HDR

HDR Image of the Taj Mahal in India, by Trey Ratcliff

I was looking through Ken Rockwell’s Guide to the D90 and noticed a typical barb from him when it came to the section of the BKT button:

“This button is used to set the various exposure bracketing modes.  This is a hold-over from film days, and was a bad idea back then, too.  Don’t guess at exposures when you can look at your LCD and adjust from there.  HDR weirdoes might like it, but you shouldn’t need HDR if you do your lighting and use fill flash properly.

Forget this button.”

(and before you say it, yes, I use Ken’s site.  If you’ve read some of my other blogs, I do use and recommend his site as a resource for guides on settings and menus, etc.  His reviews can be a bit hyperbolic, but if you can get past all his arrogance and posturing, there is some great information there.)

Immediately, I was offended, for two reasons:  First, it is astounding to me that he’s writing a guide on how to use the D90 and he’s essentially skipping a whole button because he doesn’t like it???  Second, the comment about HDR is just uncalled for – you may not like or approve of HDR Ken, but you could be a big boy and explain how the button works.  Interestingly, he seems to have grown up just a little bit, since his D7000 review doesn’t take a swipe at HDR, giving at least a minimal explanation of the button and his coverage of the D5100 leaves it at “try it and you might love it”, noting that he doesn’t use it.

For some reason, it also make me have the thought that if you asked me who in the photography world, I’d immediately say Trey Ratcliff, the HDR guru and soul of the really cool Stuck in Customs website.

So far, I haven’t tried HDR (or High Dynamic Range photography), and I’ll admit to having slightly mixed feelings about it.  But so much of Trey’s work conveys something powerful and beautiful that I can’t condemn it.

I’m guessing you already know what HDR is, but for those who don’t know, I’ll take a swipe at explaining it from an interested outsider’s perspective:

Have you even taken a picture that shows a much different atmosphere than you were actually experiencing?  It is darker, more shadowy than reality, or maybe it seems much flatter that the scene you were looking at?  The roots of HDR are to allow an image to mimic the way the human eye and brain see the world.  Beyond that, folks engaged in HDR processing take advantage of the tools to also enhance the colors, saturation and a variety of other things that take the image beyond reality, but give it the ability to convey something in a way standard photography doesn’t always achieve.

It is typically accomplished by taking several shots at three or more levels of exposure.  If you’re guessing that having a tripod for shooting HDR is a good idea, you’re right.  It isn’t required, but it will make things a heck of a lot easier.  Anyway, you’ll have one or more dark exposures, a normal exposure and one or more bright ones.  Each image is going to have detail and parts of the image exposed in a way that the others won’t.  You use special software to merge the multiple exposures into a single image that allows you to take advantage of all the detail and information in the multiple images.  In each image, parts will be under- or over-exposed, but other parts will be perfect.  You get to use the best parts from the multiple photos to create a single HDR image, then use other tools to instill the mood or atmosphere you’re going for.

For some reason, it is one of the most divisive issues in the photography world.  I can only imagine it is similar to what the Impressionists went through in early struggles for acceptance.  There was much division.  They were mocked.  They were controversial.  Mainly, they broke the old rules.  They expressed themselves in a way that was new, just as Trey and other HDR devotees are today.  I’ve shown some examples below, but I highly recommend you view them full-size on Trey’s site – they are best experienced on a big monitor.

One of Trey's most famous works - the first HDR photo displayed in the Smithsonian Museum

One of my personal favorites from Trey

An example of the more surreal end of HDR

It is no surprise that Ken isn’t a fan of HDR – not only is it “tweaking” to a level that must make him twitch uncontrollably, but the best format to shoot for use with HDR is RAW!!

Like anything else, there are degrees of HDR.  If you look at Trey’s work on his page explaining HDR, you pretty much see the span: realistic to hyper-realistic to surreal.  At least for Trey, the goal is to covey something – a feeling, a moment, a mood, the atmosphere when the photo was taken.  Sometimes that takes him beyond what your mind believes, but virtually every one of his images is evocative of something in my head.  He doesn’t feel burdened by trying to make it look exactly has he saw it – he’s communicating the energy he saw it with.

When he talks about it, I almost hear him in a Yoda-voice describing The Force and the energy that surrounds us all.  Frankly, it is pretty cool to hear his quiet passion for photography and this method of processing, which is why he’s the guy I’d pick to hang around with: First of all, you’re likely to be somewhere interesting, and you’re absolutely not going to be bored, either.  He’s an interesting but humble cat.

His zeal is infectious, and it is clearly a liberating device for his disciples.  Shots that look very average un-processed can be very powerful through HDR.  Personally, the more surreal the shot the less likely I am to really enjoy it, but I do appreciate the form overall.  You can call it a lot of things, but you have to work hard for an HDR shot to be boring.  Not everyone does it well – sometimes it can be garish and exaggerated.  That said, I see a fair bit of HDR that isn’t my taste but is still clearly well done.

What is my opinion of HDR?  Anything that expands creativity and challenges the norm in such a positive way can only be a good thing.  I didn’t make the reference to the Impressionists lightly – I do think what HDR is offering to the world of photography is just as important as the dimension Monet, Renoir, Manet, Cassatt and so many others gave us in the world of painting.  The debate it creates can be ugly at times, but I think ultimately it broadens the world of photography and the number of people who consider themselves photographers.

So why haven’t I tried HDR?  I own a camera with a BKT function.  I’ve got some great glass (though I really want a Tokina 11-16 f/2.8). I shoot RAW (even one RAW image can be used to create an HDR image). I own Photoshop and multiple computers powerful enough to use the software.  I could even afford to get Photomatix since Trey’s site has a 15% off coupon code and his on-line class is less than a hundred bucks.  Mainly, it is a matter of time and the fact that I’m trying very hard to be good at the basic, classic photography before I start adding dimensions like HDR.  That said, I’ll probably be shooting with the idea that I’ll come back and play with HDR later.  Maybe I’ll even find a way to meet Trey!

What do you think about HDR?  How many of you have tried it?  As always, if you’re reading this, I’d love to hear your perspective!  I appreciate the time you took to read mine!

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