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:

24 thoughts on “Against HDR

  1. I think it’s bad editing on the part of the photog who doesn’t know how to work with layers. Just my 2¢

  2. “If you see the makeup, then the person is wearing too much.”

    Ha. You clearly are not a makeup-wearer.

  3. Dave, it’s way beyond that. It’s not just about the tools; this kind of over-processed stuff is what they’re aiming for. Some of these people making HDR stuff are pros. There are even a few books out, by big-name publishers, on how to make your pictures look like that.

    Alison, OK, you got me there. Let’s just say that that you shouldn’t see too much of the makeup. In my case, when I see over-done HDR pictures (like the one at the top of this post) I recoil the same way I would if I saw someone wearing makeup like in the photo above (“Overdoing it Much?” caption).

  4. To my eyes, HDR looks a lot like something I used to like to do in the darkroom: solarisation, except in this case, color solarisation (giving the developing negative a brief blast of light while it’s in the developer).

    It’s not really photography but rather a manipulation of photography, like Warhol’s reduction of multiple tonal contrasts to just four (or less).

    If one looks at “honest” photography as the most accurate visual representation of a given scene (as it would look, say, to someone standing alongside the photographer) than any subsequent manipulation of the photograph is an automatic elevation to what some would call “art.”

    Hey, I like velvet.

  5. Oh, and Blork would know: what’s that special black and white film photographers used to use to render foliage as white (or silver)? That also reminds me of HDR.

  6. And furthermore, I thought he was a good president. After all, remember the New Deal and his handling of WWII? Shame on you for being against him.

  7. Nick, in B&W, that’s referred to as the “Sabatier effect” (solarization). It was used by Man Ray back in the 1920s and 30s. It should be noted that Man Ray was an avant-gardist in photography, and hung around with surrealists and dadaists. He is considered one of the most influential artists of his era. You also mention Warhol. I don’t think anyone doing HDR is considered to be even remotely as influential as those guys. In fact, I don’t know of a single serious artist who is using HDR.

    Solarization (in particular, color solarization) made a re-appearance in the 1960s because it had become relevant again; it was used in association with LSD use and psychedelic music. But it didn’t last long because it quickly became dated. If you did a color solarization in 1975, people would roll their eyes and think “that’s so 1967.” (I speaking in terms of professional and artistic use — people never stopped tinkering with color or B&W solarization; it just fell in and out of favor in artistic circles.)

    In Man Ray’s time and in the 1960s, that effect got noticed because it spoke to the times (surrealism, LSD/psychedelia, etc.). What does HDR speak to, or of? In particular, what does overprocessed and garish looking HDR speak to? To me it says “I can afford to buy Photoshop and to spend the time learning how to push these sliders too far.” That’s it. There’s no artistic expression there. It’s just self-indulgent lack of restraint and an inaesthetic eye.

    The type of film you’re referring to is infra-red film (the stuff that makes trees and foliage look white). That too looks very affected, if you ask me; especially when the person using it deliberately shoots as much foliage as possible. It is a striking visual effect, but it quickly gets old, has been done to death, and is essentially meaningless.

    I fully admit that when it comes to photography, I’m pretty old school. I tend towards the belief that it is primarily a documentary medium, and that the subject of the photograph should be the thing of primary interest. There is a LOT you can do within those seemingly confining parameters, but ultimately it’s really about the thing you’re photographing. Overprocessed HDR is not about the subject of the photo. The effect is so jarring that the subject is lost and it becomes about spinning dials and pushing sliders in Photoshop. No thanks!

  8. I pine for the days when there was Photoshop; not Photoshop 1 or 2, but just Photoshop. You needed at least four megabytes of RAM, however, in the days when one megabyte cost around $1,000.

    Now I think they installed Photoshop CS549 in my Insinkerator without my approval. I think I’ll Gaussian some carrot peelings.

  9. I know this won’t make me any friends, but I’m against digital manipulation of photos. If you have to correct a picture after the fact, you didn’t take it right.

    I know there are many legitimate technical and artistic reasons to edit photos, and I don’t think it should be stopped or anything radical like that, but personally, I never manipulate my pictures, it wouldn’t feel honest.

