#202 – High Dynamic Range Photography – A Substitute For Creativity?

Astley Green Colliery

Several years ago, I experimented with using Photomatix to produce High Dynamic Range (HDR) images. I reasoned that as a lot of the urbex pictures I was taking were in low light, then this would be the ideal tool to capture the full range of visual information, or something like that. However, I grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of control in the tone mapping part of the process, inasmuch as it makes global adjustments and you end up with a weird looking image. So I ended up spending as much time again in Photoshop making local adjustments to get the image looking how I wanted it to, plus there was all the artifacts, halos and jagged edges it created. In the end I got fed up with it, and when I changed my main camera from a Nikon D70 to a D700, which has a sensor with an improved dynamic range, I gave up Photomatix as I found that there was sufficient detail in the highlights and shadows to make local adjustments in Photoshop. I also found myself using a tripod less and less (essential for the exposure bracketing required to create the 3 or more images needed for HDR) as I can handhold the D700 in light where a tripod was required for the D70.

Prestolite Factory, Leyland

In looking at other people’s HDR images, I grew increasingly dismayed at the revolting mess the majority of people make of it. To my mind, people are using it as a substitute for creativity. Take a load of images, bung them into Photomatix, and then move the sliders up and down until you get something garish. Bingo. It’s the lazy way of image manipulation.

I then heard an interview with Trey Ratcliff on the PhotoNetCast podcast. Trey runs the stuckincustoms.com website and is a devotee of HDR, so much so that stuckincustoms is not just a nice looking website, it’s a business that employs 11 people. So I reckoned that it had to be worth checking out, and I was impressed with what I saw. To my eyes, this is how HDR should be done. OK, I don’t like all the stuff, some of it is still a bit too garish for my eyes, but light years from the majority of HDR images posted on flickr and forums. In the interview, Trey voiced some of my frustrations about the HDR workflow involving going back into Photoshop to finish off the image, and he reckoned that 80% of the time was spent in Photomatix and 20% in Photoshop.

Here’s my take on it – HDR has been described as a ‘world without shadows’, and my photography relies heavily on the shadows. I don’t always want every single detail in the shadows, and when I do, I prefer to keep my entire workflow in Photoshop. I’ve found that I prefer to use select areas of the image on individual layers that are individually adjustable to get the balance I want, rather than making global adjustments to the image then going into Photoshop to make local adjustments. I suspect that because I’ve spent time in wet darkrooms and hours in photoshop I can look at an image and see how I want the image to look, and know how to get it looking like I want to look, rather than rely on computer algorithms to make global adjustments without actually ‘seeing’ or understanding the image.

Will I be going back to Photomatix? I don’t think so. I think HDR and tonemapping is a useful tool in certain situations where you’ve got massive contrast and /or not much light, as it will provide an image that is a useful starting point for further processing. In other words, it should be used as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself!

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