Compare Results for HDR Photography
The trickiest aspect of high dynamic range photography is the lack of consistency regarding what method (of the many) to use to achieve the best appearance in the final image. You can read about what methods are technically the best — those which preserve the greatest dynamic range in a scene and make the least number of compromises along the way.
However, following the best technical methodology does not always translate into the best looking image, which is what HDR and photography are about.
These photos feature a Mini Cooper. Three processing options are shown: a developed Raw photo, tone mapping as a single-exposure (Raw), and tone mapping as a single-exposure (brackets). The latter two use the same settings in Photomatix Pro. None of the images have been spruced up in Photoshop.
Let the faceoff begin:
A developed Raw photo: This is the control image, processed as a single Raw photo and exported as a TIFF. This is basically what you get out of the camera in the form of a JPEG. The shot is rather bland, and the lightness of the sky predominates. On the positive side, the details look pretty good and there is not much noise. Still, the photo needs work.
Single-exposure (Raw): This image shows the results of the Raw exposure bring dropped directly into Photomatix Pro and tone mapped. The photographer purposefully went for some drama because the clouds and car looked much better this way.
Compared with the Raw photo, this has better light balance between the subject (the Mini) and the background (the sky). In fact, they reversed: The car is now lighter, and the sky as a whole is darker. The metallic paint of the car stands out much better, too.
Despite what some might say about single-exposure (Raw) photos, this is an acceptable image. In fact, more than that — it looks really good, as long as you don’t mind it not being a photocopy of the original.
Single-exposure (brackets): This image shows the result of tone mapping a Raw exposure converted to three brackets (–2/0/+2 EV). Like the single-exposure (Raw) image, it was tone mapped in Photomatix Pro with identical settings. This version might have a little less contrast, but the car is improved. It looks green now, which is its true color.
Overall, this looks to be the best version of this image. It has better color, good dynamics, light balance, texture, and details. This doesn’t always translate to every picture under the sun, but there is nothing inherently wrong with this method — it produces good results.
You can see that the difference between single-exposure (Raw) and single-exposure (brackets) are often a matter of taste. You may like the latter method on one image, but at times prefer the former on another image. The purpose of this comparison is to disprove the point that either of these methods is pointless. They’re not. They clearly add value to the original image.
Do not discount single-exposure HDR from the outset as being technologically inferior. It can and does produce images close in quality to those created from multiple bracketed sets. It may not do so in every instance, but that’s when you get to use your skills and judgment as a photographer and artist to decide. Use all the tools at your disposal to create the images that match your style the best.