Two HDR “Quotes of the Week”


Hi Gang: Between my original post on HDR, and the follow-up post on Tuesday, I had over 304 comments from readers, but two really stood out to me.

The first is from my follow-up post, and is in response to a number of people who wrote that they felt that over-the-top HDR images were no longer actually photographs, but had been so radically transformed that they were now illustrations, art, or a painting—-but certainly no longer a photograph.

I thought this reader made a brilliant analogy (the best I’ve heard on the topic), and I wanted to share it with you in case you missed it. For brevity, I’m going to paraphrase a little, but here’s what he said:

“Turning a Tree into a Chair…
The Tree is there. Someone comes along with his/her tools: Axe, knife, etc.. He whittles a chair out of it. Now the chair is there.

Now once it’s a chair you have the option to leave it like that or you can carve details into it, paint it, and/or add upholstery. It’s still a chair whether you improve upon it or not… It just then becomes a specialized type of chair like Victorian, modern, or such.

That’s what HDR does. It adds details, paint, and upholstery to the Photograph. It’s still a photograph, but now enhanced. If you like the regular old whittled chair then don’t HDR it… But if you think your [chair would look better to you]  in HDR then do it…”

This one, from my original post, is in reference to my applying the HDR effect to my photo of the Star Ferry in Hong Kong. It stood out to me as well:

“I’d like to point out that, I believe, something quite similar could well have been accomplished in a single frame with some selective underexposure and filtered small flash fill.”
— John Fowler

  1. I would like to expand on the chair analogy while presenting my biggest problem with HDR “photography.”

    If you take the chair that you’ve just whittled from a tree, and proceed to adorn and paint and decorate and upholster it so dramatically that not only does it not look like a chair anymore but it might even be too busy to be suitable for sitting in,

    it is no longer a chair.

    Call it a seat. Or a throne. Or whatever you will. But don’t call it a chair. It stopped being a chair three waves of decoration and carving ago.

    1. Mike, your analogy of a tree & a chair isn’t quite right. HDR isn’t adding extra stuff onto the wood. It’s just blending the wood that’s there. RC is right. It’s still a wooden chair. The wood was just arranged a bit differently.

      1. It’s indeed adding things. To leave the analogy for a minute, it’s adding light where there was none. Considering that the photograph IS light, adding more of it where there was none is a big thing.

        Let me clarify one thing: I have no problem with HDR in and of itself. I have a problem with people slapping massive HDR on something and still calling it a photograph.

        A photograph is expected to accurately represent a scene, at least visually (whether a photo accurately depicts a story is another discussion altogether). The minute a photograph looks so ethereal and surreal that it doesn’t represent the scene accurately, it’s no longer a photograph. It’s a digital image.

        That was the point of my chair analogy. Just as every photograph is an image but not every image is a photography, every chair is a seat, but not every seat is a chair. If you take a chair and pimp it out so much that it no longer looks nor functions as a chair, you can’t really call it a chair anymore.

      2. The bottom line is really quite simple. If you like the look, view the image, appreciate it and work on honing your HDR skills. If you don’t like it, don’t waste your time looking. Some people like chocolate, some like rocky road – sorta the same, but with little bits of goodness. And, really, does it matter if you call it a photo or in image or a work of art? I mean, who really cares. If you appreciate art, it makes no difference whether you call it an image or a photo.

      3. Mike says, “A photograph is expected to accurately represent a scene, at least visually ”

        If this is your belief, then your logic holds true.

        Not everyone believes a photography needs to accurately represent a scene, HDR or not – many (though not PJ) photographic genres AIM to distort reality through the creation of the photograph, in order to express their vision of the captured scene.

