10 Reasons Why Your HDR Photos Suck

Have you noticed HDR photography gets a lot of criticism on the web? Why? Because HDR photography is hard, that's why. A lot can go wrong from shooting to processing. And it usually does.

The sad reality is the photography critics seem to be on the hunt for HDR photographers. Believe me, I've been there victims many times. They are like the grammar trolls of photography pointing out every detail and mistake.

So how do you shoot good HDR Photography? You can start by avoiding the following 10 reason for bad HDR.

One of the secrets to learning hdr photography is learning what not to do.

Reason #1: What you're shooting sucks to begin with

Just because your shooting HDR photography doesn't mean going out and shooting a tractor or construction site will generate an image anyone actually cares about. Remember, people love sharing stunning images, regardless of how it's processed, so focus on that.

Remember, when shooting landscapes or travel photography, being in the right place at the right time is everything. So plan your attack.

Reason #2: You're overdoing it

One of the many tricks I've learned in my professional career as an editor when it comes to color is, do your color correction, then dial it back by up to 50%. You'll be amazed at how helpful this is. Most of the time our images out of camera don't need nearly as much processes as we think they do. Especially if you're shooting stunning images to begin with.

So when you're doing HDR, turn that strength way down. You'll find it gives you cleaner images, with less halos, grain, and hyperreal colors.

Reason #3: You're rushing it

I'm guilty of this and I'm sure you are too. What I mean by this is not taking more time processing your photos. But allow yourself a break before posting it.

I always find that it really helps to walk away from your photo for a few hours or days, then coming back will open your eyes to a whole new perspective. It's really easy to get lost in the colors and saturation to the point where you become numb to what you're looking at. 

So get your photo to a good place, then walk away, finish it the next day. Don't just post it online after 15 minutes of working on it because it probably sucks and you'll see that the next day but it's too late. The HDR trolls will be feeding on it like a frenzy of sharks.

Reason #4: You don't have a plan

Another thing we're all guilty of. Throwing around sliders and presets until we find something we like rather then going for a predetermined look.

Instead, create an 'inspiration' folder on your computer, or pintrest, and start building a collection of images you find to be stunning. You'll find what you start to collect will reflect your taste and your style.

Now when you're processing and shooting your own HDR photos, compare them to your collection and you'll immediately notice the flaws in your HDR processing and you'll most likely know what you need to do to fix it.

Reason #5: You're oversaturating your images

The thing with HDR is, it tends to hyper saturate everything as it lifts the blacks and then adds artificial contrast back in. When in reality, darker areas should have less saturation. 

Use something like a luminosity mask to select only your shadows and turn down the saturation in areas that don't need it. Or turn down the saturation of only some colors.

Reason #6: Your skies are too dark

Look outside, you see it? Yep, the skies are typically a lot brighter than everything else. Often times HDR that sucks will have skies that are the same exposure or darker than the foreground, which leads me back to Reason #2, you're over doing it. Keep those settings turned low and you won't have this problem, or brighten your skies manually with Lightroom or Photoshop.

Reason #7: You're shooting HDR when it's not necessary

I got in the habit of doing this when I was first learning HDR photography. I would was addicted and would shoot everything HDR even when it was completely unnecessary. I would get a nicely exposed stunning image, then proceeded to take several exposure of it and smash all the colors and tones together completely making the image look unrealistic.

Sometimes you don't need all three images to tone map it. Just take that single exposure and run it through photomatix to give the colors and saturation a small pop. This really helps when taking landscape photos during that midday sun.

Reason #8: You're using the wrong applications

There are a handful of HDR programs and plugins out there. Photomatix, Nik's HDR Efex, Photoshop's HDR tool, SNS-HDR.

If you're finding that your photos are sucking try switching applications. Some of them suck which will make your photos suck. I recommend Photomatix. Out of the several I've tried I like it the best. You can also get my free presets here.

Reason #9: You're picking photos that are not worthy

When I was first starting HDR photography I was extremely guilty of this. This has to do a lot with Reason #1.

I was so anxious to get any 'art' out there and online that I started combing through my libraries again and again in hopes to find something I missed. And I usually did. But it sucked. Or simply wasn't worthy of greatness. I'd process it then post it only to be cluttering up my portfolio with junk.

It's always better to just go out there and shoot new content and don't look back. It's true you might find a gem here and there in your old collections, but don't get desperate. Always focus on capturing stunning images. There's no reason to rush your portfolio. My portfolio has taken years.

Reason # 10: You're simply not inspired

This is now the number one reason now why my photos turn out bad. I'll just be in a funky mood or over tired. Like today. I'm not going to process any images today because I know they'll turn out bad and I'll end up having to re-doing them when I'm in the mood.

Here's what I like to do to get inspired. Drink a little too much coffee, or I've been drinking yurba mate tea with coconut milk. Blast some music, and start browsing that inspiration folder.


Processing HDR photos isn't easy and takes some getting use to. By avoiding these pitfalls and incorporating some of these techniques I talked about, you should be able to greatly improve your HDR photography and produce some stunning work. 

Here is one of my better HDR Photos I took years ago. What's interesting is like mentioned in Reason #9, I always went back to this same day of shots hoping I could find more great photos, but this was the only shot that ever turned out any good, everything else sucked despite it being the same weather and the same location. I was just in the perfect place at the perfect time.

This HDR photo was taken in Redondo Beach California during an amazing summer sunset.

Camera: Canon 5Dmkii
Lens: Samyang 14mm
ISO 100, f/16, 1/90sec middle exposure.

What are some habits you learned to avoid that helped you improve your photography?