James Brandon — Realistic HDR Photography

expedition everest - james brandon
My jaws dropped when I first saw this image created by James Brandon. That was my first time experiencing HDR (High Dynamic Range imaging) and it changed my perception towards photography. Here we are in conversation with the man himself.

james brandonJames Brandon
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Special Mention:
Author for Digital Photography School
Editor at HDR Spotting
Technique: HDR (Professional)

Q. How did you get introduced to HDR photography?
A. I stumbled onto it. I was looking for some images to use on a video project I was working on. But all the photographs I came across were the same old style of imagery I was used to. Then I came across an HDR image and I was immediately hooked. From there on, I was determined to pursue HDR. And the rest is history, I guess!
Q. HDR has been around for a long time now. People were appreciative of it when they first saw it in the ‘Star Wars’ films. But somehow the still photography world views it with a mixed bag of emotions. What do you think about this?
A. Yes, the idea of HDR and overcoming the limitations of a camera have been around since as early as 1856, with Gustave Le Gray’s “Brig On The Water.” He used a technique called ‘combination printing.’ This HDR stuff is nothing new; Ansel Adams blended exposures in the dark room all the time.

A great analogy for this question is the history of pianos.

When pianos first came on the scene hundreds of years ago, they were only accessible to the extremely wealthy. Therefore, the people using pianos to play publicly were extremely talented and seasoned musicians, with countless hours spent on training and perfecting their technique.
Somewhere along the way, pianos became affordable to the general public. When the masses got a hold of it, they started creating their own style of music and with that came a whole lot of, well, noise. While most of the music being composed was nonsense, there were also plenty of virtuosos coming out of the woodworks who completely changed the world of music. However, all the rich and classically trained pianists saw only the noise.
I know this is a bit long winded, but I think it illustrates the point perfectly. If you Google for HDR or search on Flickr, it doesn’t take very long to get turned off by what you’re looking at. Because photography and even the world of HDR is so accessible now, everyone is trying it. And with the invention of flickr and the internet age, the results can be in front of millions of people in seconds.
Q. In the SIKE – HDR Collaboration blog post, somehow I felt that your rendition was more ‘real’ than others. How long did it take you to perfect this art?
sike - hdr collaboration

A. Well, I certainly haven’t perfected photography or HDR. Once I believe I have, I will be unteachable and incapable of growing as a photographer! The collaboration projects are great because we put the same image in front of multiple photographers and they process that image through their own creative eye. The result is always incredibly interesting.
As far as my rendition and style, for sometime now, I have been leaning towards a more ‘real’ processing style. I’ve always been an advocate of staying away from extremes in life. While it is certainly just my opinion, I think it’s a mistake to take an extreme viewpoint on any subject, because your mind becomes shut off to opposing viewpoints. Then you begin to live in a vacuum with other like-minded people. One extreme is the self proclaimed ‘purists’ who think ‘Photoshop is for the devil’ and the only real image is the one straight from the camera.

SIKE - rendition by different artists
SIKE rendition by different artists – Click image to see full blog post

The other end is the photographer utilizing HDR who pushes their processing to the extreme, creating the ‘psychedelic’ feel to their images. What I’ve striven to do with my processing is to utilize HDR for the clear benefits of overcoming the camera limitations of capturing all the light, while still maintaining an aspect of realism and believability in the final image. This isn’t the wrong way or the right way of doing things, but it’s simply my way and what makes me happy with my images.

A Comparison of My Style

This is a blog post (link) where I compared very similar images of mine that were processed about a year apart from each other.


This is my early attempt and in my opinion, a mess. The sky goes from golden sunlight, to gray stormy clouds, to a pixelated mess of blue. This is the result of poor HDR processing. The whole scene is just a bit over saturated. While most people will never notice it, my camera bag is sitting in the bushes on the right side of the image by the lens flare.


This is my recent attempt and is clearly my favorite.
Q. From my experience, I have realized that HDR is the best tool to use while photographing mountains and places of worship like temples and churches because the end product somehow captures the aura around the place. Do you have any special preference like this when it comes to HDR?
A. Every situation is different. Photography is all about light, so the determining factor for whether to use HDR or not is, well, light. My main decisive factor in choosing HDR is whether or not I can capture the light in one frame. That’s all I’m trying to do.

My style isn’t due to HDR, it’s a product of my post processing techniques in Photoshop and other programs.

