Today’s Question: I do HDR [high dynamic range imaging] by the old method of collecting three exposures in Raw, then using Photoshop or Aurora HDR to combine them. However, I have a Canon D6 [https://bhpho.to/3JTaax7] that can do it in-camera, but then I have to use JPEG. From the standpoint of image quality, is it better to keep doing the HDR by the old method, or accept the loses of the in-camera method? I sometimes make enlargements up to 17×22”, but mostly the maximum is 13×19”.
Tim’s Quick Answer: I strongly recommend not using in-camera HDR unless you are using a camera that retains the original raw captures when you create an HDR image. With your camera I recommend continuing to capture bracketed exposures to assemble into an HDR result later.
More Detail: When you are photographing a scene with a great range of tonal values than your camera can record in a single photograph, you can capture bracketed exposures and assemble those into a final HDR image that retains maximum detail.
Some cameras provide an in-camera HDR option. This can be convenient, but it can also be problematic for a variety of reasons.
If your camera enables you to capture an in-camera HDR but also retain the bracketed raw captures used to assemble the HDR image, using this option can be helpful in terms of previewing the effect on the camera while still being able to maximize quality by assembling the bracketed raw captures into the final HDR image.
However, many cameras with in-camera HDR will not retain the original raw captures. If the camera doesn’t do a good job creating the HDR image, you don’t have a way to create your own HDR image later. In my experience, by the way, HDR software (such as Aurora HDR, https://timgrey.me/aurora) does a significantly better job assembling an HDR image that any camera I’ve ever tested.
For cameras that don’t retain the raw captures and that create a JPEG image for the HDR, the situation is even worse. A JPEG image will only feature a bit depth of 8-bits per channel, rather than the potential of 16-bits per channel for a TIFF image, for example. There is a very high likelihood that you will need to apply adjustments to the HDR capture, and often those adjustments will need to be quite strong. This can lead to a significant degradation in image quality for the JPEG HDR capture.
Therefore, I highly recommend using software after the capture to create your HDR images, capturing bracketed raw captures as the source of that HDR image. While this creates some additional work compared to being able to capture an HDR image in-camera, this approach will ensure much better HDR images. As a result, I most certainly would not call this an “old method”, as it is still the best method in my view.