When One RAW is Enough: Learning to Work With Your DSLR's Dynamic Range

Yellowstone Lake at Dusk

Yellowstone Lake at Dusk

One of the above photos is an HDR composite of three RAW files and the other is just one RAW.  Can you tell which is which?

Didn't think so (for the record, the HDR is the bottom).  That's because this was a case where one RAW file gave me enough dynamic range to bring out the shadows and highlights.  I should start by saying that this post is inspired in part by Rick Sammon's post Goodbye HDR!  Hello EDR?.  In it, Rick talks about how many photographers are stepping away from HDR now that camera sensors are able to capture so much dynamic range in one shot.  If you're unfamiliar with HDR, which stands for high dynamic range, it's a method of combining several shots, some underexposed, some overexposed, to avoid having to make some parts of the image too dark and some parts too light.  I'm currently using 32-bit HDR.  You can find a tutorial for it here.

HDR is a useful tool when the scene calls for it.  Here are a few shots I wouldn't have been able to pull off with just one RAW:

La fenĂȘtre

Snow White's Wishing Well

A Walk in the Woods

A Look Through Cunningham Cabin

The shots at the very top of the post, however, are not of a high-contrast scene requiring HDR.  I don't like to use HDR when the scene doesn't call for it.  First of all, HDR images, even when done with a tripod, are susceptible to fringing and ghosting (which can sometimes be removed by masking back in one of the RAW files).  Why waste time trying to get rid of those problems when you don't have to?  Second of all, having all those extra RAW files takes up a ton of extra space on your hard drive.  Being an amateur photographer on a budget, I can't justify buying tons of extra hard drives.  Shooting RAW most of the time is already takes up plenty hard drive space.

Just in case you were wondering if there is a difference in the two images at the top, let's have a look.  First, here are what the 3 RAW files looked like untouched (I used the EV 0 for the image which was not HDR):

The image on the right is supposed to say EV: +2...oops!

The image on the right looks the most correctly exposed for the scene, but unfortunately, the highlights are blown out in the sky.  At first, I thought the image on the left was a little underexposed (which it is), but I was able to salvage the shadows with minimal noise in Adobe Camera Raw.  Just so you can see what the darkest part of the image looks like up close, here is a comparison:

Now, a pixel peeper might say there is more noise in the image on the right, but I say, if I ever blow up my image that big, I will probably not be standing that close to it anyway.

What are your thoughts on the matter?  Do you think HDR is always a better choice when you can do it, or do you think sometimes one RAW is all it takes?


  1. It is hard to tell where one raw compared to at least three were used. I like hdr for the range of light in an image and then with software, the tones can be adjusted to taste.


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