If I can capture the light in a scene with one image, I always will. It saves me time in post processing! If I can’t, I will turn to HDR and usually start with 5 exposures. So, as far as preferences go, I can’t say that there is any situation where I will always use the HDR technique. It simply depends on what I’m feeling at the time, what I want to create and whether I can capture the light properly.
Q.What kind of gear do you use?

Camera Body – Canon EOS 1Ds mark III, 5D mark II with BG-E2 grip and 40D

Lens – Canon EF 70-200mm f/2.8l USM, 24-70mm f/2.8l USM, 50mm f/1.4 USM and 15mm f/2.8 Fisheye

Tripod – Bogen/Manfrotto 055XPROB Legs and Manfrotto 322RC2 grip action ball head

Filters – I don’t use any filters at the moment. I’m not opposed to them, it just isn’t something I have felt the need to pursue at this time.

Q. What is your favorite lens? Why?
A. My 24-70mm is my baby. It’s wide enough for just about any situation, but still has the ability to create some compression in the scene, if I need it. I use this lens probably 80-90% of time for my travel and landscape work.
Q. Can you explain your post-processing workflow?
A. Most of my post processing work is done in Photoshop. If I have a single image, I will open it in Adobe Camera RAW to bring in the shadows or highlights, if needed. Then I make small adjustments for color, noise, details etc. before bringing it to Photoshop.
If it’s an HDR image, I almost always use a program called HDR Express by Unified Color. I use this program because it gives me more realistic results that I’m looking for. It’s incredibly easy and quick to use.
Tail Lamp - James Brandon
Once in Photoshop, I use a variety of programs and plug-ins to get to my final image. The main programs I use are Topaz Labs’ Photoshop Bundle and OnOne Perfect Photo Suite. I do a lot of masking and brush work to apply filters to my images. One of the most common mistakes that I found is people applying filters globally to the entire image. When you do that, in most cases, it will result in a flat image. Not only you can use light and shadows to guide the viewers eyes, but also you can use detail and color!
Q. Can you criticize my HDR attempts?

Shot 1 – Ferocious (Temple on the Mountain-top, Kerala)

Ferrocious - aneeskA
A. Great shot. I really like the warm, golden tones in the sky and that you didn’t over process the clouds. The sticks or poles in the foreground are a bit distracting and feel out of place, and the electrical lines trailing off the right side of the frame sort of takes away the potentially timeless feel to the image.

If there are distractions like this present in a scene, sometimes it’s best to get in tight and focus on a certain part of the building.

You don’t feel the need to get the entire building in the frame. Sometimes, honing in the details of the building is the best way to really capture its essence.

Shot 2 – Pious (The gateway to peace and sanctity, Tripunithura Temple, Kerala)

Pious - aneeskA
A. While any photograph needs a bit of mystery in it, I feel this one has a bit too much. My eye is immediately drawn to the arch in the center of the frame, but I have no idea what I’m looking at. I then go up to the ceiling and while I can tell there is some really great artwork up there, I can’t see enough of it to really appreciate it.
In my opinion, it would have been great to either shoot higher up towards the ceiling and focus on the artwork, or get a bit close to the arch and brighten that whole area up a bit so that we can see what’s going on there.
Q. What is the one thing a newbie should keep in mind while taking or developing an HDR photo?

Have fun! Don’t pursue photography for anyone but yourself.

If the masses like it, great. If they don’t, who cares if it makes you happy! HDR takes a lot of work, so be patient and always be open to constructive criticism and learning.
Q. Among the many HDR artists, who do you think is better than you?
A. There are plenty of photographers whose work constantly amazes me. I wouldn’t say they are better or worse photographers than myself, they just have different ways of going about their craft. I create HDR images for myself, so how could someone else be better or worse at that than me? The HDR photographers I am constantly inspired by and follow can be found here.
Photogs-I-Follow - James Brandon
Q. Do you follow any blog/magazine for inspiration or look at the works of fellow photographers?
A. I am an editor for a site called HDR Spotting, and I think it is probably the single best source for browsing the work of other HDR photographers. The ‘featured’ and ‘Editors pick’ section are chalk full of incredible imagery that will leave you amazed.
Q. Is there something you wish you knew when you started photography?
A. In the beginning, I wish I had surrounded myself with other photographers. I’m currently a part of a local photography group through meetup.com and it is awesome. I think a  new and aspiring photographer should surround themselves with other photographers to learn from them and grow.

Our favorite James shot – Rising Tide

Why is this our favorite?
Because it made me realize HDR can be created from a single image. Click on the image to understand how it can be done.