March 22, 2012

HDR Photography: High Dynamic Ruin

   So, as you may know from my new blog, I am beginning photography as a hobby. As a beginner I do a lot of reading about my hobby and a lot of viewing other photographer's work. One major theme has become quite apparent to me lately, everyone thinks HDR photography is amazing. I'm going to explain why it is somewhat fascinating and yet terribly ruinous at the same time.
   HDR stands for High Dynamic Range. The basic technique is that of taking 3 or more pictures in a row, from a tripod so as not to change any particulars, using different exposure settings. The idea is that you can then later smash them all together in Photoshop to create a picture where every single element is exposed perfectly. Here is an example. Open this picture in a new window and we'll discuss it a bit as we go along.
   Before I discuss the particulars of this I just want to explain a few limitations of this technology. First nothing can be moving. This means that if you see a person in the photo then it is probably not using HDR. This goes for animals as well. Second the photographer cannot move either. If anything moves the final product will contain ghosts.
   Now let's get back to that photograph. Take a good long look at it. Do you see now how nearly every object and space is filled with light? There are wisps of shadow here and there but for the most part these are wiped clean and clear for everyone to see. Even where the shadow lies the object underneath is still easily visible.
   You have looked and seen everything this picture has to offer. If you need more examples just search the internet for HDR photos. They are everywhere these days. Sadly a lot of people who call themselves professional photographers are now using this technique everywhere. I think it is suppose to testify to their customers that they own the expensive equipment deemed necessary to take these kind of shots. You will probably see on your next camera purchase that there is a built in HDR function. It will soon be a major selling point for any camera.
   Let me tell you why I hate it. Mainly it creates a false portrait. It creates something unreal. What you see in this photo is hyper realistic. It's cartoonish. The colors are false and the textures are false. It's an absurd representation of the actual cathedral.
   This is about where people I talk to start to disagree with me. Let me explain in a different way. When is the last time you looked at a Rembrandt? I included a link so you will look at it before reading further. This is a masterfully painted scene. It's dynamic. It's moving. It's still yet in motion. Why is this painting so amazing? Really think about it and I'll get back to why I think it is in a moment.
   I just want to interject for a second and say that photography isn't painting but does rely on the same principles. The main principle of both is lighting.
   Now when a child paints a scene or colors one in crayon without knowing the first principle of art they do something interesting. A child will almost always paint or draw a picture with no shadows. Everything is seen. Every object is in full clarity. Even kids I grew up with that were very good at drawing things that were easily identifiable drew things that didn't have shadow.
   So why is this an issue? It's because of how our minds perceive the world around us. Did you know that humans only see in 2 dimensions? I bet you thought it would be 3. Nope. We only see in 2. Our brains have these little tricks that are employed to interpret things in 3 dimensions. Some of those tricks include interpretation of perspective, focus and contrast. I know this is more links than normal for my articles.
   Up until now I have been trying to lean this conversation towards contrast. Go back to the Rembrandt painting for a moment. Do you notice where the light is coming from? Do you see how the shadow over the right half of the boat increases the idea of peril?
   Let's look at one more painting. This time one from J.M.W. Turner. In this painting you can see the light source very clearly. What I find incredible about this painting is that the light draws your gaze onto a single ship. That source of light frames the subject. It tells our eye what to look at. Keep looking at this for a moment.
   I want to point out another interesting thing. There are ships in this painting in the background that are out of focus. You know they are ships because they are reasonably in focus to show their sails but there is no detail. This tells your mind, without you even knowing, that this is 3 dimensional. Check back on the cathedral. Everything is in focus. If you look at it again it will start to feel flat. It's missing at least 2 of the main elements that the brain uses to interpret dimensions. It still retains perspective thankfully. Without perspective this photograph would probably cause headaches.
   Okay, so I hope by now you can understand why I hate HDR photography. My challenge to my couple of readers is to look at photos you really like and paintings you really like and see if they aren't full of contrast and focal planes. We may have to live with high tech children's photos but we don't have to like them.
   Once again, if you want to look at my photos check out the link to my other blog on the right hand side. See if I have any idea how to follow my own criticism.