Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

The Great HDR Debate Pt II

I wrote a post a while back called The Great HDR Debate.  That was almost a year ago.  It seems that the debate over HDR, its validity as a photo editing tool, the results generated and the concept in total remain every bit as controversial and perhaps even moreso than at that time.  It seems as though the anti-HDR camp is becoming increasingly zealous in their opposition to HDR in any form.

I was recently on a photo forum where a member had asked a question about how to do HDR.  He’d seen some, thought it was interesting and wanted to try it out but didn’t know how to get started.  Through more than a page of responses there were a raft of people telling him ‘don’t bother’ or ‘HDR sucks’, or ‘go ahead and check it out but NEVER use it on real photos’.  Probably a dozen or more responses telling him how bad HDR was but not one person answering his actual question.  Is this what it’s come to?  If so, why?

I’ve said in the past that I’m not a big fan of the hyper-processed, way over the top, comic book looking HDR effects.  It just doesn’t appeal to me.  But I know it does to some.  So be it.  It’s part of the subjective nature of the appreciation of art.  It continues to surprise me (although maybe it shouldn’t) that there is still, in this day and age, such a closed-minded, intolerant, ignorant presence in the art community.

HDR is a terrific tool for photographers to have in their arsenal.  I spent some time recently in an old, unused, train station in Buffalo.  The Buffalo Central Terminal is a terrific example of Art Deco architecture.  It was built at a time when Buffalo was the 2nd busiest rail hub in the U.S. after Chicago.  Closed for over 30 years and falling into disrepair, a private, not-for-profit group has bought the building and is beginning to restore it.  If they’re successful in raising the money to complete the restoration, it’ll be a beautiful building again.

The building has very large windows that allow a lot of natural light in but there are also very dark areas that make  getting a single, correct exposure difficult.  Below is a single exposure at the ‘correct’ meter reading.  It’s pretty blah.  The light streaming in the large window to camera left shining on the granite floor makes getting the floor and the space under the To Train Concourse entrance difficult.  The Shadow/Highlight tool helps but that can also do a lot of damage to an image.  What it does illustrate is just how good today’s DSLRs are at capturing a pretty wide brightness range.  This was shot with a Nikon D700 at 200 ISO and 1/3s @ f8 with a 28-70 f2.8 at 45mm.  As a documentary or record shot, it’s not bad.  As an artistic photo, it’s not overly good.

The Great HDR Debate Pt II, RF-Photography
Buffalo Central Terminal, Single Image

My plan going in was to shoot for HDR.  I knew it would help with the brightness range and also knew it would help generate a more ‘artistic’ result depending on how I tonemapped it.  The image below is a 9 shot (+/-4) bracket processed through Photomatix from TIFF files exported out of Lightroom.  The tonemapped HDR was then opened in Photoshop for final editing.  I purposely took a little beyond a strict ‘photorealistic’ look.  I wanted to try and evoke a bit of a 30s Art Deco coloured graphic look to complement the architecture. I also wanted to enhance the ‘grittiness’ of the environment.

The Great HDR Debate Pt II, RF-Photography
Buffalo Central Terminal, Photomatix HDR Tonemapped

Could I have got a more photorealistic look?  Sure.  Absolutely.  The image below is a 7 image merge in Enfuse using Timothy Armes’ Lightroom Plugin.

The Great HDR Debate Pt II, RF-Photography
Buffalo Central Terminal, Enfuse blend

To my eye, this blended image looks much better than the single shot.  It’s got better colour, better overall dynamic range and contrast yet it’s still photorealistic and at the same time has a better artistic look than the single image.

But that’s not HDR, you say?  You’re right, it’s technically not.  It’s a blended exposure and it stayed in the 16 bit space throughout the processing.  But it’s still possible to get a ‘realistic’ look using HDR too.  I could have tonemapped the Photomatix image differently and achieved the look of a ‘real’ photo.  The image below a 7 shot bracket processed through HDR PhotoStudio via its Lightroom plugin.  HDR PS is a terrific program.  It works differently from other HDR applications but the results it generates are quite striking.  Jack Howard wrote a piece on the app. on the Adorama Tech Tock Blog.

The Great HDR Debate Pt II, RF-Photography
Buffalo Central Terminal, HDR PhotoStudio

A more ‘real’ photo look.  Better colour, better dynamic range and still a more ‘artistic’ look too.

Neither the Enfuse or HDRPS merges had any additional work done to them.  With a little time in either Lightroom or PS to ‘polish’ them off, the results could be even better.  Much better than a single shot could give.

HDR can be a very useful tool for photographers.  The people who continue to play ostrich are missing out on an opportunity to improve their imagery when the situation suits/requires.  HDR has a number of potential applications in commercial photography – real estate and architecture in particular.  It’s a wonderful tool with plenty of potential and those who refuse to use or learn it are going to be left behind and miss out on business opportuntites to those who do make good use of it.