What is Better, Exposure Blending or HDR

Have you ever wondered what the best method of increasing the dynamic range in your images? Ever wondered what Exposure Blending or HDR is, and how they compare? In this article, I examine the two most popular methods of increasing your dynamic range.
Exposure Blending vs HDR Featured Image

Introduction

I remember the first time I saw images created using HDR. The increased dynamic range and colors that you were able to get were inspiring. During some research on graduated neutral density filters, I came across HDR way back in 2008.

I remember researching HDR and falling in love with the images people were creating with it. During my research, I discovered two things, though. The first is that all good things can be overdone. I am sure many will remember the grotesque over-processed, grungy looking HDR images. The second was Trey Ratcliff’s website, Stuck In Customs. Arguably the most influential HDR photographer of our time.

Mesmerized by his images, I knew that I wanted to learn how to create images like his. Following his work in the early days of my photography has influenced even the images I create today. Very few photographers have influenced my work like that, never mind for as long.

Why Use Exposure Blending Or HDR?

The human eye is capable of adjusting to light conditions pretty fast. When looking at a sunset or sunrise, your eyes can adapt to the bright light. This allows you to see details and color in things like the clouds and the deep shadows.

Our cameras are not capable of capturing such a broad dynamic range. This leaves us to either prioritize highlight or shadow details in our images. There is three way of overcoming this limited dynamic range. Until cameras can capture a more extensive dynamic range than the human eye can see, you will have to learn at least one.

The first is by using a graduated neutral density filter. These filters have been around since the early twentieth century and are still in use by many today. I find graduated neutral density filter antiquated with more negatives than positives.

Graduated Neutral Density Filter
Graduated neutral density filters are darker at the top than at the bottom.

The other two methods are Exposure Blending and HDR. Both of which are digital techniques applied during post-processing. In both cases, you will have to take some extra steps in the field by capturing a set of bracketed exposures. The set of exposures needs to cover the entire dynamic range to be useful.

Exposure Blending vs HDR Bracketed Exposures
Bracketed Exposures: -2, 0, +2

Regardless of the chosen method, the result is an increase in both dynamic range and color. This will allow the viewer to see more details in both the highlights and the shadows of your image.

What Is Exposure Blending?

Exposure Blending is precisely what it sounds like, the blending of multiple exposures. You take the exposures that you bracketed and blend them in Photoshop using layer masks. These masks can either be very simple, like painting with the brush tool or using the graduated tool. Or they can be more advanced by creating complex luminosity mask based on a layer’s luminance.

Storm Over Cornwallis Wharf Exposure Blended
Storm Over Cornwallis Wharf Exposure Blended

What Is HDR?

HDR uses the same set of bracketed images that Exposure Blending does. You then feed those images into a dedicated piece of software. Although you can also do this using either Lightroom or Photoshop. Through complex algorithms, the software produces an image with an increased dynamic range. In fact, the dynamic range can be so large that it is impossible to view the image on a standard display. To overcome this issue, you need to tone map the HDR image once created. This tone mapping process will produce an HDR image that you can then do further editing on if you wanted to.

Storm Over Cornwallis Wharf HDR
Storm Over Cornwallis Wharf HDR

Advantages Of Exposure Blending

One of the most significant advantages of Exposure Blending is the control you have. When exposure blending, you choose what parts of your images to combine. You cannot only select the parts of your images to blend but also how much to blend them. This gives you flexibility in creating your final image.

Another advantage of exposure blending is dealing with moving objects in your scene. Because you are doing the blending, it becomes easier to deal with objects that have moved in your image. You can choose what exposure to use over another or even shoot a separate image to add a moving subject to your image.

One of the most overlooked advantages of exposure blending is all the techniques you will learn. You can use the same methods to combine almost any layer in photoshop. You can affect color, contrast, replace skies, apply filters, or blend adjustment layers. You can even apply noise reduction and sharpening using blending techniques. This is all done selectively, leaving you in control of how and where to apply these blends.

Advantages Of HDR

Almost the only real advantage that HDR provides over exposure blending is the speed at which you can produce an HDR image. The time it takes to create an HDR image is dependent on your computer. And unless you have an ancient computer, it will be very quick. Unlike Exposure Blending, that can take some time depending on the individual image.

The learning curve is also a lot easier. Creating the HDR image is little more than selecting some files for the software to use. Once created, you need to do tone mapping, which is not that dissimilar from editing an image in Lightroom. The biggest thing you have to learn is restraint, as it is easy to create a ghastly looking image.

The results that you can achieve once you have mastered tone mapping are spectacular. Being able to see details in both the highlights and the shadows is fantastic. The increased color saturation is also great if you can control it.

Disadvantages Of Exposure Blending

People avoid exposure blending because of things like luminosity masks. Luminosity masks will indeed give you the most control. But it is definitely not required to get started with exposure blending.

To take full advantage of blending, you will have to learn luminosity masking, though. There are plugins that you can use to help you create the luminosity masks, but you still have to know how to apply them. To be honest, it looks more daunting than it actually is, though.

Depending on the complexity, it can be slower to exposure blend an image compared to using HDR. Unfortunately, there is not much that you can do about this. Although one can argue that the results will be worth it in the end. Also, with more practice using things like luminosity masks will become second nature.

The reality of it is, though, that to get good results, you are going to have to master luminosity masks. And your edits will most likely take longer to complete.

Disadvantages Of HDR

One of the most significant disadvantages of HDR is how easy it is to go overboard. Oversaturated colors, dirty whites, and even color shifts are all common problems. It is also easy for problems to occur in HDR when not paying attention to your image.

Another massive problem in HDR is halos. Halos will appear anywhere in your image, where there are significant contrast shifts. Usually, these contrast changes appear at the edges of objects. They are very common in objects that protrude into a blue sky.

If you include people in your images, you will find that skin tones become horrible. Skin tones get almost a sickly yellow tinge to them. Both portrait and street photography becomes more complicated when using HDR.

I have already mentioned this a few times. Still, it bears repeating, it is easy to go overboard when using HDR. If you struggle to restrain yourself, then this will be a significant disadvantage when using HDR.

Conclusion

So as you can see, both Exposure Blending and HDR have there pros and cons. Which method you prefer will come down to personal preference, time, and skill. There is no right or wrong answer, and each method will have its own following of people who prefer using it.

It is good to learn the strengths and weaknesses of each method and the type of image each works best with. You are then able to use the most appropriate method for the given situation or image. The more post-processing techniques you are familiar with, the better. With choice, you can create the final image that you are after.

If you only wanted to invest time to learn and master one method, I would recommend Exposure Blending. It is my favored method over HDR. You have an unparalleled amount of control. And you can use the techniques you will learn to blend almost anything. You can even combine different tone-mapped versions of an HDR image together.

Regardless of the method you choose, an increased dynamic range will enhance your images. It might not be to everyone’s liking, though. But if you like images with increased dynamic range, you can’t go wrong with either of these two methods.

Over To You

What is your preferred technique? Do you prefer exposure blending or HDR? Or do you use them both? Let me know in the comments?

If you just want to learn more about exposure, then check out this article about the exposure triangle.

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