Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Debate over HDR

I can't remember too many topics that have brewed on-going debates as much as HDR has. In case you've been hibernating for a while, High Dynamic Range (HDR) has been around for a while, and - in my opinion - was originally introduced to allow you to get the full range of highlights and shadows in a challenging situation. Imagine for example shooting a room in a beautiful home, but the room has bright light streaming in from the large windows. It would next to impossible to capture the correct exposure for the room without blowing out the windows. Expose for the window light and the rest of the room would be too dark.

So along comes an interesting solution: take multiple photos on a tripod (bracketing multiple exposures) and use software to take the best of each exposure to create a finished piece. In my room example that would mean a nice mixture of a properly exposed room with the windows bringing in just the right amount of light.

To me, that's always been the benefit of HDR: getting the full range of light. In fact, in a discussion with Adobe over the future of HDR, I suggested calling it Full Dynamic Range (although "FDR" did sound a lot like a former President).

I'm going to be honest and say that I'm not a fan of the highly processed/bordering on fantasy style of HDR. Honestly, to me maybe one out of 10 photos looks good with that highly-processed look. Maybe I'm just seeing too much of it? I'm not sure.

What I do find surprising, since in my mind HDR is really a solution to a lighting challenge is when people say things like "this would be a great angle to take an HDR shot of this building". That means they are going looking for places and things to shoot as an HDR. To each his own I guess - personally I keep bracketing and HDR in my back pocket as a solution for an exposure challenge.

I'm not saying that everyone should think this way.... although I would say this: that slider that makes things look highly processed/fantasy/Harry Potter? Would you mind not pushing it quite so far? Pretty please?

17 comments:

Rikk said...

I am with you, Dave. As a very early adopter, abandoner and then a very sparingly user of the the effect I have run the gamut of the debate in my own mind prior to HDR becoming mainstream. Every image looks alike now. What annoys me the most is the public loves the images. I wonder for how long…

What saddens me most is how some well-known photogs are touting it as the second coming of photography. Used well it is a good - but limited tool in the arsenal. Used poorly (as are most) it cheapens image making.

Daniel Westgate said...

I couldn't agree more. I have a really hard time looking at over processed HDR images. Especially when big halos appear and everything looks CG generated.

I do use HDR. But when most people (none photog) look at the images they just say I like the colours. Not 'that looks fantasy and cool, how did you do that'. I like HDR images that you don't know are HDR. Subtle. That's when it works.

William Beem said...

I avoided HDR for a long, long time because all I saw was crappy photos that bragged about being created using HDR. I have my own ways of making crappy photos and didn't see the need for a new method.

However, I'm coming around to HDR specifically because of the issue you mentioned - the range of light. I probably love vibrant colors more than I should, but I would be perfectly content if HDR tools would render something much more like reality than fantasy.

Then I can just use Photoshop to screw up the images, as God intended.

sterlizzi@mac.com said...

I agree that HDR is most useful to bring out details in the highlights and the shadows in very contrasty environments.

At my Web site we did a whole series of articles on HDR in combination with an HDR competition. You can find it here:

http://www.wearephotographers.com/node/381

Kristen said...

I agree with you Dave. I think you have found a great balance in the HDR approach.

info said...

I too use to love it...now, not so much...and for some reason, once I quickly identify the HDR effect, my opinion of the picture drops a notch.

Gene Lowinger said...

Who is this gut Harry Potter that everyone always mentions in regard to HDR? Did he invent the process?

Scott Shoemaker said...

Sometimes the "overprocessed" look is an artistic expression on the part of the photographer.

If a particular piece gets positive reaction from their audience, then who are we to say it's wrong.

The classical painters said the same thing of the impressionists.

Theresa Jackson said...

I love working with HDR but I see the tonemapped image as a starting point not an ending point. I like to process my image with several different settings and then combine them with the original. Using different layer modes I can achieve some rich colors along with interesting textures without getting that grainy halo look.

Mike Groseth said...

AMEN Dave!!! You hit the nail on the head. Great post and keep them coming!

