HDR Imaging: Is There a Point, Past Which, It’s Really No Longer a Photograph?

HDR image from Splashology's '100 Mind Blowing HDR Photography' article: http://www.splashnology.com/blog/photography/470.html No photo credit given for this image.

HDR image from Splashology's '100 Mind Blowing HDR Photography' article: http://www.splashnology.com/blog/photography/470.html No photo credit given for this image.

There’s been a lot of  buzz online recently about HDR and ethics: is HDR okay for photojournalists to use? Dennis Hayes wrote a piece on the Black Star photo agency blog (Black Star Rising) about  this, referencing a recent piece about HDR in the New York Times by John Tierney.

While this is a question that all news organizations need to ponder, it got me thinking about something else: is there a point with an HDR ‘creation’ when the thing pretty much ceases to be a photograph?

HDR image from Splashology's '100 Mind Blowing HDR Photography' article: http://www.splashnology.com/blog/photography/470.html Photo by D.A. Mandale.

HDR image from Splashology's '100 Mind Blowing HDR Photography' article: http://www.splashnology.com/blog/photography/470.html Photo by D.A. Mandale.

Stay with me for a moment on this. So much of the HDR work that’s out there is so overdone, cartoonish in tone. It really bears very little resemblance to the scene that was photographed. Sure, this is a cool thing to look at (sometimes). But is it still photography? Or is it really illustration?

This depends upon your definition, of course. Sure you say, it’s a photograph. It was made with a camera and a series of exposures, combined together to show this incredibly cool ‘effect.’ But back to my question: can you take the post processing too far?

'Wet Rocks, Dusky Tones' by PhotoToasty at Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phototoasty/254325520/in/set-72157594225970774

'Wet Rocks, Dusky Tones' by PhotoToasty from a set called 'Subtle HDR' at Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/phototoasty/254325520/in/set-72157594225970774. I like this one!

I guess for me, I want images that speak to me, inspire me and communicate to me about the world around me. When the image becomes a cartoon, a ‘look how cool this is’ image in which the subject matter is almost secondary to the effect, I become quickly bored.

'The Great Beach, South HDR' by Andrionni Ribo on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reversezer0/2296507048/

'The Great Beach, South HDR' by Andrionni Ribo on Flickr: http://www.flickr.com/photos/reversezer0/2296507048/. This is beautiful.

Take any photo, and spend enough time on your computer with the filters that come in Photoshop, and you can create something that ceases to be about what you photographed. I don’t know if this is good or bad, but I think maybe at that point it’s more illustration than photograph.

I find some HDR images very compelling. They tend to be the ones that use the technique to extend the dynamic range in a subtle way, rather than a garish one. These images were good compositions to start with anyway.

But I have little use for the ‘over the top’ variety, images that remind me of airbrushed graphic novel covers more than photographs.

What do you think? Am I completely off base on this? Does this make me a Neolithic dinosaur? How do you like your HDR? Straight-up or with all the bells and whistles?

Hi, I’m Andrew Boyd, a.k.a. The Discerning Photographer, and I hope this post has been interesting and informative. Please leave me a comment about it, let me know what you’d like to see more of on the site! You can also sign up for email delivery of all future articles or my RSS feed. Thanks!–DiscerningPhotog

Related articles on the web:

Is HDR Imaging Ethical for Photojournalists? at Black Star Rising

What’s Wrong With This Picture? at The New York Times/TierneyLab

7 Reasons HDR is Here to Stay and Why That’s a Good Thing at Lightstalking

HDR Tutorial at Stuck in Customs

Posted in: Photoshop

About the Author:

Photographer, videographer and photo editor. Host and creator of The Discerning Photographer web site. Currently a Canon shooter.

14 Comments on "HDR Imaging: Is There a Point, Past Which, It’s Really No Longer a Photograph?"

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  1. Shotslot says:

    I find the angst that HDR seems to provoke amongst established photographers quite puzzling – people hate change I guess, and even now there are die-hard film freaks who refuse to get involved in the arcane technology that is digital, prefering to potter about in the dark with their spells and potions. I see HDR as a technique like any other – cross-processing for example, doesn’t produce ‘real’ looking images either, nobody complains.

    Some shots I like, some I find a bit overdone – same as most others, I posted a few articles about this here:


    but also, I think the whole post-production thing is part of the wider discussion I talked about the other day in my comments on this bog, more about that here:


    I like to produce HDRs on occasion, there’s a few in my blog posts, but I think it’s one of those things that everyone jumps on at first (they’re so easy to produce, I understand some DSLRs even have a special capture setting) then goes off after a bit because it doesn’t, after all, do what people wanted, which is to capture a beautiful scene as accurately as possible.

  2. David Joachim says:

    What’s the difference between using fill flash to bring a backlit shot into normal contrast range, and using HDR to do the same thing? Which is the cheat: letting a subject appear as a dramatic silhouette, or letting its details come through in a perfect or near perfect rendering? Sometimes a news photographer has to weigh the power of photography’s inability to match human vision, against the craftsmanship required to emulate it. However, once a photo has been manipulated to resemble reality, any further enhancements begin to impinge on photojournalistic ethics.
    Photo ethics don’t just apply to journalism. They can be a strong part of any photographer’s style. Cinematographer Nestor Almendros achieved peer approval, while refusing to ever place filters in front of his lens. An equally highly regarded colleague, Geoffrey Unsworth, earned multiple awards while routinely shooting through diffusion filters. His cinematography mirrored his world, one viewed through thick glasses whose smudges he rarely wiped away.
    To each his own.
    David Joachim

  3. Ben says:

    When did the goal of photography become to represent life as realistically as possible? The photographer is manipulating the way his subject is viewed from the time he chooses his camera, lens, vantagepoint, right up until his choice of paper or frame. Photography is about style and manipulation.

