HDR or Exposure Fusion

What’s wrong with this photograph?

Short answer: HDR.

Do you like it? It has a kind of fantasy look doesn’t it? Somebody likes these types of photos because they are common on real estate web sites. They may be flashy and attention grabbing but they’re not real.



Long answer: The photograph has been tone mapped.

Tone mapping is a part of the HDR process. It’s the part that often produces strange results that look more like an illustration than a photograph. This one has too much local contrast, the shadows are too light and an “outlining” effect has been created by the HDR process. It might look good to some but it doesn’t look natural and misrepresents the actual appearance of the home.


Do you like this version better?

It’s a single exposure that was carefully processed in LightRoom to achieve a full dynamic range and to make the home look its best. This house will actually look like this on a nice afternoon.



What is HDR?

(You can skip to the last paragraph if you don’t need a detailed explanation.)

It stands for High Dynamic Range. The interface between the human eye and the brain is remarkable. We can see an enormous range of bright and dark light values (known as dynamic range). When we stand in a room and look out a widow at a brightly lit scene, our brain rapidly re-processes the visual information so both the room and the outside scene look right. It’s so fast you can’t even catch your brain doing it (unless you step out of a darkened room into to a very bright day).

From the inception of photography in the 1830s, photographers have struggled with dynamic range because photographic materials are not so capable. So you get windows that are so bright that no detail is visible, lights that blow out everything around them, or rooms that are so dark that almost nothing is visible.

Digital photography has turned this big problem into a small one. Digital sensors are no more capable of handling a high dynamic range than were the most modern films (probably even less so) but electronic processing is much more versatile than chemical processing.

HDR was the first attempt to use computer software to automatically combine image data from several different exposures of the same scene. It is capable of remarkable results. It is also capable of remarkably unrealistic, even surreal, results. It is this second type that I see far too often. HDR also tends to degrade image quality and flatten out overall contrast (lights are too dark and darks are too light) while increasing local contrast.


Exposure Fusion

Instead of HDR, I usually use a newer technique known as Exposure Fusion. Simply stated, Exposure Fusion takes the same set of bracketed exposures that HDR uses and combines them into one image. It automatically blends exposures much like photographers have been doing by hand in PhotoShop for several years except it does it in much more sophisticated manner that is not possible by hand. This results in beautifully natural images that don’t look overdone at all. And the process does not degrade image quality. It improves it. Look at the photograph below. There are no unnaturally dark shadows, the outdoor part of the image looks good and the lightbulbs have detail rather than being overwhelming bright blobs. It looks much like it would look if you were in the room. That’s the goal – make the room look normal and attractive. That’s why I use EF instead of HDR.IMG_1193-enfuse


  1. Tracey Thompson

    I shoot real estate photography and have been useing Oloneo to process my HDR. Im contantly not happy with the flare I get from window, how to you overcome that does EF work better for that?

    • Richard Smith

      Thanks for visiting and for taking time to comment. I really appreciate that.

      EF takes care of much of it. Sometimes I blend in Photoshop by hand if there are still problem spots.

      On site I take 7 shots of each set-up. The first one is for the correct exposure for the windows. Then I do six brackets (by shutter speed – not aperture) with each one being 1 stop more light. In post I decide how many to actually blend (using the LR Enfuse plug-in for LR) – usually it’s 4 or 5 but having 7 makes sure I can get what I need and starting with correct exposure for windows gives a good baseline for everything else.


  1. Dynamic Exterior Photographs! | Oklahoma City | Real Estate Photographer | Richard Smith Photography - […] out highlights are not attractive. HDR often looks fake and is usually not needed outside. Good exposure and a…

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