  2. Obviously a lot of people care about HDR both ways.
    For me, one of the interesting points in this debate has been the issue that lots of professional photographers don’t like the overt HDR – just the subtle HDR. I’m in the former camp.
    Lots of amateur photographers and viewers of photography love it! And some pro’s succesfully use it and make it look great (IMO the minority).
    Can so many pro’s who hate HDR be wrong?
    Maybe not.
    Can I make my own bad illustration…
    Instead of the tree to chair idea what about plastic surgery? How about the human who submits to surgery to enhance themselves?
    In the US, UK and Australia you’ve got a lot of people who are no longer “real” looking. The bad surgeons have botched up a bunch of people. They look weird, distorted, fake, and scary which probably wasn’t the idea!
    A good surgeon wouldn’t change someone to look weird. A bad one does.
    Good photographers hate bad HDR!?
    Well the idea works for me!

    1. See, and I argue any “Pro” (They labeled.. not me, labeled) Photographer that Poo Poos HDR, except for the “Slight Kiss” of realistic HDR, would never tell their people they used HDR, because they wouldnt want to take away from their image..

      So generally.. I dont really see them as part of the equation..


  3. Obviously a lot of people care about HDR both ways.
    For me, one of the interesting points in this debate has been the issue that lots of professional photographers don’t like the overt HDR – just the subtle HDR. I’m in the former camp.
    Lots of amateur photographers and viewers of photography love it! And some pro’s successfully use it and make it look great (IMO the minority).
    Can so many pro’s who hate HDR be wrong?
    Maybe not.
    Can I make my own bad illustration…
    Instead of the tree to chair idea what about plastic surgery? How about the human who submits to surgery to enhance themselves?
    In the US, UK and Australia you’ve got a lot of people who are no longer “real” looking. The bad surgeons have botched up a bunch of people. They look weird, distorted, fake, and scary which probably wasn’t the idea!
    A good surgeon wouldn’t change someone to look weird. A bad one does.
    Good photographers hate bad HDR!?
    Well the idea works for me!

  4. If HDR isn’t photography then I suggest that neither is Sabattier (solarisation). Some people may not like HDR (fair enough), but that doesn’t stop it being part of our current photographic world.

  5. This is taking HDR to another crazy level…

    some info on the video:
    his video took roughly 600 hours of editing not to mention the countless hours of shooting.
    It is made of around 10k photos.
    It took around 300 gigs of info.
    All of this was shot in 3.5 months which is about 6 hours of editing a day.
    1GB of photos eventually took 3.5 to 5GB of processed photos
    That means when I filled a 4GB card that used anywhere from 14-20GB’s of space

  6. I don’t think this is a topic that everyone will ever agree on.

    I actually did a post on this recently myself; I enjoy doing HDR, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, it depends on what I want to achieve in the final image. I do believe, however, that at a certain point it does cease to be a photograph and more a work of art, but even so, what’s the problem?

    As you pointed out Scott, there are huge numbers of people that love this OTT effect. When I first got into photography four years ago, I started using Photomatix along with LucisArt and was creating work that was way over the top and looking back at a lot of that work now, it makes me cringe.

    The bizarre thing tough, is that these ‘photos’ are still by far the most popular on my Flickr stream. (

    So I would say if you’re just trying to sell prints for people to put up on their wall, go for it. If you’re trying to create something with more dynamic range to accurately reproduce what you saw at the time, then why the heck not?

    If you don’t like it, simply stay away from it, but there’s no need to heckle others because they enjoy the technique.

    Thanks for tackling this, Scott.

  7. The whole Chair from a tree quote, isn’t there a missing part of this where it was written, something to the effect (and I’m paraphrasing) ‘You make a chair from the wood of a tree but you don’t call the chair a tree.’ The chair in this case is a product of the tree, just like the finished HDR is a product of the photography. Does that mean the HDR is not a photo? That is the constant debate. Who am I to judge, I use HDR is one of the techniques in my photo arsenal.

    I also Like Davids analogy above with regards to plastic surgery. A person is still a person after surgery. Are they a better more enhanced version of themselves or are they now over the top fake looking. That depends on the person looking and judging them, its the whole beauty is in the eye of the beholder thing. Unless something went terribly wrong, the person that underwent the surgery I would image loves the new version of them, just as the person that created the HDR loves the version of the photo(or whatever people choose to call it) that they created. But just like the over the top enhancement surgery that is totally obvious to even a 5 year old, its now open to the judgment of others and that is where the never ending arguments come in.

