Some Thoughts on HDR

When I started doing serious photography around mid of 2009, HDR was kind of the latest craze. My reaction when I first saw HDR images was one of amazement. I never expected photographs to be so vibrant and detailed. HDR images looked surreal I just had to try making one myself.

Looking back, I have now understood why I was bewitched by those out-of-this-world photographs. There were several reasons I can think of:

1. I have never seen fine art photographs. Paintings, yes but never photographs. I blame my art subjects because they never discussed photography as an art form.

2. I was used to taking snapshots with film cameras. I did own several point-and-shoot digital cameras but they were there just to record personal experiences.

3. I have never attempted to retouch my photos. I thought that if my photos sucked then maybe I just don’t know how to capture them.

4. I didn’t understand the art of photography. I did not understand light and exposure. I didn’t think about composition.

I thank HDR for making me appreciate fine art photography. Without it, I probably would have continued being just a casual shooter.

Fast forward to the present, I can say that I have been exposed to all sorts of fine art photographs and have learned to appreciate most of them. I now have a bit of understanding on the role of light, even its absence, in creating pleasing photographs. I still struggle with composition and sometimes it is quite frustrating when I come back from a photoshoot with barely any keepers.

So what has this got to do with HDR?

I have realized that the best photographs are the simple ones. The lesser the clutter, the better they are. Most of the time.

So again, what has this got to do with HDR?

A photograph, ideally, must have a single subject. Everything in the frame must contribute to that single message. I once read in a book that before you click the shutter, SIMPLIFY first. You know that a photograph is finished when there is nothing more that you can remove from the frame.

Here lies the problem with a lot of HDR images: they show details all over the frame even in the shadow areas. The argument behind these HDR images is that the photographer wanted to recreate the dynamic range of human vision; there are details everywhere. No blown highlights, no black shadows. (Taken to the extreme, the resulting image becomes flat and lacks contrast. To counter this massive drop in overall contrast, some photographers mindlessly increase local contrast to create details. The result of which is the haloing effect.)

This, I believe, is a result of failing to understand how humans SEE. Humans have very narrow field of focus. If you stretch your arms out and spread your fingers, you could not focus on both your thumb and pinky. Your eyes actually roam around very quickly, gathering details along the way and the brain assembles all the separate data into a cohesive whole. There is no confusion.

Compare this to a frame of photograph where the eye is focused only on a relatively small area. If there are details all throughout the frame, the brain gets confused because the entire view is now crammed into such a small space. By presenting details in both highlights and shadow areas, the brain could no longer concentrate on one subject. This makes the photograph overly complicated and cluttered.

Basic rules of composition, if you believe that there is such a thing, tell you to arrange the elements in a frame in such a way that the main subject becomes the center of attention. Every other element in that frame must not contest the significance of the main subject. The brightest area of the frame catches the eye first so usually this is where you position your subject. By unnecessarily showing details in the shadow areas, you force the viewer to divert his attention away from the subject.

Another example is the basic composition technique of using frames: e.g. a tree in the foreground that frames a house which is the main subject. This “frame” is supposed to force the viewer to concentrate on the house. Improper use of HDR will show details on the tree thus diverting the eye from the house.

HDR is not a bad technique. Sometimes, it is even necessary. It is the improper use of HDR that makes weak photographs. I’m not referring to cartoonish HDRs (they are a completely different level of bad photos) but even “realistic” HDRs can be harmful to your art. Just be careful.

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