The World in Black and White HDR

Scott Bourne recently mentioned something to me that really struck a chord. He told me how surprised many people are when he mentions in classes that you can make HDR (High Dynamic Range) images in black and white. I told him I got the same reaction, and I thought it was just localized to me because my photos are normally so colorful. By sharing this little experience with me, now I can see this may be of universal interest, so I should write a little article about it!

HDR Tutorial

I have a FREE HDR Tutorial for Mac or HDR Tutorial for Windows here on that describes the step by step process. If you’d like to dive deeper, I also have video tutorials for Aurora HDR Pro on a Mac and a separate one for using Photomatix Pro on Windows. Both tutorials show how I use the tools for a variety of situations… landscapes, sunrise/sunset, people, motion, etc.

HDR is about light; it’s not about color.

If you consider yourself a colorist, like me, then you do tend to gravitate to light with color. After all, that is the world in which we live. Monet, the Impressionist painter, whose tonemapped landscapes shocked the establishment, said, “Shadows are not black. No shadow is black.” For most ambient daylight situations, this is absolutely true. We can indeed have some dark shadows, but these are often at night, indoors, or with man-made lighting situations.

B&W photography and HDR photography are thought to be worlds apart. Whenever I speak to groups, there is a consistent 20% or so that absolutely hate HDR, won’t like it, and never will. Then, there is about another 20% that leans on what is rapidly becoming an annoying old saw, “I like HDR, but only if it is subtly applied.”

Swallowing the Ruins

Swallowing the Ruins – Creative Commons, no commercial use, Trey Ratcliff

It is curious to me that B&W photographers are often the first to criticize HDR as being “unrealistic”. If I were to retort that the world is indeed NOT black and grey and white, so their photography is intrinsically unrealistic, this is often met with scoffs because it is already a respected niche. However, once we get past all these ridiculous pedantic arguments (which I always feel like I win because I honestly don’t care as much as the other party in the argument), we can start to discuss how light works.

For artistic reasons, many B&W photographers can crank up the shadows and lights to make hard edges, wonderful shapes, and enshroud the photo with mystery. After all, that emo kid in the corner with the stupid hat looks so much more emo when the hard shadow falls across his pierced nose. Wonderful! Okay, so that form of B&W photography is alive and well, and it will always be an option for people who want to play around within well-established genres.

The edges of the Flatiron

Afternoon at the Flatiron – Creative Commons, no commercial use, Trey Ratcliff

So, what’s going on with an HDR B&W anyway? Good question! Let me see if I can explain it. I will assume that your eye can indeed see more light levels than your camera can capture. Like Ron Burgandy said, “It’s science!” The goal is to get all the light levels your human eye can see into the final image.

First, for those of you that have seen my new HDR book “A World in HDR” or read the online HDR Tutorial, you know that HDR photos are often (but not always) shot by taking 3 or more exposures at different shutter speeds.

We are all familiar with “compositing” photos, in which we might take the blown-out area of one photo and replace it with the perfectly exposed area of another photo. This was a painstaking process before photoshop, but it’s still no cake-walk in there either. I wanted to say this because HDR is not this simplistic compositing in which you can take big “chunks” of a photo and replace them with other perfectly exposed chunks from other photos.

The HDR process will take those multiple exposures and mix them all together on the pixel-by-pixel level. It would be the same as a human doing back-breaking compositing by looking at each individual pixel and choosing which of the three images the final one should come from. Crazy! We can let the software (which I recommend in the HDR Tutorial), do the same thing that the human brain does when interpreting light levels.

I prefer to use the software to make a color version and then convert to B&W later in Photoshop. Then, you can mess with the greens and blues and all those crazy things you know you like to play with. You’ll see wonderful little light details and textures that maybe you have been missing for years.

The Forgotten

An abandoned ruin in Cambodia – Creative Commons, no commercial use, Trey Ratcliff

I invite you to try this and compare it to a “regular” B&W photo. You can also make HDRs from a single RAW file (see above links), so perhaps you have some old ones sitting around. Try it with a handful of images and then look at them side by side. Maybe you will find something unexpected!

Little Warning #1: Be careful of the HDR process on human skin. Just as in the situation with flat blue skies, the algorithm gets a little confused and can cause problems. In these cases, just mask in the original RAW where the skin resides.

Little Warning #2: This is a fun and addictive thing. You may miss out on the birthday of a loved one or something, so it’s best to try this in measured doses.

  • Dear Trey,
    Just want to lend another voice to the chorus: the only thing that matters is the image…and then it only matters on a subjective level. Absolute ideals will go the way of the dinosaurs. I think far too many people cling to some comforting ideology and are sadly blind to the awe inspiring.

    Keep shooting.


  • Weegees


  • Michael Kim

    I live in AZ, one of the most photographed states in the lower 48. To avoid taking the same color pics of the always jaw-dropping red rock formations in Sedona that have been photographed thousands (millions?) of times, I turn to B&W HDR with a tripod. Combined with the ‘right’ composition & lighting, I can create a mood or evoke an emotion that a color HDR photo can’t. The most common reaction I get for good B&W HDR photo is ‘Wow! How did you DO that???’

  • Good idea and thanks for the link! 🙂

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