    I myself have done both very subtle and more textured styles of tonemapped photos, I have never gone so far as some of he nuclear haloing images that are out there, but I definitely have some heavily textured work that I have produced. All this said, I still dont even know where I fall in this whole battle, I see the arguments and points both sides make. I guess that makes me the U.N.!

    1. RC,

      If one is willing to concede that computers are now part of the photographic process, then both infrared and HDR are “photographic” images. I think the question is: “Where is that line in the silicon where a photographic image ceases to be a photograph? If I apply some cool text and text effects to my HDR image in Photoshop — maybe paste in some scans from a magazine for good measure, is it still a “photograph?”

      But having said that, does any of this navel gazing really matter? The only people that care about these questions are photographers and photo editors.
      If you, your client and/or your mother are happy with your image, who cares whether any of us consider the image to be a “photograph?” Does the crowd at a football game care whether their team scores a touchdown on the ground or in the air?

      Let’s have more talk about how to create good images. :-)


    2. I don’t know if it will ever become a big enough topic to be an argument, RC. Infrared photography requires a special camera, which to most people, why spend several hundred dollars on something you aren’t real sure about. HDR however, will continue to grow and become polarizing because its built in to the program we know and love :)

      maybe not as polarizing as android vs iphone though ;) because everyone’s got a cell phone. its not like trying to argue about which satellite phone is better

  8. There are painters who create photo-realistic paintings. Does that make them photographs? Does it mean that despite having been created with paints and brushes the images are not paintings? Photography is a process for creating images using a camera to “write with light” on a photosensitive surface. The photographer can do many things to manipulate the image during and after the exposure but but process is still “photography”.

  9. Hi there Scott,

    I think that using software to radically change a photo from what we see into something that is not real any more, actually falls into the category of art or painting or something like that. I am inclined to agree with you on all you said.

    But I have this to say about HDR in general.

    It is possible to push the sliders and controls inside of our software to achieve whatever “look” we think looks good in a photo. These days, photography is not what it used to be with all the options that are available to be applied to our original image. The effects one can apply to a photo are endless. That is why I feel that there should be a distinction between actual photography and photographic art/illustrations. I suppose that technology has given to us, many more tools to get the job done, but photography as it is, still remains the same. Any person with a photographic eye and some experience can tell the difference between many of these radical HDR images and those that have been skillfully captured. I tend towards the skill environment, rather than the images that can be created out of pushing those sliders around…..

    1. “Fine with the chair, but what happened to the tree?”

      Would you believe, the remains of the tree were ground to a fine pulp, processed into paper and used to print “A World in HDR” by Trey Ratcliffe?

      The chair and the book lived happily ever after. The tree less so. ;-)

  10. RC, to me an over-th-top HDR is no different than an under or over exposed photo, but they are still photos. I don’t know many (if any) photographers who don’t manipulate their photos in post and have great work. I’m with Trevor, the horse is beat into the ground already……but it’s still a horse!……and the saga continues. :)

  11. At the risk of being boorish, I’m going to repost a portion of my comment from one of the previous threads:

    …[I]t’s time we knock photography off of its pedestal of “Reality”. We don’t experience life in HDR, B&W, sepia, split-tones, selective coloring, landscape, portrait, panorama, macro, micro, composite, 4×7, 8×10, 36×48, glossy, matte, photorag, canvas, 15s, 1/100s, 1/1000s, f1.2, f8, f64, 10mm, 50mm, 500mm, ND grads, polarizers, diptychs, triptychs, portfolios, Photoshop, Lightroom, the GIMP, Aperture, Mac, PC, Linux, Canon, Nikon, Hasselblad, Sony, Pentax, Olympus or anything else that we use to create and share images, captures, actuations, or piktchurs.