  4. The problem, I think, that older photographers have with HDR is the fact that since someone can pull out details in the more under/overexposed areas, and this might suggest to the novice/learning photographer that correctly dialing-in/understanding “proper exposure” is no longer a necessity… Especially when doing HDR with a single exposure (versus a bracketed group)

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t condemn ANY new technique/method, but times has proven that without considering certain fundamental visual rules (in any medium) new techniques can unconsciously be used as crutches, focusing more on the effect rather than the affected. Anyone reasonably proficient with Photoshop would be hard-pressed to deny a moment or two of this in their own past personal experiences with digital post-processing.

    Restrained use of HDR, used by someone in tandem with a properly composed and exposed shot (or with proper bracketing) can actually yield breathtaking results.

    I don’t even mind if HDR processing is obvious at first glance, but obviously we all acknowledge there is a threshold where it’s just too much (I like the term “overcooked”).

    But it’s still an interesting debate…

  5. Interesting discussion. I guess one of my initial reasons for writing this post was: is there any longer a definition,that can be agreed upon, for what constitutes a photograph?

  6. mike says:

    Air-brushed models
    Abraham Lincoln
    The Cottingley Fairies

    why the angst about HDR?
    Manipulation is almost as old as photography, including in reportage!

  7. Cornell says:

    1. Does the average person have to be told an image is a photograph in order to recognize the image as a photograph? If the average person recognizes an image as a photograph without having to be told so, then the image is a photograph; otherwise, the image is not a photograph.

    2. Does an image scream photoshop? (I’m using photoshop in the Generic sense, not specifically referring to Photoshop.) If it screams photoshop, then the image is not a photograph.

    If an image fails either of the above tests; then, I believe that the image should not be classified as a photograph.

  8. Let’s forget about the specific techniques to alter an image, and give some broad categories:

    1)Techniques in camera
    2)Post/darkroom manipulation
    3)Multi-media techniques

    In the days of pre-digital, is this debate simplified? Anything done up to the point of a developed print out of a darkroom would be considered a photo, yes? Manipulations be damned, it’s a photographically generated image. However, a lot could be done before that point, yeah?

    But oh wait, what about post-print techniques? Hand-coloring? Tinting? Are these still photographs? Illustrations? In some cases, they were both, but rarely (that I’m aware of) were they considered non-photographs.

    Debates of realism or truth aside, these were still photographic images.

    Now, if someone were to paint in something completely new into the image, or form a montage of photos together into an altogether new image, then we’re having a good debate… This is multi-media…

    But in the digital age, EVERY digital photo (or film scanned and digitized) is (technically) a multi-media piece now. Maybe NONE of them are photos any longer?

    Maybe there is no CLEAR definition of what constitutes a photo. There are base criteria that need to be met, sure, but it’s the OTHER variables that we’re focused on, yeah? Even when something falls into the realm of photography, when does it (through active manipulation) fall right back out of that designation?

    I’m wagering that it has to be assessed on a photo-by-photo basis… Not convenient, but the only thing that makes sense, I’m afraid.

  9. “2. Does an image scream photoshop? (I’m using photoshop in the Generic sense, not specifically referring to Photoshop.) If it screams photoshop, then the image is not a photograph.”

    Heh, but in our half-savvy worldviews, many people (most of whom only know Photoshop by name only) assume that Photoshop is being used (in the sense of “blatant alteration”) on photos that are really quite genuine.

    Go to any site that allows comments on images, and see how many obviously unaltered images get the “OMG SHOPPED” trolling…

    In other words, “the average person” applying these tests to whatever images in question? The average person has probably never had any direct experience with image manipulation (imo), and you’re not going to get any consistent result from such a system.

    Your tests are more about the particular viewers’ perception, and not the image itself.

  10. Great discussion…what I was looking for/thinking about all along. I’m reminded, Donovan, of a real situation that I ran into a while back. We had a photographer shoot a new bridge construction project on the day this big overhead span opened. He shot it with a long lens (300 or 400) as cars moved across this span for the first time, and the city skyline was stacked up nicely in the background. I got a phone call from an irate newspaper subscriber, wanting to know how we justified publishing such an ‘obviously Photoshoped’ image. I tried to explain to the guy that it was all done in-camera….but he didn’t believe a word of it….
    This speaks more to your point about the ‘average person’…but I think the larger question about what constitutes a photograph, here in the 21st century, is still a good one to contemplate…

  11. Sam Scholes says:

    HDR is the worst thing to happen to photography. Ever.

  12. HDR and Photoshop manipulation are like steroids in the athletic world – everyone is doing it and if you don’t join in too, you will eventually be left by the wayside as people with less talent pass you by.

    For a loosely related photo/cinematography example: Michael Bay stated after making TF2 that 3D is not for him, after Avatar made like a gazillion bucks and the world went mad for 3D – TF3 is now TF3-D

    Is he a sell out? Not at all, he just wants to stay employed like everyone else and at the moment his employers want 3D.

    Not many people who make it to the top in any industry get there naturally any more. Gimmicks and eye candy sell more to the general public than a well composed traditional B/W picture it’s just life – for better or worse.

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