HDR…My opinion on the debate
No matter what photography forum you are a part of, be it flickr, dpreview, Digital Photography School or any other, you will eventually run across two debates. One is your standard SOOC vs. Post Process, the “purists” vs. the “rebels”, or whatever you’d like to call it. The other revolves around HDR. I have posted my feelings about both of these subjects over the past couples months on flickr, just in comments on other folks photos, never really diving in. That being said, I wanted to give my full opinion and weigh in on these subjects. The reason that I want to talk about them together, is that I believe that they go hand in one. You can have the discussions separately, but it’s just more fun to have them together! I’ll also be dropping processed vs. SOOC, HDR vs. single exposure shots throughout this page, just to liven things up!
Now, inevitably there will be people who disagree with what I am going to write here, and guess what? That is 100% fine. That’s kind of the whole basis of my argument (we’ll get into that later). I’m not attacking anyone in this write up, I’m not criticizing anyone, so if say that I don’t shoot film, please don’t take that as I think people who do shoot film are dinosaurs and need to get with the digital age. I offer up only my opinion, and unlike many articles on these subjects that are out there, I’m not drawing a line in the sand and saying that because I do it one way, that must mean that your way is wrong. Because that’s the great thing about photography (read: art). There is no right way. There is no wrong way. There is my way. And Henrik Knudsen’s way. And Joon Brandt’s way. And Mark Velasquez’s way. There is the wild way of Matt Hansen, the candid way of Ian Sane and the story telling way of Daniela Duncan. And you don’t have to like every picture you see. But the thing that I believe everyone should remember is this: Just because YOU don’t like a photograph, does not mean it is not good, it means that you just don’t like it. I don’t like meatloaf. Never have. However, does that mean that all meatloaf is terrible? Absolutely not. Now, onto the debate!
I’ll start with the SOOC vs. processing debate, because it will be shorter and a nice lead in to the HDR one. Since my passion is HDR, I don’t want to get too worked up too early and have you stop reading. We’ll ease into this (like that first time you get in the swimming pool after Memorial Day…MAN is that cold!). I’m trying to stay as objective as I possibly can while writing this, because one of my biggest pet peeves is when people take a hard line on one of these issues and just feel the need to almost insult the other side of the story. I recently read an article (and I am not going to post the link here because the stance taken is almost juvenile [“Not listening to your side la-la-la-not listening-la-la-la” is more or less what is said] and I don’t think reading it would be of much value to you) that was my inspiration for taking the approach.
Don’t get me wrong about SOOC images: I think that they can be absolutely fantastic. They really have a sense of reality to them, a sense of being there, because you know if you were there and when you first take the picture and look at your viewfinder that’s what you would see. I can also fully appreciate the fact if you have a digital camera but are trying to replicate the film experience, then you have one shot to get a scene right. Well, not just one shot I supposed you could have 24 or 36 shots, but if it’s not right when you press the shutter then it is not going to be right. As I’ve stated earlier (and this will be a permeating theme throughout this article), you are entitled to create your artwork the way that you see it. But just because I put my pictures through Photoshop, add some contrast, some color, clone this bag out that floated into the scene, remove the ghosting guy that walked past, does that make me less of a photographer? I still went out, composed the scene how I wanted it to look and pressed the shutter. The other point is this. I’ve personally never taken any photography classes. All I’ve learned is from the internet books, etc. I think it is a safe assumption (and I hate to assume, we all know what happens) is that if you are still shooting film, then you have either had some formal training or have been shooting for much longer than I have. The reason I bring this point up, is maybe you know your way around a camera a bit more than me. I’ll be the first one to tell you that I am no expert when it comes to photography (yet, working on it though!) So while it’s true that I may use Photoshop as a crutch, it’s still my interpretation of the picture that I am creating. I firmly believe in the Pablo Picasso quote “I paint objects as I think them, not as I see them”.
So we’ve talked about purists vs. rebels (real rebels not the kind you Canon folk use). Though Nikon vs. Canon is a good synonym for purists vs. rebels. I’m only joking, trust me, I’m not getting into the Nikon vs. Canon debate for one reason, and one reason only. There is no debate. Go out, find a camera you like, and buy it. Doesn’t matter if it is Nikon, Canon, Pentax, Sony, who cares. Just find a way to take the pictures! On to HDR!
