My HDR Rant

Murray Bloom

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I moderate a photography thread on another forum and felt compelled to post an HDR rant a while back. I'll try pasting it here and hope it works. I hope you enjoy it. (Note, you can click any of the images to see them on the other site, where you can use the 'green square' to examine detail):



Once upon a time, when darkrooms were all the rage, photographers wished upon their jewel-encrusted film canisters for a way to expand the dynamic range that their film was capable of recording. Photography, as was life, was all about compromise; and dynamic range was no different.

What is this mysterious substance called "Dynamic Range," you ask? For one, it's the meaning behind two-thirds of the holy acronym, "HDR." And no, the 'H' does not stand for holy. Dynamic range is the range of values (light to dark) that a medium can capture. Neither film nor digital can capture all the shades that the eye can see. With film, the problem is at the dark end of the scale (typically shadow detail), since silver-based light-sensitive materials do not record low levels very well. Digital is the opposite, and we've all experienced "blown out" highlights. This is because digital sensor elements are easily overloaded. But, on the other hand, digital's ability to record in the shadows is truly amazing.

In the olden days, if we wanted to, for example, shoot an interior picture which was lit by the light coming in through a window, we'd have to choose between letting the window (and the scene outside) go white in order to preserve interior detail; or else expose for the outside scene, leaving the interior go black. The solution was somewhat complicated. We had to shoot two pictures on a tripod, one exposed for the outside and another for the inside. Then each image was exposed onto the same sheet of light-sensitive photo paper. This was the tricky part, since precise alignment was often difficult or impossible to achieve, and masking was required. It was an expensive, trial and error process.

And then came digital. And thereafter came HDR. And photographers finally could put down their very worn jewel-encrusted film canisters. A new god was discovered, and it was called Photomatix. And it was good. HDR (High Dynamic Range) now allowed photographers to take the olde two-shot procedure and improve upon it. We could now combine three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and even more, different exposures into a single image. The magic was all done electronically within our computers. Even though processing times can run into several minutes, it beats the pants off of the old wet method.

Now, I could stand in a pitch-black hallway that looked like this . . .



and shoot seven images at different exposures; which, when combined (and with some of my own personal magic stirred into the brew), could yield an image like this:



It was a miracle! Photographers near and far began using this new tool, reveling in their newfound capability. Some then discovered that they could even invoke the gods of HDR outdoors, revealing detail never before seen, like the tones and details in this relatively simple shot:



Nothing is lost to shadows OR to highlights. We had found the holy grail.

But then, the forces of darkness discovered HDR, and a new genre was born. They called it "Grunge." You've seen it, I'm sure. Everything looks moody and like it's been out in the elements for centuries. At first it was kind of cool, but it's now been so overdone that a mere glimpse can inspire retching in some photographers.

WARNING: The following image is an attempt to illustrate grunge. I just whipped it up for this rant, and it is not intended to represent either fine art or the best of the genre. It's just a parody, a grungy frickin' example of what's become so easy to do with HDR software; almost a one-trick wonder nowadays:



This genre has become all about the 'look.' Gone is the extended dynamic range, replaced by moodiness and decay. Some like it, but it's not my personal cup of meat. What irks me is that, now, when someone mentions HDR, this is what many (especially younger) photographers think of. There's no sense of HDR's relatively brief history, nor what it was originally intended to do. It's become just another trick.

I'll now step down from my soap box. It's safe to relax again.
 
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Murray Bloom

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Selective color is alright with me; although as with grunge, it tends to be overdone or used to salvage images which would otherwise belong in the bin. I believe that there should be an artistic/creative reason to use any technique.
 
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Derrel

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I thought HDR was an admonition to the VIEWERS of the photos afflicted with it...I thought it meant Hurl Down Range...but you're telling us it stands for High Dynamic Range...who woulda' thunk that!
 

Bynx

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Dont you think that all the problems is misunderstanding what the difference is between HDR and tone mapping? Tone mapping is necessary to see the HDR image. And its the lack of experience with tone mapping that produces all that gawdy (or is it godly) results? Combining more than one image to get a greater range and then screwing it up by poor tone mapping skills giving those who dont know any better the opportunity to say HDR is a bad thing. HDR has been around a bit now and there have been lots of good examples so its not so easy to just chuck it off so quickly. But its been a long haul for those stubborn ones to realize that HDR is truly the greatest thing since sliced bread. This example of mine is purposely done because I wanted something different than a straight photo look to the image.

