Why I Do HDR – A Fresh Take On A Tired Debate
Photographer James Brandon shares a rebuttal to a recent post on the topic of HDR
Similar title, quite opposite viewpoint of a recent DPS article on why not to do HDR. I completely understand everything said in that article. I also want to point out that I agree with some of what was said. I think that bad HDR is just that, bad. I also completely agree that any photographer should master the art of composition, lighting and exposure before they start messing around with any advanced technique like HDR. I respect the opinion of any photographer who dislikes HDR. There are a lot of styles of photography that I don’t particularly like as well. What’s interesting to me however, and why I wanted to write this article, is what makes the subject of HDR such a controversial topic? Why are so many articles written to denounce or defend it? Surely if I wrote an article on why I don’t like street photography, I wouldn’t get near the response that an article slamming HDR would. Or if I wrote an article on why fashion photography post processing is manipulating reality and affecting the way young girls view themselves, I doubt that would strike a nerve in the hearts of as many people as this topic. So why is HDR such a hot topic, even after all this time? And for the record, it’s certainly not new.
As some of you may know, I was a portrait photographer (and still am) before I was a travel and landscape photographer. I was a travel and landscape photographer before I ever discovered HDR. I adopted HDR as a technique in my arsenal because I fell in love with it. I didn’t like the “clown vomit” look from the get go, and while some of my early work certainly could fall into that category, it was because of my lack of knowledge with HDR at that time. As I developed my processing style and techniques, I learned ways to avoid that look, and eventually got to the point where I feel like I have complete and total control over my image.
I don’t understand how we can just write off a form of photography or art and simply say that it is universally bad, just because it doesn’t suite our individual taste. If it was bad or truly an abomination of reality, I hardly think it could have lasted this long and captured the attention of so many, and I certainly don’t think it would be such a hot and pressing topic. If you hate HDR, that is fine by me. No amount of arguing or persuasive writing is going to change your mind. It would be like writing an article to conservatives trying to tell them to be liberals. The truth is though, that if you take the stance that photography is supposed to be pure, then you must define what pure is. If you define pure photography as anything, then you have just stepped out onto a very slippery slope. Give me any image at all, and I can show you how reality was manipulated in that image, whether the photographer intended it or not. I think the thing we need to do here is define what HDR is. That is what all of these articles floating around the web seem to be missing.
So…what is an HDR photograph? When does a photograph become an HDR? What type of photograph is “pure.” At what point does an image become “manipulated?” What style of photograph is “natural?” These are all very interesting questions, with very vague and grey answers.
The best definition of HDR that I can find is this one from wikipedia: “HDR (high dynamic range) is a set of techniques that allow a greater dynamic range of luminance between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods.”
So according to that definition, HDR is achieved when you attempt to (or succeed in) overcoming the dynamic range limitations of a camera. If you think about it, just take a look at what HDR stands for; a normal camera could be considered to have a “low” dynamic range, while an HDR image is simply one that has more dynamic range than what the camera could typically produce on its own. So, let’s take a look at a quick image I put together for this article.
This is an image of my dogs favorite toy lion. The lion is up on a perch inside and in front of my glass front door which looks out over my front porch. I wasn’t happy with this version because I really want to show the front porch in the blurred background, but my camera can’t capture that much dynamic range. So, what if I expose manually for the front porch in the background? Here’s what I would get…
Now I have the exact opposite problem. The background is exposed the way I want it, but I can’t see that dang lion! Here’s what I’ll do: I’ll expose for the background in manual mode, put a manual flash in the hot shoe and adjust the power output accordingly until the lion is properly exposed. In this case, the entire scene was exposed at f/3.2 at ISO 200 for 1/250th of a second. I put my flash in manual and adjusted the power down until 1/128th of the normal power gave me this…
Note: All of these images are straight out of the camera, with absolutely no post processing done whatsoever.
So…my question: Is this an HDR image? Remember, HDR isn’t defined as taking multiple exposures, processing them through Photomatix, pushing the saturation past it’s limits or adding ridiculous amounts of texture and detail. It defined as overcoming your cameras limits of dynamic range capture by whatever means necessary. Right? Right.
