Why I Love HDR – Part 1 by Royce Howland

September 20th, 2010 by Royce Howland

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I’m mainly a landscape photographer, and I’ve been using High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques in my work for about 5 years now. During that time I’ve used HDR on many images. In fact, I’d venture to say that HDR has become nearly indispensable to my way of working. I don’t use it for everything, and it’s not the only tool in my toolbox, but it’s a very important part of my process.

I’ve done some thinking about HDR and photography, and written about it as well as discussed it with people. I’ve also read quite a bit written by others, both pro and con. It’s now clear to me that there are two kinds of people in the world: those who love HDR, and everyone else.

(Side note – okay, okay. Really, there are two kinds of people: those who think there are two kinds of people, and everyone else. But this is about HDR and photography, not some kind of social studies. And I needed a controversial-seeming opening line.)

Elliott Peak At First Light, White Goat Lakes

When I show my images or prints and disclose something about the part that HDR plays, those who know about digital photography or post-processing frequently have a reaction like “Wow, that doesn’t look like HDR, it looks natural!” Hmm. First, thanks very much – it’s a gratifying comment to receive. It’s my intention to present art, not artifice, and I don’t want my use of technique to be very front-and-center to the visual experience. The main point should be the image itself, not the processing.

But second, there’s something else going on with this interaction. Maybe there’s an implication that my images don’t look like HDR because HDR must look “unnatural”. Just maybe there’s a feeling that there’s a little something different to my images even though they still look kind of “normal”. There are definitely some assumptions about what a “natural” or “normal” photograph is. What’s up with this?

Perhaps a few of those who know that HDR exists and don’t love it simply don’t understand it the way I do. That’s right – HDR isn’t bad, it’s just misunderstood! I don’t want to try to convince anybody to adopt something they don’t need; but on the off chance there is room for clarification, I thought I would write something new about Why I Love HDR.

So what’s to love? I can sum it up in two phrases, five words: high fidelity capture and creative development.

High Fidelity Capture

The Sun Is Shining… But the Ice Is Slippery, Preacher's Point

I don’t want to spend a ton of time on this part because it has been written about at length, by myself and others. However it does set the stage so I don’t want to gloss over it too quickly, either.

High fidelity capture is about the technical or craft part of the equation: one aspect of mastery of tools and techniques. Craft is interesting, and it’s an important part of things like achieving personal style, effectively interpreting subject material and presenting an engaging vision. Many photographers really gravitate to the craft aspect of photography. I suppose in part it’s because the tools and techniques are tangible, fun to debate, learnable by many avenues, and we can feel a sense of accomplishment in getting a grip on successive elements of the craft.

Thinking about the craft of digital photography, I remember a time not so long ago when a category of debates raged. Remember these? RAW vs. JPEG. Lossily compressed JPEG vs. lossless TIFF. 8-bit vs. 16-bit. Image layers vs. destructive image edits. sRGB vs. Adobe RGB vs. ProPhoto RGB. On and on they went, until they mostly just sort of died away; now we rarely read or engage in these arguments any more. Why? Because they are all arguments about fidelity and it has become more or less accepted that throwing away fidelity early in the digital image workflow isn’t that great an idea, as a rule.

Sure, there are cases where sacrificing fidelity is a trade-off that can – or perhaps must – be made. Photojournalists targeting deadline-driven distribution via low resolution print or web reproductions. Sports or event shooters ripping through massive volumes of frames and needing efficient workflows with rapid turn-around time. Travel photographers going for long periods of time without access to plentiful storage, electricity or bandwidth. But for those of us who are more like fine art landscape photographers working from home base, raise your hand if you still shoot 8-bit sRGB JPEG’s in the camera for your main work. Anyone? No, I didn’t really think so.

Okay, so with that set-up, consider an HDR image file – and I mean a real HDR image file. One with a file type like .hdr or .exr, not something that’s been rendered back down into a normal TIFF. Think of this HDR image like a RAW file on steroids. It sniffs at debates of bit levels, color space gamuts, or tone curves. It sneers at issues of dynamic range like clipped highlights or noisy, blocked shadows. An HDR file is something called a scene-referred image. At its best, it’s got all the contrast, every hint of detail, the full range of color of the original scene, all the way from the brightest highlights to the darkest shadows. In essence, it has all of the light. Photographers work with light – it’s the foundation of our medium. Doesn’t it sound appealing to have access to all of the light in a single, high fidelity capture? It does to me! My frustration with the dynamic range of digital capture some years ago is precisely what first prompted me to try HDR when I first discovered it.

Are there limitations? Yes, you bet. They come up largely because for most of us, currently, HDR is a bolt-on to traditional digital photography with cameras that aren’t actually designed for HDR. (“Traditional digital photography” – there’s a generational statement!) We HDR shooters typically take a bunch of exposure-bracketed frames and merge them using software on a computer. Some cameras coming on the market recently (notably from Pentax) are starting to push HDR functions into the camera, but so far they’re still based on taking multiple exposures and somehow merging them after the fact. Merging exposures brings the same kind of problems as with any frame blending technique – moving camera or moving subject elements in the scene. Motion over time leads to the need to develop image alignment & morphing approaches, ghost removal retouching tools, that kind of thing. These are time consuming, sometimes don’t work well, and can’t solve everything even when they do work.

But trust me, this will change – in fact it is changing. Digital photography is photography, and so many of the hallmarks of the last century or more of the practice still apply. But it’s also digital, and that means profound advances in photographic capability are happening extremely fast compared to what went before. A digital camera is in large part a computer running software; things that only can be done on a desktop computer today might be done in the camera tomorrow. There are native HDR capture cameras already in existence that can capture HDR files without shooting separate exposures and then merging them. These cameras are specialized, expensive and limited in ways that make them unsuitable for most of us. But more R&D is going on and I believe we’ll have affordable, useful, native HDR capture cameras well before I’m too feeble and broke to use them. (Knock wood!)

Summing Up

Fresh Snow in Bright Sun 2, Mistaya Canyon

Okay, I’ve covered this part of the topic for the moment. Let me sum up. Regardless of how I get an HDR file, what I end up with is a high fidelity capture of the light on the scene. It has some nice characteristics that I can’t get easily (or at all) any other way for certain kinds of scenes – all the detail, all the color, all the dynamic range, none of the noise. That sounds great, almost like a TV commercial! There are limits, many related to motion; but in situations where those limits aren’t a factor, a new kind of master image file is there for the taking.

I love having this kind of high fidelity master, both as a point of philosophy and practicality. But such images, and the processing techniques that produce them, are mainly about craft. It isn’t sufficient to stop there because I haven’t really done anything yet in terms of my intent to realize the final image. As Ansel Adams said in one of his most commonly quoted statements, “You don’t take a photograph, you make it.” Having taken a high fidelity capture, going on to the next stage – creative development – is where the real action is for my image-making. And I think that’s also mostly where those who don’t love HDR are getting hung up.

So that’s the real big question – I’ve got a high fidelity capture, now what do I do with it? Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll address creative development.

Learn more about Royce, his images and his workshops at Vivid Aspect Photography.

Royce has just announced a new workshop for this November:  Light Matters Masterclass

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