  10. OK, I have a question. What’s the difference between the filters and whatnot that the Hipstamatic iPhone app does when you take a photo and what HDR & solarization are?

    From my unknowledgeable-about-photography POV, it seems like the Hipstamatic app does something that would be equivalent to putting a coloured filter on the lens (green, red, yellow, whatever) and playing with lighting/exposure (giving the darker edges), and then mimicking old-school print film from the 60’s & 70’s (or other eras) with things like adding a grainy texture, dust, etc.

    I must admit I’m smitten with the instant mood the Hipstamatic app gives. And I realise that it’s on the verge of (if not downright) gimmicky. I suppose I may tire of it eventually. But I love the look of the John S/Ina film in particular. It feels like taking photos that could have been taken in the 60’s or 70’s – a great retro feeling. Which is extra fun when you have a kid born in 2008.

    BTW, totally with you Blork. That top photo is AWFUL. But I do love the feeling of the bottom HDR one as well. As in any art medium, there can be great examples and bad ones. Good and appropriate use of a particular technique is what distinguishes great artists from amateurs.

  11. Tux, I tend to avoid “manipulation,” but I’m not at all opposed to “enhancement” such as shifts in tonality, exposure, contrast, etc. But that’s a whole other conversation.

    Milliner, that’s a really good question, and my answer might not be very satisfying. First, though, I should point out that the bottom example (NYC skyline at night) is presented here as an example of GOOD use of HDR. It’s good (in my opinion) because it is exploiting and even pushing the medium without falling into garish tricks. The shadows look like shadows, the highlights look like highlights, and there are no ghastly halo effects anywhere. Bravo!

    So what’s the difference between (overprocessed) HDR and “Hipstamatic” photos? Well, for one thing, Hipstamatic photos are generally nice to look at (subjective), and they reference a known aesthetic — a combination of the “toy camera/Holga/Diana” look with the oversaturated-while-simultaneously-faded look of old prints from the 60s and 70s. Both of those “looks” come loaded with huge cultural and aesthetic backstories that are a great foundation for making images that immediately provoke a positive response.

    When a Hipstamatic photo really works, it’s often an image that would work even if it wasn’t treated that way. They’re often simple portraits of people, or land/cityscapes with interesting buildings, etc. In other words, they’re evocative at their core, and in their finishing.

    The only thing that overprocessed HDR “references” to me is all the mistakes my photographic training taught me to avoid: halo effects, disbalance between light and dark, discordant color tonalities, cliché subjects, on and on.

    The big flaw in my argument so far is that it sounds like I’m saying only the old and the known are good, and the new is necessarily bad. That would be an oversimplification. I’m not opposed to new stuff. Although I also know that humans are cultural creatures, and most of us are drawn to things that build on the familiar.

    I think it’s also important to think about what the intention of the artist is. When somebody takes a Hipstamatic photo and puts it on Flickr (which is as far as the vast majority of Hipstamatic images go), you know they’re not taking it too seriously. It’s “consumable art;” something you see, appreciate, and then probably never see again.

    Occasionally you find someone who does that kind of stuff and takes it very seriously. Often these people are already professional artists, or at least people with a strong artistic sensibility. As a result, the Hipstamatic work they do is really good.

    I think it’s different for the HDR crowd. I don’t know of any serious artist (or person with serious art cred.) who is doing HDR (at least not the overprocessed kind). I know that sounds really snobbish, but I don’t know how else to say it. And I don’t want to come off sounding like a big defender of the artistic “establishment,” but there’s something to be said about having a foundation before you start building the walls.

    At this point I could break into a whole other 2000 word essay about the problems of photography, 95% of which are the photographers. It’s a tricky medium in that way; because it is so “gear” oriented, it attracts a lot of gear geeks. Personally, I would rather nail my head to the floor than join a camera club or photographic society, because 95% of the people there are people with no artistic background and training, and very little artistic sensibility — they’re just gear geeks taking the same old tired photos of babies and flowers and cars and girls in bikinis. They think their photos live or die based on the “glass” they use or the upper limit of their ISO settings. This is the environment in which overprocessed HDR thrives. The world of the rational, analytical left brain.

