HDR Processing Vs. Human Processing

PHOTO COMPARISON HERE – The first images in each comparison is the HDR Image, and the second is the human image.

By now, you’ve certainly heard the buzzword, HDR.  It means High Dynamic Range and it refers to the range of light that a camera processor has to balance, in order to deliver a good exposure.  The purpose of this post isn’t to explain the mysteries of HDR, so to keep it simple, I’m going to give a very brief description of it.

  • A single photo has to balance the brightest range of light and the darkest range of light.  This is what the automatic mode of any camera is doing when it creates a picture.
  • In order for a single photo to balance those ranges of light, it must compromise each range of light by choosing to expose for the middle range.
  • The process of HDR is to take several exposures (2-12+), from very dark to very bright.  This ensures that the same subject (no matter how dark or light) will be exposed for that middle range.
  • Then a computer program fuses all the exposures into a single image –  using the middle range from each exposure to create an equally exposed photo.  There should be no bright or dark spots.  Everything should be equal.

There you have it; HDR in a nutshell.  HDR software applications are available everywhere and are very inexpensive.  A good photographer that knows how to shoot and tweak the HDR software settings, can often do a terrific job.  Unfortunately, many real estate agents are giving this a shot too, and the photos often look ghostly, or cartoonish.  It’s no their fault.  It’s the nature of HDR.  You really have to know what you’re doing, to do it well.  And let’s be honest about it… a cartoonish photo is usually better than the over exposed and underexposed images you see all over the MLS. But this isn’t what I’m supposed to be writing about.

Earlier this year, a national HDR photography company photographed a home in San Diego, and the customer was very unhappy.  PreviewFirst was hired to photograph the property a few days later (about the same time of day and same weather conditions).  We thought it would be an interesting post to show you the comparison.  As always, you’re thoughts and opinions are welcome.  Please tell us which you prefer and why.

HDR Procesing Vs. Human Processing; what’s the difference?  HDR images are created with software and “real photography” is created by a Human.  I know that sounds argumentative (hdr vs. real).  I just don’t know how else to put it.  HDR relies on a software program to determine what a properly exposed image looks like and real photography relies on a human being to determine that.  There’s a place for both, so let’s not make this into a discussion about which is better.  We just want to show the difference, with regard to this photo-shot.

The first images in each comparison is the HDR Image, and the second is the human image.  🙂

You can review the photo comparison here.  Please tell us what you think.  

HDR Photo  vs. Real Photo







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8 Responses to “HDR Processing Vs. Human Processing”

  1. Jakob
    December 21, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Hi Steve,

    Really interesting comparison. Your photos are much better. The biggest issue with Vicaso’s photo shoot is that color accuracy is just way off. I’ve found this is the main challenge with HDR: white balance and overall color accuracy is tough to get right. It’s difficult to completely nail the colors using just the ambient lighting in a home. In these photos, there is a yellow cast to many of the shots, including the living room and many of the views. I can’t believe they got the color of the roof wrong, you would think that would be easy with just the sun lighting it. As well, your compositions are superior, such as the front photo (the most important photo), the living room (you get all the way into the corner). Finally, your window views are clearer, sharper, with better color.

    Vicaso’s photos have some minor areas of goodness: no flash shadows (most visible on ceiling fixtures), and fires in all the fireplaces. Overall though, your photos are far superior!


    • December 21, 2011 at 5:47 pm #

      Hi Jakob, Thanks for you feedback. What’s interesting is that a simple “auto levels” action in Photoshop, went a long way to improve on that yellow cast. So a pro should have been able to improve on these, a lot. I’ve often found their photos to be quite impressive, so the huge color difference surprised me.

      By the way, there’s very little incandescent light in this home… so I couldn’t figure out where their color cast was coming from. I’d really like to see how their photos would compare – if they gave it a full effort. I’m sure the homeowner would have, too. You gotta figure, they can’t always be this bad, right?

  2. Jakob
    December 21, 2011 at 6:04 pm #

    Their process failed on this shoot, that’s for sure. I have followed them for a while as well. They have been successful in growing their business, I noticed that they seem to have secured all of Redfin’s listings across the US. However, their photo quality has definitely dropped off. Perhaps they are moving to more automation, less manual input as they grow. With real estate photography, there is just so much variation in conditions from shot to shot, that a human being is absolutely required to give it that loving touch.

    I agree about them having produced some amazing photos. It seems that previously they would do beautiful hand color correction of all surfaces, probably using Photoshop’s color replacement brush, completely eliminating color casts, with pure whites etc. I don’t know if they still offer that, but that was an awesome look, if time consuming. Their new process seems to be a huge step backward… Unless you like muddy yellow photos. 🙂

  3. June 13, 2012 at 9:39 am #

    Hi Steve,
    The comparison between HDR vs. Human processing is somewhat misleading in that it appears to be implied that HDR photography is on auto pilot when this is normally not the case. In fact most photographers that work in HDR do human process the images for the benefit of their audience and in this situation should be as photorealistic as possible in other words subtle adjustments that improve the realistic look of the photo. I think the comparison photos look like the photographer who produced the yellow cast photos could have easily corrected them had they not been in such a hurry and overlooked the yellow cast look. HDR has a place in real estate photography but I would focus the benefits of the dynamic range photos to the primary curb appeal photo vs. production photos in mass especially of interiors. Anytime I see too much halo effect around a building structure in the sky indicates to me too much. Dial this effect back somewhat human process and bath the eye in something very special HDR imagery.

    • June 13, 2012 at 10:06 am #

      Michael, Thanks for the feedback. While I can see your perception, I don’t think I’m being misleading at all – just trying to keep it simple for the consumer that might not be able to differentiate like you and me. Even with that, I think I made your point when I said…

      “A good photographer that knows how to shoot and tweak the HDR software settings, can often do a terrific job.”

      “You really have to know what you’re doing, to do it well.”

      In this case, with these examples, I have to believe that HDR was strictly on auto pilot; and these photos are from a well known national brand that markets itself as an HDR Photography Company. They are so bad, that it’s as if there was no attention to quality at all. So, when I refer to the difference between HDR and Human processing, I am indeed speaking to the difference between HDR (auto pilot) and Human Processing.

      Again… “A good photographer that knows how to shoot and tweak the HDR software settings, can often do a terrific job.”

    • June 13, 2012 at 10:22 am #

      Ya know… on second thought, you have a point. I think my title and examples represent HDR in a way that isn’t the norm. Yes, in this case it certainly is accurate… but in general, great photographers don’t produce garbage like this company did. As I consider why I wrote this post, it was specifically to draw a distinction between real photographers and those that simply rely on HDR softare.

  4. December 31, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    I am a big anti HDR photographer. Yes, I have used it when I was desperate and beginning because I could not return to a house and re-photograph it, but honestly it is not necessary in real estate photography. Artistic photography it is ok to use with but when you are trying to accurately represent how a home looks it is better to stick to minimal editing and old fashioned good photography skills.
    If I see a photographer using HDR I instantly know they are either a beginner or have some sort of skewed reality of how things should look. A home is a home..not a painting or a magical mystical realm where unicorns prance here and there across the lawn.


  1. San Diego Real Estate Photography - January 30, 2012

    […] See the blown out windows and the sun light on the floors and furniture.  It takes a powerful flash and the right camera setting to balance the interior and exterior of a room like this.  For more Money-Shot examples with over-sized rooms and big windows, see our flickr gallery at: http://www.flickr.com/photos/realestatephotography/sets/.   You may also like to view some photography tips here and here. […]

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