So what about the argument that ALWAYS comes up in these posts that photography is supposed to be pure, and that manipulating an image is just presenting a lie to your viewers. Well, let’s go over the different ways to manipulate an image to make it look different or similar to what the human eye sees.
Yes, aperture is one of the first options you have in-camera to distort reality and lie to your viewers. Using a shallow depth of field to blur a background is very different than what the human eye sees. I’ve never looked at a person 15 feet away from me and noticed the beautiful circles of confusion in the background. Really though, think about it: Is this image below realistic if you really begin to pick it apart? In reality, there was still plenty of daylight in this scene. I however wanted to darken the light outside to create more drama than there actually was and create blur in the background to separate the subject. So, I used my camera in manual to darken the background to where I wanted it, used a shallow depth of field and used fill flash to light my subject. Again, this is a client image straight out of the camera. No post.
Here is yet another in-camera function at our disposal to distort reality (or conform to it). You can use your shutter speed to manipulate time and movement and get as close to, or as far away from reality as you would like. Is this next image of the Dallas skyline realistic? No, I’ve never seen streaks of tail lights and head lights with my own eye . Does it work? Yes, I think so. Maybe not if you don’t like HDR.
Black and White
In case you’re wondering, aperture and shutter speed are not the only things in-camera that can be used to adjust the way an image looks. For the sake of time however, I will move on. Other options and accompanying images could have included: White balance, ISO (noise), spot metering, lens distortion, compression, etc.
Black and white certainly cannot be pure photography, right!? I mean, who see’s in black and white? The only leg that this argument has to stand on is that black and white is a pure form of photography because it was the first form of photography, but who wants to live in the past? I use monochrome as a means of processing images on a regular basis, but I am not bound to it, and I don’t consider a black and white photograph any more “pure” than a color one. In the image below, I used a red monochrome filter to turn a bright blue morning sky into a dark grey one. This is the same technique that Ansel Adams used to use to manipulate the look of his famous Yosemite images. I used HDR processing to capture all the dynamic range of light in the Gateway Arch because there was absolutely no way to do so otherwise. There wasn’t a single cloud in the sky and the harsh morning light was reflecting off the arch and driving my camera crazy. It took 9 exposures in 1-stop increments to capture the entire range of light in the arch. That tiny little section at the top was my darkest exposure.
I think that all these articles slamming and defending HDR are missing the point. I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen someone bash HDR that actually has taken the time to learn it or view the work of incredibly talented HDR photographers. In my humble opinion, I think that 99% of people who don’t like HDR are confusing bad HDR with all HDR. You can’t say that you hate “clown-puke HDR” and at the same time, because of that, determine that you hate all HDR. On the same token, you can’t look at my article of HDR Done Right, decide that you don’t like my idea of HDR Done Right, and then decide that you hate HDR.
If you still don’t like HDR in spite of all this, that is fine! You don’t have to like HDR, but why go around discrediting it? It doesn’t seem resourceful to me. It doesn’t solve a problem, it just stirs the pot. Why not just let the HDR photographers do HDR if that is what makes them and their clients happy. Let the bad HDR photographers suck at it, because it’s all part of the learning process. Let the fashion photographers concentrate on the world of fashion. Let the portrait photographer do their portraits and the landscape photographers do their landscapes. Photography is an incredible form of creativity and art, and there is plenty of room here for all of us. In the end, photography is simply about creating an image that YOU love and that you are proud of. That’s it! Share it with the world if you want to, but be ready to except criticism if you do. It helps you grow and keeps you on your feet.
In closing, what I took away from yesterday’s article was that we are all really tired of the overdone HDR. So am I. It was also made clear though that the author believes HDR is a fad and an “outgrown toy,” and that is where I respectfully disagree. For the record, I think Peter is an incredible photographer and writer, and I read and view his work any time I can. I’m certainly not going to write him off or dislike him just because we don’t agree on one topic. This article in no way was bashing him or his views, it was simply my rebuttal and opinion on the topic of HDR and I felt obligated to voice it to the community here.
So what do you think about this topic? Do you have anything to add? We want to hear from you, so be sure to let us know in the comments below. Like Peter said in his article, just keep it civil! Also, be sure to follow me on twitter (@jamesdbrandon) if you don’t already!