HDR— Is it worth the extra $$?

Updated: Feb 20, 2019

High Dynamic Resolution (HDR) photography is often touted as a better way to shoot real estate. But is it worth paying the extra for HDR? Let’s have a peek under the hood of HDR and see.

Full HDR.

The holy grail of photography is to produce a photo with as much detail in the shadows and in the highlights as the human eye can perceive. This is the “dynamic range” challenge, and so far a camera falls short. High Dynamic Resolution is a software-based process that tries to extend the dynamic range of a photo bringing it a lot closer to what your eye can see. It solves the problem by merging the best areas of multiple exposures to achieve a much greater dynamic range than just one normal photo.

A camera usually captures one end of the range or the other. Either the highlights hold detail, but the shadows are just blocks of black, or there is detail in the shadows, but the highlights are blown out—but not both at the same time. HDR manages to extend that range pretty well, but it’s not perfect and doesn’t improve every shot.

HDR was introduced about a decade ago and was quickly seized upon by agents as a tool to make their listing look better than reality. It was cool (still is). You see, in addition to improving the dynamic range, HDR also has a tendency to lend a fantasy look to an image if you desire. This fantasy look was all the rage for a short while.

HDR fantasy look
A cluttered look becomes a fantasy look.

Sellers loved it, but buyers complained that the property wasn’t as pretty as in the photos. After a while, things settled down and many agents went back to standard photography, thinking HDR was just a fad and incapable of producing a faithful representation of the property. However, when applied correctly, HDR can enhance the photo without the “fantasy” look. It can capture details in the highlights and the shadows and give your property greater depth of detail, as promised.

Now, there are a couple of side effects with HDR that you should recognize. HDR tends to bring out the grain in wooden objects, such as furniture, cabinets, and floors—a bonus! But it also tends to emphasize the oranges and reds in the wood, resulting in an unnatural hue. This can be countered in the software, but because the editor's eye can become adjusted to this new hue, he may not notice the orange effect. Anyway, this is only a "gotcha" if not caught and fixed.

HDR Family Room
HDR makes wood grain pop, but the whites are not clean.

A larger problem is that white ceilings and walls take on a bit of a soiled look. They can look dirty. Not good for real estate sales, but that too can be minimized.

The third effect that bugs HDR is that the white areas of an interior are usually lit by incandescent light which has a yellow hue. Our eyes adapt to see it as white and the camera sees it as white when set appropriately. That’s why your camera’s white balance setting has a sunny icon representing the outdoors and a lightbulb icon for the indoors. Outdoors has a blue hue. So when the camera is set for the interior whites, then the window light comes out as blue. This doesn’t bother most people since their attention is focused on the interior features. But if you’re aiming for perfection, blue windows fall short.

HDR also has a tendency to produce a yellower (warmer) image when it is lit primarily by indoor incandescent bulbs. Once again, this can be adjusted in editing.

So, let’s bring this back to the simple question of whether you should order HDR or not. Bottom line is that you can order HDR is an attractive enhancement for all your shoots and you can rest assured that they will come out beautifully when edited by an experienced photographer.

The only downside left is the price. HDR is a bit more expensive because of the extra editing work. You may want to order standard photography for lower-priced homes and HDR for the high priced spreads.

Here’s my rule of thumb: if your property has white ceilings that are not over 12 feet high your photographer can use flash to capture a color-true image. You won’t have all the detail that HDR provides, but that's your choice. This means that most homes below 2000 square feet qualify for the cheaper flash method. Still, if you want to get a little extra "oomph" in your photography, HDR it the ticket.

If the ceilings are higher, or dark, as in natural wood, flash will not bounce around the room and will leave a lot of blocked up details in the shadows. Because HDR is an available light method, high, dark ceilings are no problem and those details can come back. So choose HDR for high ceilings.

Another issue with standard flash photography is colored walls and/or ceilings. Bounced flash will pick up the color of the surface it is bounced off of, so other colors in the room become distorted. HDR is a better solution to this problem as well.

Exteriors work well for HDR.

I always use HDR for exteriors, even if the customer has not ordered the upgrade. Bright areas outside are very bright and shadows under a porch or entryway can block up. So, once again, HDR is the solution brings the two extremes together and adds that extra kick.

My recommendation is to let your photographer decide where he/she needs HDR and understand that there may be an upcharge for those shots. Or order the money shots in HDR. In this way, you’ll only pay for the more expensive shots where needed and pocket the savings on the rest.

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