We all know that the scene that comes in through the eye and the one in our mind’s eye are not the same. We also know that both are very different to what the camera records. What we see/record and what we want to communicate are also very different (see seeing and communicating) . The way we handle this is the artistic bit.
“Every step in the process is a step toward the light…”. Jan Phillips – God Is At Eye Level: Photography As A Healing Art
Photographing scenes with high dynamic range (HDR) presents three particular challenges. Firstly, how can we capture the maximum amount of data to create an image that best represents the full tonal range between the lightest lights and the darkest darks? Secondly, how should we process that image to more accurately reflect the one in the minds eye without it looking overdone and unreal? Thirdly, given that we know that the eye and the brain see a real scene and a photograph of the same scene differently, why does ‘realism’ matter?
The skills, techniques and technologies for approaching the first two challenges are well documented as is the science of how we can narrow the gap between the workings of the human eye and those of the camera. It is now possible to present an image of a scene with the maximum dynamic range of the human eye (about 20 stops) and fool the brain into thinking that it is realistic. It is also possible to produce an image of a scene with a low dynamic range of a few stops and stretch the dynamic range significantly in the processing. I guess that we have all done a bit of this to brighten up a dull and disappointing afternoon. If it is done well enough it might even avoid the criticism of the HDR haters. Ok, that would be too much to expect.
As an example, here are two of a bracketed set of three raw images each one stop apart which record, pretty accurately, what the scene was like and a jpeg of myself, taken at roughly the same time which confirms the conditions. Below them is an edited version of how I remembered the scene.
The third question though is the most interesting: why does realism matter? A photograph, even a so called ‘record shot’, is an abstraction from reality; a fragment of life with a frame around it. If photography is an art form: in other words, an activity regarded as a medium of imaginative or creative self-expression, the art and the creativity is in the abstraction. Deliberate, overdone, unrealistic and surreal HDR photos can therefore be artistic.
There are as many reasons for stretching the dynamic range of an image and all of them are valid. I use it most, I guess, to express what the scene looked or felt like in my mind’s eye or in my memory. Here’s an image of a little shop house somewhere in Melaka, Malaysia, January 2017. The real scene was more muted but the experience of wandering around a city centre in South East Asia during Chinese New Year hits all the senses at once. Representing what that feels like in a single image justifies a little exaggeration.
Sometimes the scene calls for a deliberately, over the top, and unrealistic treatment. Here is a shot of silos in a commercial depot on Granville Island, Vancouver, last September. Like it or not, it brightens up a dull afternoon and, I think, does justice to the wonderful public art that covers the silos.
Sometimes the light is so beautiful and the scene so memorable that exaggerating luminosity, contrast and colour range is necessary to do it justice. Here is a panorama of the beach at Northam Burrows, North Devon. The reflections of the sky in the sea water floating over the sand were wonderful but hard to record. The panorama is stitched from three raw files with identical exposures and processed in Nic Colour Effex Pro 4 to add tonal contrast and structure.
Lastly, if we accept that the photograph is an abstraction of reality, why not make it even more abstract. Here is a gallery of three images of reflections in Canals in Venice, cropped and enhanced in Photomatix Pro 4 to stretch the dynamic range.
The gallery below shows some more examples.