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Blog // Images
October 17, 2012

HDR Done Right (Part 1)

I love HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. It’s a passion of mine and a core part of my approach to photography. Last year I wrote an introduction, Hugely Distorted Reality, that put forward some of my ideas on this technique. Now, I’d like to share a much more detailed set of posts, laying bare my […]

I love HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography. It’s a passion of mine and a core part of my approach to photography. Last year I wrote an introduction, Hugely Distorted Reality, that put forward some of my ideas on this technique.

Now, I’d like to share a much more detailed set of posts, laying bare my complete approach to HDR. I’m stealing the title from this blogspost, written by Tom Kaszuba, which appeared on Neil van Niekirk’s blog in mid 2010. Although I’ve developed my own approach since then, the first year or so of HDR adventure was largely directed by that excellent and informative article.

My HDR

HDR is sometimes considered a separate genre of photography, as in, you shoot colour, you shoot black and white, or you shoot HDR. I don’t approach it that way.

To me, HDR is a technique. It’s like tweaking your contrast, adding filters in photoshop, or changing your colour and saturation levels. HDR is something you can opt for in the service of any photographic idea you want to create.

Not Everyone Loves HDR

HDR is very popular, but not universally so. In fact, a lot of photographers I really admire hate and even have contempt for this approach. I’m not just talking about “purists” here. Some of the harshest criticisms of HDR I’ve heard have come from photographers who are very comfortable with doing heavy editing on their images in Lightroom and Photoshop.

In an attempt to understand their dislike, I’ve been pretty cheeky over the last two years, sneaking HDR images (including wildly overcooked ones), into conversations, email exchanges and even proper image critiques. That, along with general conversations amongst photographers I know has helped me develop a hit list of the more common reasons why HDR is despised.

HDR Done Recklessly

Here’s a quick rundown of six common criticisms of HDR photography.

1. Over-saturation – Many HDR images feature hyped and over-saturated colours, which make them look garish and fake.

2. Halos – A lot of HDR images have fake looking halos around lines and high contrast areas of the image.

3. Noise – The images were often very noisy and gritty looking.

4. No Shadows – The absence of shadows, or inconsistent shadow directions undermines our natural sense of how light should behave.

5. Excessive Contrast – darker parts of the image are pushed into black while midtones are pushed into highlights, which can be fatiguing to look at.

6. Compensating For Bad Composition – HDR being used as a circus trick to make an otherwise boring or poorly composed photo look interesting.

I believe these are all valid criticisms. However, you can overcook your images in every one of these ways without resorting to HDR. And, we can produce HDR images free of these negatives (if we choose to).

So, the issue isn’t really about HDR per se, it’s about aesthetic judgements we make when shooting and processing images. And, to a lesser extent it’s about how closely we want our images to represent “reality.”

Why I Love HDR

When I think about the HDR images I’ve shot and the ones I enjoy looking at, three key things stand out.

1. Dynamic Range Is Yummy – To me there’s something emotionally powerful about moments when there is a wide range between the brightest and darkest parts of a scene. Picture a sunset on a beach, or summer light filtering through trees, or a full stadium during a night-time sporting event. These are high dynamic range moments and all my life I’ve dream of capturing these kinds of moments in photos.

Of course, HDR is not the only way to do this, that’s why I always travel with a wide selection of graduated Neutral Density filters. In some situations I radically balance light with these. That’s one technique, HDR is another.

2. Urban Reality – People often say the aggressive colours and light contrasts in some HDR images are unrealistic. I guess it depends on your reality. I’m a city dweller and the nights in Hong Kong, for example, are full of aggressive colours and wild light contrasts. Shoot a subdued image on those streets and you are being totally unrealistic.

As digital cameras improve, the dynamic range they can capture (along with their high ISO performance) goes up. That’s one way technology can help the urban photographer, HDR is another.

3. The Wow Thing – I like wow. I like being wowed and making people go wow. Sometimes I’m happy to sacrifice (or bend) realism for pure aesthetic awesomeness and emotional impact. HDR is simply one of a number of digital tools for creating and capturing wow.

Just Another Technique

Photography has always been about bringing technique and technology into the service of your creative goals. Choosing lenses, film types, processing, dodging and burning and the like and are technical choices. HDR is just another technique.

What you do with it is up to you. If you would like to join me, then over the next weeks I’ll be continuing this series, starting with how I approach taking photos to develop a HDR image.

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