HDR (High Dynamic Range – or as I prefer – Heedless Damage to my Retina) images are possibly the most frequently misused technique in the photographerՉs arsenal. The technique is capable of producing some of the most gawdawful, eye-ball poking, wildly emetic images in the world today. Թ It might surprise some of you to hear me say that – especially since I’ve taught HDR at SWMCC meetings, and have been an avid practitioner for some 7 years!Historically, HDR has been around since the middle of the 19th century (that’s 1850 – surprised?) as a technique to extend the camera’s dynamic range. This is a classic technique, and one that I still use frequently. For example, would any of you suspect that the image below is an HDR? Possibly – if you thought about it. In this image, the window is from one exposure while everything else is another.
Another Թ historical reason to combine exposures is to avoid noise in the shadow areas of a digital image. This was more important 6 or 8 years ago when digital cameras produced a significant amount of noise in the shadows (and even mid-tones) of an image. This goes hand-in-hand with the Expose To The Right (ETTR) philosophy that was also an important technique back in the early days. The need to use either of these techniques has greatly diminished in recent years as camera technology has become more advanced.
But there’s a completely different goal of HDR, and that is to even out the shadows and highlights – to produce an oddly-surreal (and to me grotesque) image in which nearly everything is evenly lit. It is this type of image with which I take umbrage. I actually find it sort of repellent. If everything is evenly lit – shadows and highlights nullified – where is the drama between light and dark? What interest is there for someone viewing the image? What’s the point of doing this other than exercising a technique simply for technique’s sake (something I’ve heard Josh Mitchell call – and quite appropriately, I think – nothing more than mental masturbation)?
Blacks define an image. It’s far better to take a picture at the right place and time rather than rely on an over-hyped technique to try to save an image that is of poor quality to begin with.
I’ve kept fairly quiet about all of this until now – but felt it was a good time to express a few seasoned views. Feel free to disagree with me, of course – discussion is one of the reasons the FB page exists (it seems to have replaced the ill-fated membersՉ forum we once had in place).
Also – before you try an HDR (in the classic sense), try using the “Fill Light” control in Lightroom (or Adobe Camera Raw), or the “Shadow/Highlight” tool in Photoshop. In most situations, these will probably do what you need. But don’t forget the goal of your image – to produce a dynamic and vividly interesting image that contains a full range of shadows and highlights. Take advantage of your black space! Remember – the best HDR is one that no one knows about!
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