HDR or ‘High Dynamic Range’ photography has really come of age in the last few years, unfortunately over the same period it has attracted both exponents and detractors in equal measure. Why should this be? What is the controversy? Why is it often reviled? A great deal depends on how HDR is applied, sympathetically or aggressively, either as a tool to subtly enhance an image, passing unnoticed or used to over emphasize the HDR effect for impact. Having listened to so many arguments for and against, as well as having my own views on the subject, also being a practitioner, my final conclusion has to be that HDR is not the problem, its more a case of how it has been utilised.
Firstly, HDR is NOT new, I have been using it in my photography for over 40 years! In fact I imagine most photographers who have ever printed in a darkroom, especially from black and white negatives have employed it in their prints. In simple terms, High Dynamic Range photography is a way of increasing the visible information in an image, beyond what is readily seen in a straight print. The human eye, with its constantly adjusting iris can detect information and detail in both the brightest highlights and darkest shadows with relative ease, a camera with a predetermined fixed aperture cannot.
Returning to the b/w darkroom, a common battle, especially when confronted with a high contrast negative, was preventing burnt out highlights and clogged up shadows lacking detail. The answer was dodging and burning in, in exactly the same way you would employ in software such as Photoshop using the dodge and burn tool. In fact the icons for both come directly from the darkroom, the hand making a ‘O’ was used for burning in, simply making the circle larger or smaller with your fingers allowed you to control the size of the circle and thus the area of light passing through. The dodge tool, looking like a black lollipop icon, was made of a small disc of card on the end of a stiff wire allowing you to hold back the light. In fact making the statement ‘I will never employ HDR’ is tantamount to saying ‘I will never go out taking photographs at any time but on the very dullest and flattest day’
In the days of colour slide film, notorious for having very little exposure latitude and burning out highlights, it was not uncommon for me to make low density b/w masks, by contact printing through the slide onto b/w film. After processing the film for a shorter than normal time, in order to produce a low density negative, I would sandwich the slide and negative together and rephotograph them back onto slide film, voilà, a reduced contrast slide. It is worth remembering that early digital cameras were also prone to the same issues, in essence HDR is the digital equivalent of making a low density b/w mask.
Back to the present, done subtly, HDR could and should well look like any straight picture, full of detail in all areas, however some HDR could be better described as GDR ‘Garish Dynamic Range’ or FCDR ‘False Colour Dynamic Range’. It seems to be this aspect of HDR that tends to divide opinion and be the most controversial. Although I personally like subtle in my own images, I am quite happy to sit on the fence when it comes to the full range of HDR styles used, after all every subject is different, so can and will be interpreted differently by each photographer.
One area that may be responsible for much HDR controversy could well be the software itself, or more accurately the way it is used to generate the final image. With a little practice, I have found that ALL the different makes of HDR software I own are capable of producing a very acceptable image. Be it from Photoshop or Lightroom modules to stand alone program’s such as FDR Tools, PTGui Pro, Photomatrix Pro, Aurora HDR 2017, each offering a range of tools to modify the image from the software’s default settings. However, each program’s default settings can and do vary tremendously, the result being that when used by an HDR novice, who more often than not may just stick with the defaults, the resulting image is nothing like they expected or wanted.
Practice, practice, practice is the only real answer to the problem, but be assured that irrespective of the software used, a pleasing result IS possible. Have Fun!!!
Here are a few examples takes from sections of my 360° panoramas, all of which rely heavily on HDR photography, followed by sympathetic post processing, to both show subject detail yet try and retain the mood of the various locations.
Bolsover Castle – Star Chamber
Leicester Cathedral – Richard III’s Tomb
Leicester Cathedral – Richard III’s Tomb
Ashby Castle – Cellar
St Werburgh – Derby