Right with Light, Part 11: HDR

The HDR (high dynamic range) debate has been a hot topic on many blogs and forums lately. These discussions seem to have divided into two camps: The purists feel using this tool (and most any tool/filter enhancements) renders a fantasy and is a betrayal to the scene or subject. On the other side are the techies who will apply anything new to the work they produce, sometimes to excess, subscribing to the more is always better mantra.  The rest of us fall somewhere in the middle. I, for one, look forward to the new and innovative tools that the digital age brings to the table. This is not to say that I adopt them all, but I will definitely try them out and make an honest evaluation of what they can add to my tool bag. I’ve found that HDR is a great tool when applied in the right situation, and it has in many cases allowed me to create a “filmlike” feel that sometimes is lacking in digital photography.

Some photographers may think this is a new thing and is some sort of whiz-bang software that we will never understand. This is true to some degree, but it’s not the whole story. In 1850 Gustave Lee Gray started this trend, using several negatives or exposures in the darkroom to control the extreme range of contrast in his seascape to produce images that matched what he saw and experienced. Then in the 1930s and ’40s, science got involved to produce a process called local neighborhood tone, remapping and combining differently exposed film layers in a single image that produces greater tonal range. Perhaps the most striking use of this technique is Charles Wyckoff’s detailed images of a nuclear explosion that appeared on the cover of Life Magazine in the mid-1950s. Ansel Adams used these practices and techniques to new levels through the use of the zone system in many of his best-known images.

Once color photography took hold, many of these techniques were lost, as the color film development processes didn’t allow for tonal mapping. Then along came digital photography and the advances in computing power and processing speed, and HDR sees a rebirth of sorts. Most of the advances came from the medical and scientific communities, as they had the computers and the money to back the process developments. In 1993 what we know as HDR took a new approach, applying a global or light mapping of the entire image, then applying the tone mapping process, using several differently exposed images of the same subject.

As more and more consumer-level digital cameras hit the market, the demand for extended dynamic range opened the door for putting the theory to use. So in 1996 Steve Mann, one of the big brains at MIT, patented the process known as global-HDR. Then in 1997, Paul Debevec, a researcher at USC’s institute for creative technologies, further developed the theory and introduced it to the world, and it was quickly adopted by the motion picture industry. In 2005 Adobe included these functions when they introduced CS2 in an action called “merge to HDR,” and the debate started and is still raging today.

So, as you can see, it’s really nothing new, just a modern spin on an old practice that I’m sure had it proponents and detractors way back in 1850.

As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.


2 thoughts on “Right with Light, Part 11: HDR

  1. Bill Van der Hagen

    I think HDR has its place today, and can be more than just a FAD. It is a really useful tool. I am, however, tired of the “HDR look” being the trend itself.
    The halos around objects and noticable editing seems to be counter intuitive to a clean post processing job. Which I believe should always be the goal. when people can look at an image and know that it was probably adjusted, but unable to point out how, that is an effective tool in a photographers toolbox, and HDR can be done in that fashion with time spent adjusting and correcting the shots you take, both in the camera and when you get them on the computer.

    I have a gallery devoted to HDR, it is a passion, but I think the techniques can be abused – much like a “one button wonder” type of artist style. It needs attention to detail, more than most photography, and the results can be jaw dropping.

    1. Ric Deliantoni Post author

      Thanks Bill, this is just what the post was meant to portray, as well as give it a bit of history and place, it ‘s really not a new thing just taken into the digital age. I feel that anything new gets abused at first, but then finds it place by the folks that can truly apply the tool with skill. Love your applications of HDR applications on your gallery.




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