HDR – why I’m not a fan

Photography literally translated is painting with light. Therefore, as photographers, we are always trying to control the light to tell the story of that defining moment and our choice of dynamic range is what allows us to tell our story. The choice of dark and light, where light falls and where it doesn’t is what photography is about. How we choose to interpret that light is the creativity we bring to the photo.

An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768, Joseph Wright 'of Derby'
An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump 1768, Joseph Wright ‘of Derby’ — The National Gallery, London

Above is a Joseph Wright’s masterpiece An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump. The evocative scene is captured beautifully lit as if by candle light. I use this picture to illustrate that when painting with light, in many cases less is more.

So to HDR, High Dynamic Range, here is a picture from a trip to Cambodia last year:

From left to right: Badly exposed; HDR; Some lightroom edits; After a bit of effort the picture I feel should come out of this.

What HDR does is allow the photographer a latitude of exposure, through compositing several images all taken at different exposures. With HDR you can get away with problem skies, and lost shadows. But is that what we should strive to do?

HDR is often described as adding a ‘painterly quality’, but most paintings play with light in pursuit of the story. I feel, more and more, that a photograph should tell a story, and like any story teller we shouldn’t give every detail away. If we want to captivate our audience then we need to make them do the work, and leave some interpretation open to them.


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