The lure of HDR

The human eye does not “read” the whole image in one fell swoop. It scans it and the aperture adapts as the eyeball moves chaotically across the scene, picking up details and interpreting lines and shapes. The brain then puts everything together.

The camera has no brain. All it does is take the whole rectangle in, dragging it through the Procrustean bed of dynamic range. 10 stops for a slide film. 12 stops for a good digital sensor. 15 stops for Sony A7IV (if you have $3K to spare and a burning desire to maximise the sensor capability). This ain’t art, it is image capturing. That is why we have to have deep shadows and some highlights not completely articulated (but hold this thought). We use it artistically to blacken the unimportant details, create a negative space, add more contrast or control a juxtaposition. We protect the highlights since a burned out space stairs blankly at its creator — and we can protect at least one tone in the image by setting the exposure. We sink in shadows, especially in monochrome, as shadows frame and accentuate the image.

And yet…

Here is a dimly lit landing against the bedroom door and the window looking out into a sunny summer day. My eye sees it exactly like the image above, but the camera can’t, or rather it won’t if you just press the button.

Tripod to the rescue. This was exposed 4 times with EV from -4 to +1 to bring in the window detail and to resolve a very gentle profile of periodic light and shadow petering out at the back wall. Then the four raw files (about 100Mb) were merged in Photoshop with automatic image registration (only possible if you use a tripod). The result? A high dynamic range (HDR) image. Eerie, isn’t it?

There are ways of achieving a similar (but not quite the same) effect in camera. Of course the result is the better the less movement there is in the scene being photographed. Your mileage may vary.

As everything else in image-making, less is more, and it only works when it does; and then it becomes a cliché and a nuisance, like long exposure cotton-wool waterfalls, which have become de rigueur in landscape photography. I saw crisp water coming down some rocks on Instagram yesterday and I was so moved that I “liked” it right away.

Ye shall make you no idols…

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