Can Lightroom Compete with HDR?

HDR (right) and Lightroom (Left)

HDR (right) and Lightroom (Left)

Note: This is a subjective article about photography, adobe lightroom and hdr . Take whatever I say as you wish.

I use Lightroom all of the time, as I suspect many of you do as well. It’s a great tool which has gotten better and better with each iteration. Lightroom 5, with it improved Shadows and Highlight sliders can really make the difference in a photo where, for whatever reason, the exposure got out of control. A master craftsman like Joe McNally would probably just tell you to take a better picture to begin with, but when I am running and gunning it’s not always an option for me to spend 30 minutes to an entire day making sure every zone of a photograph is properly exposed.

One of the bonuses of Lightroom’s Shadow, Highlight and Clarity slider is that you can start to get into the realm of HDR photography with just a single photo. Traditional HDR requires at least two bracketed photos. I’d say 3 would be the average, but I know some people who claim to use as many 11, to achieve better overall zone exposure in their photographs. I guess if they need 11, that’s fine. HDR programs like Photomatix makes merging multiple files into an HDR file fairly easy and straightforward. Even Photoshop has a Merge to HDR function, although I find it’s results to be less than optimal.

Only a few years ago, Photomatix was practically the only game in town; there were and are still other options, but Photomatix seems to be the most widely used. So, when I would take a series of photos for HDR purposes that’s the program I used. Then one day, while playing around with my merged file in Photomatix, I decided, eh, maybe this photo wasn’t a good candidate for HDR after all. So I went back into Lightroom, grabbed my 0.0 exposed photo out of the batch and started to play with it there. What I found was that I was readily able to create an HDR-ish image that kept in line with what I was originally looking for. Then I thought, what if went back into my library and found other images that I had originally merged into HDR? Could I use a single photo out of a series to create a photo that closely matched the file that Photomatix had output? The answer was, yes… sort of.

First off, I was impressed that I could use Lightroom 5’s sliders to change the global tonality as much as I could. And while it never recovered the shadows or highlights as drastically as a true HDR process could, it came close enough and the results were actually more to my liking.

HDR’s main function is to compress the over all exposure in such a way that the tonal quality of the image is pretty much the same across the entire image. The result is a dramatic, if not sometimes flat, image that reveals all types of details from highlights and shadows. The problem with that is the story and the mood of a location are often rooted in those highlights and shadows. It’s great to bring more depth into your photos, but too much is, well, too much and we’ve all seen what too much looks like. Do a Google image search for HDR and you’ll be blitzed with clown vomit colors and images so normalized that they almost hurt to look at it. A great HDR artist, (see my friend Neil Kremer’s stream here on Flickr), puts a lot more work into his HDR images rather than pressing a button in Photomatix and posting the result. He spends a lot of time in Photoshop dodging, burning and blending to make sure his images are both real and surreal. And, honestly, if you’re going to do HDR you should be doing it Neil’s way.

But I think there’s a great middle ground hiding within Lightroom that let’s you bring out these extra details without losing drama — all with a single, well exposed image. The image above is an example of a 3 bracketed photo. merged and output from Photomatix, and then a single photo (the 0.0 exposed photo from the batch) processed in Lightroom. There are differences, no doubt, and some people may still prefer the look of the Photomatix image over its Lightroom cousin, but you can see that there’s a great possibility there in Lightroom to create some dynamically ranged photos that still retain character.

Benjamin Lehman is a Commercial Portrait, Wedding and Advertising photographer in the Canton, Northeast Ohio area.