The HDR Dilemma

January 01, 2013  •  1 Comment

I enjoy reading the varied reactions of expert photographers to HDR.  It would be a disappointing and certainly a colorless field if photography didn’t stir some debate over the mechanics as well as the art. Some of us have struggled for years with the limits of image capture with traditional films from Tri-X to Kodachrome.  And we have further struggled in the transition to digital capture.  None of these technologies, regardless their attributes accurately replicate what the human eye records.  We seem to be divided on what we want the camera to do and what we think the viewer wants to see.  Is it about the replication of reality or about invoking an emotion in the viewer? Or is it some combination of the two? 


Digital photographers rely on the technology to assure exposure and color reproduction is as accurate as possible, but what do we mean by accurate?  The problem is that the digital camera and the software are increasingly more sophisticated, though it is still an imperfect technology.  The human eye works together with the brain to consume and analyze images.  The mathematical algorithms they use are practically incomprehensible and are unique to the individual.  Accuracy is unique to the viewer.


We often forget that our eye takes in three-dimensional images with a dynamic range far exceeding that of the best camera on the market today.  No camera comes near to capturing the wealth of visual information analyzed and recorded in our brains.  But most importantly, that which the eye takes in is more than an image.  It becomes a thought.  It rubs shoulders with the emotions that are manufactured in the brain, sometimes evoking subtle changes in our thinking, sometimes flooding us with fear, joy, dread.  The image perceived in the human brain not only triggers our emotions, but more importantly links with our memories, and the experience of sight becomes far bigger than technical accuracy of the image.


At this time in history, High Dynamic Range imaging can be completed in the firmware in some newer cameras to help capture information from the darker regions of the scene as well as information that is too well-lit and thus overexposed.  The human eye has amazing dynamic range and can often discern the details on the opposite ends of the exposure spectrum for the brain to process.  High Dynamic Range post-processing with a desktop computer can also simulate some of the brain’s rudimentary image processing by compositing multiple images, picking the best feature of each image, to make one final  image well exposed across the range of illumination.


Twenty-first century photo editing tools allow the photographer to fiddle with the color and the exposure and try to make a pleasing image.  That process permits the photographer to create an image that might start to approach what the photographer’s eye saw through the viewfinder when the image was captured…or not.  I have heard lots of trash talk about HDR as photographers compare it unfavorably to the work of the masters such as Ansel Adams, A. Aubrey Bodine, and Marion Warren.  But much has been written about the manipulations done by all of the masters in the darkroom to alter the imperfect image captured on the negative in that bygone era. There is a difference between digital editing and darkroom editing, but the difference is probably less than some would like to claim.


Let’s talk more about the real purpose of photographic art.  All captured images are imperfect and fall short of accurate.  While I do not claim to be an artist in any form of the term, I do want to produce photographs that do more than simply document somewhere I have been or something I have seen.  Rather, if I think of a sunset or a still life, I am trying to create an image that evokes an emotion in the viewer.  I want to connect with the visceral reaction of the viewer.  If I have manipulated the image so much that it looks more like an other-worldly experience unlike the human experience, It is likely that the average viewer will see the image and cannot feel anything.  It does not trigger memories, or it does not trigger emotions.


At the same time, I have vivid memories of viewing the setting sun over the desert horizon and remember the light in the western sky turning golden, then red, and feeling the warm sun on my face while sensing the singular cold of the night setting in as the wind becomes very still.  The technical imperfections of the camera limit my ability to see into the dark and the light, but through multiple image captures, I can get a wider range of information that can be made into a composite image.  I am then faced with the dilemma of which of the many views I am seeing becomes the gold standard.  Do I center the image around the textured golden clouds, the brilliant streaks in the God-rays, the morose shadows. 


I pretend to be the artist and pick one of these views from the many and begin to work the image with the software as an artist would work the oils.  I begin to recall the emotion of the moment, or perhaps an emotion from another sunset from another time. I want to convey to the viewer that emotion and still try to be true to reality…or not.  Perhaps my computer screen suddenly gives me new images I had not imagined and which evoke feelings unrelated to the original image, emotions I never felt at the time the image was captured.  Is that okay?  Of course.  I do not pretend to be an artist, but I do feel that as a photographer, I can take whatever license I want to produce an image that communicates to the viewer.


The fact is, bad HDR images come from novices like me who have not mastered the basics.  I remember a beautiful image of mating damselflies I shot a couple years ago at Longwood Gardens.  I was so enamored with the color and detail in the image that I couldn’t see the blown out detail of a lily bud in the foreground.  I forgot to see the whole photo.  I have photographed images amateurishly that have contained flaws I tried to brush over using editing tools, including HDR.  I believe that a good HDR image needs to be as near to perfect technically as possible to begin with.  The photographer may decide to ramp up the saturation or the grain to high levels to attain an effect, and that is the photographer’s choice.  He or she may decide that colors may need to be saturated strongly to deepen emotions.  And that may be fine as well.


I think the key with good imaging has to be honesty.  I do not want to be duped or manipulated by the photographer.  I don’t mind an HDR image that borders on what I heard one critic call “illustration” as if that is a bad attribute.  If it doesn’t look like a photograph, and yet I connect with the image, that is all that counts.  But if the so-called dramatic effects are all I can see in the image, and the subject of the photograph has been strongly altered to ameliorate the technical flaws, then I often cannot connect with the image.  The divide between the initial subject and the final image is so great that it feels dishonest.


A Maryland artist, Joseph English, creates beautiful silkscreen landscapes, each beginning with a photograph.  The printing process is intensive and precise, and the colors are vibrant. The viewer initially suspects the photograph upon which the piece of art is based and then realizes quickly that the brilliance of the artwork lies in the interpretation of the scene made by the artist.  The nuances and shading are stripped away, and the image is reconstructed entirely of small and large blocks of color.  The result is an image that makes the mind and eye work together to try to recreate the image behind the image.  The artist’s strong primary colors help the viewer understand the beauty of the moment. Sounds like HDR to me.


So where does that leave me as a photographer?  I like to use HDR when the dynamic range is hard to capture in a single image.  I like to capture up to 9 exposures of a single image so I can have at my fingertips all the information possible.  The HDR software—be it Nik HDR Efex Pro or Photomatix—helps me decide just how much of that information I need to get the image I want.  A hundred decisions go into adjusting the final image—both the individual image components and the overall tone.  In the end, if the emotion of the image eludes me, it may be because the technically accurate image is unfortunately just documenting something. And that may be acceptable for some uses, but to approach art in photography, the image must speak to me.  And if HDR helps turn up the volume a bit, then that’s all right with me.


Reb Orrell(non-registered)
Very well stated. HDR gets constantly bashed but it has a place in photography.
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