    So why do we get so hung up on silly things like HDR as if we do (experience life in…)?”

    Am I completely out of line? Anyway, that’s my $0.04 on the subject ($0.02 twice). ;0)

    1. That’s where I land. All but scientific photographs are an interpretation of reality from lens choice to camera settings to lighting, etc. HDR is just another flavor of interpretation. Same kind of deal as the “Dave Hill effect” and similar post-processing tricks.

  12. I think “over the top” HDRs dont exist. Well they do, but the programmers keep them from happening by putting a limit on the sliders. There comes a point when you cant “slide the effect” anymore. If they made it to happen in the program, then its fair game. You might say, its “within the limits”

    Here’s an analogy for you. You play call of Duty and get ticked off because someone “nube tubed” you. You say “thats not part of the game” and they should stop using it. But wait, its in the game and everyone has the option to use it or not, so how is it not part of the game? If it bothers you that much, go back and play mario on regular nintendo, where all you had was fireballs (cause thats way more acceptable right?)

  13. Scott,
    I’m sure Picasso faced many critics because his style was so different. What will really determine the worth of a Photograph, HDR or otherwise, is how it is viewed by future generations. Either the technique will disappear as with fads or images created with will be treasured.

  14. First, in regards to the tree/chair analogy: I was a little put off by the comment, “If you like the regular old whittled chair then don’t HDR it…” So, when David Ziser or Joe McNally are out doing what they do best, they’re actually only producing a “regular old whittled chair?” If only I could achieve the basic and menial skill of whittling like they have!!!

    I also agree that the tree into a chair analogy isn’t correct. The whole issue is whether HDR work is still a photograph. Well, no one looks at a chair and says it is a tree.

    A better (but not perfect) analogy, sticking with the tree, would be the splicing of various walnut varieties; one for its rootstock and one for better fruiting. It’s still a tree. Or splicing rose varieties for color, health, etc. It’s still a rose.

    Second, in my opinion, HDR is still a photograph. However, I personally feel that it can be taken too far in regards to my personal taste and is no longer appealing to me; just as fashion, portrait, wedding, or any other photography dealing with people has little appeal to me. Just because it doesn’t appeal to me doesn’t mean it isn’t a photograph.

    My personal goal to using HDR is for the range, not the tone-mapping (as was commented in one of the two original posts). I look to achieve a final product that is closer to the human eye would perceive, exposing both overly light and dark areas to see as much detail as possible.

    Reaching into the tone-mapping area is a more artistic approach and, to me, is a means of achieving a certain affect, similar to aging a photo (1970’s film, black and white, calotype, sepia tones, etc.), to be used for a specific purpose (a wedding photographer would never shoot HDR and present an entire album of HDR with extreme tone-mapping to the bride and groom—unless the couple wanted that look). In short, HDR, even pushed to crazy limits, has a place—just like any other form or affect in photography.

  15. Scott,
    Congratulations on a week of stimulating and thought-provoking discussion! You set up the debate very nicely with your boat image, and shepherded the discussions so well all week. You have taken your blog to a new, higher level: Philosophy (Zen?) of Photography 101. What’s next ?

    1. Wow, I can’t believe some people are really dead serious on defending what should be called a photograph. If almost feels like we’re talking about religion here. The world changes and we need to change with it. The bottom line is whether the end result of whatever it is we’re making is good. When I like something whether it’s music, movies, pictures, whatever, I don’t care how it was made. If I enjoy it, then I enjoy it.

  16. I love this quote:
    “I’d like to point out that, I believe, something quite similar could well have been accomplished in a single frame with some selective underexposure and filtered small flash fill.”
    — John Fowler

    You can take the time to set that up, or take 3 exposures, and do the same thing at home, with HDR. What does it matter what technique you use, to get the same shot? I don’t get it.

    HDR is just another tool, in my photography toolbox. Nothing more, nothing less.

