It is very much ALIVE! (Blake steps on Soap Box)
I recently read an article titled “Is the Death of HDR Coming?”. Where I read it is not necessarily important to point out. I would prefer to allow the source and author to remain credible, as they are, and not be discredited by what you read here. However, this article is just plain silly! While I understand the gist of it there are a couple things that might confuse the beginner photographer who may have an interest in the HDR photography process.
In a nutshell the article is saying that the death of tone mapping and/or HDR Software may be coming based on the high levels of dynamic range contained in a single raw file but that is very different than the death of HDR. Tone mapping is a sub category of HDR, I will get into this later. First, let’s have a history lesson in HDR.
The History of HDR
HDR Photography is nothing new by any stretch of the imagination. As a matter of fact it is nearly 165 years old… it is very much like a vampire! The earliest forms of HDR date back to the 1850’s with Gustave Le Gray. In an effort to extract as mush luminance from a scene as possible, he took 2 exposures. One for the ocean and one for the sky and manually blended them in the darkroom. You can read more about it here.
Fast forward to the mid 1900’s to the man I pay the most tribute to and often call the father of HDR photography, Ansel Adams. He took the idea of luminance to an extreme with his teachings about the Zone System, which if you have not read the book The Negative, I highly advise it. Adams used multiple exposures and dodging and burning to exploit as much dynamic range from a scene as possible. This, much like Gustave’s method, required multiple exposures to blend in the dark room. This was a labor intensive process that would need yield instantaneous results like we have today.
And here we are in the early 2000’s and we are seeing conversations about the possible death of “HDR”. Sure there are a lot of ways to make an HDR image now and newer image sensors yield some amazing dynamic range depth in a single raw file. But to say that is going to kill HDR is silly, it may negate one of the methods used to make an HDR image, but it will not be the death of the HDR process.
To fully understand this we must first breakdown the term HDR and discuss some of the methods.
What is meant by HDR?
Simply put HDR, or High Dynamic Range, is nothing more than a technique (or series of techniques) used to heighten the dynamic range in a photograph. Dynamic Range, in photographic terms, is the ratio between the lightest and darkest intensities in a photograph. Our eyes are capable of seeing a very wide spread of dynamic range where photographic image sensors are restricted to one instance, until you exploit the RAW file that is!
Many people use HDR techniques to achieve a heightened sense of reality in a photo. There are many techniques one can use to create an HDR image and some produce better results than others. However, even those who reject the HDR techniques because of their ability to make disgustingly cartoon like images may be engaging in HDR practices without even being aware of it!
There are several techniques one can use to create a ‘HDR’ image. For the sake of breaking down barriers, let’s call this dynamic range exploitation. Forget the term HDR for a bit. The main goal with all of these techniques is to exploit the amount of dynamic range in a given scene to make the photograph more appealing. Here I will be discussing 3 ways, but in the recent course Exploring HDR: The Video Series I discuss 6.
1. Tone Mapping
This is the most traditional method when we hear the term HDR we typically think of tone mapping. With this process one would take multiple exposures of the scene, usually between 3 and 7. The range is variable but most commonly there are one to two stops of light between each exposure. This allows for an underexposed image, properly exposed image, and over exposed image. The exposures are then brought into something like Photomatix Pro and combined to make one photo with the best (or sometimes worst if not used correctly) of all three worlds.
The resulting image still requires some work to make it a great photo. It is wise to consider any tone mapped image as a working negative (like film photography). It needs some time in the digital darkroom to make it better.
|Can create fantastic results||Can create horrid results if not used correctly|
|Output to 16 Bit TIFF (lots of data there)||Large 16 Bit TIFF’s, the bigger the megapixel the bigger the TIFF|
|You will have multiple exposures on hand||Requires more than one exposure for best results|
|Requires more work in post processing|
2. Multiple Exposure Blending
This process requires the use of multiple exposures. Just like the examples in our history lesson of Gustave Le Gray and Ansel Adams. To achieve this style of HDR image one would expose for the foreground and expose for the background. This would be for scenes with a large amount of dynamic range in them, i.e. a sunset, sunrise, shooting toward the sun, etc.
This process would require software that allows you to use layers, like Photoshop. For our example here, a selection will be made for the sky in the sky exposed image and placed onto the image exposed for the church.
|Creates very natural looking results||Must have layering software|
|Can often be done even with one exposure processed twice in ACR or Lr||Must be highly proficient with layering|
|Can alleviate the tone mapping step||Can be very time consuming|
|Some areas may be impossible to select (hair, trees, etc)|
3. Single Exposure
This process uses one single RAW exposure to exploit the amount of dynamic range contained in a single RAW file. Many photographers use this technique in their everyday workflow but disregard it as being ‘HDR’. In years past this was referred to as Pseudo HDR when the intent to call the image HDR was still prevalent. As time has progressed this method has gained acceptance among the masses and is often not even referred to as ‘HDR’.
The article I referred to in the introduction to this reaction post was all about using this method. As image sensors advance, the RAW files they produce contain higher levels of Dynamic Range. This allows you to exploit more detail and dynamic range from the image. Typically this is done using the Shadows, Highlights, Whites, and Blacks adjustments in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw. Any movement of the 4 adjustments mentioned here produces a heightened dynamic range in the image. It is considered HDR but not considered tone mapping.
|Can efficiently produce great results||An acceptable amount of dynamic range in the RAW file must be present|
|Do not need multiple exposures if the exposure was correct||May have clipped highlights or shadows|
|Can create natural results that do not appear tone mapped||Must know how to operate ACR or Lightroom well|
|Can create high levels of noise in dark areas of the original exposure|
So, is HDR Dead or even dying for that matter?
Absolutely not! As long as their are adjustments to control Highlights and Shadows HDR will not die. With the advent of better and better image sensors on the rise, the way we edit our photos will be an ever evolving process. We may be using less and less tone mapping and more single exposure processing but that is still a form of HDR.
For me, the tone mapping process is still very prevalent in my workflow. Based on how I post process my images I rely heavily on a solid low contrast 16 bit TIFF as it contains a lot more bit depth than a 14 bit RAW file. In the same breath, since owning the Canon 6D and Sony a6000 I do see myself processing more single exposure HDR images in a pinch.
In conclusion, I don’t see this as being the death of HDR or the HDR process. I do see it as the death of those three letters in front of a photo. Many people hear ‘HDR’ and immediately think ‘tone mapped crap’. However, that is very much false. There are many ways to process a photo to achieve a heightened dynamic range and those who discredit ‘HDR’ because they saw one or two poorly tone mapped images may in fact be drinking the HDR Kool-Aid without even knowing it!