More HDR Nature Photography from Eight True Maestros

Photographer: Daniel Cheong. Image: Pulau Ubin Sunrise. © Daniel Cheong, used by written permission. See more of Daniel’s photos…

Pulau Ubin means “granite island” in Malay, and is a small rural island northeast of urban Singapore. Framed from a low camera viewpoint, Cheong’s image shines with reflected light off differing surfaces.

He creates exquisite detail in inter-tidal ecosystem of rock and lichen in his dawn seascape. “Pulau Ubin Sunrise” almost invites a viewer to plunge into the tranquil bay with the rocks distinctly at the bottom of the frame as if the observer is standing on them. His balanced composition places shapes of the floating clouds above to match those of the granite below. Although photographed directly into sunlight, all the shadow detail is preserved.

Photographer: André Leopold. Image: Sandstone Morning © André Leopold . Used by permission. View more of his photos…

Leopold’s photograph was made in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, in a National Park bordering both Germany and the Czech Republic. Leopold mentioned that “the shapes you can find here, formed by erosion, are quite unique in this region. I am fascinated by what nature can do, and going to such places, hiking the whole day, literally allows you to breathe that in.”

His composition has an emotive presence: a viewer senses the atmosphere of the sandstone mountains. Leopold’s framing is exquisite because every form within the image is essential to it.

Leopold described his approach and how his HDR use has evolved: “As a photographer, I try to capture and evoke, emotions. I try to go for a look as natural as possible, especially for nature shots. And that starts with the decision of whether I actually need to capture the entire dynamic range of a scene.

In processing, I usually create a version with tone mapping and one using exposure blending, and then judge both versions in the same process I use for my other pictures: after sorting out technically incorrect pictures, I wait for a few days, to start as ‘neutral’ as possible, and choose those pictures I find to be the most satisfying. In the end, I do not treat HDR pictures special in any way.”


The photographers were selected from a personal search over 5 years by the author from work on the website. They were chosen for these four reasons:

1. They have absolute fidelity to the medium of photography. They use the camera as the incredible instrument of symbolic actuality that it is.

2. They use HDR methods and if they use tone mapping at all, they process their bracketed exposures to create an uncontrived result.

3. Their work shows rightness of framing-what is put in and what is left out. They define their image space distinctly.

4. They employ a general, but unobtrusive technical mastery with their HDR processing.

Walker Evans developed these 4 criteria in defining the qualities of seasoned photographers. In the hands of these photographers, the camera and software are instruments of symbolic actuality. These nature images symbolize wildness, the renewal of one’s energy, and an tradition finding spiritual and spiritual-religious meaning in nature.

Each photographer expresses the feeling of the land in their image and chose to use HDR or exposure blending as a working method, not as their primary concern. With unobtrusive HDR, they put the subject matter first, not the HDR look. In their compositions, the maestros have no unnecessary notes in their score. What they put in the frame belongs there.


Emerging HDR photography demands new thinking: once again, new camera/computer technology changes how we can see. When the master Henri Cartier-Bresson held his Leica in the 193o’s, challenging the static way of photographing for the next 30 years, the photographic community of his day responded to his vision by deriding his camera as a toy.

There are many HDR software program and all are just tools. These maestros have many hours of practice with Photomatix, for instance, because the program works for them to gain advanced understanding of the methods.

Once techniques have become second nature, the clarity of the picture idea and the photographers intent emerges. Photographs are more than dynamic range, color and composition. The intent behind learning the tools is deeper than finding solutions to the problems of high contrast, washed out highlights, and blocked shadows.

Being a dedicated digital photographer is not about mastering HDR tools any more than samurai wisdom comes from having a sharp sword. As a surgeon would employ years of training to use a scalpel, mastering HDR tools can mean knowing when to cut and when to abstain.


For beginners, a key to mastering the HDR process is to approach it playfully. This gives a happy opportunity to explore, experiment and experience. Having fun processing pictures in HDR software enlivens photography. HDR tools are inspiring because they invite us to think, to explore unseen places, and to learn to see unlit, deep dark worlds as a challenge. There are no “Do’s and Don’ts” in HDR.

Subtle, thoughtful crafting with HDR settings works well for nature images. These methods solve problems of tonal control, shadow blocking, and highlight clipping in landscape imaging. Beginners can, with judicious HDR use, open up the shadows to reveal nature’s delicate colors hidden within.

DEFENDING HDR: Beyond Tone Mapping

Instead of watching the entire play, HDR critics have criticized the actors for using poor stage lighting. Obsessed by flaws they see when beginners’ use tone mapping. Critics exclaim like Shakespeare’s MacDuff: “Oh horror! horror! horror! Tongue, nor heart, Cannot conceive nor name thee!” They make the error of blaming HDR photography as a whole.

