HIGH DYNAMIC RAGE
By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE INTERNET HAS A UNIQUE WAY OF TURNING AN IFFY LOOKING MOLE INTO TERMINAL SKIN CANCER, that is, fanning small sparks into raging infernos by squaring and cubing people’s discontents until they appear monumental. In photographic circles, this phenomenon has made the process known as High Dynamic Range, or HDR a hot potato. Whereas just a few years ago this technique sparked input from people who found it “kind of helpful” or “just not for me”, the current intensity of dialogue on the subject now characterizes HDR as either the greatest tragedy since Ben Affleck got cast as Batman or the miraculous equivalent of mother’s milk.
What has made the average shooter feel like they he has to side with either Mommy or Daddy in a custody battle for the soul of picture-taking? Jeez H. Loueeze. HDR, which is actually just a tool, and thus good or bad depending on how it’s used, has become an enormous bone of contention, with both sides of the debate hurling burning tar balls at each other, safe within the knowledge that they alone possess Real Truth.
How’s this for Real Truth: processing in the digital age is no different from the burning, dodging, manipulation and filtering of the analog era, and, somehow, photography has survived both the modest and excessive uses of these and countless others for over two centuries. HDR’s original stated purpose was to modulate the tones of extremely contrasty subject matter, rendering a smoother transition between really light and really dark values to produce a picture that seemed to more accurately reflect how the human eye compensates for contrast. It was concocted as a workaround for one of the optical barriers that cameras are always striving to overcome.
So what do you expect humans, always the “X” factor in any art, to do with any new tool? Answer: Anything they damn well please. Of course some people are going to produce beauty while others produce sludge. Of course some will use it to mask or slap a band-aid on badly conceived images. And, of course decent HDR processing platforms will be imitated by cheap apps created in Hacky McHackmore’s Dad’s garage and selling for $1.99.
I have had my own uneasy romance with HDR going back several years. I have found it to be a nice way to tweak color, an intensifier for detail and grain in things like stone and wood, and, yes, a way to dramatize contrasts in superkeen ways. I have also been guilty of slathering it on in the desperate hope that I can “rescue” a shot with it, and have been horrified at the way it makes human skin look like it was hosed down in molten Crayolas. Sometimes I have used it to make things more natural, while, at other times, I have taken advantage of its special talent for making things unearthly. And even when I have made the most inane use of HDR, the planets have, amazingly, continued on their daily orbits. In the words of the not-too-great Bobby Brown, it’s my prerogative.
The intense hater-ama currently being mounted against HDR might better be aimed at what makes its misuse all too predictable: the fact that human judgement is variable, unpredictable, and sometimes, twisted. If there’s a photo process that can eliminate that from the pitcher-taking mix, I’d love to see it. In the meantime, HDR is no more harmful (or salvational) than any other processing platform. If there’s a flaw, it’s inside the skull of the guy pressing the button.
Always has been, always will be.