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Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Why most HDR images are a fail.

In his 1926 novel, Paris Peasant, Louis Aragon was not referring to photography when he wrote "Light is meaningful only in relation to darkness" but had he been it would be one of the great truisms of the medium. His words have since been bastardised by others and re-attributed to him as various forms of "There is no light without shadow" and even this distorted version of his original statement is relevant to photography.

Ask 10 different photographers what elements are required in the creation of a great photograph and maybe you'd get 10 different responses but I'm guessing a common theme would be that nearly all great photographs capture a great moment in great light. This is where HDR photography nearly always fails. This is why in decades to come no HDR image will be on any Greatest Photos of All Time lists.

High Dynamic Range images have become wildly popular with photographers since digital bodies have become ubiquitous and software like Photomatix has made the procedure simple. Unfortunately, just as a little knowledge can be dangerous, a tonemapping application in the hands of an unskilled operator with a poor eye can be disastrous. Fortunately we've largely moved on from the garish plastic looking rubbish popular a little while back but we still have an epidemic of awful HDR images that seem to be filling people's portfolios at a greater rate than ever before.

For me, the best test of a well processed HDR image is whether or not it looks like an HDR image. Far too often it's plainly obvious when an image has been processed using this technique. I've been dismayed by the rush of obvious HDR images flooding my Google Plus stream from shooters who perhaps don't appreciate that gimmicks don't equate to content and that an absence of whites and blacks cannot equate to great light.

Look at the histogram of almost every HDR shot that floats by and you'll see a perfect bell-curve showing an abundance of mid-tones and a dearth of blacks and whites. This is the tell-tale signature of a poorly processed HDR image and it provides the answer to why most HDRs are so easily recognised. Some commentators will tell you it's an attempt to recreate the scene as our eyes would have perceived it but that's just plain wrong. Our eye is capable of resolving detail across a 20 f-stop range but not simultaneously across a scene because we actually perceive around 6½ stops at any given brightness. Assuming an average DSLR sensor captures a range of 10 f-stops, a single exposure will reproduce more simultaneous detail than we can see with our eyes.

HDR images are often instantly recognisable because the image contains detail from many more than 6½ f-stops - maybe as many as 30 or 40 - and we innately know such detail is never available to us in nature.

So why do it? I'm all for the creative use of the tools at our disposal such as cross processing, bleach bypass, and dodging and burning which have all been a part of photography since Cocky was an egg. But none of those techniques is capable of turning an ordinary photo into something more and the same applies to HDR tonemapping. A great photo cannot exist without at least two of great light, great timing and great composition.

Tonemapping an ordinary photograph creates only a more ordinary photograph. Taking a great photograph makes tonemapping redundant. So get out from behind your computer screens and go in search of great light, deep shadows and beautiful forms and stop inundating me with Highly Deletable Rubbish.


  1. I am glad i am not the only person that thinks this way. In fact they remind me more of the joke on modern art that was the pop art movement.

    It appears to be a Flash in the pan technique but with no substance behind it... maybe it is all about selling more cameras, new software and bigger better lenses than it is about art... it stinks of consumerism...

    I did laugh at your 'since Cocky was an egg' statement... not heard that in a long time.

  2. /clap! clap! clap!/

    Jesus. Overt HDR is evokes in me a strong...snob reflex, I guess you could say. The HDR crap streaming through G+ belongs on waiting room walls and 50-cent postcards.

    But I guess it's almost as much an overall genre bias on my part as anything else. I don't have much use for the vast majority of travel photography, "straight" landscapes, closeups of bugs and flowers, blah, blah, blah.

    Blown-out whites and k-100 blacks are just as valid composition tools as DoF and color balance.

    That being said, I'll freely admit that I'm not above bracketing a shot and using masks to merge elements of layers during processing to achieve a desired effect. But if such an effect is obvious---at least to the extent that it compromises the end result---I have failed.

    One thing I've had to learn to accept as a fine art photographer is that yes, I am both a snob and hypocrite. :-)