High Dynamic Range tools present opportunities for photographers with vision. However HDR photographs, especially those that have saturated color and halos around objects, have been criticized for being software effects, not photography.
In Part 2 of our HDR photography tutorial series, we will consider a debate about the varieties of HDR photography and their expression of what is true or natural. A key idea will be explored: What is it that makes HDR artistic? The answer leads us to the qualities of the photographer. A glossary is included to provide definitions of HDR concepts.
The work by five photographers is regarded with an eye to a central issue – Is there art in HDR?
All in the series examines the work of nine HDR photographers.
Note: These copyrighted images are used by specific written permission of their owners and are not to be copied.
Click on an image to see more of the photographer’s work.
“Crowford Canal” in Derbyshire, England, a rural scene, is by Stevacek, his Flickr name. The subject matter pulls the viewer back in time. Nature seems to be taking back the land with encroaching trees. The mill and guardrail at left balance the mill and trees at right. Framed by the rail and trees, the picture space is informally balanced. This allows the eye to explore and come to rest on the lightest area, a still pond reflecting the sky. This balance echoes the feeling of stillness in Stevacek’s pond. The use of HDR brings out subtle and otherwise unseen textural detail in the sky and trees, both directly and in the reflection. The enhanced range of light possible with HDR even brings out details in the brick walls.
7. “Tidepool Reflection” ©by Darren Stone
In Darren Stone’s photograph, “Tidepool Reflection” shows a cloud-lit tidepool where our gaze is held by the pastel colors. This image is interesting for three reasons. First, the subtle use of HDR accomplishes a task that is very difficult with a single exposure: detail in the shadows. Stone captures excellent shadow detail despite the sun shining directly into the lens. With a single exposure based on the sun’s brightness, the rest of the tidepool scene would have overly dark shadows. Second, the photographer shows his awareness of textures in the natural landscape. Third, the light itself is intriguing because it adds softness and depth to the clouds and their reflection. This fine detail would not be possible without HDR software. The photographer’s HDR gallery is worth a visit.
8. “Hamilton Pool, Panorama #3” ©by Chris W. Johnson
This Chris W. Johnson photograph captures Hamilton Pool near Austin Texas. Johnson’s panorama is enchanting for its intriguing space, as the cave seems to swallow the pool outside. There are bathers in the water, but they are a minute part of the landscape, as the viewer’s attention is on the limestone rock walls. Incoming sunlight, captured with HDR, illuminates the textures, making the rock lighter and so detailed that it appears alive.
9. “Bethesda by the Sea” © by Jim Austin
The author’s image shows the interior of Bethesda-by-the-Sea, an Episcopal church in Palm Beach, Florida. Equipment used for this photograph included a Canon Digital SLR, Sigma 50 mm f 1.8 lens, tripod, and a cable release. Processing was done with Photomatix Pro® and Photoshop®.
A Debate: Is HDR “true”?
For years the “truth” of photographs has been debated. Since HDR imagery emerged in 1997, the technique has been controversial.
HDR photographs with halos and saturated color have been posted most everywhere you turn. White areas called halos can be obvious in pictures. Highly saturated colors appear when the HDR controls are maximized. The photographers are experimenting with a novel technique, their art and creativity.
The debate continues on Flickr and elsewhere on the web – just search HDR groups. What really defines HDR? What are “true to nature” images, i.e. photos without halos or over-saturated colors? What is believed to be a “quality” HDR image? What is extreme and what is considered realistic? Is it’s proper use to produce images closer to what the human eye can see? To give meaning to this issue, it is important to place the debate within the context of photography’s history, since it resurrects an established controversy about the role of a photographic image.
The problem with trying to define HDR as “true” is related to the very nature of photography. Since 1839, photography has been less about representing truth than about the quest for beauty and for the striking image. This debate on the truth of naturalism in photographs goes back over 150 years. From its flat surface, a photograph does not give us facts. It does not offer knowledge or truths from pure inquiry like science does. It offers light and space.
Regardless of how natural we may think it appears, an HDR image can not be true to nature. Why? A photograph has never been natural. It is only a two-dimensional image of the object. Photography does not produce something natural. What photography does produce is a profusion of images and an unquenchable thirst for the creation of new images. The abundance of HDR imagery, and the recent tagging of any HDR image as “art” on websites like Flickr, is more about the excitement over a novel form than about the images themselves.
Natural facts or truths are not portrayed; there is no one “proper” use of HDR. All realms are appropriate for HDR imaging. The image now becomes the reality, not nature. While “truth” and “naturalness” may never have been appropriate to discuss photography, neither in the 19th century nor now, there is a better descriptor: “Interestingness”. The Flickr photo stream, with 14 million images to view, is a driving force behind interestingness.
What is interestingness? It is defined by the viewer, not the photographer. HDR photographs have been tagged with different levels of interestingness. We no longer need the museum to view new developments in photography such as HDR. In fact, there are too many digital images created daily now for all the museums of the world to contain. In the digital age, our computer monitors function as real time galleries.
We are not in a public building, paying admission, viewing prints. Instead we most often are using a 20+ inch monitor to view photographs seconds after they were created. This allows for unprecedented comment and debate on HDR. Rather than ask about the truth of photographs with HDR, the better question is: “How interesting is this photograph and what makes it so?”
“Casa de Cuba” © by Jim Austin
The Debate Continued: Is HDR Real?
Viewers continue to comment that the HDR pictures they see are “not reality.” This critique has been directed at every new photographic process over the past 175 years of photography. The underlying assumption, that pictures must be based on reality, was turned around by Susan Sontag (On Photography, p. 161). She said that: “reality has come to seem more and more like what we are shown by cameras.” Clearly, our reality is what HDR images show us. This is the reality of modern HDR photography.
