Behold, the promised post on the topic of HDR photography. This is more of an introduction to the process and a synopsis of my take on it, and not an in-depth study of everything there is to know about it. Since I’ve merely seen far more HDR images than I’ve made myself, this is not an expert’s opinion on this often discussed subject, but rather that of a photographer living and working in a time when this genre is popular and often lauded. But can this type of photography hold up to such esteem? Perhaps, but first let’s have an overview of what it is on the technical side.
How is HDR Done?
No, the “HD” in “HDR” does NOT stand for “High Definition”. “HDR” is “High Dynamic Range”. And why do we care if dynamic range is high, low, or any particular measure? Because dynamic range is the ratio between the smallest and largest possible values of a changeable quantity, and the quantity that we care about in this case is light. The range goes from total black in the shadows or underexposed areas (the small quantity of light) all the way to the total white in the overexposed spots (the large quantity of light). Most scenes have one of these extremes or both, such as a bright, cloudy sky above a shaded, black road. In this example the contrast between the sky and road will be so severe that you can either expose the sky correctly and black out the road, or expose the road correctly and white out the sky. This might sound strange since the human eye can see most everything fairly evenly without losing detail in the blacks or whites, but cameras are many times less able to cope with a wide dynamic range than our eyes, so in this situation you’d have to pick one or the other – the sky or the road. This is where HDR comes in. Setting the camera on a tripod (or hand-held if you happen to be part statue), you could take a few shots overexposed for the road, a few underexposed for the sky, and a few exposed in between. Later these shots would be put into a program such as Photoshop or Photomatix and layered together one on top of another, thus meshing the exposures together to create an image closer to what the eye can see, with no blow-outs on either end of the range. The post-processing can be done so that the image looks like a totally realistic representation of the original scene, or fired-up into a very colorful and dramatic image.
How much should HDR be Done?
Before going any farther, I should point out that the main object of this viewpoint is not the photos that look totally natural with seemingly no post-editing even though they are indeed HDR. The HDR shots that I’m suggesting should be considered more closely are the ones that are obviously edited and are majorly more dramatic than reality.
Keeping that in mind, HDR photos are like candy. They’re colorful, dramatic, hyperrealistic…and should be taken in small quantities. True, the same could be said of some other photos, but these tend to be the most "done-up" as a whole. It’s an entirely valid from of photography and takes just as much skill as some other types of shooting, but post editing can play a larger role than the actual framing or telling a compelling story more often than in other genres.
The main issue is when HDR is put alongside regular photos. Even if the regular photos are perfectly fine, the HDR ones will grab more attention simply because humans like bright and colorful things. As a result, the unedited photos will tend to be overshadowed because they represent realism, and reality isn't as visually electrifying as HDR would lead us to believe. You could say that the danger is a "comparative danger". Comparing real photos with "candied" ones, and comparing reality with a "hyper reality".
These are some first impressions and a few things that I've been tossing around for a while. It's possible that my stance will shift to some degree as I make more HDR images myself, but that's for another time and another post. Now what about you? Any strong opinions on this topic? Type your agreements or disagreements in the comments.