When and how to ditch HDR and use image averaging instead

Feb 1, 2021

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

When and how to ditch HDR and use image averaging instead

Feb 1, 2021

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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When photographing scenes with tricky lighting and high dynamic range, many photographers use HDR. But in some scenarios, it’s far from being the best option. In fact, you should better ditch it and use image averaging instead. In this video, Spencer Cox gives you some examples of this technique and suggests when you should use it instead of HDR. He also shows you how to use it, but objectively points out some of its downsides as well.

YouTube video

In some scenarios, image averaging will give you similar results to HDR. Spencer took some photos inside this large pipe to demonstrate it:

HDR
Image Averaging

So, why would you use image averaging if you can just use HDR? Well, there are some cases when HDR looks darn bad. Or in my case, that’s every single attempt.

HDR gone wrong

But even if you’re not like me, if there’s some movement in your scene, your HDR photo will also look dreadful. You’ll have some weird artifacts around the areas where there’s movement, and they can’t be easily fixed in post. With image averaging, you might still get some blur in these areas, but they will look a lot better than they would in HDR. Spencer took some photos of a palm tree in the breeze, and you can see the result after HDR merging and image averaging:

HDR detail
Image averaging detail

How to do image averaging?

It’s fairly simple: you should take four same photos of your scene, just make sure that nothing in them is overexposed. Open them as layers in Photoshop, select all of them, and convert them to a Smart Object. Then go to Layer > Smart Objects > Stack >Mean (you can also choose Median here). This will average your photos and recover some shadow detail without adding noise.

The amount of shadow recovery depends on the number of photos you created. To recover the shadows by one stop, you need to take two photos. Four photos will recover the shadows by two stops. Double that, and you’ll recover three stops… You get the math:

The downsides of image averaging

Apparently, the major downside of this technique is that you have to take a bunch of photos if you want to recover shadows by three or more stops. Another downside is that image averaging can only be done in Photoshop, while you can easily merge HDR in Lightroom. This isn’t the end of the world, but it can mess up your workflow a bit.

So, while image averaging isn’t the “one technique to rule them all,” there are situations when it will definitely be a better choice than HDR. I’ve personally learned about it from Spencer’s video, and I’ll be sure to try it out. Do you already use it? Or you rather stick with HDR?

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Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic

Dunja Djudjic is a multi-talented artist based in Novi Sad, Serbia. With 15 years of experience as a photographer, she specializes in capturing the beauty of nature, travel, and fine art. In addition to her photography, Dunja also expresses her creativity through writing, embroidery, and jewelry making.

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6 responses to “When and how to ditch HDR and use image averaging instead”

  1. John M Fuller Avatar
    John M Fuller

    Neither, I usually shoot one stop under exposed (sometimes less), and adjust it in editing. I also have a hand held, graduated neutral density filter that helps when unexposure itself isn’t enough.

    1. Marius Budu Avatar
      Marius Budu

      This is my preferred method of shooting as well. It has an ever so slight effect on the colors but once color grading is applied, that slight shift becomes irrelevant.

    2. Dunja Đuđić Avatar
      Dunja Đuđić

      Same here (the underexposed method). I tried HDR many times and it always looks like sh… Ahem, it looks very ugly. ? Still, I will try the averaging out of curiosity. ?

  2. Paul Monaghan Avatar
    Paul Monaghan

    Sigma fp does this in camera when shooting lower than iso 100.

    It also allows shutter speeds upto 500s.

    Many cameras can also do this using a multi shot mode, my very old Pentax k10d (10mp ccd chip) could do this also and give one raw file that had less noise and more dynamic range.

    1. DisqAss Avatar
      DisqAss

      How its called im Pentax? Thx

  3. Yurkys Borges Avatar
    Yurkys Borges

    I’ve been using this “image averaging” technique recently quite often, but I first learned about it as a method to increase detail and resolution, and reduce noise at the same time. It’s best to use the “burst” or continuous shooting mode to minimize movement and get the best results. I found that it actually gives good results and does indeed reduce image noise and increases details. Very useful for low light and night photography when you shoot hand held and need to use a high ISO value and fastest shutter speed possible to avoid blur. I’ve done it with bursts of 7 images at ISO 3200 with a small sensor camera drone in dark conditions, and it yields very good and clean images with no noise visible!