Your take on dynamic range and HDR?

Started 2 months ago | Questions thread
Siobhan_K Regular Member • Posts: 232
It Gets Philosophical, Quickly.

Bender79ita wrote:

What the other photographers claim is that the image should look like SOOC, because "HDR is phony and unnatural".

I think a picture of a window where I can't see the interiors of the house I'm in looks unnatural (I could see the interiors of the house if I was there).

What is your opinion on the matter? Try to reproduce as close as possible to the human vision, or accept the limits of normal exposures even if that means the final image won't be close to the scene that was presented to you?

Personally, I try to avoid thinking about what's "natural" in photography. Because nothing is. And I try to avoid thinking about the photographic act as one of "reproduction" rather than just imaging. A photograph isn't a reproduction of anything; it's a novel creation.

I also try to avoid imagining that "the human vision" amounts to one, single, universally-standardized and accepted "objective" way of seeing or conceiving anything. Everybody's eyes are different, as are the brains behind those eyes. Profoundly so.

Remember that in shooting a frame you are:

  • freezing a static perspective on a universe of motion (which is unnatural)
  • reducing three dimensional perceptions to two (also unnatural)
  • refracting / focusing light with fields of view and circles of confusion the human eye could never begin to produce (unnatural again)
  • projecting your refracted / focused light onto a sensitive substrate that only kinda-sorta-not-really approximates the energy sensitivities of the average human retina (pretty unnatural)
  • drawing borders / exclusions / frames around perspectives that don't have borders / exclusions / frames without human intervention (also unnatural)

I could go on and on, but you get the point. And we haven't even gotten to considerations around dynamic range.

It boils down to this: the world isn't by you, and it doesn't exist for you. It doesn't "present itself to you" for your photographic endeavors. You show up without asking and do your things to it, which it may or may not be involved in, which it may or may not like. Either way, you aren't asking what it thinks or wants. You don't conceive of it that way; when you try to represent it with a photograph, the photograph is about you, about your perspective on what you're seeing and experiencing, produced and shared for reasons that are yours and yours alone, reasons that the world doesn't participate in formulating.

There's no possibility of a "natural" result in that exercise. There's only the possibility of one person communicating her own personal, particular, peculiar subjective ideas with an image that she created using reflected light channeled onto a reactive substrate of some kind.

So, given how unnatural a photographic representation must always be, I personally lean into that. I think about what my images can say about the thing I'm trying to represent, about me, about the person viewing them, rather than whether they are "natural." Sometimes an individual photographer may find HDR techniques or a highly capable digital sensor useful in that endeavor, and sometimes not. There's no objective rule or truth, here.

Me personally? I like leaning into the photographic aesthetics of deep, dramatic shadows and bright floods of light. I feel they often communicate a more specific, intense, and gripping perspective--a feeling--than do higher-dynamic-range alternatives. Sometimes powerful imaging relies heavily on what you don't show--what gets blocked in shadows or blown-out in light--to throw the most meaning and attention on what you do show. Many of the HDR photographs I see lack a clear subject and compositional focus. They're just aimless scenes rather than images about something--the imaging equivalent of beige.


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