HDR Photography – Hot or Not?

February 18, 2011

I’m a huge fan of Flickr and something I’ve noticed more and more recently when viewing users work is the adoption of HDR photography techniques.

For the uninitiated, HDR stands for high dynamic range and essentially enables a photographer to produce an image with a far greater range of luminance than would otherwise be possible.  That is to say an image with far more detail in both the dark and light areas by combining three (or more) exposures of the same scene together and then tone mapping them to produce the best result.

HDR is popular is because the sensor in a digital camera is unable to capture the full dynamic range of a scene that can be perceived by the human eye.  By using HDR photography it is possible to address this issue and produce a photograph that more accurately represents that scene that the photographer witnessed and avoid losing detail in the darkest or lightest parts of the scene.

Any camera that allows over or under exposure of a photo can be used to create a HDR image and many cameras now come with auto exposure bracketing which allows all of the shots required for the HDR to be created automatically.  This technique is even available on the iPhone now.

Some example HDR images

The HDR examples above are from Trey Ratcliff’s stuckincustoms.com.  Trey is probably the most well-known HDR photographer around and you should take a look at his site to see more examples of his work and information regarding HDR photography.

So HDR photography sounds great, right? Especially if the end result is images that more accurately represent the scene?  Well I have mixed feelings about HDR photography and I’ll explain why below.

I have played with HDR photographs in the past with varying degrees of success and I believe that HDR photography is a great idea and certainly has its benefits.  As photographers it enables us to produce more accurate results, bringing life to an otherwise flat photo and potentially producing a more pleasing result.  But as they say, with great power comes great responsibility and unfortunately HDR is very easily abused.  The problem I have with it is that people often take it to the extreme, tone mapped images have become very prevalent, you only need to perform a quick search Flickr for HDR to see examples of vastly oversaturated images that literally hurt your eyes to look at and to me at least look more like abstract paintings than photographs.  This is not so much a problem with the HDR technique as it is with the application of the technique.  Photographers are sometimes guilty of using HDR with otherwise unremarkable shots in an attempt to add interest artificially.

I guess this ultimately boils down to a question of judgement and artistry and while I can certainly see why HDR images appeal to people,  I personally find many of them rather difficult to appreciate.  I’m sure as photographers we have all bumped the saturation of an image up or down to produce a more pleasing result and I don’t have a problem with this.  I guess there are different schools of thought when it comes to post processing and I firmly believe that post processing is absolutely fine and the important thing is that the photo has a pleasing end result rather always recording the scene exactly as it was.  However when the end result is not pleasing and images all begin to look alike is when I have a problem with it.  Unfortunately much of the HDR photography I have seen recently has the over-processed/artificial look.

I do believe that HDR has its place in a photographers repertoire, it’s something we should know about and understand but I can’t help but feel that subtlety is key and for a HDR image to be truly effective the viewer should perhaps not even realise they are looking at a HDR image.

I’m sure that this kind of question will divide opinion and of course there is no definitive answer, it is a subjective thing after all as with other art forms.  But I’m interested to know what you think, is HDR photography hot or not?

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About the author

UK based photographer Mark J P.

  • Toni Aull

    Thank You So Much Mark… Really Have Enjoyed Your Wisdom…

    • Mark

      Thanks for reading Toni! :)