Today’s Question: Do you get better results with HDR (high-dynamic range) software or manual blending?
Tim’s Quick Answer: The results will vary based on the photographic conditions and the software you’re using. However, in general I find that using HDR software to assemble images provides a better result than attempting to combine images manually using software such as Photoshop. In addition, HDR software enables you to have that work automated for you, so you don’t need to manually combine the images into a composite.
More Detail: There’s no question that I have had situations where the contrast range of the scene, subject movement within the scene, or other factors make it difficult to successfully employ HDR software to create a good final image. However, in most cases I have been able to create better images more quickly using HDR software compared to using more manual methods such as layer masking to create a composite image.
Part of the benefit of HDR software is that it isn’t simply combining images via masking, but is rather more intelligently calculating appropriate pixel values throughout the image based on the full range of information available in the bracketed set of exposures. Furthermore, with tone-mapping you can choose how the final image is interpreted.
When you manually assembling a composite for a given area you will generally only be able to see a single image. It is possible to further blend images with opacity and blend mode options, but typically a composite would involve using a single image layer for each area of a photo. This provides less flexibility in terms of how pixel values are ultimately determined.
Therefore, my recommendation is to start with HDR software, and to use HDR software in most cases to create the initial image based on the bracketed exposures. Only if the HDR approach doesn’t provide a good result would I consider creating a composite based on multiple exposures, at least in the most typical types of scenarios when exposure bracketing might be used with the intent of creating an HDR result.