Leon Godwin said...

"What annoys me the most is the public loves the images. I wonder for how long…"

The HDR debate is only a controversy among us photogs. Like this commenter said, the general public loves the images. That fact isn't the Be All, End All, but it's an important thing to note.

There's more bad imagery than good out there. HDR is just another tool at the hands of people who think that adding any effect to an image improves it. Mr. Cross, how many bad 'artistic' filters have you seen added to images since the early days of Photoshop? Probably enough to contribute to the (now-almost dead) argument against Photoshop-use among photogs. But we all accept PS now. Right? Please?

An image can be a good one if it has the right composition, or gesture, emotive response, etc., even if our preconceptions of photographic tonality are broken by it.

I like the parallel that the other reader drew between the Impressionists and the Classical painters...I think that's very applicable, at least as an example of how new applications of old paint are judged.

Anyway, I find the whole debate very fascinating, and have started an HDR theme on my 365 blog to explore it further: www.doublelgphotos.squarespace.com

Thanks Dave for all your work, by the way. Several of your PSTV tutorials kept me from dying of boredom on a plane two days ago.

Charles said...

I also am with you on this! The way you explain it is what I think is the best way to use HDR! I can see it used with that slider pushed over a bit on a few conceptual pieces, but for the most many Photographer are over using it!

Mark said...

This is one of the main reasons that we miss Ansel so. Although I am weary and wary of ascribing positions and actions to the deceased, it does not seem a stretch to my gray haired generation to believe that St. Ansel would have been all over this technique. We used to stretch the dynamic range of our photos then by Pre or Post Exposing our negatives. My teacher Paul Caponigro told me of leaving his negatives by the window to expose them to the moonlight to expand the range of light that could be effectivly recorded. It is not the technique that is the problem (if in fact there is a problem with artist doing what they want as they choose), the problem is the tasteless application of NEW techniques. You can't make excellent music on them new lectronic geetars! They aren't natural! They aren't part of the tradition. Who needs Mark Knopfler?

Duncan Astbury said...

And don't forget there is always the option of ND grad filters. These don't have to be just for landscapes, they can be used indoors as well and can be applied to that room with bright window light scenario.

Anonymous said...

Good post... HDR should be looked at as a better replacement for graduated neutral density filters - You get don't have to apply the filter until post-production and you get to apply it like a burn or dodge tool. The truth is you could have done all this manually with multiple exposures before software made it easier.

The grunge HDR look was cool for a moment, but then everyone copied each other and it all looks the same and like some kind of art movement at this point that has ventured beyond photography.

Anonymous said...

I'm with Scott Shoemaker..... "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder".

- ennis

Anonymous said...

I think in principle HDR is a reasonable processing technique to use - after all it makes sense to take photos that mimic the dynamic range of the human eye. That said, I see a lot of landscape photographs that rely on HDR to compensate for otherwise boring compositions, so I tend to find it kind of annoying. I don't use it myself, I like the challenge of working with the inherent limitations of film, it's an aspect of the medium that spurs creativity. (Plus I'm not a landscape photographer, so I don't find I could take advantage of it so much.)

Would Ansel Adams have used HDR? What's impressive about his photos, besides composition, is the craftsmanship and effort that we know went into the taking and printing of his shots. If he had access to HDR I suppose he would have used it, but he would be using it to take very different types of images I suspect. I don't think he would have been satisfied with the challenge of taking an 4-lane interstate into the Rockies, staying at a B&B with a nice view, waking up at noon, and then still in his pajamas quickly shooting an HDR shot out his window. Sure it might be perfectly exposed, but there won't be any interest in it, not like an Adams original.

There has been so much focus for so long in landscape photography around perfect exposure, now with HDR it's bound to have a radical impact on that whole culture. It will be interesting to see how it evolves as a result of it. I'm sure there are some competitions that try to ban HDR, but that's pointless - soon it will be an automatic feature in every camera phone probably. Someone will find ways to use HDR to capture shots that we never would have imagined before, I'm looking forward to it...