Meaning in Photography
EXPLORE, DON'T JUDGE HDR
The key to exploring HDR is to put aside the debates about it, and to approach learning high dynamic range techniques with an open, curious mind. Read tutorials. Watch You-Tube videos. Explore HDR on your own. After installing the software and taking a bracketed series of shots, you may find your photography enlivened by learning to process with HDR software.
HDR HAS A HISTORY
Those of us who adopted HDR in its early days did so with religious zealotry. We were so passionate about its novelty that we believed HDR techniques made all subjects more interesting. Wrong.
Subject matter and narrative have to come first. HDR is simply a technique that contributes to meaningful images only when they mean something. Photographers make images because they have to say something, but great photographers make images with something to say.
When HDR was introduced, viewers were initially shocked because biases got in the way. How photography had been seen influenced how HDR was now seen. For instance, it seemed reasonable to view an HDR photo relative to how we'd seen landscapes printed from film. Seeing nature images processed with HDR, critics even slandered HDR, saying it should be beautifully true to nature.
This over-insistence on historical notions of beauty echoed the mindset of mid 19th-century viewers who were trained to see nature photographs with the same vision they had been evaluating romantic art paintings for decades prior to photography's invention. HDR has a history. It did not spring full blown without a context. It is a post modern form of photography that is possible only with software.
Seeing the context of HDR images requires flexibility. They are not reality and like all photographs, are not intended to be. There are made with a wide spectrum of techniques. Within this relativity, I argue that subject matter is the primary aspect of photograph that applies to HDR. The subject itself is the story.
As viewers of HDR, we tend to lose the subject if we are immersed in the technique. We criticize poor tone mapping technique. As we become skilled in judging HDR images, I believe flexibility is needed. It helps to suspend judgment such as good vs. bad for awhile and just go photograph.
Subject matter outlasts style. We do not care, 150 years after Edward Muybridge stopped the motion of a horse, that much of his work was carefully edited. We recall and relate only that he captured all four horses feet off the ground in the same instant. Years after it was taken, we may remember the controversial subject matter of a documentary image and forget how it was made. Just as the Daguerreotype was celebrated in the 19th century, so too the initial gift of HDR was its high level of subject detail. HDR has the potential to portray subjects with clarity.
To survive as a worthwhile contribution to photography in the flood of millions of uploaded HDR images, an interesting HDR photograph must have composition, clarity, and symbolic meaning. Today, we know that some photographs are more interesting than others. With the passing of decades, however, its subject matter makes an image important.
Seeing HDR photography, we should avoid getting stuck in notions of good vs. bad. Every HDR image is a subjective slice, from a chosen viewing angle. The essence of seeing HDR photography does not lie in making judgments of good taste vs. bad taste. Human vision is a spectrum: there are realistic HDR photographers who wish to accurately revive the scene before them. There are also impressionists who want to catch the impression that the scene left upon them. If you are a realist, you may say impressionist HDR is less interesting to you, but this opinion does not make all impressionist HDR bad art. Judging all of it as bad is an error. And yet, this is exactly how critics have judged tone mapping, a way of combining bracketed exposures to make a high dynamic range image.
There are two main processes used by HDR software programs: tone mapping and exposure blending. Tone mapping is a way to expand or compress the tones beyond the range of a single exposure. The goal is to show an enhanced range of tones for monitor display. Exposure blending, another technique, uses layers ( in Photomatix, Photoshop® or other software), to select the best parts of many registered frames and put them together. Countless references and tutorials on YouTube and online show how to do tone mapping and exposure blending.
Tone mapping is like health care: a politicized debate has swamped the important issues. While tone mapping is merely an equation in an HDR software programs that tries to keep details while reducing contrast, it can produce halos and a saturated, contrasty look to photographs. However, tone mapping can be done smoothly so its presence in the final image is natural.
Critics often misunderstand images made with the extended dynamic range process, and attack the photographer directly, getting away from the photograph. For instance, tone mapping efforts have been slandered, and tone mapping has been heavily criticized as unnatural. I attempt, later on, to answer the critics by outlining characteristics of authentic HDR photographers.
Bashing the appearance of HDR pictures, repeated in countless web discussions, is now a tired cliche. I like to think of some tone mapping, perhaps, as the heavy metal of the HDR music world. It has its place at one end of the spectrum of HDR techniques. It’s not a matter of good taste vs. bad taste, it’s a spectrum of expression by different photographers who have unique visions. Good HDR photos convey something of the subject matter, the character of the photographer, beyond the specific HDR process used.
Instead of seeing the content of the entire play, HDR critics have picked apart the actors and how they appear under stage lighting. Obsessed by flaws they see when beginners’ use tone mapping, like Shakespeare’s MacDuff the critics exclaim: “Oh horror! horror! horror! Tongue, nor heart, Cannot conceive nor name thee!” They make the error of blaming the photographer, and ignoring the context and content of the image.