  17. It’s funny how it’s all of us (photographers/image makers/image manipulators) that get all hung up with this sort of debate. I know this is mostly all done in fun and jest. (However, some people really get in a lather over it….not me.) Yet, when it’s all said and done, the folks who see and/or buy our work (friends, family, the buying public, etc.) by and large really don’t give a rat’s patootie “what” we call it. They either like it or they don’t. Isn’t that what really matters after all? Shouldn’t we be striving to produce more of the “I like that!” sort of stuff and call it day? (Same goes for whether we shot it w/ a Nikon or Canon or post-processed it on a MAC or Windows machine. The “public” doesn’t care.)

  18. I believe my personal feelings against excessive/inappropriate usage of HDR can be overcome by having my clients/art directors give me excessive amounts of cash :)

    (or any pittance during this economic period)

    1. All this talk about photography, HDR, and realism reminds me of the movie “The Matrix” — that your experience is as real as you want them to be…

  19. High Dynamic Range. It’s a process to expand the captured dynamic range of an “image” because the camera sensor can’t. Film can capture a slightly different dynamic range than digital. The eye can see a broader dynamic range than what can be captured by a camera. A normal computer display has a limited ability to display a higher dynamic range.

    The core concepts behind HDR are great (in my opinion) and we have to do things like tone mapping because we do not have an affordable way to display a true HDR image. The result allows people to explore their own artistic freedom and display their images in many different ways.

    As I said before, a “bad” HDR is just like a any other bad photo – and it’s just your opinion.

    I personally think that it’s a trend that is here to stay and you’ll soon see better computer displays that will show true HDR images, better in-camera HDR processing, etc. It’s not going away.

  20. Question…in the dark ages of the darkroom, if one used dodge and burn techniques, special processing, and other chemical processes to “enhance” an image…did that make that image no longer a “photograph”?

    This whole debate is futile and pointless. It’s for people who simply rather sit on a forum instead of being out there creating images. Person A doesn’t like black and white but likes color. Person B likes B&W but not color, person C likes both, person D likes what person B likes, but doen’t like HDR…and so on.

    This only proves one thing..we are all different and no matter what the post-processing (or lack thereof), photographs are for all intents artitistic representations and everyone will like or dislike based on their OWN view of the art. So let’s all move along..nothing to see here….

      1. Took me a minute to catch your drift, Ken.
        Your comments reminded me of a cookbook I recall seeing a long time ago —maybe you could use it in your restaurant — titled, “First You Take a Leek”

        Here’s to derailing this thread! :-)

  21. Let’s see now. Some like black and white, some like color, some like posterized, etc. I don’t like the looks of all color photos I see but then again no one is holding a gun to my head to me look at what I don’t like. However……. that doesn’t mean that others don’t really like it. I think the same applies to HDR. If you don’t like it, don’t keep staring at it. Just move on. Call it what you like, it’s still just colors on a paper (screen). It’s not a big deal.

  22. from a previous post; “I’d like to point out that, I believe, something quite similar could well have been accomplished in a single frame with some selective underexposure and filtered small flash fill.”

    excellent comment, and that is surely the point. Scott publishes an image that he is personally not keen on, but certainly has some merit to some people (me included). Having a limited amount of time to achieve the style/effect to render an evocative image, he utilises the available technology to transmit what he observed in as artistic a way as he can. This draws the distinction between artistic rendering and just using HDR to rescue a mediocre image. Or maybe not, depending on HOW YOU FEEL ABOUT THE ORIGINAL COMPOSITION. It’s all just ‘tools’ and we’ll live and die by how we use them

  23. If HDR isn’t “real” photography, then what do you call all those B&W things taken & printed over the last 150 years? Excluding after dark photography, not many of us see the world around us as a shade of gray! Surely you aren’t going to argue that Adams, Weston & Evans weren’t REAL photographers.

  24. In my opinion, true photography in it’s pure essence died with the introduction of photoshop and the digital era. Digital images can be heavily manipulated compared to film. HDR is an example of that. Each person will set their own bar as to what is an acceptable limit of manipulation to their visual taste.

