On HDR- a rant

This post is going to be something a little different than the usual for me.  I’ve been seeking critiques on my work lately, and let me tell you it sounds easy but isn’t.   Most of the time you get very general comments like “looks nice”, “boring”, “interesting subject”, and the like.  It seems that people are afraid to tell you where you got it right or wrong or they are too lazy to write an actual critique, in which case I wonder why they’re on a critique site.

Oh hey, I  haven’t even started yet and I’ve already gone off on a tangent!  The point is, I’ve been looking at an awful lot of other people’s photos lately and were it not for the fact that I use HDR on a regular basis I would be ready to hate it as much as I despise Instagram.   Instagram is quick and easy to use, it can be a useful tool but in general it seems to be employed in an attempt to make a boring photo interesting.  I don’t care how many filters you run your photo of a poorly lit burger through, it is still a boring photo of a poorly lit  burger.   I haven’t seen a many photos run through Instagram that could stand on their own merits, although to be fair I’m generally not looking anymore.

HDR on the other hand is not quick and easy to use.  I can forgive Instagram (somewhat, a little, ok, maybe not) for encouraging smart phone users into thinking that they are now professional grade photographers because they used preset filters to make their photo look quirky.  I have a harder time forgiving people who spend all the time and effort to set up a shot, bracket it, get home and spend time post processing it to get it “just right” only to post a poorly composed photo that is interesting only due to the technique used and they decide that it is “quite nice”.  The subject matter is in the middle of the frame,  the horizon line is totally off kilter, the colors are terribly over saturated, the processing overwhelms the subject, and there are massive halos around everything in the photo.   Perhaps even worse is the serious amateur or pro who brow beats the viewer with ALL THE PRETTY COLORS!!!!!!!!


Let me beat you over the head with all the pretty colors! i can make bad hdr too!

Often when I look at shots like these I feel I am being beaten over the head with processing technique and it makes me never want to shoot HDR again.

ambss reworked loud

to be fair, this was the very first option my hdr program offered up to me for this composite. i still have a headache from viewing it full screen.

Look, I understand good composition is difficult, and the majority of people out there are casual photographers who really enjoy the hobby, or serious amateurs of varying levels of skill.   I got started as a casual photographer and when I look back at the photos I took 4 years ago I cringe.  I admit that when I first got my hands on HDR I went a little nuts and over processed the hell out most of my photos.  Yet, it still makes me crazy.  If my idiotic self can learn to use HDR to enhance rather than overwhelm, can’t others?  But then I see the semi-pros and pros who have great composition doing the exact same thing and I despair.  It would be one thing if it was occasional but when every single photo is the same in-your-face HDR style, well I just don’t want to look at it any more much less use it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of examples of fantastic HDR where they got it just right.

Then I get on location.

I start thinking “What would this look like in HDR?”.  I go and bracket shots where HDR isn’t really called for just because I am curious and then I go and over process them.   I’ve been known to over saturate colors, I pretty much always have to fix my horizon line and some days a trained baboon could probably come up with better composition than I do.  In short, I commit all the crimes I am currently bitching about.

So why am I so annoyed with HDR right now?  I think it is because people outside of my hobby see it and go totally gaga for it.  It is like it short circuits their brain and suddenly no matter the subject they love the photo.  I have recently received more than one email or link on Facebook pointing me to this “awesome” photography set  where the main element was over done HDR.  In some forums the photos I have taken that have gotten the most positive response have been the ones where I thought I was being too heavy handed with the HDR effect, which tells me they like the effect, not the photo.

HDR is here to stay, they are building cameras with in camera capacities and programmers are creating pseudo HDR apps that work on one shot rather than a bracketed set for those who either shoot a lot of action or are just plain lazy.  The fact is that we’re going to be seeing a lot more it in the future, to the point where it may end up even more common for casual photographers than standard photography is, simply for the ease of use.  I don’t think single shot “HDR” will ever be able to achieve what a true bracketed composite can tone wise, that is until camera sensors improve to see higher range than they do now.  I’ve employed the pseudo HDR once, and will probably never do it again because it lacks so much.  Sure you get the effect, but you don’t get the range.

Better photographers than I  have been complaining about HDR and refusing to use it for years now for exactly the same reasons I’m annoyed with it.  But like everything else we have for post- processing, it can be used for good or evil.  In the end it is the photographer’s choice to go all out surreal or attempt to stay true to what they saw, and it is up to the viewer if they like it or not.  I’m not going to stop using HDR simply because it is such a valuable tool for me and I think that for the most part I’ve learned to employ it in a manner where it enhances my subjects rather than replacing them.   One day restrained use of HDR will become the normal for it and I will no longer have to fear the HDR tag on blogs, Flickr and other photo sharing sites.  This is my dream, and I’m going to hold on to it.  (after all, the 90’s and 00’s had selective coloring and that has mostly, thankfully, fallen out of favor.)


ok fine, i admit that sometimes you gotta get a little crazy with cheez-whiz. this is perhaps a little overdone but i like it. i’m just as bad as the rest of them.

7 responses

  1. tabularasa88

    I can get behind your sentiment. I think I started asking these questions more or less from the get-go. What I think we go for is realism, i.e. presenting what the eye sees naturally that a single shot can’t capture without HDR. As far as overdoing the HDR, well, that’s a matter of taste we don’t share. There’s always going to be a demand for it. After all, doesn’t a Thomas Kinkade painting remind you of an oversaturated, overcheeses HDR shot?

    June 16, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    • Seriously, click on a few of those links.

      I understand loving the effect and using, but the comparison to Kinkade (vomits) only stands to a certain level, that being the level I am willing to stoop to. The misbegotten monstrosities I posted in the middle of this don’t even begin to approach some of the horror I’ve seen on flickr, or worse yet actual “critique” sites I’ve visited.
      I think the seriously overcooked HDR won’t last, but more interpretative forms will and i’m cool with that. My biggest argument is that people are looking at the processing, not the photo.

      June 16, 2013 at 3:41 pm

      • tabularasa88

        You’re right. As a fad, it will fade and retreat back to being just another useful tool, one of many. I did click on all the links, and I concur most are bad. But all I’m saying is, some people are always going to love schmaltz, but they are not who we do this for.

        June 16, 2013 at 3:52 pm

  2. Also, welcome home TR, glad you made it back safely.

    June 16, 2013 at 3:44 pm

  3. Oh man the PP on that motorcycle shot was bad.

    June 17, 2013 at 12:59 am

    • Ha! “Which motorcycle shot?” is my first reaction, then I remembered they’re both bad!

      June 17, 2013 at 7:59 am

  4. Pingback: Black & White | The Idiot Photographer

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