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HDR: Good or Bad?

This question strongly splits opinion within the photographic community. I believe the answer is “Good”

…and “Bad”!

At one extreme we have those who believe photographs should be as “unprocessed” as possible, and at the other we have those who really enjoy the vivid and sometime quite surreal images that HDR is capable of producing.

Perhaps a good place to start is by understanding just what HDR is, and I don’t just mean that it’s an acronym for High Dynamic Range. What does that really mean? Well, there is a range of light intensity that any light recording medium can handle. At some point the bright areas simply become white with no detail (“burnt out”). At the other end of the scale, a certain amount of light is needed before the medium can record anything other than just black. In simple terms, these extremes are what define the dynamic range.

The thing is, our photographic recording media - from the early days of photography right through to the present - have never been able to cope with as large a range of light intensity as our eyes and brains can. We are surrounded by imagery and, subconsciously, we’ve come to accept that photographs do not look the same as we see with our own eyes. One way we've combatted this shortfall in dynamic range is by taking multiple exposures and putting in a lot of hard work and sweat in the darkroom. But now we’re in the digital age, and new possibilities are with us.

HDR software can perform in different ways. One is to correct the light and dark areas of our images so that the exposure in all parts of the image is acceptable. Often, when used well in this way, we’ll not even realise an image has been “HDRed”. You may well have admired many such images and not realised!

Another result from HDR software is the somewhat more extreme processing which has given HDR a bad name in some circles, particularly when it is not done skilfully. I have seen countless images which have clearly been put through one or other HDR process with little more skill than it takes to press a button, and the results have been horrible. The on-line photo-sharing sites have loads of these, sadly often highly praised. The greatest offender, in my view, is the process which results in strong halos around high contrast edges such as horizons. Skies do seem to present this software with a problem!

I believe HDR has its place – a valuable one in fact – but it requires skill to use it well. The results can go unnoticed, consciously, or can be extremely “in your face”. As with any photographic treatment, whether you do or do not like the result is hugely subjective. Some will hate it while others will love it. I don’t believe it’s our place to criticise the use of HDR processing, only to criticise poor and unskilled use of it. Dismissing HDR as bad is throwing the baby out with the bath water.

© David McHutchison (Deemacphotos)
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