    Personally, I like HDR in many cases but not all. Of course, as Kelby says, my eyes would grow weary of it if its all I see. However, in Kelby’s boat, it pleases my eyes. It gives me an impression of an old gritty boat more so than the un-processed version.

    Ironically, we photographers are always trying to get the perfect exposure. HDR is a tool that allows us to do that, right? So, why wouldn’t we like it? Of course, we could do it the old fashioned way like Joe McNally by having several gelled speedlights to give us similiar results. :)

  25. Is digital really photography?

    There will always be the pretentious among us. It’s not photography unless it’s shot on a large format camera with perspective control and never brought into a computerized editing program. It’s not photography unless it’s film. It’s not photography unless……

    HDR can be pushed too far in my opinion (I can’t stand halos around everything in the photo that isn’t Jesus. If you actually get Jesus in a photo and he has a halo I guess I’m cool with that). It can also be pushed right up to that point and be an illustrative photo (the way over the top would be an ugly photo, but the point is it’s still a photo).

    Pay no attention to the bloviations of the bloated egos and get on with creating your art your way.

  26. Not a real picture???? How many of us see in Black and White???? No one complains about Black and Whites not being real pictures. What about split toning, once again, no one complains about those.

    HDR may not be your thing but it works for some people. If you don’t like it don’t bash it or practice it. But don’t be a hater.

  27. Scott,
    What really gets me about this discussion, isn’t whether one likes or dislikes HDR, its the question of what a photograph is?

    That’s like asking what a painting is, what a drawing is, what a sculpture is.

    When discussing what a photograph is, that is really a question about an artistic medium not a movement. For example; painting is the act of putting paint (oil, acrylic, watercolor, spray paint) on a surface. One can apply paint with a brush, hand, fingers, sponge, airbrush—and yet all of them are Paintings. Of course, then there are movements. There’s realism, surrealism, pointillism, abstract, photo realism, and many, many more. They are all different, use different surfaces and tools, but they are ALL paintings.

    So, photography is the act of using a mechanical device to capture light and create an image form that light. Period. Whether you print that image, show as projection or etch metal, it is a photograph. Now, as for the creative movements of photography, those have and should continue to grow just like other artistic mediums. The medium of painting didn’t stagnate with the cave paintings in France, nor did it stop its innovation with the Renaissance masters like DaVinci and Michelangelo. The term painting didn’t stop applying to works by Picasso, Rockwell or Warhol although they all painted vastly different from each other and used different processes and materials. No, painting evolved and was big enough for all those movements as long as they used paint – the medium.

    So HDR is photography. Its not painting. Its not sculpture. Its not drawing. At its core it is captured light on a surface, whether that surface be tin, film or digital sensor or whatever. That is the medium of photography.

    Now for the discussion of a movement within photography, that is very interesting to discuss. I propose that HDR is a movement within the world of photography. Some will love it. Some will hate it. Just like the critics loved and some hated pointillism, cubism, realism, etc.

    1. One other note, almost every unique and truly different movement had its share of criticism. And not every movement was successful. But the truth is, radically different movements within an art form will almost always spur debate. I think this just proves that HDR is a radical movement in the world of photography. Whether it survives or not is for history to decide. In the meantime, I’m trying anything out there that will make my artistic vision come true.

      1. you make good points jonathan, reminds me of the phylosophical question of what is art and what is an artist. I forget who came up with the statement, ‘this thing is art because I say it is’. Bill Drummond has dedicated a large portion of his life to examining just these questions and has come to the conclusion ‘I am an artist because I say I am’. HDR can be a radical movement in art simply because someone says it is. My own take would be that HDR is currently a ‘fad’ because everyone and his wife uses the technique, often to attempt to make something out of the uninteresting. Done it myself. However, as with many radical movements, over time the cream will rise to the surface and the true masters of the technique will be feted. as you say ‘it’s for history to decide’ and what is an over the top HDR today could well be tomorrows masterpiece (although I remain sceptical)

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