HDR is becoming trendy. Talking about it is cool. Doing it is audacious. Commenting on it is tricky. But make no mistake about it: HDR is not primarily a photography technique, it’s a traffic magnet. Read here “web and blog traffic” – even though I did also cause quite a bit of said traffic when I had to setup my tripod in the middle of a street for a bracketed exposure. So I will turn the power on, crank up the amps, magnetize my keyboard and see if I can get my share of traffic. This is all very formal business. The blogosphere might be a jungle but I am no monkey.

That being said, HDR, which stands for High Dynamic Range, could as well have been called CAT, or Confusing Ambiguous Topic. It is one of those areas where a highly technical term is adapted and used by the common of mortals for trivial pursuits, just like when the Coriolis effect notion gets distorted by an obnoxious geek and turned into a blog name, or when people start making their own weather forecast by noting how high their dog lifts its leg on the side of a lamppost, without any respect for the actual science of meteorology and the mastery of gambling it implies.

In essence, HDR is a concept that applies to areas way beyond my understanding and that are only studied in the original version of The 10th Photographer’s Guide to the Galaxy written by F. Stop. It would take years to even survey all the documentation available out there on the subject, and centuries to understand it. But understanding it does not really help one that much because the topic is all highly subjective and the only practical skill needed in the HDR arena is the ability to turn a cold shoulder to nasty criticism and to only reply when forced to do so by the unfair use of family triggers, as did Zidane on the field with his head.

Basically, as far as typical computer users are concerned, true HDR is an illusion. Our displays and most common applications are not designed to handle it. It is a bit like me and cooking: I can talk about it all I want, when the time comes to boil the water and read the recipe, I’ve already given up and settled for a sandwich – I’m just not designed for it. In addition, common HDR is not even an original photography concept. It was borrowed from very advanced computer graphic animation and film techniques and only retains in its photographic version the price tag (you can’t buy it at Future Shop), the glamour (almost as good as wearing original Vancouver-made Dayton boots like Johnny Depp’s), the complexity (even my quite powerful computer gives me time to go think about cooking and settling for a sandwich while processing an HDR image), and the stunning results, as all my fans know too well.

And therein lays the rub. No, not with my fans, I actually do not have any (!) and I was just trying to keep my keywords consistent and since I started talking about the movie world… Anyway, the rub is that the results are stunning. You see, the fact that HDR photography normally implies hard work on the field followed by even harder work on the computer never seems to matter much. To the casual witness who pretends to be a photographer and knows it all, it’s too nice so it must be fake. Similarly to the seasoned pro, prehistoric monument of his profession with unchanged frozen habits and a killer routine, it is too new and daring and it breaks the long established rules that have brought him into the spotlight, hence it is cheating.

There only seems to be a narrow range of all the photographers who actually dare venture into the HDR realm and experiment with its creativity, remembering that photography is a form of art and as such, it will never be able to please everyone, nor should it ever want to.

And finally, I would like to remind my esteemed readers, their family, heirs and legal guardians that even when provided by the utmost authority in the field, the HDR photography that is seen on the web, isn’t. It is not HDR photography, that is, not any more. The very act of posting a photo on the web as a common JPEG means reducing its dynamic and color range from the suprafabulousistic palette HDR was granting it (32-bit) to a cheapocrappy compromise version (8-bit) our senses and browser can interact safely with. And we still go “Oh!” and “Wow!”

So we should probably rename the technique WHDR, for Was High Dynamic Range, or CHBHDR for Could Have Been HDR.

But the time has come for me to get a little more technicallistic. I will now attempt to explain HDR photography in the simplest terms, with my hands tied up behind my back in a stray jacket and hanging by my feet over the computer. I hope the rope can carry my weight because that touchpad looks like a rather small and hard landing strip. In any case I have lowered my keyboard’s repeat rate – in case I fail and fall.

Statement number one: even a modern camera can only record a limited dynamic range – in other words when we look at a very high contrast scene like a backlit saucisson on a picnic cloth somewhere near a lavender field in Provence (that’s only a random example), our eyes can adjust and show us the entire tonal range. The camera, however (despite what the salesman said back at Future Shop) can only do its best and average the scene. It will have to blow the highlights, the shadows, or both. We’ll take a break here, so that you can digest this staggering fact. If you don’t know what it all means, just pretend, it will be explained later.

Statement number two: the first statement was too complicated for my own good and I’ve lost my way. I think I meant to say that HDR achieves a higher dynamic range by blending multiple exposures together and improving the tonal range. Doing so, it outputs a 32-bit image that is useless for normal computer displays that cannot keep up. So the image is then “tone mapped”, which means that each color in this very high tonal range is mapped to something more compliant. So in fact HDR was born to compensate for current camera hardware flaws and to render pictures that are closer to reality, but it does so by cheating.

Oh wait a minute! What is reality? Old-timers used to say it was black & white. Dogs still do. Then photographers switched to color and plates abandoned, began swearing only by film to represent reality. Then came the digital era and a new level of sensor-based reality recording was invented. And now there’s HDR as a new reality level. But the world as seen by a bee is as real as the one HDR shows us. Radio telescopes show us the limits of our universe and that’s all real. Auras and ghostly manifestations are probably real too. And so is the Matrix. So who is to say what reality is and how we should render it? I prefer to think of HDR and conventional photography, as well as nuclear science, painting, writing and domestic disputes as different forms of reality representation.

In the end, HDR photography is like medicine, politics, storytelling and changing diapers: not an exact science but certainly an art.

  • Note 1: Yes, you read me right. Medicine is not a science, merely an art, and many practitioners have bad taste.
  • Note 2: As a matter of fact, politics is the only art I know which systematically displeases the entire public and only serves the artist himself.

Further reading: Disappointed by my sarcasm? Take no offense; I wrote this post after reading one too many heated exchange about HDR on a forum somewhere. But I do love HDR as a creative tool and use it often; I just think it should be addressed with a grain of salt. Ultimately, it’s not the photographers’ camera, nor their lens, nor their post-processing work that make the image; it’s ALL of the above. But most of all, it is the photographers themselves.

Here is a list of further (and more serious) references on the subject…

  • HDR Tutorial (using Photomatix)
  • Timothy Farrar’s FFDD5 [link removed, the script has been abandonned] set of actions for HDR in Photoshop
  • A good HDR discussion also proving my point about traffic
  • A comparison between the Photomatix and Photoshop HDR approaches

Stay tuned! An upcoming article will attempt to illustrate High Dynamic Range photography with the help of graphical examples and will also discuss the similarities between HDR and quantum physics…