    I’ll bet if you did a survey of the people who take the Hipstamatic photos you like, almost none of them would identify themselves as “photographers.” They’re creative people making interesting pictures with a handy tool; their iPhone.

    You’ll find very few camera club members shooting with their iPhones, because for them it’s more about what equipment they use than what the resulting image looks like.

    Personally, I am a little bit in both worlds on that. I know my gear and I understand all the gear geek talk. I can be quite analytical on the technical side of photography. But I quickly get bored if that becomes the center of the conversation instead of it being the periphery.

    So, um. Is that clear? ;-)

  12. @Blork, Ah yes….the Diana camera. I think what you’re saying is essentially at the heart of the matter. Good design/art has key components that can be found in all representations, no matter what the medium. It’s this foundation, as you mention above, that is essential. Of course even if there are parameters, what constitues ‘good design and good art’ is still often debated.

    And as you said, once you remove the ‘special effect’ (weather it’s hipstamatic or HDR) if the photo is still good (i.e. the composition, lighting, balance etc. is there) then it stands up, but if it’s not, well…. In general I think people with trained eyes and/or a natural talent for design can see through the special effect and see the base foundation. Once again, that sounds snobbish, but I think it’s more just a case of knowing what to look for, in addition to having an emotional response to something.

    And just to agree with another point, it really is the person (and the choices they make), not the gear that makes the art. I’d put my $$ on the person with the iPhone and the artistic sensibility over the gear geek with the flashy equipment (and no artistic sensibility) every time. Sometimes even, I think you’re better off with low tech gear. Forces you to be creative.

    Oh, BTW, I did understand that the bottom photo was the good HDR print. I was agreeing to that in my first post (see last comment).

  13. P.S. I just realised that my question may have been interpreted as ‘What is the (artistic) difference between HDR & Hipstamatic?’. I was actually just referring to the technical side (which was also answered). It’s painfully obvious to me what the artistic (or lack thereof) differences are. I never would have thought of the cultural references though (or not directly anyhow), which is also a great point to add to the discussion.

    Anyhow, all interesting. :)

  14. Well, I don’t want to sound pedantic, but when you consider that photography is even possible, let alone its Daguerrotypian history, it’s an incredible thing to be admired.

    I guess that anyone, be he some photography geek, is going to try to push the boundaries . . . it doesn’t necessarily mean that his product is going to be GOOD, but is going to finally end up being evolutionally weeded out . . . point being, that the worst mistakes are sometimes the basis for the best accidents.

    When I learned the true nature of phosphorus and hydrochloric acid in Chemistry, my previously loving teacher ended up hating me and giving me the big “F,” but to this day I’ll never do that again!

    Humans have always been trying to invent photography, even though they never really knew what it was. Jan Vermeer apparently used a “light box” to frame his portraits, in an absurdly intricate attempt to truly render the “real perspective.”

    Where HDR and velvet paintings meet is simply experimentation . . . not all of it good (see Rutherford, Bethe, Bohr and Fermi) but the detritus of it all can lead to actually good things.

    Just ask Peter Max and why he’s in a nursing home from looking at too many day-glo stars.

  15. Nick, I suppose in the grand scheme of things, it is just experimentation. And I’m not against that. But for many (most?) of the HDR enthusiasts, I don’t know if it’s as simple as that. As in, they’re not people with artistic knowledge and backgrounds experimenting with something new. They’re not like the dadaists and the cubists, accomplished artists who were breaking rules and pushing limits for experimental purposes. Ditto the abstract expressionists. When Barnett Newman paints three stripes on a board it’s part of a lifetime of working with color and bold patterns, so it means something. When farmer Brown does it, he’s just painting a wall. Such is the highly subjective nature of art and culture.

    So yeah, if the vanguard of HDR were artists who I knew and respected, then I’d still hate it but I’d hate it from arm’s length. But photography is anybody’s game, and HDR requires no special skill or sensibility, so it doesn’t have any cred with me.

    Speaking of sensibility, one of the things I really appreciate in any artistic expression is restraint; when the artist — be it a film maker, photographer, painter, or rap singer — knows when to hold back in order to make a more lasting impression. It’s a sign of mastery of your medium when you know how and when to restrain yourself. HDR is the opposite of restraint — which would be great if this were a horror movie or a bacon festival. But it isn’t.

