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Knowing My Limits – Why I Don’t Do HDR

I’m going to go out on a limb and state, for the record, I don’t like the overuse of HDR that is touted as examples of good HDR these days. I am not some fundamentalist, purist curmudgeon who despises progress and still does his art with firewood charcoal on a cave wall. I love digital photography. And its limits. Yes, I love the limits.

The limits of digital photography, currently, keep the images captured within the realm of realistic, lifelike photos. Photography, from its roots, has always been an attempt at capturing reality as seen through the eyes of the person behind the camera. That has certainly changed over the years as people experiment with new techniques and ideas. Experimenting and expanding is good and this is where some of you may find space to call me a hypocrite.

But before you do, hear me out and then I’d actually enjoy hearing your sane, civil, reasoned rebuttal in the comments section below.

HDR, when overused, is a grotesque abomination of the reality of life. I’m thinking here of cityscapes looking directly into the sun. Those types of scenes when the human brain looks at the HDR image and screams, “Fake!”. I’m not using any examples in this post so as to not focus on any one particular images. Rather, for me, the annoyance comes from attempting to create something that doesn’t exist.

Is it art, if not an accurate representation of what is? I doubt it. Most of the HDR I have seen passed around the internet as “amazing” is not attempting art. It is taking a literal scene that you enjoy and attempting to skirt around the reality of it; that it’s too harshly lit, that it has huge shadows or that the contrast is making things not so pretty. It’s taking an attempt at reality and turning it into a lie.

Maybe I am an old curmudgeon after all. To me, HDR is trying to improve on the beauty of life as experienced through the human eye and brain. It’s saying, “Oh, you can’t see the highlight and the shadows at the same time? Here, let me change that.” I know, things like this have been happening for centuries. Things like polarized sunglasses which surely alter our perception of the world. Or even rose colored glasses. All of them do, so why shouldn’t HDR?

Because there is so much more to learn and improve in the realm of photography that HDR need not even apply. It bugs me that, when I look at the full gallery of someone with an HDR shot, on Flickr for instance, people getting into it still don’t have the fundamental basics down to the point where they can produce solid photos time and time again. I see it used more as a gimmick than an honest extension of one’s artistic vision. Yes, there are some photographers, much accomplished in the field, who experiment with HDR. But the majority of people trying out HDR, and taking it too far, are people who should be experimenting with shutter speed and depth of field first!

It’s not that HDR is totally evil (just mostly) and should be done away with. I know it’s a bit of a craze and newfangled thing right now. Just stop taking it too far and stop using it in place of proper exposure and accepting the limits of the scene in front of you. There is so much great stuff to learn about proper exposure that the HDR gadget can just sit at the back of the drawer like the outgrown toy it has become.

Care to differ? Please do! Just keep it civil.

Update: for another perspective on this debate – check out Why I DO HDR – A Fresh Take on a Tired Debate.

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Peter West Carey
Peter West Carey

leads photo tours and workshops in Nepal, Bhutan, Seattle, Portland, Los Angeles and beyond. He is also the creator of Photography Basics – A 43 Day Adventure & 40 Photography Experiments, web-based tutorials taking curious photographers on a fun ride through the basics of learning photography.

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