posted 2010.10.24 - modified 2018.04.14

To HDR or not to HDR?

The latest, greatest fad in photography right now seems to be HDR. Still another three-letter acronym, this time it says High-Dynamic-Range (of course, we all know that).
HDR has been around for a long time, a very long analog time. It arrived because analog film (and papers) never was able to cath the full dynamic exposure range human eyes are capable of. In addition, human eyes are capable of moving their focus points and adjust the exposure dynamically.

We used to call it Dodging and Burning. It was invented already during the 19th century and belonged to the basic repertoire of any darkroom magician. Later it was refined through the photography of Ansel Adams and his well-known zone-system. Rather complicated, but at the same time logical and possible to understand. This method was truly The Way to go to make superb Black-and White prints (color was was a little more complicated and really not possible). I know, I did it all. Through the seventies, the eighties and the nineties.

Along came digital photography (with a larger exposure range) and now what is termed HDR. Originally based on the thought to combine several exposures into one (this was extremely difficult in the old days) it also incorporated the idea of transforming the image to a larger bit-depth and in this way extract a higher dynamic range. This is called multi-shot HDR.

Then single-shot HDR arrived. I’m still uncertain on how it is really performed but is certainly based on  bit-depth. The trouble is only that our current devices (screens, printers, papers) is not capable of producing this spectrum of hue, saturation and brightness. The result (which we cannot see) has to be transformed into a format which our devices are capable of to reproduce.

Enough theory. I was curious, so I had to do some experiments. Here is my first ever (!) single-shot HDR experiment.

For the records: This is M/S Color Viking, Sandefjord to Strömstad @ 2009.08.07 21:07

(click on any picture to view large size)

HDR example, as shot

This the original captured image (RAW converted to JPG). Not bad, but much better than any old-time slide.

HDR example, Lightroom adjusted only

This is the image after basic processing in Adobe Lightroom (no local corrections). In my view, this is much better, it looks a little more like the image I captured with my own eyes. This is close to what I saw.

HDR example, edited in NIK Viveza

This is the image after processing in NIK Viveza (I love it!) with lots of local corrections. You can’t get any closer to what I really  experienced. Very close to my experience.

HDR example, single-shot

This is the image after processing in NIK HDR Efex (single-shot, almost default settings).
But is it real?
Does it have to be real?

Is it still photography? Is it pure photography?

Afterwords 28.10.2010:
Photo District News has a very interesting article on HDR and PHOTOREALISM VS. SURREALISM and whether VELVET ELVIS is still IN THE BUILDING.

Photographer Tony Sweet argues: “The issues with HDR appear to be that it doesn’t look natural. Well, okay. Did Fuji Velvia 50—the choice of professional nature photographers—look natural? Does a 14mm lens look natural? Does the bokeh of super fast lenses look natural? The answer to all of these questions is ‘no’ so I’m not sure why HDR is such an issue.”

I was a fan of Fuji Velvia, and I am still obsessed with wide-angle lenses, so I give Tony Sweet a point here. My advice is: Explore but use with care, especially if you happen to advocate straight photography!

UPDATE 14.4.2018
Time moves technology. Here is the same photo processed six years later in Lightroom. No HDR!
Color Viking, Skagerak @ 2009.08.07 21:07

Olympus E3 | Zuiko 7-14mm@7mm f4.5 | ISO100
Processed in Lightroom with a little help from a plugin.

One Response to “To HDR or not to HDR?”

  1. Terje Enge says:

    There is a very interesting discussion on this topic at DPReview: http://www.dpreview.com/news/2012/02/03/HDR_in_photojournalism .
    What about B&W? What about the Ansel Adams zone system, and standard corrections to contrast and color? What about wide-angle lenses that obviously distorts perspective?
    And, perhaps more important, is a multiple exposure (which most HDR-images consist of) true to the moment? A multiple exposure HDR is captured at different moments of time …
    (the picture above is not a multiple exposure)

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