What They’re Not Telling You About HDR Images
I remember showing someone one of my black and white prints a few years ago—and I could tell there was something they really didn’t like about it. They stared at it for a minute or so, and then said, “Why is it in black and white?”
I told them that the shot was originally taken in color, and that I had converted it to black and white in Photoshop, and they said something along the lines of “Why would you do that?” After talking a little longer, they just told me flat out that they just didn’t like black and white photography. Never had, and they couldn’t understand why anyone would take a perfectly good color image and remove all the color. (Sigh).
I understand that everybody has different tastes, and some folks just don’t like black and white, or duotones, and some people don’t like Split Tones (like me), and some don’t like panos.
You Mean, Like HDR?
Now, when it comes to HDR, I’m kinda of in the middle. I enjoy shooting my own HDR shots, and I get a kick out of processing them. If someone shows me a great HDR image, I’m like “Wow!” If they show me a few more, I’m like, “Those are good.” If they show me a book of them, after about the eighth page, I’m dying to see a regular un-HDR’d image. The novelty can wear off fast on me.
I know some people are at the complete other end of the spectrum. They hate any HDR that doesn’t look natural and photorealistic, (of course, if it truly does look natural and photorealistic, I guess that kind of really means “it doesn’t look like HDR”). :)
What They’re not Telling You About HDR Images
There’s a secret about those “over the top” HDR images that you don’t hear a lot of non-HDR photographers talk about. While many of these photographers don’t like HDR images at all…
….non-photographers absolutely love them!
That’s right—-regular, non photographer people love those over-the-top HDR images. Even though it’s seldom talked about, I think that’s incredibly important to know.
Matt pointed out something a while back while we were talking about this, and it has proved itself time and time again. Matt mentioned that if he sends a group of images to a magazine, or a Web site, etc., for them to pick a photo to highlight, they always (always!) choose the HDR shot.
Now, I fully realize that by saying this, there are photographers who will now post comments that say “My wife hates HDR” or “my boss won’t allow HDR in any of our marketing materials,” and so on, but save yourself the time and trouble, and just think about it. Think about how other people (not photographers) react to images with the HDR effect. It’s been my experience, time and time again, they love ’em.
My Love/Hate Relationship with HDR
You see the shot at the top of this post? That’s a pretty obvious HDR shot, taken on my vacation to China, and I didn’t even include the HDR shot in my post about my China photo book (link), because it was so over-the-top that I knew I’d catch some heat from HDR-hating photographers, so I intentionally left it out. The next day, I had a follow-up Q&A post (link), and that was the only photo that didn’t make the cut, so I thought—what the heck—-I’d run it and it might just go by unnoticed, and I’d be spared a nuking by the anti-HDR crowd.
I guess you can say I was incredibly surprised when I read stuff like this:
“That boat shot is killer! Good balance with HDR technique and the whole composition has “interesting story” written all over it. Quite frankly, I think it’s one of your best.”
“Love the shots from the trip, and your HDR on the ferry is FANTASTIC!”
“I like allot of your work, but this is my favorite shot of yours. It’s amazing. Love it…”
“First, that was an amazing image you used for the lead to this post. Great depth, detail and lighting. Well done sir!”
“I love the HDR Shot you posted! My fav of the bunch.”
“Fantastic HDR, the lighting and tones are beautiful.”
You’d think I would be ecstatic with comments like these, but instead I was really depressed. That’s because the regular un-HDR’d photo looks like this:
It’s a nothing photo. It’s not terrible. It’s not good. It’s what I call “A three-star photo.” Not so bad that you’d delete it, but not so good that you’d ever let anyone see it (by the way, the only reason I’m letting anyone see it now, is as a teaching tool). So, it was the HDR-Toning that transformed it from a three-star image to what embarrassingly for me, became an image that some called “my best ever.” (sigh).
My Case for HDR
I’ve read again and again how photographers who hate HDR-effected images feel that when a photographer uses HDR for the “Harry Potter Look” or goes for the classic over-the-top HDR look, they are somehow cheating. They feel it’s a trick to take a mediocre image and turn it into a masterpiece, so it’s not “real photography.” Sadly, I think my before/after actually helps to make their case to some extent.
However, this is where my case for HDR comes in.
Taking the mediocre regular shot took very little effort. I did have to compose the shot (and I think the composition is actually “OK”), but outside of that, I just pressed the shutter button, and the camera did all the work. The post-processing in Photoshop (in Camera Raw) was minimal—-it took all of 15 seconds, so the entire image has a total of less than 20-seconds invested it in.
However, for me to create an HDR image, I (as the photographer) have to work a LOT hardert. First, HDR doesn’t work for just every shot. There are certain types of shots that lend themselves to HDR (images with lots of texture, or metal, depth), and over time you learn which types of shots work (and which don’t). So, the first thing the photographer does is scope out subjects that would make ideal HDR images (it’s harder than it looks). When I saw the rusty, peeling wheel house, and the thoroughly worn wood deck, and old coiled up lines (rope), I knew it would make a good HDR image.
I had to set-up my camera to shoot an HDR bracket of five photos, and then try and steady myself while on a moving ferry in the harbor, while leaning on a railing, and trying to keep very, very still while all five exposures are captured.
Later, I have to work with five images—not just one—then I have quite a bit of post-processing work to do, including using Camera Raw not just once, but twice, along with HDR tone-mapping, and final editing and sharpening, beyond what I’d normally do. In short; it’s dramatically harder to capture a good HDR image, from the moment of capture, through the post processing stage, and the image wasn’t rescued by HDR—-it was created to be an HDR image from the outset. I didn’t just press a button and out popped a winner—I had to work it.
It’s Not Fair!
Normally, this extra photographic effort would gain the respect and admiration of fellow photographers, but when it comes to HDR, it generally gains scorn. I don’t get it. Just like that person at the beginning doesn’t “get” black and white photography. I know HDR isn’t for everyone, but like any effect, it can be fun to do, fun to look at, and like any other effect, you can get sick of it after a while. But each image should be judged on its merits, and not dismissed because “You don’t like HDR” or “You don’t like Black and Whites.”
So, in the past few months, I did learn that non-photographers love HDR shots (and all the photographers I polled asking about how their HDR work was viewed by non photographers, agreed 100% that non-photographers seem to absolutely love HDR images). But I learned two other things as well:
(1) You don’t seem to find people who are really good at creating HDR images, that don’t like HDR images. Just like you don’t find people who are Photoshop experts, that don’t like Photoshop. The people I find that scorn the use of Photoshop, aren’t very good at it.
(2) I find that no matter how much I look at that HDR image I did at the top of this post, and no matter how many people tell me they love it, I will never like it. When I look at it, I know what “it really looked like.” In my mind’s eye, I always see the original, 3-star regular exposure image I showed earlier, and so I’ll never look at it as a great image. I guess I feel like it’s kind of cheating too, even though it took me more time, effort, and skill to get there.
For those of you that do shoot somewhat over-the-top HDR shots, how do your clients, friends, and co-workers react to these types of shots? Do they dig ’em? And, how do you feel about them after the fact (after all, you’re probably the only one who saw the original single exposure). Do you feel like I do? (and did anyone get that subtle Peter Frampton reference?). I’m anxious to hear your thoughts.