High Dynamic Range (HDR) photography is incredible in moderation, when details in shadows need to be shown. Using software, HDR images take photography and digital enhancement to a profoundly different level. Amateurs and professionals alike merge data from 3 digital photos, one under-exposed, one properly exposed, and one over-exposed, so that details typically lost in shadows or overly-lit areas are visible.
The idea of “capturing” an object was understood by early humans who developed and shared written symbols and drew the likeness of people and objects on cave walls. If the early humans could see their work through HDR photography, would they see a “gloss” version of their brush strokes? Is it art or a shortcut to a rose colored world ?
The “modern world,” saw airbrushing popularized by Thayer and Chandler, who demonstrated their technique at the 1893 World Fair in Chicago. In the 20th century, an individual’s photo, used for commercial purposes in publication, was often given treatment before their likeness went to print.
Today, people from all walks of life don’t upload an image of themselves to “the cloud” unless it’s touched up in Photoshop. In fact, some can’t remember which profile pictures do not have unsightly blemishes taken out vs. those that were merely color-corrected. Everything and everyone is captured digitally and put on the web, and it’s all editable by novices on PCs and digital devices.
The night Steve Jobs died, I took a photo of Philadelphia’s Apple store. It was taken with a Motorola Droid X, later corrected for a lack of lighting and un-pixelated in Photoshop. It was a surreal moment on Walnut Street: at the entrance, the store looked the same as any other night, while other Apple stores in places like San Francisco were huge gathering spots were people made symbolic gestures to pay tribute to Jobs. Look at the bored guard in the above photo. He’s a bit lonely on this sad night, although I’m not sure he even heard news of Jobs.
Had the image been captured with an SLR and processed with an HDR software, the surrealistic would be on steroids: a shortcut to the “artistic”. However, the extra data HDR lets us process could also have helped bring out more details since there was not enough light available. Bringing up the light created some “muckiness” as would be the case with trying to develop a film photo in a dark room that was taken with too little light. No HDR could be done since it was taken with the simple camera in a Droid X.
So, here is the crux of the HDR debate: Better resolution of levels in the photo? Great! Extra surrealism added to the photo? Dumb. If a photographer seeks the uncommon (when the context is clear to the viewer), as I did with this smart phone image, HDR processing negates the documentary nature of unaltered photos. If a photo is meant to be art, that may be another situation.
As with the airbrush, some argue this leads to heavy-handed use, so that photos look like fantasy versions of the subject. On Google+, the social media channel most favored by photographers, there are many views on uses of HDR images. Is it art when details in a photo are bumped with very high HDR adjustments? Perhaps that is shortcut to what only a painter could accomplish, and more subtly-altered exposures are more interesting since they rely on the photographer’s eye when the shot was taken, and less on editing with powerful HDR software controls.
Eric Van Buskirk started using SLR cameras when he was 8. He is a social media strategy specialist who knows how to create compelling content for organizations. Contact him for affordable rates on your next campaign. His other website is Border Crossing, shouts and shots from world travel.