Is HDR really cheating?

HDR, or High Dynamic Range, imagery refers to the process of representing a wider range of colors and light in a photo than what can be traditionally captured in a single image with a camera.  There are several ways to produce this HDR-effect.  The most common way to produce HDR imagery is to take several exposures, by both under and over-exposing the same scene by several stops, and then combining them in post-production.  This process brings out details that would traditionally be lost in both highlights and shadows from normal photography.  There are two schools of thought here really on HDR:

1.  The first school of thought is that we should adhere to the accuracy of what it is the sensor is capturing.  By allowing for interpretation and manipulation of the pixels, photography is no longer the means of reporting things – life, as we know it!

2.  The other school of thought is that pixels and cameras are simply a means of capturing a limited portion of the world around them, and that even the human eye is capturing more in a single instant than any single still image could ever hope to capture.  With that in mind, it is the job of the photographer to bring to life what it is they see, and use the tools available to them to bring that image to life, whether it means performing HDR, sharpening, white balance corrections, or anything!

Now, keep in mind that there are always exceptions to the above two schools of thought.  Journalism for instance, requires accuracy and not making adjustments as it really is meant as a reporting mechanism not an interpretation or individual perception of what is scene.  While I am not sure where my own line of thinking really ends up on this very polarizing issue, it does seem that perhaps there is a time and place for it.  Again, with all subjective work, there is a certain degree of personal preference and bias – and this also speaks to the second point, because some HDR can be really really good, while others can be really really bad.  Nevertheless, for my two cents, it does seem that occasionally, there is both a time and a place for HDR.  During such times,  I’ve tried a variety of approaches to utilize HDR while also keeping some measure of reality in my photos.  Take for example, the three images below taken at different shutter speeds, while keeping ISO and aperture constant – thus creating several different exposures of the same scene:

HDR base Images

HDR base Images

By combining and basically “stacking” each of these images inside our post production work flow, we can bring out the details in the shadows from the first image (down in the golf course area), bring out the details from the highlights (the clouds), while maintaining the clarity of the neutrally lit areas in the middle of the photos (the rocks and pool).  While there are several ways to do this, including Photomatix, HDR Pro (the one native to CS5) and several other Photoshop and Lightroom plugins like what Topaz Labs, Lucis, and OnOne’s plugin Suite), here I am using the HDR Pro function inside of Photoshop CS5.

HDR Pro Sample

HDR Pro Sample

I did choose the option inside the HDR Pro menu to select a more saturated image than what was originally created in camera, and it is more reminiscient of what I actually saw.  So, am I cheating at what I created?  Is this a “real” photo?  What if I were to take another approach, and simply make some adjustments on a single image?  Back to the digital work flow I go…and here is a single shot edited in Lightroom:

Lightroom HDR

Lightroom HDR

Now, while there are clearly some slight differences in tonal range, saturation, and such, there are two things to keep in mind:  1 – I was making these edits pretty quick, and 2 – this is the Internet, which makes color accuracy a difficult thing to achieve.  It does serve to illustrate that you don’t necessarily have to stack images in Photoshop to achieve the HDR look.  Simple slider adjustments in Lightroom can approximate the same thing.  As mentioned above, there are also a number of third-party plugins and add-ons that can bring this effect to life.  Regardless of what the consensus is, HDR is likely a technique that is here to stay, and it’s simply a matter of experimenting and finding a technique that works for you, and that your clients, or colleagues, or friends and family, will find appealing.

This is, of course, just my personal take on HDR.  What about the rest of the readership?  Any thoughts on the legitimacy or validity of HDR?  Does it work?  Can it work?  Or should we stick to trying to capture it all in-camera – on a single frame?  Sound off in the comments or via email!  Thanks for sharing your own thoughts, and we’ll see you back here tomorrow!

ETA:  Don’t forget – a couple contests are going on through November and the rest of the year:

1.  Monthly LDP Giveaway – Share your own “POP” themed photos for a chance to win a pack of pearl metallic paper from the folks at Red River – this paper is awesome for HDR-styles of work!