  16. No, I know what you’re saying. If I can stretch the analogies, it’s like what you’re saying about HDR and what I would say about food . . . which will always be a kind of binding arbitration between you and me, (and the folks, of course) but if you think about food as sustenance and photographs as documents anything that extends the production of them, be it hideous attempts to make a photo better or mushroom foam on my lobster tomally . . .

    Well, sometimes no wonder the Margherita is the best.

  17. I think it’s really in the eye of the beholder no? That first picture makes me think of The Joker from Batman. While it’s not my cup of tea (or yours for that matter) it’s someone’s.

    While I have yet to produce any I’ve seen some amazing HDR photo’s. Ones that enhance the colour and give a rich pleasing photograph.

    That’s one a friend of mine took in Italy. I just like looking at it. Not very picture has to be Life Magazine quality. Just saying.

  18. Andrew, you’re right that not every picture has to be Life magazine quality. But there’s such a buzz around HDR, and most of the HDR stuff is so awful, that I felt I had to speak up. At the risk of sounding like a snob, I think there’s something to be said for having some sort of aesthetic standards, especially if you’re going to make a big thing out of it.

    Bear in mind that I’m bringing a bit of art history into the mix; I’ve studied art and photography in an academic setting, which sounds dreadful but I was careful to keep the dryness at bay while doing so. But it gave me an appreciation for imagery that has a sense of history and aesthetics, as well as a sense of newness and progress.

    That said, I don’t like the way HDR appeals to the knee-jerk “wow” factor, the same way salty and greasy food immediately grabs your attention (especially when you’re nursing a hangover). I love a good plate of fries as much as the next guy (actually, probably more… I LOVE salty french fries!), but there’s a place and a context for that kind of thing. When it comes to looking at photographs, I want to be drawn in by more than a quick “wow.”

    Your friend’s photo from Italy is quite beautiful and captivating. However, I think the sky is over-processed. It’s a very dramatic sky, for sure, but by over-processing it, the highlights are blown (too white, or “hot”) and the shadows look fake. For me, the more fake it looks the more the drama decreases. If your friend were to re-process that image, leaving the ground as-is and just easing off on the sky drama, I think he’d end up with a stunning and captivating photograph.

  19. Very much agree about how ugly the results of this HDR craze are… I’m not very much opposed to manipulation, but the world has enough ugly things in it already, people.

    But I do like the one by paulo.barcellos. Of course it’s nothing like what you’d get on slide film, but perhaps if you were a painter trying to do a realistic night scene you’d do something like that… If you or anyone can point to a collections of other work like this, that would be interesting.

  20. Blork: I’m with you, most HDR pictures are just done over the top. There are some nice ones, but in general, I think it has become the technique for those who are too lazy to get the right exposure manually (with the camera instead of photoshopping it to death).
    [Gosh, I just feel the rotten tomatoes being thrown my way right now for saying that!]

    Like it was mentioned in a comment above, it also reminds me of solarisation BUT mixed with cross processing (which makes the colors go crazy), this last one used to be a favorite of mine back in the film developing days, BUT it doesn’t turn out good in all images.

    And that HDR trend is spreading like a disease through the industries (not just the artists and the photographers). Real estate is now jumping in that wagon. My broker just announced the new rules for listing our properties: The images has to be done with HDR technology. Luckily, the company who was hired to do them don’t go for the tone mapping. Hopefully they will stay that way. Otherwise they’ll start looking like an urban version of Robert Bateman’s paintings. The horror.

  21. Deya, funny you should mention the real estate angle, as I was just commenting to someone on that a couple of days ago. Some sites do it right by going very easy on the effect and using no tone mapping. In that case it just helps you get a clear sense of the space without corners getting lost in the shadows, etc. But some — typically — go overboard and make the places look terrible.

    How can the real estate agents not see how bad it looks?

    I saw one place last week that had a mix of HDR and non-HDR images. Occasionally you’d see virtually the same scene in two photos, one of which was HDR. It looked like two different places (and the HDR versions make the place look harsh and uninviting).

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