I find myself using the term ‘HDR’ less and less every day.
When I started as a panoramic photographer in 2002, I was continually frustrated because almost every 360º scene would have blown-out bright highlights or ‘blocked up’ shadows. Often I would have both of those extremes in the same scene because a camera can only capture so much dynamic range.
Imagine being outside of a hotel where the sun is behind the building. The shadows are dark on the building, but I still need to capture the complete scene at a pool — of course before crowds arrive. In that case there is no quiet time of day that would light all areas well. Interior scenes are even more extreme and challenging.
I consider scenes like those above, with any amount of dynamic range that cannot be captured by a single shot, to be ‘High Dynamic Range’ sometimes called ‘HDR.’
So when ‘HDR’ became possible for the normal photographer like myself, I jumped on that IMMEDIATELY! Lighting an entire 360º scene is really not a reasonable answer for this kind of photography. Before HDR, I would spend hours manually combining multiple images to make the scene look real.
But the challenges I’m describing have been described many times, in many ways.
For instance, most modern pro-level cameras (and some consumer-level cameras) offer the ability to extend the dynamic range of the sensor IN CAMERA! Even back in the days when everything was processed in a wet darkroom, lab technicians learned tricks to extend the dynamic range on paper.
Now, with ‘HDR’ (via software) being available to us for about 14 years, photographers have varied understandings of what the term means. The result is that I find that the biggest problem with HDR to be taking about HDR.
Therefore I often choose to avoid saying those three little letters, simply to reduce the pre-conceived notions of what it is and to avoid a purely emotional response.
In those 14 years, we have gone from this demand by photographers to a ‘love or hate’ for a misunderstood term (acronym actually). But in our current world where meanings of words change regularly, we have to live with it. ‘Decimate’ doesn’t mean ‘destroy,’ ‘diet’ doesn’t mean ‘eating to lose weight,’ and ‘HDR’ certainly doesn’t mean ‘fake looking.’
In fact the meaning of ‘HDR’ is ‘High Dynamic Range’ — most people reading this article know that already. What most don’t know is that any image that you are viewing on a normal monitor is *not* an HDR image. The image may have gone through a process where it was a ’32-bit HDR’ file at one stage. However a 32-bit file cannot be displayed on (almost) any monitor and certainly cannot be printed on paper. Before it becomes a viewable or printable photography, it must be rendered.
The most popular method to render a 32-bit file is ‘tone mapping’ and it’s this process where the result can vary so greatly, from realistic to cartoon. This is one reason I recommend trying Exposure Fusion and the various methods of tone mapping instead of only the default when using Photomatix Pro.
I still refer to certain scenes as ‘high dynamic range scenes’ when the camera’s sensor cannot capture all highlights and shadows. I will bracket the shutter speeds to capture the entire ‘DR’ and process those bracketed images with either HDR/Tone Mapping or Exposure Fusion. The result is not an HDR image, it’s a normal viewable and printable image. That is why the term isn’t necessary to describe the image unless I’m describing the workflow I used to create it.
So please create your best images using any process appropriate for your particular situation. Ultimately very few people (and probably only other photographers) care how an image was made. Focus on creating the images that show what you wanted to create, or that you need to deliver to your client, using every tool available to you. Don’t be concerned about “HDR.” Be concerned about exploring the full range of information in any given photographic scene and use that to your advantage the way YOU see fit.