Photographic Realism

A couple of weeks ago, I attended the HDR workshop in Tampa presented by Scott Bourne & Trey Ratcliff. I think both of them did a wonderful job of presenting information that went far beyond HDR technique. Trey begain his presentation with charts illustrating how the mind perceives color (while Scott gently teased him for having charts). Scott presented excellent advice on composition and how to make photos with impact.

One of the issues that stuck with me had to do with the notion of photography as reality. The problem, of course, is defining reality. HDR is about light, but the technique seems to have a clear impact upon color. Trey likened the result of HDR to capturing what he saw when he was really there at the scene of his photo. Part of that makes sense, because the human eye recognizes about 11 stops of light, compared to cameras that only capture roughly half of that light information. We see light & shadows that our cameras either blow-out with over-exposure or darken with under-exposure. That's why HDR works.

However, Scott pointed out that photography has never been about reality. He's never actually seen a waterfall that looked like the cotton-candy image we see in a time-exposure. He sees things in color, not black & white. The camera doesn't capture reality with regard to how we perceive shadows and light, either.

In one sense, HDR makes photographs more real because it presents light as we perceive it. In another sense, many people think it makes photos look surreal because of the way it affects colors. I wanted to play with that notion a bit.

Thinking back to Photoshop World in Las Vegas last year, I went on a Photo Safari with Moose Peterson, Joe McNally and Laurie Excell. The event was primarily an opportunity to learn from these folks (just like the HDR workshop), but we also had an opportunity to take a few shots at an interesting location. That's where I grabbed this image of an old schoolbus.

This is "as shot" from my Nikon D700

Not really impressive, is it? The colors aren't quite as bright as I recall and the texture seems lost. Also, the shade on the left side of the image is darker than I recall.

One of the courses at Photoshop World by Deke McClelland was about using LAB mode to bring out colors in flat images, so I gave it a try with this bus.

Same image after processing in Photoshop using LAB color mode

It's a little better. The colors are punchier and I can see a bit more texture in the decaying metal covering the bus. This is the image I published last fall. Now I tend to wonder how it would look as an HDR image. Unfortunately, I didn't take a bracketed series of shots while at the workshop, so I can't really tell how a true HDR image would work. What I can do, however, is tonemap the RAW file used to create this single image in Photomatix. There's quite a bit more light information in the RAW file than the JPEG I exported, so it's worth a shot.

Tonemapped with Photomatix

Right off the bat, I notice much more color and detail in the shadow area on the left side. From that perspective, it's much closer to my memory of being there. Where the bus door is nearly lost to shadow in the previous two images, you can clearly see it in the tonemapped image. That's what I experienced by being there. I could see it because my human eye could detect those varying stops of light. On the other hand, the bus was not quite that bright. The colors have become a bit exaggerated in the process. So, is this photograph a replication of reality?

Yes, no, and who cares? Yes, it's a representation of reality from the perspective of light. No, it's not a representation of reality from a perspective of color. Who cares? It conveys the sense I had when I saw this bus. It was cool, colorful and funky. It almost jumps out of the photograph. That is the sensation I experienced and what I wanted to convey to anyone who views this photograph.

What do you want from your photography? What is it that you want to communicate? Is it just a static record of history? If so, HDR may still be applicable if you need the light information as you saw the scene. Are there other ways to approach this subject without HDR? Absolutely, if you have the lighting gear to make it work. I only had a single SB-800 speedlight. It may have filled in those shadows and also rendered a pleasing result. There are many times when using additional light is a preferable solution. As the photographer, it's your choice. It's also your burden to have those resources on-hand.

HDR and tonemapping is simply another tool in your kit. It gives you options. If you don't have the gear to light a scene, such as an entire landscape, then HDR provides you with an option to capture your vision and share it with others. Use it as you wish.

If you'd like to learn more about HDR photography, Trey Ratcliff has a free tutorial available. Another option is to watch Matt Kloskowski's HDR course on Kelby Training. That option isn't free, but for $20 you get access to all of the courses on the site for one month, so it's a pretty good deal. You can try the first three lessons of the course for free at Kelby Training to see if it's an option you like.

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