Critics also charge that pictures made with HDR are “over-cooked.” This description is also a tired cliché. Because it looked different on the surface, tone-mapped HDR did not meet critics expectations. While intelligent criticism comes from the love of tradition, it also mistakenly attacks photographers if the critic expects a photo to be an accurate document. Often, criticism of nature scenes done with tone mapping arose from seeing photos as not natural, and expecting them to be so. Yet, nature photographers have never accurately shown a landscape. They have always used photography to interpret nature.
The online debate that HDR, and tone mapping in particular, haves engendered recycle a controversy that swept photography in the 1890’s.
AN HISTORICAL PERSPECTIVE: IMPRESSIONISM
Today’s debate over how HDR photographs look, and should look, relives a similar photography controversy from the 1880’s in Europe and America. At that time, mainstream photography theory was concerned with the Realist school and the Impressionist school. The English photographer Dr. Peter Henry Emerson (1856-1936) suggested photography should return to nature, echoing the reaction of painters 30 years earlier against academic painting.
Emerson also proposed a theory of vision in his attack on artificial picture making (Naturalistic Photography, 1889. Arguing that photography should imitate the eye, he knew the eye saw sharpness only at the center of the visual field, while the periphery of vision appeared softer and slightly blurred compared with the center. Emerson made platinum prints that had a wide and beautiful tonal range, and he printed these images so that only their center was sharp, so they were slightly out of focus towards the edges. He was seeking what he considered to be a naturalistic expression or the way we commonly see the world. Emerson's co-photographers, taking a page from French Impressionists, returned to an old idea: a soft photo was more beautiful than a sharp one.
Before Peter Henry Emerson came on the scene, edge-to-edge sharpness was a photographer’s main concern. Although criticized for being in a “fuzzy school,” Emerson and his promotion of photography as an independent Pictorial art became the foundation for the Photo-Secessionist school of international photographers including Alfred Stieglitz and many others. This controversy, over what is a natural photograph, is recycled and repeated by our current debate, in 2010, about the relationship of HDR photography to reality.
Looking at a landscape picture, we like to think that if we went to the same place and looked at the identical scene, then we would see exactly what we saw previously in a photograph of that place. We are wrong. Due to the surprise when HDR initially did not meet our expectations that it must be factual and accurate, we simply were overtaken by photographic amnesia, and forgot the lessons from photography's history.
A picture of a scene will always look different than the scene. People never resemble their portraits. Actors always look different in person than the appear in film. Light changes our perception. In fact, even when lighting conditions change radically, the more we recognize “just another rock, just another tree” in a picture, the more boring that picture is because we are not seeing afresh, but instead our seeing through our preconceptions and memory of the scene. To us as HDR viewers, tone mapping looked so unusual at first, and so unlike what we expected, HDR images that were tone mapped caused only irritation. We shouted: “ that's not real.” Getting stuck in Fact-Fantasy argument is not a reason to throw the HDR instrument section of the photographic orchestra.
Mr. Jim Goldstein of Seattle, an award-winning commercial professional noted for his outstanding nature and landscape work, and the host of the EXIF and Beyond podcast, is a photographer I admire. In 2007, Mr. Goldstein posted a thought-provoking critique of HDR. Goldstein argued then that those photographers who did HDR approached it as a novelty rather than a solution.
This is an excellent point. The intent and experience of the person behind the HDR software controls is a significant part of the outcome. When HDR tools are used as a style, without criteria, we get the sense the image maker is just shooting and not thinking. While, there is nothing wrong with trying new approaches, we expect photographers of character to go beyond the novel to the substantial.
Goldstein went on to argue that HDR on the Flickr.com social photography website was overused and extreme, and that only rarely was HDR used to produce prints close to what the human brain can see. It is a limited cliche to compare how our brain's visual system functions to digital imaging with a camera for many reasons. First, neuroscientists are just beginning to learn complexities of our central nervous system’s visual processing. It's processing is nothing like a camera. Second, before the 1880’s, camera and eye were parallel tools. This changed when Edward Muybridge photographed all four hoofs of a horse in the air, something the eye could never see. After Muybridge’s “instantaneous photography,” photographic vision branched away from our perception. One only has to look at Moholy-Nagy's work in the 30's and his categories of seeing to fully appreciate how much photographic seeing was specific and different than how our eyes see. The camera does not assemble a scene meaningfully, but the brain can.
Mr. Goldstein calls Flickr members “would-be photographers and artists,” but this is yet another tired, old critique. Uploaded one's work to a social website does not prohibit one from exhibiting at MOMA or having a gallery show. Over a hundred years ago, Charles Baudelaire, an exalted character and opium smoker, condemned photography as the refuge of “would-be artists.” Even if Flickr was for amateurs, there is no shame in being an amateur, as amateur photographers have made brilliant advancements in photography. All of us started as amateurs at some point along the path to evolving our vision. What counts is what we are doing now.
