HDR Sees The Light


Photo by Barry Schwartz

One of the (many) things that’s awkward these days about mentioning Lance Armstrong in a positive light is how I feel when when I quote the title of his book, “It’s Not About The Bike”.  That title suggests a whole other meaning than it used to.  Oh well.

For anyone trying to create something, though, the title still applies: It ain’t about the tools.

For instance, HDR (High Dynamic Range) is an automated process used by photographers that combines different exposures (“layers”) of the same scene into a single image.  That image contains more information than sensors are able to capture in a single exposure.

Layer-blending is a familiar process to anyone in the digital world.  It goes back to the earliest versions of Photoshop, so really, except for the name, HDR is nothing new.

HDR sometimes gets a bad rap. To be fair, results can look like a bad acid trip (or a good acid trip; subjective for the trip-taker): hyper-saturated colors and intense contrast. HDR does not have to look like so strange, however, and is as much a tool to modify light as using strobes or reflectors or LEDs.  In all cases, the results are entirely dependent on the skills and taste of the photographer. It’s perfectly possible to get “naturalistic” results using HDR, although like any other technique it requires skill and practice to get images that editors, art directors, and other clients find acceptable.

HDR can salvage a badly exposed photo by duplicating an image file into multiple versions, emphasizing information in the highlights for one version, in the shadows for another, and blending them together.  HDR can be used to combine multiple, bracketed exposures together, with the same result. Back in the day (about a year ago…) it was a requirement that nothing inside the frame was moving (plants and people, for instance), but software can handle even that by removing what’s called “ghosts”; you’d never know there was a problem.  Personally, I’m astonished by this – and grateful.

Oddly enough – or perhaps not so oddly – the HDR setting in the iPhone turns out perfectly nice, “natural-looking” images, with no trace of hyper-color-and-contrast. The engineers who developed the algorithms in my phone made an aesthetic judgement that simply gives me a better photo than a single exposure would.

The engineers saw the light – what anybody tries to do.