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HDR used properly is appropriate for photojournalism, says Unified Color's Omvik

By dpreview staff on Feb 3, 2012 at 20:26 GMT

Are High Dynamic Range photos appropriate for illustrating news? That's the debate that's been started by the Washington Post's use of an HDR image on its front page in January. Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association came down firmly against it, saying, 'HDR is not appropriate for documentary photojournalism.' John Omvik, Marketing VP with HDR software maker Unified Color understandably disagrees. He's written us a response arguing that what we see is closer to HDR than, say, a mono photo shot with Tri-X film.

John Omvik's statement:

Recently, the Washington Post stirred up a healthy debate among amateur photographers and photojournalists when it published  a  photograph on its front page commemorating the 30th anniversary of the tragic crash of Air Florida Flight 90 (January 13, 2012). The photo in question shows the back-lit 14th St. Bridge shot at sunset with an airplane in the upper left corner of the frame. The controversy stems from the fact that staff photographer Bill O’Leary used High Dynamic Range (HDR) techniques to process this photo, a fact the Post mentioned in the photo’s caption.

'Using HDR software and processing tools is the only method a photographer has to deliver precisely what he or she witnessed at the time of an image capture'

The caption ultimately led to some confusion by readers, many of whom took it to mean the paper was publishing a doctored photo, perhaps in order to achieve the emotional impact appropriate to the accompanying story. In a subsequent Ask the Post article online, Michel du Cille, the Post’s director of photography posted detailed information on the HDR process while making it clear that the publication did not and does not “manipulate” photos.  

The debate spread to the Poynter Institute’s blog, where Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA)  is quoted as saying:

“HDR is not appropriate for documentary photojournalism.” Elliot points out that the NPPA’s code of ethics say photographers should respect the integrity of the digital moment, “and in that light an HDR photo is no different from any other digital manipulation.”

As vice president of Unified Color Technologies, a pioneer in the field of HDR imaging, I strongly disagree with Elliot and the NPPA’s viewpoint. When properly used, HDR does the most accurate job of reconstructing the dynamic range of the original scene at the time the photo was taken. In fact, if one really wants to split hairs about what is “real” and what isn’t, consider this; from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until the moment you close them at night, everything you see in the world around you is in HDR.

There is no camera in existence, digital or film, which can accurately reproduce what the human vision system can capture and process in real time. While today’s digital cameras capture a much larger dynamic range in a single shot than any color transparency film ever could in the past, they still can't match the tonal range humans can see. And so, using HDR software and processing tools is the only method a photographer has to deliver precisely what he or she witnessed at the time of an image capture.  

In the case of Bill O’Leary, his color HDR image is clearly more realistic to the moment then had he used the old gold standard of photojournalism and newsprint: black and white Tri-X film.

Improper use of HDR can clearly create a misrepresentation of the photographic moment, but when HDR techniques are used as they should, they absolutely meet, and might, in fact, go above and beyond the standards of the NPPA’s code of ethics which state, in part:

  • Be accurate and comprehensive in the representation of subjects.
  • Editing should maintain the integrity of the photographic images' content and context. Do not manipulate images or add or alter sound in any way that can mislead viewers or misrepresent subjects. 
  • Respect the integrity of the photographic moment.

Proper use of HDR does not alter, mislead or misrepresent a scene. In fact, true color HDR processing and tone mapping techniques restore the integrity of the photograph, and is the best way to reproduce the original high contrast scene, in low dynamic range media such as newsprint or on our LCD computer or handheld displays.

At the current rate of technology evolution, we’re likely to soon have cameras that can match the dynamic range of human vision in a single shot (though even then software tools will be required to tone map the image for printing.) Until that time, the HDR process is the best option for photographers seeking to convey a sense of realism.  Simply mentioning the process in the caption, as the Post did here, is all the disclosure that ought to be necessary.

-John Omvik

V.P. Marketing, Unified Color Technologies


Total comments: 252
Lee W
By Lee W (Feb 3, 2012)

I fully concur with John Omvik. The 'man on the street' would not even realise he was looking at a properly tonemapped, processed image anyway. He would just think it looked as natural as looking at the original scene with his naked eye.

By _sem_ (Feb 3, 2012)

"And so, using HDR software and processing tools is the only method a photographer has to deliver precisely what he or she witnessed at the time of an image capture."
Well, "to deliver precisely" is an overstatement; to approximate would be better. It should be emphasized that "conventional" shooting in harsh light is a poor approximation of the the perceived image.

Cy Cheze
By Cy Cheze (Feb 3, 2012)

All photography involves selection of topic, composition, and so forth. Zero manipulation is a fiction. Ad space pays the rent. Front page pictures reflect what the editors want to say qualifies as "news." Headline wording and font size do likewise. Wire services circulate a lot from government or corporate PR offices, with no pretense that contrary views will be given equal weight. Objectivity, if there is such a thing, can only be achieved by a reader, on a very modest level, if he is willing to consume all the contradictory noise and somehow distill a "balance" of some sort. To expect that from the editors or publishers is a tad naive.

HDR, by itself, is a very innocuous tool. However, if applied to photos of VIPs in high-contrast settings, the results can be pretty ghoulish. Ditto for flash photos, which have always been an artificial alteration of what the eye would see.

