Against HDR

June 26th is International HDR Day. HDR refers to “High Dynamic Range” a style of photography in which several different exposures of a single scene – usually one under-exposed, one normally exposed, and one over-exposed – are combined into a single image that supposedly shows all the shadow detail without any blown highlights. The software that creates the combined image uses the darkened highlights from the under-exposure, the lightened shadows from the over-exposure, and the normal tones from the normal exposure to create the resulting “high dynamic range” image. If left there, this technique has some potential to be interesting. But most people making HDR images can’t leave it at that; they have to add a heavy dose of tone mapping to exaggerate the effect. Most of the time the result looks something like this:

(cc) Slack12 on Flickr.

Many people really love these HDR images. Similarly, many people love paintings on black velvet. I know what I’m about to say will insult and enrage many people, but it is my opinion that  HDR photographs are the black velvet paintings of our day.

Unicorn Comb-over, as seen at the Velveteria.

HDR technology – which has become easier to use in the past few years due to Photoshop plug-ins and other inexpensive software – has the potential to be very useful in photography. Experienced photographers understand how hard it can be to work in high contrasty situations like an afternoon at the beach or mid-day at the medina. You have to choose between showing the sunlit parts and having the shadow areas lost to blackness, or showing the shadowy parts and having everything else lost to whiteness. We are forced into this dichotomy because of the limited dynamic range (the range of light in which we can see details) of film and digital camera sensors, and of the human eye.

Along comes HDR to solve that! Now you can can show that sunny beach and see the beauties hiding in the shadows of their umbrellas. You can show the sunlit streets and colorful awnings of the market and see the grinning vendors holding up their wares. And while you’re at it, why not crank up the tone mapping so it ends up looking like you were on acid and over-dosing on neon highlighters while you’re at it? It sounds wonderful in theory, and in some cases (such as when the tone mapping is skipped) it works in practice. But those cases are rare.

I’m certainly not opposed to photographic manipulation, particularly when it comes to nudging and tweaking exposure and contrast to make the image look its best. But I don’t like it when the effect becomes stronger than the image itself.

Overdoing it much?

To apply HDR processing to a photograph is like putting on makeup. It’s very easy to go too far, to put on too much. If an actor were to step off a Broadway stage and head out into the afternoon light still wearing their stage makeup, they’d look like a freak. That doesn’t stop some regular, non-actor folks from painting it on with a roller and presenting themselves to the world like that. And we all gawk. Aside from Broadway, the purpose of makeup is to enhance and bring out the person’s natural beauty. If you see the makeup, then the person is wearing too much. If you see the HDR effect, then the photographer is Photoshopping too much.

As well as the over-processed look of most HDR images, I’m also annoyed by the fact that so many HDR practitioners hone in on a very narrow and highly clichéd catalog of subjects. Typically, an eye-popping HDR image shows:

  • A beach scene with crazy swirling clouds overhead.
  • A super wide-angle view of the facade of a building, receding towards the horizon, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle view of a decrepit old car, truck, or bus, often in tall grass, under crazy swirling clouds.
  • A super wide-angle close up of a shiny motorcycle (no room for the crazy swirling clouds).
  • A cityscape, often at twilight, usually under a dark blue sky marked with garish halos around the tall buildings.

There you have it. The standard HDR repertoire. Not unlike the standard black velvet painting repertoire of Elvis, Jesus, naked ladies, and unicorns.

Then there are the technical problems I see with most HDR images (and by “technical” I mean purely visual elements that have nothing to do with the subject matter). These are:

  • The highly exaggerated color saturation effects are phoney-looking, garish, and ugly.
  • The light and dark halos that you see around any edge where light meets dark – such as where a roof meets a sky – make the images look weird, distorted, and phoney. It screams “too much makeup HDR!”
  • Tone mapping often makes the image look like a processing error has occurred. Why are you showing me a reject?
  • When you look at HDR images up close (for example, if you look at the “original size” version on Flickr) you often see an a lot of blur, weird chromatic aberration effects, and overall technical ugliness.

If you don’t read much on photography, you might not be aware that there’s a bit of a battle going on between those who favor HDR and those who are against it. I hereby plant my standard on that battleground; I am against HDR.

Not against all HDR, but decidedly against the HDR images that suffer from the problems I’ve mentioned. That means about 98% of HDR images.

(cc) Paulo Barcellos. This HDR image is gorgeous (and rare!). Not over-processed, and not tone-mapped to death. Click here to see it larger on Flickr.

I am not against the technology or the technique; they provide a mechanism for coaxing both high- and low-range detail out of a single image, something that’s been very difficult to achieve in the 150 year history of photography. My problem lies in the way that most practitioners of HDR become too enamored with the technology and go too far with it. They apply too much HDR effect to otherwise good images, and they seek out images (oh, those old buses and cars!) where they can crank up the HDR whether they need it or not.

I should end by adding that I’ve actually seen black velvet paintings that I liked. They were good despite being painted on black velvet, not because of it. And I’ve seen some HDR photos that were spectacular. But few. Very, very few.

Further reading: