Trippin on HDR

Well, I’ve been back from travelling for nearly a week now, and am only just getting organized. I plan to post a full summary of my and my friend Cory’s summer travels around China’s tourist triangle, just as soon as I get all my photos organized.

To tide things over, here are a few photos from our trip that I shot with an eye towards converting them to High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. HDR photography is a method of processing images to “accurately represent the wide range of intensity levels found in real scenes ranging from direct sunlight to shadows [thank you Wikipedia].”

Xi'an Drum Tower

The Drum Tower in central Xi'an.

Xi'an Bell Tower

An HDR image of the Xi'an Bell Tower. You can just see the Drum Tower in the background.

Xi'an Bell Tower at Night

Xi'an Bell Tower at Night


An HDR image of one of the many temples in the Forbidden City, Beijing, China.

Mutianyu Great Wall

Mutianyu Great Wall

Beijing - Jing Shan Gong Yuan

A temple in Jingshan Park on a hazy Beijing morning.

I love HDR images — well good ones at least (it’s pretty easy to get carried away). However, I’ve met more than a few photographers that feel HDR (or anything but the most minimal image editing) is blasphemy in the photography world. Perhaps it is because I’m a graphic designer, but bunk I say.

If photography is the exercise of trying to capture the truest representation of light, and cameras by their very design are only able to make a single decision for exposure and stick with it when the shutter is opened, then HDR seems — to me — to allow a photographer a method to step closer to that loftiest of lofty photography goals.

Fantastic photographers have a wealth and breadth of hard-earned skill — this cannot be argued. The learning curve for good photography is steep and can be unforgiving. Perhaps this is why a few of them are so eager to dismiss the use of technology to improve their images. They worked hard to get the abilities to get those perfect photos the first time and damn if some $99 software package can now make some half-rate’s photos pretty good. But I maintain that technology is merely a tool, and should not be faulted or shunned because of its perceived threat to a profession.

I *think* most HDR detractors are the same folks that were saying that they’d never switch from film to digital because digital will NEVER (ever, never, ever) obtain the quality of film, which it arguably has (alright large-format guys, I’m open, hit me). I also *think* most feel that using any sort of digital image manipulation software is “cheating”. This is where I disagree most. Unless you are drawing in extra lines, the photo is still the photo. Using software to improve your image is no different than adjusting the aperture/shutter speed/iso/exposure compensation settings on your camera. What’s more, your camera uses many of the same software techniques (white balance, histograms, image stablization, sharpening, etc.) to digitally manipulate the image behind the scenes. And all of this can be taken one step further back to being creative with dark room practices of burning, dodging and exposure/chemical bath times.

But then I mostly see photography as an art form, a method of expression, by any means. Whether a photographer does that with or without digital image manipulation is no different to me than whether a painter uses water colours or acrilics.

15 Responses

  1. I like photography either way. One of my favorite photos is a black and white I took of the park in my home town when it was snowing yetis and penguins. It’s grainy, but it captured the feel of the moment almost perfectly. On the other hand, I’ve got some digital images I’ve ran through Photoshop that I like a lot as well. Either way, to me, photography is just about capturing a moment and time and helping me to picture that moment more vividly in my mind than it could ever be on any piece of paper or electronic display.

  2. @warped0ne: I think that’s it exactly. That’s why I like HDR, the pictures turn out much closer to what I was seeing with my eye than standard single-exposure photos. I’ve a long way to go still, but still closer.

    @Rick: Agreed.

    @Tina: I love Trey’s compositions. It was actually Trey’s work and HDR tutorial that launched me into the crazy world of HDR.

  3. Great shots. Especially the Xi’an night and Forbidden City shots (and you keep bitching about going there 😉 ). HDR and dark room techniques, etc. are all just tools and are only as good as the people using them. They can’t make a bad shot good and are only really powerful in the hands of someone adept at utilizing them.

  4. Beautiful! Lucky you, I’m in Xian now and it’s rained (read: poured) everyday so no good photos.

    Forgot to ask you the other day, did you pick up a circular polarizer for your new camera? I love mine. Works well for the kind of sky shots you had here.

  5. @Elvina: I had meant to grab a CPL before travelling, as I wanted to put an end to my collection of murky koi shots from around China. With the rush of it all it slipped my mind. Will be getting one soon though – and a fast 50mm lens.

  6. I kinda see HDR like the Caramel-Creme-Brandy-Liquor in a box of chocolates. It’s got the most taste, it’s the sweetest, and is usually wrapped in fancy pink foil, but if I eat too many of them I feel decidedly nauseous If I’d stuck to plain After Eight Mints I’d probably feel better having consumed a pack.

    While HDR does look stunning, I can’t see it as a superior style of photography, just a different one.

    There’s a university in Dalian that offers an MA in photography as a joint course with a UK university (and is branded by the UK university). Hanging around with some of the students there I noticed that while each photographer had a distinct style, much of the course was dedicated to getting them to turn that style into a personality, but not be bonded by it. In their assignments, some weeks they had to use medium format, sometimes they had to extract a frame from a video from a moving vehicle, some weeks it was old fashioned painting. An interesting course and approach (well, as observed by a complete novice like me).

  7. Alex, you put it like I would have if I were a better English writer.

    While I love HDR images, I believe there should be far between em. For me they otherwise get too plasticy and candyish. I like the occasional HDR picture (there are tons of great ones) but not all the time.

    I may be a bore, but I like pics with little or no photoshopping the most. With HDR you can make a lot of bad pictures seem better (which is both good and bad). Maybe I just like the challenge of shooting pictures without after-editing more. 🙂

  8. The pictures are great. But, I am feeling little reserved recently about HDR pictures, as some people already gone beyond basic twitching by doing things like replacing sky or background images. I can not tell what should be a line but there should be a line that photographer should stop while doing software editing.

  9. @Alex/Peter: I agree, good analogy.

    @Beijinger: I’m not sure — I guess there should be a line between what we call a photograph and what we call digital artwork, but to me one doesn’t have more value than the other.

    As I hope can be seen in any HDR images I produce, I really like HDR that strives for realism over surrealism. Using any of the pictures above as a point in case, they generally better reflect the image I saw when I took the photo than the non-HDR images I took at the same time/place. That really is what appeals to me about HDR.

    Stuck in Customs was mentioned above, Trey Ratcliff exemplifies this principle and I challenge anyone to check out his portfolio and not be astounded.

  10. @Wil: You can do HDR just with Photoshop, or just with Photomatix (a great piece of software found here). However, I find a healthy combination of both is best.

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