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Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Keeping It Real, Or Calling It Art

What are your personal guidelines on HDR use in your photos?

The Black Rapids Glacier in Alaska on the ride toward the Susitna Glacier, shot on 35mm film.

Every photographer will have grappled with the question of how much to edit photos in the camera or later with tools like HDR software, Photoshop and Lightroom. This topic resurfaced recently when a friend and I discussed the article written by Tom Till in Outdoor Photographer. In the article, Mr. Till confessed to being an "addict" to oversaturated colors and HDR to pump up the colors in his gallery prints over the last few years. I commend Mr. Till for recognizing he had been pushing his color processing too far. My friend commented that he has seen the same excessive use of HDR, oversaturation, etc., here in Australia. HDR and similar postprocessing have long been popular in the competitive arenas of travel, fashion and landscape photography, but it's also shown up more frequently in editorial and news magazine stories that typically use natural-looking photos. My friend asked if I intend to follow this creative trend. Has the new look become the new norm?

I say to each their own vision, and for me, I like to keep my photos looking natural and authentic. I find that excessive HDR and overprocessing of an image looks artificial and detracts from the original content of the photo. My test is that if a photo looks too processed, it probably is. The National Press Photographers Association states in its code of ethics to "respect the integrity of the photographic moment." That's a nice rule of thumb to follow. Of course, most readers of OP aren't shooting news stories and aren't obligated in any way to follow any rules but their own. But I always consider the integrity of the moment because my photography—no matter if it's a news story or photographing landscapes, people and adventure—all has an underlying intent as a truthful representation of a place or time. As a result, keeping true to my personal photographic style keeps my postprocessing of images to a minimum. The HDR tools I do use when I click the shutter of my camera include fill-flash and split neutral-density filters. These tools have been around for many years, but I'm also an excited consumer of the latest technology. The dynamic range possible in photos I shoot with my Nikon D800 is amazing. Digital sensor technology is getting closer and closer to capturing what the human eye can see. HDR functions are built into my D800, as well as my iPhone 5 and Sony RX100 pocket camera. If I ever use digital in-camera HDR, it will be a version that fits my personal style of shooting and would have to capture in a single exposure a natural-looking image that's close to the original moment when I shot the photo. I don't suspect that will be a long wait.

Using Photoshop and digital editing can produce natural results instead of "radioactive" sunsets and sci-fi ultrarealism. I expect some of this extreme enhancement may have less to do with a surge in artistic creativity and more to those following current trends in photo processing and some trying to outgun (or out-Photoshop as it might be called) other photographers. For most, it's the enthusiasm for brighter colors and the excitement and ease of the creative process that's the issue causing the heavy hand with HDR, digital effects filters and Photoshop.

Speaking of following trends, how does media deal with excessive photo manipulation? The idiom "give them an inch and they'll take a mile" applies. Certainly, all the fashion magazines and any magazine that can pay for digital manipulation use it. It's considered off-limits to newspapers and news magazines that follow rules of "no photo manipulation," but they use it, or at least they will bend the rules. Do you remember the darkened O.J. Simpson photo on the cover of TIME in 1994? In 2012, Photography Editor Michel du Cille of The Washington Post had to defend publication of a "colorful" photo produced using HDR. The photo in question was an HDR composite of five exposures. The editor states the Post has no plans to be publishing more HDR photos anytime soon. I'm not sure about the stance with panoramas made from multiple images, but I suspect they would get a seal of approval. Again, it's the intent of the moment here that weighs in on the decision of what's permissible with manipulation of "news" images and what's not.


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