However, Goldstein does not lump all those who use HDR into one category, and adds that “there are some photographers producing very naturally-looking HDR images, but regrettably they are the exception.” A thread reply, on the web underneath Goldstein's article, states that “most (HDR) images are completely butchered, and that this is especially true of nature and landscape photographs.” This is because we have a long-standing bias that nature and landscape photographs somehow more in the realm of reality, and, as such, should not be enhanced or manipulated.
With time, HDR software will improve and better nature photography will emerge. Think of the work of Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, David Muench, Elliot Porter and John Sexton, all landscape masters who had decades to polish their work, radical as it was when they each began to produce their prints. The point is that patience with HDR is required. Photographers, meanwhile, must not be attacked, but encouraged to explore HDR.
It is time to recognize as myth the idea of photographers producing images close to what the brain can see, or close to “the truth.”
Goldstein criticizes HDR images as not meant for the commercial world. Yet, a large percentage of HDR photos on the web are experimental. They were not meant for commercial use. Of course, there are categories of HDR photography that are commercial; HDR portrait and wedding photography is a fast-growing field. However, on the Flickr website, HDR images tend to be made as part of a learning process and to try new ideas, and not as HDR milestones.
Playing your HDR instrument well requires practice; like any instrument newly added to an experienced ensemble or orchestra, its presence can sweeten or foul the air depending on who is playing. But let’s shift the topic now from the instrument and its techniques, to the image maker.
WHAT QUALITIES CAN HDR PHOTOGRAPHERS STRIVE FOR?
Today photography is shaped by the technology of our digital information age. Today’s magazine covers are retouched, they show digital photographs that were manipulated, and not revealing the enhancement to a portrait. Since a digital image serves commercial, advertising, amateur and many other purposes, the motivation and context of the image is important. A core issue that makes HDR images interesting is the character of the photographer. The image above, “Chevy Above the Levy” was taken purely for amateur purposes. HDR tools were used to make it. Of the photograph, we could ask “ Who took it? ” An even better question is: “what are the qualities of the photographer, and ideally what should they be?”
Borrowing a page from Walker Evans, an F.S.A. photographer of whom entire biographies have been written, I’ve chosen four characteristics for the authentic HDR photographer. HDR photographers can strive to have these qualities.
1. They have absolute fidelity to the medium of photography. They strive to use the HDR camera as the incredible instrument of symbolic actuality that it is. An authentic HDR photographer respects the portrait subject.
2. An authentic HDR photographer uses HDR methods to serve a larger purpose than the technique itself. If they use tone mapping, XDR, exposure fusion, texture fusion, Orton, or bracketed exposures- the processing is done to create a natural result.
3. Composition is everything. The HDR work shows a rightness of framing-what is put in and what is left out. The image space in an HDR photograph is distinctly defined.
4. They employ a general, but unobtrusive technical mastery with their HDR processing.
Walker Evans, working briefly for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression, developed these criteria to define qualities of seasoned photographers, and I’ve applied them to the HDR photographer. In the hands of these photographers, the HDR process can be one of symbolic actuality. HDR photography as its best expresses the humanity, symbolism, or feeling of the scene, portrait, or nature image; its maker can choose HDR techniques as part of the craft, not to shout out that it’s art because high dynamic range methods were used.
NEW THINKING FOR HDR VISION
Emerging HDR photography demands new thinking in addition to digital photograph concepts. Once again, new camera/computer technology changes how we can see. When the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson wielded his newly introduced Leica in the 193o’s, he challenged a more static approach to that had preceded him. Almost for the next decade, the mainstream photographic community of his day responded to his vision by deriding his camera as a toy.
As HDR techniques become second nature, the clarity of the picture idea and the photographers character become more important. Photographs are more than dynamic range, color, depth of focus, and composition. They have an intent. The intent is deeper than finding solutions to the problems of high contrast, washed out highlights, and blocked shadows. Being an authentic HDR photographer is not solely about mastering HDR tools any more than samurai wisdom arises only from having a sharp sword. As a surgeon would employ years of training to use a scalpel, mastering HDR tools can mean knowing when to cut and when to abstain from doing so.
HDR photography can be distinct and subtle while letting photographers fully portray the exquisite detail present in the subject itself. They can strive to show a fully realized image that resonates with viewers. HDR critics should let go of rigid good vs. bad judgments, and real vs. manipulated categories. The character of the photographer is crucial; honesty and disclosure about the image helps make HDR work interesting to viewers and promotes our appreciation of good photography and its ethical practice.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jim Austin Jimages MA is an adventure photographer. He teaches, leads workshops and writes on photography for various publications. He is the author of Photopia: Seeing Far and Wild, Americans on Parade, Pixels on Passage and Emotion in Motion. His work was exhibited at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum in Washington, D.C. , the Photographer's Gallery in Denver, and the Denver Art Museum. Jim Austin was an assistant professor, teaching digital imaging in the Design Department of Metro State College of Denver. An Adobe Certified Expert, he lives aboard the catamaran Salty Paws.