HDR photography hits mainstream

The New York Times has a wonderful summary article of High Dynamic Range photography.

(I have a strong suspicion that the article is heavily influenced by discussion on the HDR Flickr group.)

This was a little serendipitous because I had a discussion at lunch where I heard the tired old line that “nothing new is in Photoshop since x came out” and I pointed out some of the features in CS2, of which HDR support was one of them.


I dabble with HDR, and I’ll probably do so again. And my basic problem with HDR is that the photos end up looking very unnatural:

Horsetail Falls (HDR), Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area

Horsetail HDR
Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, Oregon

Nikon D70, Nikon D70, 12-24mm f/4G
3 exposures (2.5″, 0.6″, 1/6″) @ f/22, iso 200, 12mm (18mm)

This complaint was addressed in the article:

But Ms. Joffre’s theory is that the pros’ assessments are based on photography’s traditional limitations — in effect, how people think photos should look, rather than the actual dynamic range of scenes.

“People sometimes say it doesn’t look like a photograph, it looks like a painting,” Ms. Joffre said. “But if your camera was perfect it would take an H.D.R. image.”

Why HDR being “more real” is bullshit

If it isn’t fucking obvious that there is a complete loss of contrast in an HDR-processed photo, you need to look at more HDR-processed photos.

The deal is that while the eye does have a dynamic range equivalent to an HDR image, it does not look at a scene all at once. If we look in the shadow area, the brightness of the the sunny area is still relatively greater than in an HDR shot. If we look in the bright area, the darkness of the shadow area is still relatively more than in an HDR shot.

For instance, look at my Horsetail HDR shot again. If you were actually visit this waterfall would your eye actually notice that the water cascading down is actually blue? or does it perceive it as white?

The blue of the water was “correctly” captured by the HDR photograph, but does that make it perfect?

In other words: should we go around taking all our photographs with no white balance correction? No gels on our strobes? According to Ms. Joffre, we should because “if your camera was perfect” there is no need to correct for color. That color is reality, and our eyes are lying to us.

Photography as an art

An yet, our eyes are the final arbiter of taste. Photography is not engineeering; it is an art. And like an art, it constantly strives to express the world around them not as it is, but as it means.

Look again at my photograph. If I wanted to express this waterfall as it is seen by my eye, I’d have dropped the frame rate down to 1/30 of a second to get the same blurring that my eye sees. But as a photographer, I chose not to. I found the waterblur of a much longer exposure aesthetically pleasing.

This is why for nature photography, I prefer digital blending.

Redwoods and West Berry Creek

Redwoods and West Berry Creek
Big Basin State Park, Santa Cruz Mountains, California

Nikon D70, Nikkor 12-24mm f/4G
(3 exposures at 1/4″, 1.3″ and 3″) @ f/16, iso 200, 12mm (18mm)

Digital blending is my an older way of doing HDR photography. It is a photographer saying, “Well, here is the light and shadow that paints this photograph, and I don’t have this sort of dynamic range on my monitor (or on paper). I choose to digitally blend things to express how the light painted this scene.”

A different person chooses to purchase a gradient ND filter to express that; you may choose to use an HDR tool or plugin to do so. That’s fine!

But your preference is an artistic decision and not one about “perfection” or “actual dynamic range.”

That cameras record a scene without the need of a photographer is an amateur’s wet dream. That we can attain perfection or actual in art is a myth perpetuated by the innate realism and immediacy of a photograph—one expressive medium in Art.

But as photographers, we should know better.

5 thoughts on “HDR photography hits mainstream

  1. Terry thanks for commenting on my HDR post. You make a great point in this post. It’s easy to see photography from an analytical or art perspective. Somehow photography has been interpreted culturally as a pure reflection of reality. Perhaps this is an extension of everyones exposure to photojournalism. HDR provides a great avenue for people with this mindset to clutch to this interpretation or analytical photographic philosophy. On the other end of the spectrum HDR also allows people to butcher images with over manipulation. Either of these situations ultimately filter down to what you discuss here. Thanks for pointing this entry out to me.

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