The changing face of HDR photography

HDR photography is changing - and that might be exactly what it needed!

I love to shoot HDR – it’s just something I have been into for years now, and I assume I will for a long time to come.  But it’s not for everyone.  It’s an art form that is simultaneously revered and reviled.  For every HDR practitioner who has a loyal following and is frequently lauded for his/her beautiful photos, there are an equal number of HDR-haters out there that decry it’s use.  Insults range from the simple "PhotoShopped" to the mildly entertaining “over-cooked”, and then onto the more colorful and cringe-inducing “clown vomit”.  

It seems everyone has an opinion on the matter, and that’s totally fine.  We’re all entitled to them.  This is art, and it’s subjective by nature.  Everyone isn’t expected to like everything.  What a boring world we would have on our hands if that was the case.

But HDR is changing and morphing, and going in different directions.  In other words, it's splintering into various approaches.  People are finding new and interesting ways to overcome the challenges that our cameras have, and that makes it an exciting place to be, photographically speaking.  There are a vast array of paths a photographer can take, a vast array of processing choices that one can make, and I see a vast array of HDR styles out there as a result.  It's all good, and this is progress.

It’s still rock ‘n roll to me

When I started shooting in HDR, there was really just one way to do it (at least, as far as we all knew), and we all sorta followed the thoughts of Trey Ratcliff and his process.  That’s cool, he obviously paved the way for a lot of folks.  I’m personally thankful for having met him and getting introduced to HDR.  It started me on my path, in many ways.

And for the first few years of my HDR shooting, it seemed the art form  just grew and grew in popularity.  Everyone started taking up the art, and the explosion of HDR usage was evident in all the highly detailed scenes, evenly lit architectural interiors, and general lack of shadows in a lot of photos.  Not to mention the saturation - lots of saturation.  It seemed that HDR was everywhere.

But now, it seems to me that HDR is going through a bit of a reinvention, or renaissance if you will.  Things are changing and the art form is splintering into multiple approaches, and the “HDR look” isn’t nearly as prevalent these days.  People are taking it in different directions, which is both fun and exciting.  The art of it is evolving.

Some don’t call what they do HDR at all but exposure blending or luminosity masking.  That’s cool.  It’s the same to me, but I understand the need to possibly distance yourself from the term HDR (because of some perceived negative connotations), or at least differentiate what you are doing, because there are a lot of differences (although I think of these other approaches as “cousins” of HDR).

But truthfully, I don’t really care what it’s called anyways – I call it art, and you can do whatever you want with your own art.  In fact, I think it’s a good thing that there are so many different approaches to creating what I still continue to call HDR photography.  We can all take a different path if we want to, but hopefully we all end up in the same place – creating beautiful images.  Because to me, that’s what it’s all about.

It was: everything must be HDR

When most of us started, we started at essentially the same place. I’ll call that the “OMG phase”, where you start to see the potential for making interesting and sometimes freakish images.  We all did it, even the big names.  We shot EVERYTHING in HDR because OMG THIS IS AWESOME!  It was the way, the truth, and the light (pun intended on the word "light"). It was an end unto itself.  It HAD to be done.

But over time, everyone changes, their style preferences change too, and it seems to me that general tastes in the broader market have changed as well.  Gone is the OMG that we had as beginners in HDR, and as we’ve (hopefully) developed our vision and our skills, we’ve been led in one direction or another and are producing much different results now.  Thanks partly to the iPhone HDR function, more and more folks are familiar with the term (and the process of creating one), which I believe has helped the art mature as well.  

The OMG phase was also prevalent in the broader market, meaning among non-photographers.  Many of them saw an HDR photo for the first time and thought OMG what kind of camera did THAT?  :-)  They were intrigued.  But again, I posit that this has changed and now non-photographers just want to see something beautiful, and their initial impressions of HDR have changed too.  They aren't impressed by those freakish-looking HDR photos of yesteryear - it's no longer new or interesting - but beauty never goes out of style.

It’s funny, but when I randomly come across a really “over-cooked” HDR photo these days (with massive halos, extreme saturation and almost cartoonish detail), I sort of laugh to myself and remember doing that as well.  There’s nothing wrong with it of course, it just harkens me back to the day, so to speak.  I guess I think of that as a sign of a beginner, but I may be wrong in that assertion (and frankly, you do have to start somewhere). Perhaps it’s a style preference for a particular person.  And if that's what someone wants to do, more power to them.  This is about self-expression, anyways.  You can do whatever you want with your own art.