2v1m05c.jpg
 
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Murray Bloom

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I agree, Bynx. But whatever the reason, I lament that grunge has become what people often think of when HDR is mentioned. Often, I'll see an unremarkable image and then, someone will suggest "Why don't you try HDR on it?" Yes, they mean tone mapping; but isn't there something amiss when even tone mapping is used as a salvage mechanism?

Traveler, you're wrong. These are neither my best HDR or grunge images. They were used solely to illustrate the post.
 

Overread

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I'm confused - where exactly is the rant part of things?
All I can see is a difference of opinion with regard to artistic choices that other photographers make - nothing wrong in that even if the artistic choices they make are "popular" or "the in thing" you always get that. Artistic variation is essential to the maturity of photography itself and also the individual photographer.

You don't like grunge nor those who emulate it without fully understanding the properties and history of the methods they are using- yet isn't that the same as using apertures to selectively focus without understanding the underlying physics of the process.

Also -- the we hate HDR rant has been done - anyone who has lurked a forum for over 6months has likely seen it appear more than once. Most of us on forums are taking things a bit more seriously than the mums with camera type crowed - so yeah we have different criteria because we are simply a different subsection of the whole photographic community.
 

shortpants

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I'll admit I don't get HDR, and I have not a clue how to do it. When I think of it, I do picture the over done fake looking shots. I don't see anything wrong with them if that's someone's thing, it's just not mine. I wouldn't mind knowing how to do it subtly. You know, to make it look like a good black and white with film where you expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights so you have detail in both.
 

480sparky

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The same rant can apply to just about every aspect of the craft. Color, B&W, filters, PP, printing techniques, dodging & burning, focus stacking, stitching, fisheye & cat mirror lenses, full-frame v. crop sensors......... ad nauseum ad infinitum.

.........I wouldn't mind knowing how to do it subtly. You know, to make it look like a good black and white with film where you expose for the shadows, develop for the highlights so you have detail in both.

Then give it a whirl. Use some of the Shootouts for practice.
 
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jake337

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Murray Bloom

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Hi, Overread. Yeah, you're right, in this context, it isn't really much of a rant. However, I disagree with you to some extent. My complaint was that grunge had become horribly overdone, to the extent that it was no longer a novel treatment and the images it was used on were often secondary to the technique. When judging photo competitions, or in a critique session, I've often heard how a particular subject really lent itself to the technique, which seemed bass-ackwards to me. I have nothing against what Jake called surreal looking images; but as Bynx suggested, it often occurs to me that the images I see are indeed due to bad tone mapping technique than to creative previsualization.

As for using a technique without understanding the underlying science is, in my opinion anyway, something of a straw man. I'm of the opinion that mastery of any technique requires fluency in the medium. Simply being able to click a button or push a few sliders around hoping for a happy accident are not what art, or photography is about. Yes, many of those who do grunge well are masters of that approach, and possibly photography in general; but I simply don't look kindly on grunge images that don't exploit the process to add significantly to the image. I realize that it's a judgment call, but that's the way I see it.

It goes without saying that this issue has been discussed before, and it's not the first time I've voiced my feelings on the topic. Are you saying that unless I have something new to say, I should remain silent? I was hoping for some feedback, so that a discussion could evolve. If it's been done and overdone to the extent that there's nothing interesting to add, then this thread will simply die out. It won't be the first time for that, either.
 

Over Exposed

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I'm curious.....why is a discussion on what people are doing wrong an important one for you to explore? Why not spark a discussion that can contribute to your own personal growth?
 

Bynx

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Over Exposed, while the title of this thread is misleading, the discussion is about good and bad tone mapping. I find this an interesting discussion and hope it develops further. If you dont like the thread then just back off and go to some other sand box. What are you contributing for your own personal growth here?
 

McNugget801

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I agree with Bynx.

HDR and tone-mapping are two separate things and failing to recognize that in your rant is your biggest problem.
 

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