Yanko Kitanov
By Yanko Kitanov (Feb 3, 2012)

So we needed someone to tell us weather something is appropriate, or not - without his opinion we couldn't reach this divine logic....

Amazing BS.

By Ehsom (Feb 3, 2012)

The human eyes see better than the cameras - but the properly used HDR nearing the photos as seen by human eyes.

mike kobal
By mike kobal (Feb 3, 2012)

my vote goes to John Omvik

1 upvote
By TakePictures (Feb 3, 2012)

I understand that current sensor technology can't beat the human eye in terms of DR, but in my view HDR -- at least the samples that I've seen around (including the samples from this article) -- does not approach realism at all.

Comment edited 6 minutes after posting
1 upvote
Bryan Costin
By Bryan Costin (Feb 3, 2012)

Well, an HDR photo clearly is "manipulated" beyond what one would expect from a straight photo. It's become a photo illustration, not a documentary photo.

In this case it doesn't much matter, because it's just an editorial image of some scenery. If it were a photo of a subject or location where the lighting and colors were significant to conveying the purpose of the photo, then that's a real issue.

By iraallen (Feb 3, 2012)

I took several pictures with my Sony NEX 5N of a stream with children playing, and more children playing under an arch in the background. The RAW image captures the children at the stream but underexposes the underside of the arch and the children there. I took two HDR shots. The low-HDR shot captured exactly what my eyes were seeing at the moment: the children on the bank, and the children under the arch, even the patterns of the bricks under the arch. The moderate-HDR was unnatural and showed too much of the underside of the arch, depriving the image of natural contrast. It certainly was not what I was seeing. HDR is just another tool. It can be used to manipulate but it can also be used to capture reality. Of course the original image without HDR failed to capture reality: I could have been accused of manipulation by eliminating the children under the arch!

John De Bord Photography
By John De Bord Photography (Feb 4, 2012)

Can you tell me how this is a photo illustration? I am rather curious to know because that shot I took is indeed HDR. What I think you fail to understand is that there are different styles, some very artistic and some very realistic.

The problem is that you only see what you believe to be HDR, the gaudy over tone mapped stuff. A good HDR is one you would probably never know actually is HDR to begin with.

By cyainparadise (Feb 3, 2012)

In the day of film, photographers would 'dodge and burn' when printing to bring out details that may not be seen if the image was printed normally. The image of the Roosevelt hotel busboy holding the head of a dying Robert Kennedy Jr., who had just been shot by Sirhan Sirhan, captured the nation attention. It would not have been as interesting if the image hadn't been manipulated by the photographer. Nothing had been added to the image, just enhanced, just as a HDR image doesn't add elements that weren't there.

Teila Day
By Teila Day (Feb 3, 2012)

Exactly. I think people are making this an issue that really isn't an issue at all. We all know that HDR to the point of being cartoon-like isn't realistic. We also know that going crazy in the dark room and making a creation that isn't like anything we've seen with the naked eye isn't realistic either.

We all know that if you use Photoshop on a woman face and erase her pores and make her eyes glow a brilliant green that it isn't real either.

Frankly, most of the public doesn't give a flying hoot about all of this as much as it's just fodder for news outlets. When I look at some Real Estate listings and see rooms that have the wood walls practically glowing and the colors so punchy that it makes me dizzy looking at it- I know that I shouldn't expect to see that same kitchen when I actually visit the property.

Only idiots would expect a brilliantly lit interior dripping with rich color detail AND a brilliant blue sky with stars all about at the same showing thru a window.

By ianp5a (Feb 5, 2012)

Realistic processing is completely reasonable, Some people create weird HDR but it doesn't mean "ALL HDR is unethical". That would be nonsense. Some people produce weird photos. Are ALL photos unethical? As already said. If it was in 3D when you saw it, you MUST reproduce it as 3D. If combining images is used to overcome a flaw in photographic technology, then even better than not combining them. Your human brain combines 2 images all the time. Additionally if the photo was not taken at 1 moment in time but 3, then they need to state how long that single moment must be to be ethical. 3 exposures can be taken in 1 sec. But long exposures can be 20 sec. Is a long exposure unethical. Also, HDR can also be made with a single exposure.
As a compromise we could say "Only publish RAW images" And "black and white photos are 'deliberate trickery' to try to make us think pictures are older.
Some people are just playing with the wording and not thinking

Comment edited 2 times, last edit 9 minutes after posting
By CatKetch (Feb 10, 2012)

Clearly the NPPA would prefer to use imaging materials which are more true to nature. Perhaps they will adopt Timothy O'Sullivan's techniques for creating brilliant glass plate negs, used on the 100th Meridian Expedition? Of course, the wet-plate process exposures were 30 seconds, so no motion, and the emulsion was orthographic, so no clouds in the sky ... unless multiple exposures were used to capture the clouds. But wait, that would be unacceptable manipulation, wouldn't it?

Pixel Peter
By Pixel Peter (Feb 3, 2012)

I completely agree with John Omvik.

By Lng0004 (Feb 3, 2012)

Elliot is an idiot obviously. And the public needs to be more informed.

Total comments: 252