“I don’t use HDR for sunsets. It destroys the mood”
I overheard these words yesterday while I was standing on a viewpoint at Munich’s Olympic area to catch the skyline at sunset. In HDR.
I turned around and saw two elderly gentlemen talking. One had a pretty sophisticated remote-controlled and programmable robotic tripod-system to capture highres panorama shots, with a professional Canon-DSLR and a Canon lens of the L-series attached to it - all in all equipment worth the price of a car. And not a small car. The other gentleman was a Nikon photographer and “only” had his camera and lens, and a tripod with him. It was he, who “admitted” that he was trying to capture the sunset in HDR. Gentleman number one told him that he uses HDR a lot, but never for sunsets. Because … well… the title already gave it away … it destroys the mood.
Which puzzled me a bit. How can a capturing technique which is intended to… well… CAPTURE more brightness information than possible with only one exposure destroy the mood? I fumbled around with the settings of my amateur Canon DSLR, and almost didn’t dare to unpack my 50 Euro amateur tripod (it’s a Manfrotto though), but I eventually did because shooting bracketed exposures handheld would have made me seem even more amateur’ish.
I did some test-shots, and the multiple clicking of my shutter made gentleman one look at me: “Are you taking multiple exposures?” “Yes”, I answered “I thought so. For HDR?” “Yes“ “What is your bracketing?” “One f-stop, because the contrasts are very flat at the moment. I don’t think I need more.” He nodded and turned to his robotic capturing device again. Obviously he approved and I was right in my assumption.
I set up my tripod and snapped my multiple exposures, and while doing so, it kind of struck me what the “problem” was: A simple misunderstanding.
Do a Google image search for “HDR photography”. And you will find a lot of funky psychedelic images. I often heard the term “clown’s vomit” - pretty accurate in my humble opinion. The thing is though: You will not find a single HDR photo. Because they don’t exist. (At least not on the web. Because you cannot display them with common equpiment). What you see are tonemapped photos made out of HDR files. And those HDR files are created through fusion of multiple exposures. So, an HDR file is basically like a RAW file. You have to process it to make the picture itself visible. What you make out of the HDR file is up to you. Which parts of the high dynamic range these files hold you want to show, whether you decide to try to come close to the original mood of the scenery or to create a funky psychedelic hypercompressed surreal image - that all is up to you. If you rely on presets in your HDR software, or on HDR modes in your camera (or phones), on HDR plugins or filters, chances are that you will be creating something like you find on Google.
If you process your shots “by hand”, and balance them the way you want them, you can create anything you like. That is the power you have. And that is the same difference between processing (”editing”) your photos, and just applying one or more filters.
(Two exposures to capture all details in the highlights and shadows, merged to an HDR file and tonemapped in Lightroom 6)
I don’t want to let a machine do my work. I want to have full control beyond choosing which ready-made filter I apply. I want to tweak curves, I want to nudge sliders gently or heavily. I want to create the picture I had in mind before I pressed the shutter. And I want to go beyond the (technical) limitations of my equipment. Because my camera is stupid. It is a machine that records information. Nothing more. Nothing less. And HDR gives me more freedom.
It is me, who makes the picture. Sometimes they are surreal. Sometimes they are close to what was there. But they are always exactly what I wanted to show. And that is a pretty cool thing.