For further reading check out HDR Photography: Theory of Usage.

I heard a story today where one of my favorite HDR photographers (Stuck in Customs) was disqualified from a Smithsonian photo contest because the photo he entered was generated using HDR (high dynamic range).  The HDR process is kinda complex and to put it in as simple terms as someone of my limited knowledge can, a photographer uses a software tool to stitch two or more separate exposures of the same photo together to create a more vivid, higher contrast photo.  The Smithsonian judges considered the photo “digitally altered” and wouldn’t permit it to be entered.  I found the story interesting because it brings up a debate of what constitutes “digitally altered?”

I’ve been taking photos for a long time though have only recently put forth significant effort to improve my skills.  For the majority of those years photographing my favorite locations, people and events photo manipulating software such as Photoshop has been a part of the process.  I’ve used programs to brighten, adjust contrast and color, reduce noise and stitch panoramics for more than a decade.  Even four and a half year old Kylie showed us how to make the photo of her fish “much better” with a key stroke in Microsoft’s “I’m a PC” commercial.  I’d be willing to bet the Smithsonian wouldn’t disqualify little Kylie from entering her fish photo in their contest.

I certainly do understand setting some limits on the level of altering being allowed.  For instance, if elements are added or removed from a photo, techniques called cloning or surreal compilation.  And they have the right to not enter collages, right?  But where is the line drawn?

I’ve recently been dabbling in HDR and I really enjoy the results.  I’m not a professionally trained photographer and I am no authority on the art.  I would assume there are plenty of purists out there who consider HDR a disgrace to the art form.  It’s what I would call the Bob Ross statue.  I’m not going to attempt to enter that argument.  At least not yet.  But what I will do is examine the HDR technique and the amount of manipulation involved and let you be the judge.

Above is a dramatic photo of an old abandoned Victorian home in Park City, Utah.  It was produced using three exposures and an HDR tone mapping software.  The HDR tool is not this big mathematical machine that a photographer tosses multiple exposers into and then it spits out the beautifully perfect final HDR photo.  After the tool processes the HDR the result bares little resemblance to the original photo.  At this point the photographer enters the tone mapping process where they are presented with a slew of sliders to adjust everything from luminosity to color balance.  All of these options will be very familiar to anyone who knows their way around Photoshop.  The artist will be able to produce a very dramatic photo, as the one above, or scale back the sliders to generate a photo that resembles the original exposures used to generate the HDR.

The first two photos below are two different tone mapping results generated from the same HDR.  The third is one of the original exposures used to generate the HDR.   Click each photo for larger versions.

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As you can see the variety of intensity is very drastic.  The same can be said for the possibilities presented to an artist through Photoshop (just imagine if I applied the sponge filter to this photo in Photoshop).  This photo is a good example of some of the benefits of HDR as no longer is shooting directly into the sun taboo.  In fact it produces much more dramatic results.

As I said earlier I’m not going to interject my views on what makes art.  I’m only discussing methods and tools available to artists.  As far as I’m concerned the question isn’t whether the photo was altered as it is whether the result no longer constitutes art in the hands of the artist.  I find it interesting that Mr. Stuck in Customs won this very contest a few years ago (certainly with an HDR photo) and the winning entry still hangs in the Smithsonian.  I guess the debate rages on.

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