The Truth About HDR

Last week, Steve Jobs introduced an updated Apple TV and declared the HD revolution was over – HD won.  It's true. I can't recall that last time I turned to a non-HD channel on my cable box. I want the full resolution of that beautiful 50″ plasma screen every time I see it.  The change from standard broadcast resolution to HD was like the change from black & white to color.  You just don't want to go back to the way it was.  Why should you?

During that same presentation, Steve may have unwittingly ended the debate about HDR photography. It's now part of iOS 4.1.  Apple just put HDR photography in the hands of the masses. Some of us may still sit in dark rooms, blending our exposures like some alchemist, but that's no longer necessary. Anyone can do HDR now.  They don't need Photomatix, Photoshop, or any of the arcane tools we use. Instead, people can whip out a phone from their back pocket, grab three exposures and see the result – all on a phone.

HDR isn't a gimmick (as I saw on a photography forum today).  It's a tool. People aren't embarrassed to talk about it in photography message boards. Instead, they're posting dazzling images that make other photographers jealous. I'm sure some die-hards will ridicule HDR until the day they die, but there have always been cranky people who can't adapt.

Matt Kloskowski posted on his blog about the most frequently asked question at Photoshop World. That question wasn't about LightRoom or Photoshop. It was about Nik Software's upcoming HDR Efex Pro plugin. Matt mentioned that he taught three HDR related sessions at PSW. Just consider the demand for HDR knowledge if there were three sessions on HDR:

  • A pre-conference day dedicated to HDR
  • A regular PSW session on HDR
  • A special session in the Expo hall on HDR

That isn't happening just because Matt likes HDR.  Photoshop World, like most every other conference, is a business. You don't waste class time on a subject that doesn't have demand.

When I arrived at Mandalay Bay during the pre-con, I saw the HDR attendees out taking photos near the restaurant area and they all seemed to be smiling and enjoying the session. During the regular session, I was in the front row of a packed classroom.  When I walked the Expo floor and noticed Matt teaching HDR, he had another packed room. They want HDR in their toolkit.

Some people like to do HDR exclusively, and that's their niche. Others like a variety of photographic techniques, and HDR may be one of them. During the HDR session I attended, R.C. Concepcion joined and shared his story about shooting portraits at Star Wars Celebration V in Orlando.  He packed up his camera and lighting gear, drove up to Orlando, and set out to make some nice shots. Sadly, the lights just weren't doing it.  Convention center lights are some of the most wretched creations in the history of mankind, and his lighting gear wasn't giving him the results he desired.

That's when he switched gears and got his tripod out to take some HDR portraits. If you haven't already seen those photos, check out this set on his Flickr page.  They are absolutely stunning. HDR was just another tool for him to use in his photography. Based upon what he shared with the class, it didn't sound like he went there with the intent of making HDR portraits. There would be no sense in lugging all of that lighting gear. As it turned out, he found a way to combine his small flash and HDR to make some incredible portraits.  That's the nice thing about having more than one trick up your sleeve.  Use what works in a given situation and get the shot. I wish I'd thought of it.

One of the events I attended at Photoshop World was APC's HDR WalkShop. 30 photographers with tripods descended upon the Fremont Street Experience and confused the hell out of everyone else there. The registration filled up in less than 24 hours.   People jumped on this opportunity faster than a bell clapper in a goose's ass. We had people show up ranging from first-timers to more experienced shooters. We had a great time, and I'm sure there were probably more folks who were disappointed because they didn't get in before the group filled up.

When I read the comments today about HDR from people who referred to it as a gimmick or a fad, I didn't get irked like I would in the past. Instead, I just realized that those are folks who are too obstinate to see the train running over their horse & buggy.  That makes me feel sorry for the horse.

I think part of the reason I enjoy HDR is still some of the alchemy used in processing images.  Don't get me wrong, I love the idea that an iPhone can now take a photo that looks good in challenging light. It's just that the options available to me when I blend exposures and finish an image provide additional creative opportunities that I find very pleasing. I'm still working on developing my own style, but it's kind of fun to bumble around in a digital darkroom until I nail it down.

My own analogy of HDR these days is more akin to sculpture. My original brackets are like finding the right piece of stone or marble. The finished result won't be readily apparent until it's done. That probably sounds pretentious, but I'm OK with that. When I took the following shot, I had a bit of a grungy, contrasty image in mind. The word “steel” came to mind as I was shooting it, as though I wanted to make it look like a 50's diner scene.  I have no idea why that thought popped in, but it swirled in the back of my mind until I came out with this result. I'm just glad I wasn't thinking about pineapple.

HDR is here, my friends. It's a tool to use when you want or need it. That's the truth.

Fremont Street Neon in Las Vegas
Free Concerts Nightly - © Copyright 2010 by William Beem

4 thoughts on “The Truth About HDR”

    1. Thanks. I was on a forum today and a guy started a thread about how it’s bad enough that HDR photos are all tacky, but now it’s in video. A number of folks chimed in agreement.

      I looked at their portfolios and decided that these folks really shouldn’t be criticizing anyone else’s work.

  1. I have long felt that HDR was fun, but it took me a while to understand why I found that to be so. It is difficult, for me, at times with a single exposure to produce an image as vivid as I see the world in front of me. HDR helps me do that. The fact that I can push it in different directions, all the way to the cartoonish, is just a bonus.

    As for the HDR on the iPhone, I doubt it’ll replace the tools we already use.

    1. I don’t think HDR on the iPhone will replace the tools we use, but I do see it as a sign. There’s no way HDR would be in Apple’s iOS if it didn’t deliver results that the average person could use. To me, it’s a coming of age notice.

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