HDR – a tool by any other name?

I‘m amazed at how often the subject of HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography comes up and how often there are still negative vibes in the conversation. I don’t know how long ago it actually was that I first heard about an application that would allow me to capitalize on capturing a number of bracketed images that could be “processed” (by the application) to “smooth out” or otherwise manage high contrast scenes.

This image of Deckertown Falls outside of the Village of Montour Falls, NY was captured on a bright, high contrast summer day employing just three bracketed images.

Even the advertising for the software at the time tended to brag about results that looked garish, obtrusively bright and showy; lurid, often overly saturated. Images didn’t have to look like this, but often did unless you were conscious of the need to be careful how you used the program. I believe, in part because of the advertising, many photographers somehow felt compelled to process toward that garish look.

So, the rep for that garish look persisted and many photographers equated it with what you get when you employ HDR applications. It became common for some photographers to think all HDR images were necessarily “phony looking.” Many really good photographers pooh-poohed HDR at every opportunity and some still do.

Was it the application or as I often say, the “nut behind the wheel.” In this case I might say the “nuts behind the wheels” because there were many of us, at least for a while, who had a difficult time resisting how far these applications would let us, or help us, go.

Like all apps, HDR apps were continually updated. New HDR apps were added to the mix. And we, photographers who cared about their craft, learned how to tame the broncos they were riding. Often that meant trying a different app. I moved from Photomatix (the granddaddy) to Nik HDR efex. Then Adobe came out with HDR capability within Photoshop and finally in its online, Creative Cloud version of Lightroom, Lightroom CC to be exact. They may have had it in Lightroom 5, too.  I can’t recall.

This was a shoot on my back deck. I used both a polarizer and HDR (3 images) to get an even exposure.

I don’t know what’s next but, to my thinking it’s the best move yet. Now, anyone who knows me knows I’m not a “techie.” Never have been. I’ve had virtually no interest in the inner workings of software. I’ve only wanted to know how to use them to achieve the results I like in my photographs. There may be other things I can do if I dug deeper into today’s HDR applications, but why do I employ an HDR app in the first place? Because I want my photos to reflect what I saw, often including an intangible feeling for that specific environment.

Most often, I employ the use of the HDR technique, to tame the high contrast that exists when photographing waterfalls, streams or in forest scenes. I’m not looking to create a photo of something that wasn’t there or an image that looks different than what I experienced. Often, I’m not able to capture that image in a single frame. Perhaps the highlights are blown out or the shadows are totally blocked up.

Either my foreground would have been too dark or my background blown out, without the use of HDR.

The important point being, a single shot that I have to work extensively to optimize turns photography into work. And, that’s a four letter word that detracts from the experience for me. I’m not at all suggesting that HDR is a cure all or that it should be used all the time. However, shooting bracketed images doesn’t cost anything and we can also elect to use just one of those bracketed images if we like.  I like having the option and HDR has pretty much eliminated my use of a graduated neutral density filter.

The panorama used to open this post is an HDR utilizing six images, each with three bracketed exposures.