is to avoid the noise of tone mapping.

        • We’re both in the same boat then!

  • I 100% agree that Lightroom 4 can create stunning images without bracketed exposures. In my mind these are as HDR as any and I really like being able to use 1 frame when possible because of less ghosting – intact exif data, and the non-destructive RAW adjustments that I can go back and easily tweak.
    Just added you on G+
    Great stuff man!

    • Oh man. I so agree with you on three points that I didn’t even mention. The non destructive editing alone makes it worth it. After doing everything else and them change the white balance after. It’s amazing. I’ll look to up on g+!

  • Chris,

    I love your HDR work whether it’s done in Photomatix or LR, I don’t think it matters. What does matter to me is that it doesn’t look fake and there isn’t ghosting. I love HDR, but need a lot more practice. Sometimes I think when I use Photomatix my photo loses the “real” photo look and tends to get too saturated and too “fake” at times. I only have LR3, but would love to find out how you process in LR4 to make your photos look so great!

    • Thanks, Kathy. I’m not sure how I missed your comment. I agree with everything you said. The typical process for me for LR4 is to decrease the highlights, increase the shadows, and bump the vibrance and clarity. If you do those four things it makes a huge difference. But it really does not work in LR3 and the upgrade is worth it for that feature alone. Let me know if you try it.

  • If you shoot raw then you are starting with 12 or 14 bit pixel samples. Since pretty much all final images are exported for viewing as 8bit jpg’s then one raw optimally tone mapped into the 8bit jpg range counts as HDR for me. Of course as has been pointed out by other comments, some scenes may actually have more range than can be accommodated by just one raw exposure, and then the traditional bracketed multiple image approach is needed for best results.

    I also have changed my workflow with LR4 and am very impressed with the image improvements I get with high contrast single raw exposures. I do this kind of ‘HDR’ processing in LR4 on most of my images. It has been especially useful for strong sunlit scenes with deep shadows.

    I am now looking for the best companion program for multi-image HDR to go with LR4. I want to align, merge and de-ghost multiple images into the 32bit tif formats LR4 now supports. I have not yet figured out what program that is, other than CS6, but I’m not ready to pay that much for this capability yet. Any advice? Thanks.


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