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:

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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