Tuesday, April 17, 2012

HDR-Is It Real Or Not?

MICKEY'S DINER, above,  in downtown St. Paul, was manipulated on purpose to help define its unique positioning among the skyscrapers. The renowned diner has a storied history and the combination of color and b/w seemed to aid in visually describing its presence.  (Click on images to enlarge)

Pick up any newspaper, photo magazine, or dive into a feisty photography forum, and most likely you will see a discussion about HDR Photography.

The expanse of stories will range from its appropriateness in editorial publications to the incredible creative vision shooters bring to their imagery. What I've noticed over the last few years is how the definition of HDR has kinda morphed into something other than was it was originally introduced.

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, was a great tool allowing photog's the ability to extend the range of tonal values through a series of exposures combined into one. Bracketing several exposures to keep the highlights in check and bring out shadow areas, using HDR software gave the opportunity in difficult lighting situations the advantage of having all the desired tonal values in our photograph. Always a frustration to photog's to see it with our eyes, but full well knowing the limits of our medium were problematic. Wonderful software programs like Photomatix Pro provided a valuable tool. I have seen amazing HDR images particularly in architecture and landscape photography.

Holy smokes, a shooter can stroll into a fabulous hotel lobby in Morocco, see all those gorgeous mosaics and polished marble floors with windows running 20 feet high and be able to capture all the tonal values using HDR. In some ways, I guess it's the modern day equivalent to Ansel Adams Zone System using exposure & development to master complete tonality in a pre-visualized scene.

But, it seems when folks discuss HDR today, it less about the bracketing of exposures and more about the usage of colorful presets to manipulate and create super-duper dynamic images. It's so tempting to rev up the colors, contrasts, grain, vintage looks, whatever on some of your photographs. Chances are if you want it, a special effect is there waiting for you to click a button and see how your image reacts.

 The photograph of the Fulton Harbor Bait Stand in Fulton, Texas did not need any HDR ramping. It was a stormy scene in the twilight hours with bright neons and rain. Perfect for a natural shot. Yet, a slight boost in vibrancy using HDR Efex Pro gave it a bit more punch.

Superb programs like HDR Efex Pro, from Nik Software, make the process of creating fun. With all the presets available, you simply click on each effect, find the one to your liking, tweak it if you wish, and your altered image is banging at the door to be shared.

Therein lies the biggest controversy under the umbrella of HDR. Not that an image has been altered or gone too far in appearance, but ultimately where its being presented. Its my opinion that any image taken for documentary, news, or journalistic purposes cannot be altered. If an image is altered and used in an editorial publication, it needs to be captioned as such.

The biggest abuse of this seems to be in landscape photography. Why? Because an image can be made more dynamic and interesting than it was in real time. After the debacle last year over the News coverage of Iceland's volcanic eruptions, images were juiced up in saturation to accentuate the glow of the spewing lava, but in reality the scene was flat and tame in comparison. This is misleading to a audience seeking truth in coverage. Its a line that can't be crossed in this type of photographic coverage, no matter how cool it looks. Its place is to be real. And, its time to go old-school in the most traditional of approaches and just be there at the right time. Be a photographer, not a technician in post-processing.

Some publications today will even ask the photog for RAW files if an image appears to be over-manipulated for verification. Let's face it, the credibility of the publication. Its not a bad idea.
However, let's say an editorial magazine hires you to do a photo essay on State Parks. It allows you the freedom to create images any way you choose. You might choose to shoot the entire essay in over-the-top HDR imagery as a visual style. Its how you wanted to shoot the essay. Even though this is in an editorial publication, this approach is a personal vision and totally acceptable. Where the line might be crossed is if the photographer's work included within the collection of "straight" images of some of the State Park's natural gifts, images that are enhanced through software. When this happens, what can the viewer believe is real or not real.

Now, I will be the first to admit that I still cherish the hunt of making real photographs. Doing my homework, being at the right place at the right time, allowing instincts and purpose dictate what I'm trying to say visually. Its what I still do professionally and I never mix the real with the experimental in the magazine work I do.

That said, I'm also a visual artist. Experimentation has from the very start been part of my interest in this medium. From the days of darkroom work, creating multiple images in what master photographer Jerry Uelsmann did in his painstaking "Saving Silver" process, to sepia tones warming a photograph, to today with the multitude of iPhone app's allowing us to create images on the fly with numerous image flavors to choose from. Its exciting and creative.

We have more options for visual expression than ever before. While the economic model of being a photographer has changed forever, its also a very exciting time to be a photographer. Experiment away, make the boldest, most outrageously creative images your imagination allows. I know I will.

But, I think a line has been drawn in the sand on what's real and what's not real. Its up to us shooters to understand where that line exists.


And, my favorite way of shooting. The natural gifts of light, movement of the swirling currents along the shores of Lake Superior make a beautiful, natural photographic capture.

1 comment:

  1. While I prefer natural light, all things being equal, I also like a good HDR as long as it's done in moderation (no glaring over saturation or halos).

    But I wonder if what the eye sees is closer to HDR than to what the camera records in a single exposure. As we look at a contrasty image in real life, our eyeballs change apertures as we shift our focus from shadows to highlights. The camera has to pick only one aperture. But our visual memory is not of, for example, a well "exposed" forest, a bright pale sky, and "blown out" clouds. Instead, we seem to remember the rich green of the forest, the deep blue of the sky, and the white puffy clouds. HDR may actually be a better record of what we think we really saw than the single aperture photo in natural light, since the photographer has to choose what part of the image he wants to optimize exposure for.

    A theory anyway. :-)