When I was hiking last year in northern Laos, I came to a break in the forest near the top of the hill. The view was astonishing. The sky was filled with shadowy clouds and where bright sunlight broke through cloud cover, it settled on karst formations hanging with vivid green foliage. I whipped out my DSLR and snapped some shots so I could relive it later. When I loaded up the photos that night, I was beyond disappointed. The greens were dull and the forests were too dark to make out any detail. In my longer exposures where I could see the forest, the sky was blown out. My eye (or rather my brain compensating for my eye) saw the bright colors and dramatic shadows. My camera didn’t.
The human eye is still miles better at imaging a scene than even the most powerful DSLR. That’s why spectacularly lit scenes will often look terrible on a laptop screen. Enter post-processing. On-board camera programs, be they Instagram or other native digital filters, can do all sorts of things to improve your photos. It used to be that red-eye filters were all the rage. These days, even freely available photo manipulation programs can saturate, contrast, tint, blur, invert, soften and cross process. The more powerful tools, like Lightroom and Photoshop, can do pretty much anything imaginable to a photo.
These tools are a blessing, but unfortunately they’re not inherently good for travel photography. These tools are just as readily used for evil. For every photographer who has fixed a screwy white balance in post-processing, there’s another who has maxed out the saturation bar in Picasa or applied an infrared effect just for the hell of it. I, too, have been guilty of these sins. But if there’s one image-editing gimmick that really brings out the pitchforks, it’s HDR: high-dynamic-range imaging.
You’ve certainly seen HDR images before. They’re often eye-wateringly vivid and look off. High-dynamic-range imaging allows a photographer to take multiple exposures of the same scene, and combine them digitally to achieve a better combination of light and dark in the photo. Say you’re trying to capture a beautiful sunset. The range of light intensity is simply too high for any standard camera to pick up both foreground details and the beauty of the sky. HDR offers a magical digital fix for this problem.
Early HDR techniques were massively involved and complicated. Even when digital photography came around, computers were still too slow to handle the complex algorithms. But now, it’s extremely easy for anyone to apply the effect to any photo. In business terms, the barriers to entry are low and everyone’s doing it. The glut of faux-HDR filters and simple HDR compositors like Photomatix has opened the door to runaway misuse. Few people use HDR correctly. And when done incorrectly, HDR images look terrible.
The point of HDR imaging is to make the image look more natural. The high range of tones that the camera can’t pick up by itself can be manipulated and expressed digitally. More often than not, though, HDR images end up looking fake and weird. Why is that? Simply, it’s because people tend to go overboard with the effect. Since the shadows and highlights are easily manipulated during the process, it’s easy to end up with glowing buildings, apocalyptic clouds and cartoonish people. The key to proper HDR use is restraint. The effect works best if no one can tell you’ve used it. If you apply HDR to a set of exposures or you’ve used an HDR filter, ask yourself: Does this scene look real? If it looks weird, don’t use HDR. If you think it looks cool anyway, it probably doesn’t. It looks weird, and don’t use HDR.
Take a look at these two photos, which don’t glow and hum with cartoon colors, but rather use HDR to highlight shadows and tones that would be impossible to capture in one exposure.
Even the second one gets a little saturation-happy. It just goes to show you that it’s easy to let the reins slip.
The backlash against HDR has been extreme. If you Google “HDR sucks” you get numerous websites decrying the glowy menace. Sample blog titles include: “I Hate Your HDR“; “HDR Is Stupid And It Sucks“; and the somewhat hyperbolic “HDR Is Bad For Amurrica, And Kills Kittens.” There is a subreddit devoted to shaming particularly egregious examples. Even the Washington Post was obliged to explain itself after it used and HDR photo on its front page.
When you’re traveling and you’re desperate to capture an unforgettable scene, oftentimes using HDR is the only way to pick up on the light and tone variation that your eye is loving. But everyone knows that the Hong Kong skyline doesn’t glow white in the day, and that forests aren’t technicolor. If you’re going to use HDR, show some restraint and don’t just slap on filters willy-nilly. As for me, I deleted my crappy photos of the Laos jungle. My memory of the scene is more vividly colored anyway.
Take a gander at these egregious uses of HDR, and think long and hard if you want your travel photos to look like stills from “A Scanner Darkly.”