Critics often say that HDR is “over-cooked.” This description is a tired cliché. Critics of HDR focused on tone-mapped HDR that did not fit their expectations. While criticism comes from the love of tradition, it also comes from expecting photography to be an accurate document.

The critique of tone mapping, for instance, arose from seeing its results as lacking the accuracy of nature. Yet nature photographers have never documented – they have always interpreted.

The way HDR software settings are adjusted does matter. The strength of HDR settings is a personal decision with cultural overtones: heavy-handed tone mapping may fit in to a gallery of nature photographs like an ill-cued cymbal player at a hand bell concert.

Most of the photographers here are using slight or no tone mapping and have moved to exposure blending instead. Some of the maestros have not tone mapped at all, preferring to blend their multiple exposures with Photomatix and its exposure blending setting. Their pleasure is in their own learning curve.


Due to the surprise when HDR initially did not meet our expectations that it must be factual and accurate, we forgot a lesson from photography’s history. There is no “Truth” in a photograph. We like to think that if we went to the same place and looked at the identical scene, then we would see exactly what is shown in these pictures.

We would be wrong. In fact, the more we recognize “just another rock, just another tree” in a picture, the more boring that picture is. Inexperienced tone mapping looked so unusual at first it caused only irritation and our habitual response was “but that’s not real.” Getting stuck in Fact-Fantasy argument is not a reason to throw the HDR instrument out of the orchestra.

Those of us who adopted HDR early were so enthusiastic about it that we revived the cry of 1930’s image makers that using HDR in itself is honorable. Buy a popular photography magazine at the store. You’ll read about HDR as photography’s new Messiah. It is not.

Playing the HDR instrument requires tuning and practice; like any new instrument in the orchestra, its presence can sweeten or foul the air depending on who is playing. HDR symphonic moments need conductors who know how little or how much to tune the instruments.

Mr. Jim Goldstein, an award-winning commercial professional noted for his outstanding nature and landscape work, and the host of the EXIF and Beyond podcast, is a photographer I admire. In 2007, Mr. Goldstein posted a thought-provoking critique of HDR.

Goldstein argues that those who do HDR often approach it as a novelty rather than a solution. This is an excellent point. The intent of the human behind the HDR software controls is what makes the image interesting. When HDR tools are used as a style, without criteria, we get the sense the image maker is just shooting and not thinking.

However, there is nothing wrong with trying novel imaging, it harms no one.

Goldstein goes on to say that HDR on Flickr is overused and extreme and that rarely is HDR used to produce prints close to what the human brain can see. It is a mistake to try to compare how the brain sees with how the camera sees for two reasons.

First, neuro-scientists are just beginning to learn complexities of our central nervous system’s visual processing. Second, before the 1880’s, camera and eye were parallel tools. This changed when Edward Muybridge photographed all four hoofs of a horse in the air, something the eye could never see.

After Muybridge’s “instantaneous photography,” natural and photographic vision diverged.

Mr. Goldstein calls Flickr members “would-be photographers and artists,” but this is a tired, old critique. Over a hundred years ago, Charles Baudelaire, an exalted character and opium smoker, condemned photography as the refuge of “would-be artists.”

There is no shame in being a would-be or amateur photographer. Perhaps all photographers were amateurs, along the path to evolving their vision. However, Goldstein does not lump all those who use HDR into one category, and adds “there are some photographers producing very naturally-looking HDR images, but regrettably they are the exception.”

A thread reply, on the web underneath Goldstein’s article, states that “most (HDR) images are completely butchered, and that this is especially true of nature and landscape photographs.” With time, HDR software will improve and better nature photography will emerge. Think of the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, David Muench, Elliot Porter and John Sexton, all landscape masters who had decades to polish their work, radical as it once was.

The point is that patience with HDR is required. Photography must not be blamed.

It is time to let go of the myth that all photographs must produce images close to what the brain can see. It depends on their context and the photographer’s intent.

Most web HDR imaging, however, was not meant for the commercial studio. Of course, there are exceptions such as wedding photography using HDR. On Flickr, HDR images tend to be shot as part of a learning process and to try new ideas.


Both DRI and HDR photography can be uncontrived, distinct, subtle, and still allow photographers to do what they do best: fully realize a landscape that resonates with viewers. These maestros show approaches to nature that range from realism to impressionism. Their unique characteristics as master photographers is what establishes the presence of their photographs. The way the HDR baton is wielded is important. The rest notes, those that are not played when creating the symphonic moment, are critical. Understanding the image-maker’s characteristics helps get past unilateral HDR criticism and to a deeper appreciation of nature photography and its practice.

To beginning of article…

by Jim Austin, M.A., A.C.E.

All written content (and most images) in these articles are copyrighted by the authors. Copyrighted material from Apogee Photo Mag should not be used elsewhere without seeking the authors permission.

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