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Is It Just Me? Overdoing it with HDR

These days, I see a lot of HDR “photos” in the forums and blogs I peruse on line. When HDR software first came out, I embraced it as yet another of the wonderful digital darkroom tools available to help us capture the images we see with our creative “eyes.” To me, it is just a very sophisticated application of the layering and combining process that we have doing with programs like Photoshop for many years. Rather than using our eyes and “mousing” skills to erase, it is being done with “by the numbers” using sophisticated algorithyms. I use Photomatix Pro and I really love the results it is capable of. I have reported, here, on its capabilities. But I think that its main purpose was to capture and (someday) a much wider dynamic range than traditional film and digital sensors are able to capture—photographically!

The purpose of HDR programs is to capture and display a wider dynamic range — photographically

HDR programs also allow for a fair amount of “creativity” with the software to create “effects,” which are sometimes artistic. The commonly seen effect is to give the image a cartoon-like look that is often characterized as “painterly.” Sometimes it is effective and skillfully done. In my view, more often, it is not. I emphasize “sometimes” for a reason. There is an unfortunate tendency for users to render every image they post with this so-called “painterly” effect.

In my view, it isn’t working. Where is this coming from? For the past couple years, the annual “Fall Foliage” has been unpredictable and often spotty in places. In late September and throughout the month of October, we see posts of image results from trips to areas known for their foliage. In the Northeast, last year, for example, just when “peak” color would have been expected, the remnants of a tropical storm dumped rain and wind on many areas and those “first-week-of-October” trips yielded some gray, rainy days with spotty color and foliage. In those conditions I start to see overdone HDR images pop up everywhere.

HDR software was not intended to be the “fixer” of marginal images

The “painterly” effect has its place, used with restraint, and for that image that just lends itself to that kind of treatment. And there may even be the occasional photographer-artist that sets out to make every one of her images that way—as a “signature”—so to speak. Indeed, it is not some new, HDR-generated phenomena. Facile Photoshop users have been able to do this for a long time. There has even been a technique which makes the image nearly “impressionistic,” which is referred to on many photography forums as “Ortonizing.” It may come as a surprise to many, that this was not originally a digital technique, but was developed by Michael Orton as an analog darkroom technique with transparency film. Don’t get me wrong. I do not object to creativity and use of all the tools available to the photographer. And I have certainly argued here that photographers are artists. Nothing wrong with being artistic—when the circumstances warrant.

But in my view, HDR was never intended to be the “fixer” of bad, or marginal images, or a one-size-fits-all solution to every poor shooting condition. Nor do I think HDR was intended to be used in lieu of good photographic technique even in less than optimal conditions. Taking a not-so-good image and making it “painterly,” does not somehow transform it into a good image!

I know. Sounds suspiciously like a rant. But when I open a couple of forums or galleries and see that shooting conditions were not absolutely perfect and suddenly every image the photographer posts (and even most of the images posted on the particular event) are over-HDR’d, well . . . . .just sayin’. . . . . 🙂


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