Realistic HDR Images


Today’s Question: So many HDR [high dynamic range] shots I’ve seen have a kind of phony look. You can tell a mile away that it’s HDR. Is there any additional post-processing, maybe in Adobe Camera Raw, to dial back some of that phoniness that creeps in, for a more natural look overall?

Tim’s Quick Answer: In general, the best way to avoid an “HDR look” for an image is to ensure the color saturation isn’t too high, and that there is relatively strong contrast in the final image.

More Detail: The somewhat artificial look that is the trademark of what many photographers consider to be a “bad” look for HDR images generally relates to saturation and contrast.

Part of the saturation is a byproduct of more tonal values in the image falling into the middle tone range than would normally be the case. When colors are very bright or very dark, they won’t have as much of a saturated color appearance. Of course, it seems rather common that photographers get a bit carried away when applying a saturation adjustment to an HDR image. Keeping the saturation somewhat modest can help avoid an “HDR look”.

Perhaps more important is to ensure adequate contrast in the final image. One of the key benefits of HDR techniques is that you are able to retain much more detail in the photo that would have been possible with a single exposure. That means that in bright highlights and dark shadows, significant detail is visible.

When so much detail is visible, the image takes on a somewhat flatter appearance, which can be another telltale sign that the photo is an HDR image. While your goal may be to retain good detail throughout the photo, it can be helpful to ensure there is a bit of contrast in the final result. In particular, I recommend darkening the shadows to create a more realistic balance of contrast for the image. You don’t need to darken the shadows so much that you lose detail and texture in those areas, but rather just to tone down the shadows and create a more “realistic” appearance for the final image.

While it is obviously possible to reduce saturation and increase contrast after creating the HDR image, you can also apply these adjustments at the time you are assembling the HDR image with the software you’re using for that purpose. I generally prefer to get most of the work of optimizing the HDR image done using the actual software being used to assemble the HDR image. I happen to use Aurora HDR for most of my processing of HDR images, but there are of course other solutions available. You can learn more about Aurora HDR here: