#82. HDR with the Sony NEX-5N

By pascaljappy | News

Jan 13

UPDATE : A summary of all this website’s reviews of the Sony NEX-5n and NEX-7 is now available.

Continuing my rolling review of the Sony Nex-5N, here are a few thoughts on the HDR capabilities of this little camera. All pictures on this page made with the Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8 or the Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8 (a lens to die for but unfortunately no longer produced. The bigger Apo Summicron-M 90/2 is apparently even better).

As usual, tiny images show very little. Click any picture for a larger version.

Cormorants at the end of the Bussleton Jetty in western australia. Sony Nex-5N and Leica Elmarit-M 90/2.8

The End of the Jetty. Nex-5N and Leica Elmarit-M 90

HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography is a technique that combines multiple pictures made at different exposures into a single frame that loses neither the highlights or the blacks. When a very high contrast scene cannot be captured by a single photograph because the sensor cannot cope with the huge amplitude in light between the shadows and the brightest areas, HDR comes to the rescue by making a series of bracketed exposures and using the highlights from the least exposed frame (which are not washed out in to white like they would be in a single frame) and the shadows from the most exposed one (so that they are not completely black as they would be in the single shot).

A yellow sea kayak on a green ocean under a blue sky in Busselton, Western Australia. Sony NEX-5N & Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Primary Colours, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

The talent with which the photographer recombines the variously exposed shots into a single image is what makes or breaks the final image. In my experience, HDR imagery has produced some of the ugliest pictures ever recorded and it’s a wonder that more computers haven’t crashed while displaying them 😉

What gives HDR its special look is the more or less extreme use of Tone Mapping, a technique that boosts local contrast in the final image. When multiple exposures are blended naturally into one, the result can look very flat and uninspiring, so local increases in contrast add liveliness. In small touches, that technique produces painterly images with no glare and plenty of colour. Overcooked, it looks like Technicolor vomit on drugs (to me, at least).

An overbooard HDR rendition of gardens in Perth, WA

Overcooked, Yuk. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

This is about as fugly as I’m prepared to go for demonstration purposes without damaging my pride, screen and eyesight 😉 But Google the term and, believe me, you will be rewarded by far more offending stuff for which hanging by the lens should be reintroduced.

Inside the camera

The Sony NEX-5N has two modes for capturing high contrast scenes:

  • The “purest” mode is accessed via the Brightness/Colour > DRO/AutoHDR menu. This takes 3 pictures separated by 0.6EV and combines them into one using no tone mapping. It produces the -most natural looking picture. The camera actually outputs two pictures : the normal one plus the HDR one. Neat for comparison.
  • The more “painterly” mode, actually named HDR Painting, available only in JPEG mode and accessed via the Brightness/Colour > Picture Effect > HDR painting menu. It comes in three strengths (available through the options button) which control the amount of tone mapping going on.
A blue shop in Subiacco, Perth. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Subiacco Blue, NEX-5N & iogon 25

The above and below picture, in Subiacco (Perth, WA) were made using the Auto HDR mode. They both look much more natural, while rendering a very large contrast range. Vignetting was added to the picture below.

A graffiti in Subiacco, Perth. Sony NEX-5N & Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

It's All Love, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Auto HDR is my favourite mode. I’m not sure it wouldn’t be possible to capture the same contrast range from a single RAW file using fill light and highlight recovery, but the pleasure of getting files that are useable immediately and without any manipulation is simply too great to resist on vacation 🙂

That being said, it can be tremendous fun to go wild with the HDR Painting mode, particularly to get colours that are already in the scene to pop out like crazy. Overboard ? Maybe. Fun? Certainly 🙂 Here are a few examples, at the mid setting. Health warning : Watch out for your eyes, colours popping out of the screen.

A fish cleaning sink on the Bussleton Jetty, WA. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Bad News For Fish, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

A red wall in Bussleton, WA. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

A Little Red Goes A Long Way, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

A red building in Busselton. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

More RED in Busselton. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

The blue information center at Busselton Jetty and a sail boat. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Feeling Blue? Sail Away! NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Notice the difference between this series and the previous 2? The HDR Painting looks less natural, more like dabs our paint on a canvas, with plenty of local retouching and artificial local contrast adjustment. It brings out the colours tremendously by reducing highligh glare and sahdows. A downside is that any colour cast, such as the magenta introduced by my polarizer in the last picture. This is easy to correct and doesn’t show in print, but the sRGB JPEG export bought it out again.

Note that the NEX-5N also offers a B&W HDR mode, though it calls it differently (Brightness/Colour > Picture Effect > Rich tone B&W). It’s not really my cup of tea since for me Black and White is all about tonality and HDR messes that up badly. But it does work if you like the looks.