I find that many photographers still shoot a set of bracketed images and merge them or blend them in one way or another.  Some shoot brackets “just in case” but more often than not just use one exposure (I find myself in this category much more often than I used to be).  Some shoot just two images - one for lights and one for darks, if you will - and blend the two.  Others don’t shoot brackets at all anymore, but instead focus on getting what they need in a single frame.  There are countless ways to get an image created, after all.

Now, it’s an arrow in the quiver

But for all the HDR photographers that I know and follow, we have left behind that initial “HDR craziness” and moved on to using HDR not as an end unto itself, but as a tool in the bag of artistic expression.  One of many tools, I might add.

I have seen my own style morph from that “pushing the envelope” sort of HDR madness a few years ago into something that is a bit more subdued now.  Well, subdued in my eyes, though I still get comments to the contrary at times (ah, the joys of social media!).  Are there times when I will still push the sliders a bit?  Absolutely, if the image/scene calls for it, though it’s much less frequent than it used to be.  And in my opinion, there are times that the image just begs to be cooked.  Some might say that makes me a beginner.  Hell, I don’t know anymore.  In some ways, we’re all still beginners.  You can always learn something.  

But more often than not, I am using it in much more subtle ways, and creating more realistic-looking images.  It’s a natural evolution I guess.  But to be clear, I still love color.  LOVE. COLOR.  I can’t deny that.

It's about the final output

And as I mentioned above, I am often finding that if I shoot a scene correctly in a single exposure, thanks to the wonders of modern cameras and modern software, I can get the final result that I desire from that single exposure.  In other words, my HDR usage isn't as frequent or as strong as it once was.  But do I still consider myself an HDR photographer?  You bet I do.

So whether you are new to “traditional” HDR or an old hand at it, whether you merge brackets in Photomatix, or blend parts of them in Photoshop, or if you use luminosity masking to create your images - I don’t care, I just applaud your efforts and look forward to seeing your beautiful photos.  And even if you "over-cook" some of your images, I still find some of those beautiful too, in their own way.  Besides, you should go do whatever you want to do.  This is YOUR art.  Create the beauty you feel and see.

Because when you get down to the basics, creating a beautiful photo is what we are all trying to do.  So wish us well on the quest.  The path is ever-changing, and never-ending.....but it’s quite a ride, and it's fun as hell. 

See you out there - and bring your camera.

What camp are you in?  How do you process your images?  Do you even like HDR?  Hate it?  Feedback is welcome - and thanks for stopping by.

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Some HDR processing resources, in case you are interested...

If you are interested in how I process my HDR photos, your best bet is to review this post which is my HDR tutorial based on using Photomatix (though admittedly, I need to make some updates to it) to create the base HDR photo, and then this post which shows how I use Color Efex Pro to finish my HDR photos.  While each image is different, I repeatedly use many of the same filters for my HDR work.  And yes, I still use the "traditional" method most of the time.  Feel free to use the contact form on my site footer to email me with questions.  I'm happy to help, though I don't have all the answers.  So, here are some more great resources on the web...

If you are interested in learning about Luminosity Masks and how to use them, the best resource I know of is this one, created by my friend (and very talented photographer) Jimmy McIntyre.  He has a number of courses available for purchase, and they are definitely worth checking out!

Another fabulous resource on the web for information on HDR photography as well as post-processing is Klaus Hermann's very informative site at http://farbspiel-photo.com/ .  He's quite good and you will learn a lot!

Miroslav Petrasko is a friend of mine (both online and IRL - I had the pleasure of shooting with him once in Bratislava). He has his blog over at HDR Shooter - you definitely should check it out.  Here you will find a great tutorial as well as e-Books and more.  Spend some time here!

Elia Locardi creates some of the most beautiful photos out there, and his website at Blame The Monkey has a wealth of insights into his methods.  Another place to spend some time!

Somewhere I came across Christopher O'Donnell Photography, and though I am not really sure where, I am glad that I did.  In addition to beautiful images, he has a free eBook on Exposure Blending which might be of interest.  Check it out!

Thanks again for stopping by!