HDR. Is it a special effect?

I have many friends who poo poo the idea of HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography? “It’s not real.” “It doesn’t look real.” So, what is real? We all process information differently, even colors mean something different to each one of use when viewed with our eyes (and brain). Our eyes alone don’t process color, it must be sent to the brain where we interpret what the color means. Same way with HDR.

I first started doing some HDR with Photoshop and layers and layer masking way back when, AD (Ante (before) Digital).  Then came digital capture and then dedicated programs to do HDR. This made it much easier, but some of the first programs tended to render the images more as fine art and not like looking at the actually scene. Our brains said, whoa, something is different.. Some people liked it, some people didn’t.

Our software matured and now we can create images that look like a single capture image (meaning you really can’t tell it is an HDR). Photographers who have been doing this a while can, because we understand the limitations of capture by camera versus capture with eye and brain (viewing). Cameras can only capture a limited range of tones, so if your shadows have good detail, the highlights will go completely white. If your highlights have good detail, your shadows will go completely black. Our eye can simultaneously see detail in highlights and detail in shadows because of the advanced system in our retina. Cameras aren’t there, yet. Enter HDR.

HDR is computer’s way of simulating what the eyes record and the brain interprets, when represented as without the “grunge” effect. So, is HDR real or not? It depends on how you process the image. Some images I process HDR for the effect of a more painterly feel. Some images I process to look like the scene as my eyes recorded. I really think that HDR, when representing the scene as close to natural viewing, is just a step towards what cameras in the future will do with a single capture. But each one of us has to be our own judge of whether we consider HDR real. These next images look real to me (and they were shot with  an iPhone 4 and processed and saved as one image).

If you want to play with HDR, look at Nik HDR Efex Pro 2 for the computer and Pro HDR app for the iPhone.

I will start venturing out into the mountains next week to see how the color is progressing around the Smokies and also the Cumberland Plateau.

One Response to “HDR. Is it a special effect?”

  1. John Nolley says:

    I am a fan of HDR in the “right” circumstances: either to capture the level of detail which my eye did but which the camera could not in a single exposure (due to the dynamic range of the image), or the very subjective realm of “art.” Obviously, not every image is suitable for HDR; for example, I’ve yet to capture one of Bryce Canyon’s hoodoos at sunrise or sunset which worked as a HDR image–the range may be high, but I have never felt the results looked better than a single-frame capture with normal processing. On the other hand, I’ve been thrilled with HDRs I took in Alaska–the snowy slopes, alpine lakes, and deep blue skies took really well to HDR processing.

    I find there’s still a lot of misunderstanding about what HDR actually is, though. There was a big “scandal” several months ago when the Washington Post published a HDR sunset photo of the 14st Street Bridge (and a fairly subtle HDR at that). People came out of the woodwork about how it “wasn’t real” because it combined multiple exposures. Setting aside the concern that photojournalism and art are only partially overlapping spheres, it seemed that many readers had either no concept at all of what HDR was, or else a very flawed conceptualization, and accused the Post of “fraud.”

    For me, working on art exclusively, I’m a bit biased, but I certainly see HDR in many cases as a more accurate representation of the scene and the moment than a single exposure alone would have captured.

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