Perth's Cathedral against a mottled sky in B&W and HDR. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Perth Cathedral

HDR and the polarizer

Speaking of polarizers, an unexpected result is that HRD pictures taken through a polarizer tend to look more natural than those without. If someone has an explanation, please leave a comment. But the fact is undeniable in my experience.

A beach near Dunsborough, WA. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25 mm

Secret Creek, Dunsborough. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Compare the two pictures below. The top one is without polarizer. The one below is made through the filter. To me, the tampering of tone mapping is less obvious.

A rocky creek in HDR with no polarizer. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

No Polarizer, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

A rocky creek in HDR with polarizer. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

With Polarizer, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Most of the sea pictures on this page were taking in HDR Painting with a polarizer.

Comparing all the modes

Here’s a morning scene with the sun just out of the frame on the left. The contrast range is quite high but there are no deep shadows and a RAW file can capture it whole. Here’s how the camera renders it in the various modes.

First, the out of the box JPEG:

A sunrise over the hills in Provence, jpeg mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise - JPEG. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Next, the Auto HDR: the effect is subtle, but the image is lighter and more alive.
A sunrise over the hills in Provence, auto HDR mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise - Auto HDR. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Next the RAW file with gentle massaging of the highlights and a boost in fill light: the sunlight entering from the left is clearly visible.
A sunrise over the hills in Provence, RAW mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise, RAW. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Next, Painting HDR, low setting: depending on your taste this may be pleasant or not. It’s vibrant and detailed without going overboard. But much of the subtlety of the morning light has been lost (see the houses, in the larger versions) I would have reduced clarity and vibrance slightly in LightRoom for a more natural effect (see below).
A sunrise over the hills in Provence, HDR Painting, LOW mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise, HDR Painting LOW. NEX-5N & Biogon

Next, HDR Painting MID: going over the edge.
A sunrise over the hills in Provence, HDR Painting MID mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise, HDR Painting MID. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

And, finally, “Mirror mirror on the wall, which is the ugliest of them all ?” HDR Painting HIGH:
A sunrise over the hills in Provence, HDR Painting HIGH mode. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Provence Sunrise, HDR Painting HIGH. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Thorns in the rose bed

As amusing and time-saving as in-camera HDR can be, it is not without its technical issues. In my hundreds of HDR attempts, most failures were aesthetical, as below:

Improper use of HDR on the Hong Kong skyline resulting in washed out and unnatural colours. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8


This picture shows us the most important lesson : Do not use HDR on low contrast scenes. The result looks terrible. But, if you look closer (click for larger picture), you will also notice that the individual frames did not overlap properly.

I have found this to show up most in low light situations. In HDR Painting mode, this is very rare and the camera is so quick that it has successfully made many HDR pictures from a fast-moving car (!!), as below:

An HDR picture of the fields in York, WA, made from a moving car. Sony NEX-5N and Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Speedy HDR, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

But the Auto HDR is much more twitchy and even slow-moving elements such as human figures have ruined countless attempts. This is baffling as 3 pictures are taken in either case, but it’s very evident when you use the NEX. See an example below (a car turning at a corner is not a fast moving object):

An HDR picture of a car produces a double image. Sony NEX-5N & Zeiss ZM Biogon 25/2.8

Seeing Double, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Ghost images aside, another problem encountered was the appearance of fuzzy squares in HDR Painting pictures (Auto HDR was immune):

A sunset over the Swan river in Perth. HDR processing produced mottled water patterns. Sony NEX-5N & Zeiss ZM Biogon

Dashed Sunset, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

This was very rare and only seemed to happen in the sky or other featureless areas.

A more frequent artifact is the halo that appears around sharp tonal transitions. See the mast below (click for larger picture):

Magenta skies and haloed masts, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

There is nothing to do about this and the phenomenon happens also in out of camera HDR processing software. If you’re serious about HDR, take a separate (non HDR) picture to patch up local artifacts.

And finally, note that HDR can be very unkind to human skin. Avoid this mode for portraits unless you are picking a fight. Here’s a sample:

Two men looking at a woman

Here's Looking At You, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

Taming the beast

When you’re using in-camera creative modes, it isn’t to have to alter the images later in software. You’re much better off with a RAW file if you intend to do any manipulations. But one technique that did prove useful when some of the HDR pictures came out a bit over-cooked was the reduce vibrance and clarity slightly in LightRoom. See below:

A barn before contrast lowering

The Barn - Before. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

After minor lowering of contrast and vibrance (and a gentle push in saturation):
A barn after contrast lowering

The Barn - Fater. NEX-5N & Biogon 25

What is it for?

