Neutral is Boring, Why HDR Sucks, and A World in Color
Happy New Year!
Hello everyone and Happy (belated) New Year!
I needed a break from this site, so I took one. I love pictures and writing about travel, but it was getting far too tedious to update this thing once, twice, sometimes as often as three times a week. Going forward it’ll be less about quantity and more about quality. If I can only manage one post a month then so be it, so long as it’s a good one.
Now, I realize that line of thinking is entirely contrary to conventional strategies for running a successful website. And while this particular site has been gaining some small traction as of late, I started getting the sense that it was at a crossroads. After some thinking (not much, really) I decided I’d rather keep it fun instead of aspiring to grab all the web traffic I can for purposes unknown, burning myself out in the process and turning one of my favorite hobbies into a chore.
Keeping this site a small, fun project is a big part of why my guides have always been free, like my Shooting and Editing Photos series as well as my Visual Guide to Travel Photography pseudo ebook. It’s also why I continue to upload full res images on my Flickr page. As always, if you like a photo, feel free to download and use it for whatever (so long as you’re not making money off it.)
Being Neutral is Being Boring
One thing I realized during my break is that I’ve been unintentionally keeping my photography as neutral as possible in an attempt to keep it real. The same goes for much of my writing here. I’ve been focused on creating “nice” pictures of a place and writing “nice” articles in as objective and real a way as possible.
But then I realized something: Given that a photographer’s choices “in the field” (framing, composition, etc.) have such tremendous impact on the eventual feel of the image, why stop there? Why limit artistic choices solely to the moments before you press the shutter button when there are vast resources available in post processing? This is the digital photography age; shouldn’t we use that to our advantage? Editing is just as much a part of the artistic process as is taking the picture in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve always edited my photos. Take the following example from Nepal:
I like the above picture a lot. It’s serene and it accurately reflects my memory of being there in that moment. I edited the image, but only to the extent necessary to bring out what was already there in the picture.
Contrast that with this:
No one would mistake this for a “real” picture, but that’s not the point. Bathed in golden hues and with exaggerated light, the emotion I wanted to capture is far more real in this edit. I felt like I was in a wonderful dream when I was exploring the otherworldly landscape of Nepal’s Himalayas, and I tried to recreate that here.
And as for the writing, there are certain things I’ve refrained from writing about in the past for 2 reasons: Some people might disagree (can’t have that, can we?), and I don’t want to go negative. Well, screw that.
And now, allow me to share a very opinionated thought:
High dynamic range photography attempts to circumvent the inherent technical limits of your digital camera. The technique involves shooting multiple exposures of the same scene at different brightness levels, and then stitching those exposures back together in post processing to create a sort of hyperactive version of reality.
“A cartoonish, totally unrealistic visual mess”
Some cameras perform the shooting and stitching for you automatically; old school and high end cameras leave this process to the photographer. The end result is nearly always the same: a cartoonish, totally unrealistic visual mess. For examples, just Google search “HDR Photography.” Note that you don’t even have to search for “Bad HDR Photography,” because it’s pretty much all bad.
HDR is too often used as a crutch by brand new photographers. They figure if they can’t find something interesting to shoot, they might as well HDR the crap out of it in an attempt to add interest. I tried to do this when I was first starting with photography. Well, it doesn’t add interest. It’s the same uninteresting photo as before, except that now it looks even worse with a badly done HDR edit.
HDR can be done well, but it’s really really hard
Although he shot film, Ansel Adams was quite possibly the world’s first HDR photographer. Together with Edward Weston, the pair invented the zone system of exposure. The zone system maximizes the amount of light information that might be captured in a single picture, saving the “make it look good” part for the development process. In addition to the zone system, Adams also used black and white film which has a very high ability to capture light data.
What all of this comes down to is Adams was an expert at collecting light, and he had the tools to do so. He knew how to record a scene such that he could develop (post process) his film in a realistic way while preserving important details in the highlights and shadows. Adams knew that not everything in an image is important, and he wasn’t afraid to edit his darks to deep black or blow out his highlights to pure white. Although his photography would be considered HDR by today’s digital standards, it’s impossible to find any commonalities between Adams’ exquisite photography and some of the eye puke HDRs I’ve seen posing as legitimate work in recent years.
The real problem with HDR, and how you can fix it
HDR is not inherently bad, even though far too many photographers seem intent on making it bad. By recording multiple exposures of the same scene, we are working to overcome one of digital photography’s most basic limitations – the inability to capture all the light data a scene has to offer. It’s what comes next where so many photographers go wrong.
Most photographs think that because they went through the trouble of recording the data, they somehow need to preserve all of it in the final image. This is wrong. The goal is not to keep all that information in the final image – this is information overload. The goal, rather, is to eliminate the unimportant bits such that the finished image looks real, but also emphasizes the emotion present in the real-life scene. It’s rare that HDR photographers pull this off, but when they do the images are unparalleled.
A World in Color
With my new found resolve to make a statement with my pictures, I figured I’d start by sharing some basic reedits I’ve recently finished.
Do you have a favorite editing style? Do you use HDR? I’d love to hear your thoughts on whether it’s overused.