2.  The Nations Photo Lab Family Photo Day – Upload your images to their Flickr Page for a chance to win a pretty impressive set of prizes including autographed books, free printing certificates, and much more!

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8 comments for “Is HDR really cheating?

  1. Justin Morgan
    November 15, 2010 at 11:50 am

    Fortuantely, “they” never wrote a rule book outlining guidelines with which our photography had to conform (although there are many who seem to think such a thing exists!). I think that if HDR floats your boat and people want to see it, rock and roll! If you want to create the most unrealistic super HDR’ed photo the world has ever seen, then go for it! I wouldn’t care much for it, but it would still be real photography…

    Photography (not photojournalism) is art, and art is open to inetrpretation. If someone is doing something that you don’t like, don’t pay attention. If you feel like they’re ruining or cheapening the craft, maybe they are… And if that is the case, I doubt they’ll last long, because the market for those images will run dry quickly.

    Is HDR cheating? Nope.

  2. Bryan
    November 16, 2010 at 1:13 pm

    aren’t all pictures a lie if you put it that way? even with HDR the range is still less than you can see with the naked eye and the human eye only perceives a very small band of light too.
    is using my 10mm fish eye a lie? How about flash? shallow dof? black and white? long exposure to create a blur or silky water? and on and on. even editorial can be a little too squeaky clean but i guess there lies a slippery slope once you are on it, a photoshoped picture of me arm in arm with Angelina Jolie is definitely a lie but maybe i can get away with calling that fantasy art?

    if somebody likes a picture it is a valid image

  3. Albin
    November 16, 2010 at 1:46 pm

    I think there is such a thing as “cheating” but only with regard to a standard the photographer has personally set. Especially learning photographers set and should set a personal standard to get the possible out of camera result, and minimize what’s necessary in post-processing – the goal being to learn the camera. At other times the goal is more to get the “best” (however defined) image possible by hook or crook from available subject matter, equipment and software. Cheating only exists in relation to a personal challenge set for that image.

  4. November 16, 2010 at 3:43 pm

    There have been so many techniques prior to HDR. I mean, many people still sneer if something looks “Photoshopped.” Back in the day, dodging and burning, etc, etc.

    Here in Prescott we have Art fairs on the square all the time. One particular photographer advertises extensively that he doesn’t use Photoshop or any digital means. Unfortunately his film of choice and favorite developing chemicals are no more…. Guess something will have to change for him.

  5. November 20, 2010 at 4:24 am

    We can create lies simply by choosing a specific angle to show a specific perspective. We do it all the time when working with models to make them look thinner, hide blemishes, etc. Sure, we are not fudging pixels but we are still manipulating those pixels with adjustment prior to capturing them. HDR is manipulation after the fact. In fact, HDR is usually showing MORE of the scene than what a single image could see so wouldn’t HDR be telling more of the truth than a single image? Assuming of course it isn’t one of the highly over processed makes you gag kind of HDR’s… 🙂

    Either way, I always laugh when I get into conversations with people that claim HDR isn’t real photography or is cheating. Usually those people are bitter broke photographers that are jealous over all the HDR real estate and HDR fine art business I have get while they continue to miss rent payments. Either get with the times or check out.

  6. Jim
    November 20, 2010 at 8:52 pm

    Any photograph that is presented in HDR should have a caption stating that it is, HDR Digital Photo Art. I do not feel that HDR is Cheating but just another variance of Art. But we need the truth about our images and not present lies.

  7. Hali
    November 20, 2010 at 9:45 pm

    Didn’t the famed Ansel Adams print his half dome image some 20 times over a number of years before he was satisfied with the result, dodging, burning, and tweaking the darkroom process? Isn’t all photography an interpretation of the scene we see before us? Why should HDR be any different then? It is actually revealing more of the way the scene was.

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