Now this issue hits a little closer to home for me, as the majority of my work is obviously HDR (just in case you hadn’t visited my flickr stream, ever read one of my posts, or um, seen the title of the blog). Another reason I kind of take this personally is that some people have had some, well, let’s just say unflattering things to say to me. Just to give you a few examples my work as been called, terrible, a joke, a poor excuse for photography, and my personal favorite, vomit on someone’s computer screen. That last one just made me chuckle, because let’s face it, you have nothing better to do than say something like that, that’s fine with me. Plus, this is a free country, and you have the right to say whatever it is you’d like to, I can respect that. But I just have one thing to say to those people (I doubt they are reading this though): If you don’t like my work, then just close the web page! Don’t tell me you’ve looked through hundreds of my HDRs and you hate them all! Thank you for all the views, but just find something you want to look at! Or go take a picture yourself! That’s the other thing that kind of bothers me. I’ve had people say “I’m not a photographer, but I think your photos suck.” Or people tell you that you should try to do more ralistic HDRs, or that you should post more unprocessed images. Did someone tell Picasso to try his hand at basketweaving? No. So don’t tell me what kind of pictures I shoud take.
Sorry about that, didn’t mean to make it about me, like I said, it just gets to me sometimes *sniff sniff*. Ok, tears wiped, ready to go. HDR vs. non HDR. Let’s take a quick second to remember what HDR is. All we have to do is look at the name. High Dynamic Range photography. Our goal is to capture those details in the shadows and highlights, maybe make it look like something out of a Tim Burton movie, maybe just make it more natural. There are some really superb HDR photographers out there who just make you feel like you are standing there staring at the scene. You can barely tell it’s HDR, it’s so crisp and clean. Remember that when we look at a scene, we inherently see it in HDR with our eyes. You can see the details all throughout the scene, the colors, the lighting. Our eyes are always refocusing and adjusting to give us this view. A camera isn’t that smart (yet). So to capture what we are seeing, HDR is necessary, in my opinion. You can see this from a shot I took during our Jamaican honeymoon. With just one exposure, the zero exposure compensation one, the highlights are WAY blown out and the shadows are too dark. Sure you could recover some of the highlights and boost the shadows in CS5 (purists cover your eyes!), but why not take seven bracketed shots and get the image you see below it?
The beauty of HDR photography is, you don’t have to use it to overcome the shortfalls of a camera. I HDR almost everything I shoot, just because I absolutely love the way that a scene processed with the technique looks. Take the New York Skyline for example. You can see the middle exposure for a set of five bracketed shots and the HDR. There are people who will say they like the single exposure better. But aren’t the colors a big bland? Aren’t some of the lights a bit blown out? I mean yes, it still is a cool picture, but compare it to the HDR! It gets blown out of the water! To me, I would look at the SOOC and say, “Oh cool, the NY skyline” and move on. With the HDR, I say, “I need to hang this in my house right now”. That’s the advantage HDR can bring to the table.
Another example of this is below. The snow looks cool in the single exposure and you can see it falling in the middle of the scene. But the sky is just completely blown out. Since this is my creation, my art, I wanted to portray it differently. I wanted to show the blizzard that I was driving through. So, five shots later, you can see the snow falling all throughout the scene, you get a sense of movement of the snow of the left now, instead of it just hanging in mid air.
Ok, I guess it’s about time to wrap it up, I’ve droned on for much longer than I thought I was going to. It comes down to this. HDR is a style of photography, just like B&W, high key, even wedding and landscape photography. I mean, is B&W how you see the world? To those who say that HDR is fake, when you see a scene, is it in B&W? Nope. Well, unless you are color blind, but that is a different story. I’m not saying that B&W is bad. I love B&W images. I’ve done quite a few. But if anything, B&W images are more fake than HDR, as HDR presents the world as we see, in complete dynamic range, if the processing is done naturally and not Salvador Dali style. What if you don’t like portrait or wedding photography? Isn’t that a style, or an art as well? Sometimes we just need to be more open minded about photography in general, myself included. If you don’t understand HDR or have never seen an HDR you like, well that’s one thing. But don’t take a stance that it’s not art, that it’s not good, just because you don’t like it.
I say the same thing to you as I say to those are complain about Howard Stern or Glenn Beck. Stop listening (or in our case stop looking)!! No one is sitting down and forcing you to look at HDR images. If it’s not your cup of tea, that’s fine by me. I may not like the 1,000 pictures of your cat you have on your photostream. But if photographing your cat makes you happy, then snap away. Because HDR makes me happy. I love taking the pictures, I love processing the pictures, I love taking a normal old scene and making it my own, how I see it. As Bill Waterston said, “I’ll connect the dots my own way.”
And guess what. I’m going to keep doing it.