All in all, this will probably just pass as a gimmick, just as partial colour and Toy Camera (don’t get me started on Toy Camera, it’s GREAT!! 🙂 But it’s very interesting to use if you know where you’re heading. Yes, it can and will produce ghastly images in the wrong conditions. And yes (unfortunately, most pictures will still need a bit of retouching to look more natural (non have been altered on this page, unless mentioned). But in the end, it’s a brilliantly implemented and very useful feature on this type of camera (remember this is not your Pro or penile-distrophy-compensating amateur Nikon D3s, we’re reviewing here).

On your bike, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

What I think it does best, is bring out the colour qualities and the atmosphere that are already in a scene. It should be looked at as a creative tool, not as a work around for poor lighting. When light is flat, it will only look worse (get dodging in LightRoom instead). Avoid contrasty skies on dull landscapes. Avoid dull scenery. Think of it as a polarizer with a twist. By removing highlight glare and black shadows, it flattens the view into 2D and brings out the atmosphere. It will kill off glow and atmospheric subtleties, keep if for bright landscapes.

A Jaguar Car in Subiacco

The Jag in Subiacco, NEX-5N & Biogon 25

An old Rolls Royce in Subiacco, HDR

The Roller in Subi


I love it ! 🙂 As many other features of this wonderful little camera, HDR encourages experimentation and fun. As for panoramas, it will not replace tripod-based multiple exposures in a hurry. But for learning and creative thinking, it is perfect and will produce very high quality results when the conditions are right.

For a more elaborate presentation of HDR, switch to Luminous Landscape’s recent article. But be sure to be back for more 😉 And please press the buttons below 🙂 It helps.

I’ll leve you with a few more samples. Hope you like them. Please share.

In York, WA

York Cowboys

An old car in derilict York, WA

Y 310

Sunset at Garvey Park

Sunset at Garvey Park

Fish in a tank


A small village in china

Rural China (Hong Kong, in fact)

Ten thousand Buddhas Temple, Hong Kong

10000 Buddhas

An alley in the Walled City Park in Hong Kong

The Walled City

Two Dragon statues inside the Walled City Park in Hong Kong

The Dragon Guards

  • float_world says:

    Enjoyed reading this post very much.

    I agree with the over use of HDR these days; I prefer a more subtle approach but to each their own I guess. I appreciate it as a tool to massage something extra out of a scene that might not otherwise be noticeable but I don’t like when a photo screams “HI, I’M HDR! EXTREMELY NICE TO MEET YOU!!”
    I have experimented with the rich tone B&W as I’m in a bit of a minimal colour phase. I will definitely apply your findings with the some of the other picture effects and give it a try.

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi 🙂 Thank you for the comment. I hope you have fun with the rich tone mono mode. I’ve found it to be useful against the sun, where it keeps harshness at bay and doesn’t underexpose the subject. It doesn’t look flat, which is nice. At times, the pictures do get that HDR look, but not as often as in colour. Enjoy!

  • Larry says:

    Thanks so much for this guide through HDR with the NEX-5N, I have had my camera for some time and am just now finding out how to get the best out of the HDR. One of the main reasons I bought it . The manuel is worthless. The other thing I love about the 5N is I am able to use my old fast lenses that I had retired under plexiglass on the shelf. The f1.2 and 1.4 are working great with manual focus and the touch screen bringing objects super close for tight for rasor sharp focus: Larry

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi Larry, glad that this was useful to you. I agree with you, the NEX-5N is so much fun with older lenses. We’re very fortunate to have access to such high image quality + legacy lens compatibility at such a reasonable price. To me the focus assist is better than any autofocus in the world because it lets you focus with near 100% accuracy on any area you choose. Wonderful camera.

  • liesel rowe says:

    hi there
    how did you achieve the double exposure as seen in the car turning the corner. was it on shutter mode with you slightly turning the camera or other? super interested

    • pascaljappy says:

      Actually, the camera did that all by itself while shooting 2 of the 3 exposures in HDR mode. There really should be 3 images of the car, but for some reason only two show up. All in all, the effect is a software mistake, but I like it 🙂

  • Sam J says:

    Is there a good way to do non-auto hdr? That is, just bracketing 3 or 5 exposures and getting a .raw file out?

    • pascaljappy says:

      Hi there,

      unfortunately it isn’t possible to obtain a raw file from 3 exposures. A JPEG yes. And a set of 3 RAWs for you to work with in your favorite editing software.


  • yonathan says:

    Seriously I wish all tutorials were build this way,
    great explanation, many examples, cool text,
    You have helped a lot so thank you very much

  • reedbee says:

    Excellent stuff. I’ve been googling the heck out of my 5N trying to make sense of HDR and exposure settings, trying to achieve a realistically enhanced look without ending up in “blown out” territory. This is tremendously informative, and blessedly THOROUGH. Thank you.

  • Hi everyone, I’m new here. I’m a marketing professional and the creator of the Chirt . I enjoy tech and gadgets, marketing and branding, audio/video production, etc. Hopefully I will find this forum useful!

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