By MICHAEL PERKINS
ONE OF THE MOST POPULAR IMAGING PROCESSES OF RECENT YEARS, and one which has produced either moderation or mutilation in millions of photographs, is HDR, or High Dynamic Range processing. Conceived as a way around the problem of how to evenly illuminate a scene tracking from very light to very dark, HDR initially seemed a godsend. Too big a range from the brightly lit windows of the cathedrals to the shadows behind its altar? Take three or more shots with a variety of exposures, and use the HDR software to level out the highs and bring up detail in the lows. Blend into a final composite, and, presto, you can see everything (and here’s the big pitch) just like your eye does.
Now, it’s true that your eye reacts almost instantly to changes in light, adjusting on the fly to render both dark and light areas “read-able” at it moves through a scene. So, it seems logical to make images where all that tonal adjustment is frozen in a single frame. Thing is, though, your physical eye is not the only thing that “sees” a photograph. Your brain, with its vast archive of information on how things look “real”, may not interpret a tone-mapped image, with its even range of light, as a natural one.
Another thang: not all of the images in a composition have the same visual weight as story elements. The man in the foreground of a portrait is more important than the wooden bureau ten feet behind him, so why should they receive the same amount of illumination? Additionally, even if I can rescue the detail of the bureau’s fine wood grain, should our eye be drawn to it as much as we want it to be drawn to the man’s weathered face? HDR can create a fantasy re-balancing of tones as they are seen in life, and some of us have used it like neon Play-doh, creating images that are closer to black-light posters in a hippie’s bedroom than an approximation of reality.
One of the gallery tabs on this blog was originally named HDR to act as a kind of disclaimer, as if to say, yes, I know this is not reality. I chose to interpret my subject in this way on purpose. Recently, that tab has also been renamed Idealizations, since that word even more accurately describes that the images within are deliberate manipulations. I may be more restrained in their use than a few years ago (and in fact, I rarely use them at all, these days), but they should be labeled as genetically modified super-grapes, not fresh produce. In the meantime, the gallery content itself is also completely new, so, even if you have visited them before, I’d appreciate your opinion on how I presently apply the process, or indeed, if I even should.