Is it Real or Is It High Dynamic Range? How Software Is Changing the Way We Look at Photographs

11/6/09Follow @wroush

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of wall calendars from the 1950s, or of the sparkling, saccharine worlds created by visually minded directors like Tim Burton or Bryan Fuller (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, “Pushing Daisies”).

Now, whether HDR photos make good art is another question. A friend of mine, composer/photographer/author Graham Ramsay, feels that most HDR images look unreal, and that they assault the viewer with a confusion of detail. He’s an evangelist for the idea of intentionality in photography—the careful composition of an image, in both the shooting and the processing phases, in order to capture an emotion or tell a story. If every square inch of an image is equally busy with texture and variation, Graham argues, the viewer’s eye doesn’t know where to go; such pictures may convey a lot of information, but they don’t convey ideas. An HDR image, from this point of view, is no closer to art than a photograph snapped by a robotic probe on the surface of Mars.

Another professional photographer, Michael Reichmann, anticipated some of these criticisms back in 2005, when Adobe first added the “Merge to HDR” function to Photoshop. Reichmann called the feature “the holy grail of dynamic range,” since it allows photographers “to easily create images that were previously impossible, or at least very difficult to accomplish.” But like guns and nuclear power, he warned, photo-editing software “can be a force for evil as well as good,” and he predicted that many photographers would use the new feature to create “some really silly if not downright ugly images.”

HDR MatrixAnd perhaps that’s what I’ve done. I certainly wouldn’t argue that my HDR photos are great art. But I also think that our appetites and cravings as consumers of images can vary. Sometimes you just want to be enveloped in the artistic sensibilities of an individual photographer or photojournalist—an Alfred Stieglietz or an Ansel Adams or a Margaret Bourke-White or a Peter Menzel. And sometimes you may want to immerse yourself in an image where detail and fidelity, rather than emotion or storyline, are the intention. (I happen to be the kind of person who enjoys poring over the stunning images that the Sojourner, Spirit, and Opportunity rovers have sent back from Mars.)

In his essay on HDR, Reichmann allowed for the possibility that “in the hands of sensitive artists and competent craftsmen…we will start to be shown the world in new and exciting ways.” It may be a while yet before serious photographers figure out how to use the HDR technique to make their images more expressive. But already, the technology is forcing us to reassess what we mean when we say a photograph looks real; it’s exposing the fact that the kinds of photos we used to call realistic are actually attenuated versions of what our eyes really see. (You might even call conventional photos LDR, for low dynamic range.) HDR is just another tool in the toolbox—and of course it would be silly to use it too often. But for now, my camera is an HDR hammer, and everything is looking like a nail.

Update 3/20/10: I’ve come across two amazing new (to me) HDR websites: Trey Ratcliff’s Stuck in Customs and a spinoff community site, HDRspotting.com.

Continue to Page 4 for a slide show of HDR images from around New England.

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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