Well we artistic types are so misunderstood
Everyone’s a critic, they don’t know when something’s good
Just let us have our space and freedom to create
And when the work is finished, we’ll tell you if it’s great
— from “Stephen’s Exhibition” by Stuart Davis
After a long run of dominating the High Dynamic Range marketplace, the venerable Photomatix Pro now has a lot of company. Unified Color’s product set is very strong. Nik Software recently released HDR Efex Pro. Photoshop CS5 introduced Merge to HDR Pro. HDR Darkroom Pro is soon to be released. Topaz Adjust even has settings that emulate HDR effects.
To suggest that HDR photography is here to stay seems facile. Companies would not invest effort and cash into developing products if there were no market identified for them. Camera manufacturers are pushing the limits of sensor technology ever farther, increasing dynamic range in-camera, long before an image ever goes to post.
In the midst of this evolution, the debate over whether HDR is a legitimate form of photography continues as it has for some time. (See the comments under James Brandon’s recent article, 19 Examples of HDR Done Right.) There are some who believe that processing an image using HDR techniques doesn’t constitute photography at all. I usually dismiss these monocular arguments, as most people realize that the technique of tonemapping an HDR image to a target output device is really no different than putting a circular polarizer on your lens, or greasing that filter for a vignette blur, or dodging & burning in the darkroom, or farming multiple images, and so on.
Yes, it’s photography. HDR processing uses a set of techniques in order to accomplish a style. As artists, if we used a pencil instead of a camera, it would be called ‘drawing’ regardless of our personal tastes in art. Whether it was a piece by Rembrandt, or a child’s first creation on the refrigerator, it’s still ‘drawing’ and the final product is a unique creation by an artist. In much the same way, HDR processing employs technical methods in order to achieve a specific style. Whether one likes a particular style should be more the question, and ultimately that comes down to a matter of personal preference. But, for one to dismiss the entire body of HDR or tonemapped images because of one’s personal prejudices about a technique is to entirely miss the beauty of an artist’s stylization.
What I like most about photography is that it allows me to express an artistic vision based on an actual experience I’ve had, or to accurately recreate a scene that I’ve experienced so that I can try to bring you there with me.
What I like most about HDR photography in particular is that it allows anyone to apply their own sense of creativity on a standard photographic image, expressing their unique vision and talents. In doing so, we can take an everyday scene and draw attention to it in new ways, pulling the viewer into a scene, helping to share the mood and feel of the setting, and conveying the emotions that the photographer felt when taking the frames. Can you do this with conventional photography? Sure, but with HDR the palette for expressing one’s vision can be far more extensive.
In the end, though, what is it that we’re trying to achieve?
As artists, we want to create new things. We need to be creative; if the drive wasn’t there, we wouldn’t be doing this. We want to push the limits of the current tools and technology into new forms of expression. As with any art form, some of these attempts may fall flat, but we’re driven to create nonetheless.
We want to be seen. Even if we prefer to ‘hide behind the camera’ we want the fruits of our efforts to be seen and appreciated by others. Much like a mirror, it is the reflection of ourselves in an-other that satisfies the artist’s soul, that helps us to know that we exist, and that our efforts are not wasted. The creative loop of Arting is completed when our final image is seen by others who then reflect back their appreciation, or perhaps even their thoughtful criticism.
Given that, I’ve been wondering why the mere appearance of HDR images can conjure up rather caustic, mindless rants from some people. The thing that bothers me most about those rants is that they can only serve to diminish a person’s creative potential, were we only to place any real stock in them. In service of the ego, detraction is the commentator’s attempt to pull someone away from Creativity back to the bland, middling ground of Certainty. When people suggest, “All HDR sucks,” it’s akin to saying that because you don’t like an abstract style of painting, anything created with a paintbrush sucks. With these condescending comments, it is clear that technique is being badly confused with style in the mind of the commenter, and that’s an error.
The technical foundation of HDR is improving every day, and yes, HDR is here to stay whether some people prefer it or not. As fellow photographers, we must remember that not only is everyone at their own stage of development in terms of creative potential, but that they each have their unique and equally precious vision. There is no “good” or “bad” art in this context, just the product of creative potential, widely varied and infinitely interesting, and that should be celebrated, not denigrated.
(Yes, the image above was processed using HDR techniques.)