Digital camera makers have been redesigning their cameras so that sensors capture more pixels in both the highlight and shadow areas for a greater dynamic range and have come to include built-in HDR tools. Continued exposure to new technologies in cameras and software with expanded dynamic range amplifies our vision. Photography with HDR will remain dominant movement because it changes our vision, and thus once again changes our perception of the reality of photographs. Reality is how the HDR camera, and its imagery, presents it.
Like eminent musicians, photographers must bring their own qualities to their art. On account of access this scope of light, photographers are enthralled by the artistic potential of HDR. Consider an example of photography before and after HDR tools became available. Photographers before HDR were like pianists playing a one-octave piano. They could play a high note piano or a low one, just not both instruments at the same time. Their musical performance is confined to this one-octave instrument. When the pianist is suddenly given a full piano with 96 keys, his creative abilities for self- expression is vastly improved. HDR gives the photographer a dilated range of light, just like a concert piano gives the pianist a wide range of notes.
How can we know that a photograph made with HDR is artistic? First, it has an emotional impact. The image may frighten or disgust. It can horrify. When the photograph grabs your innermost emotions, it can leave you speechless. It can mesmerize, enliven, and be haunting all at once. Truly memorable exposures are a paradox; they portray human emotion in situations beyond words. Yet we all have our own personal associations to these situations. Think of the great war pictures. HDR- using photographers are working at this aesthetic level, utilizing a novel range of light to convey deep emotional truth. Great HDR photographers pay attention. We pay attention because our images are reflective of our own emotional experience.
Second, a creative vision and the personality of the photographer are essential parts of what makes HDR photography artistic. Image makers need a creative vision driven by firmly focused ideas of what makes an interesting picture. For example, the picture by Uwe Steinmueller, “Scared, The Final Moment” depicts an eye staring at a nuclear explosion. HDR helps record the subtle colors of the iris. It scores high on “interestingness” because it is a personal vision of an apocalytic future. In short, Mr. Steinmueller creates an “eyes wide shut moment” both horrific and spellbinding. The photographer brings his own personality to the image, and his vision summarizes our universal fears that we will annihilate our existence. The original vision behind of Steinmueller’s final moment is that he actively fuses familiar image ideas, the mushroom cloud and the human eye, into a powerfully emotive statement.
Awareness is the third artistic quality needed for great HDR image making. It is the creativity that illuminates high dynamic range imaging, not the HDR method. When the HDR process is employed by a knowing and creative image-maker, the ensuing pictures are immensely more engaging than snapshots. To paraphrase a Russian poet, the artistic photographer must resemble a sculptor: a hammer is used, not a mirror, to shape an inner vision. While HDR pictures on the web are not fine art, like painting and sculpture, they do not have to be. Rather, the artist-photographer uses dynamic light to articulate form and shape it into emotion. Artistic HDR blends creativity, personal vision and awareness into pictures with emotional impact. In many ways, HDR photographs are what are seen by many of us with a love for expressive light.
A Glossary of 12 Terms:
Aperture: In HDR, aperture is kept constant to avoid throwing different picture areas out of focus. Apertures in HDR are usually F11, F16, F22 to maximize focus.
Bracketing: Taking images that are incrementally above and below the metered exposure. In HDR, bracketing is typically done in manual exposure increments of -3, -2, -1 underexposure, 0 or correctly exposed, and +1, +2, +3 overexposed.
Cable Release: An electronic or manual device for tripping the shutter; a cable release attached to the camera. The idea is to prevent camera shake that causes unintended blurring. The camera self-timer can be used, although not as convenient.
Dynamic Range: The measured ratio between high and low extremes in a set of intensity values.
High Dynamic Range (HDR): A way to represent the wide range of intensity levels found in scenes that people photograph. More on this definition from Chris Cox: “Low Dynamic Range (LDR) images (those that most people are familiar with) have a dynamic range of around 100-to-1, similar to the dynamic range of printed paper or a computer display. HDR images are theoretically unlimited in dynamic range, but are typically on the order of 100,000-to-1.”
HDR Image Encoding: see a 22 page article by Greg Ward of Anyhere Software for details of HDR image encoding standards including Pixar, Radiance, SGILogLuv and ILM Open EXR.
Open EXR: a promising file format for HDR created by Industrial Lght and Magic, released as free software.
Photomatix Pro®: HDR software created by Jacques Joffre, Photomatix Pro® has flexible settings for making HDR photos.
Shutter Speed: The time for which the shutter is held open when a picture is taken. HDR uses slow shutter speeds, like 15 seconds, which require the use of a tripod and cable release. Noise builds up with digital capture at long exposure times, so noise reduction software can help when using slow shutter speeds. Moving subjects are blurred, often intentionally, with the long exposures and slow shutter speeds used for today’s HDR.
Tone Mapping: A technique for approximating how HDR images will look in devices, such as monitors, with a lower dynamic range. Learn more on the subject here: HDR Photography: Tone-mapping.
Tripod: A lightweight tripod steadies the camera and prevents blur in HDR work.
Be sure to read Part 1 and Part 3 of our HDR photography tutorial series:
For the Love of Light, Part 1 – HDR Visions from Nine Photographers – the remarkable abilities of HDR software to capture light is explored and the unique construction of HDR photographs is briefly explained.
For the Love of Light, Part 3 – Beauty of Black and White HDR Photography – will explore the beauty of B&W High Dynamic Range Photography.
by Jim Austin
All text: © 2014 Jim Austin. All rights reserved.
All photos: © indicated and held by each photo artist.