Playing with HDR

They say that change is good. I’ve always wondered who “they” are and how come “they” are so irreproachably smart, but I digress. Recently a wonderfully benevolent and generous soul made me a gift of a full and legal version of Photoshop CS5, the 400 lb gorilla of image processing software. For me, CS5 is a lot of change in a small package.

You see, prior to this recent development I’d been getting by with various permutations of Photoshop’s little brother, Photoshop Elements. While I read magazines and reviews extolling the virtues of masks, content aware fill, magic eraser tools and all the sophisticated tools that one could apply to a proverbial “sows ear” and magically render it genuine a “silk purse”, I quietly massaged my images into what I would certainly cherish as damn good prints starting with Elements version 1 and progressing to version 5 where for some reason I became cryogenically frozen. 

Still there were a few things that nagged me. Foremost, doing any serious work in Elements required you to convert the image mode from 16 bit to 8 bit. I am not the statistics junkie that can quote you the math on this conversion but like everything having to do with computers, all change is hyper exponential! (Look here for details for dummies.) I was throwing away huge amounts of data on every conversion and while I was able to make wonderful 17 x 22 prints and even the  occasional 30 x 40, I was tortured at night by the thought that I could be retaining even more delicious detail if only I didn’t have to leave chunks of image data on the proverbial cutting floor as I cannibalized my original files in the interest of preserving my charge cards remaining balance.

A couple of years ago Lightroom burst onto the scene and instantly became a terrific boon to my imaging workflow. Actually Lightroom was so good that many images wouldn’t have needed the trip to the guillotine except that I wasn’t happy with printing from Lightroom in its initial incarnation so everything that was destined to become a print was eventually circumcised by me wielding the unkindest cut of all with the merciless blade of Elements. (For some reason I still don’t love printing from Lightroom but I realize I may really need to work on some behavior modification here.)

But, until recently, I persevered. After all, I’m a graduate of film. My two lovely Mamiya 645’s are still sitting in my closet. In their heyday, my job was to get it all into the Ektachrome E100 VS transparency. I’d then rush over to Colortek and get my friend and beautiful technician David Zinn to do a fantastic drum scan and massage it until it looked like my transparency. When we agreed that the image had been done true justice, I’d have him send it out for a Fujix or later Lambda laser print. My workflow then could be described as time consuming, complex, expensive and lovely. All said and done, my costs for one of these beautiful prints was $100 plus before frame, glass and matting. On the other hand, I was free to be back out in the field while most of the hullabaloo was going on, meeting with David a couple of times a month on only the most challenging of pieces because he came to know over time exactly what I was looking for in a print.

Eventually though, the wacky world of digital became impossible to ignore when the technology began to hit the magic sweet spot of IQ (image quality). The Canon 20D did it for me. And once acquired, I needed software to at least peek at the images and see what looked like a good candidate to commit to a print. Soon I was viewing and editing my Raw files using Elements but still I would only print an 8.5 x 11 “test” on my little Epson 220 printer to see if I wanted David and the big guys to wave their respective magic wands and make it into something real. And so it went on like this for a while and then “IT” happened. Another angelic benefactor helped me purchase an Epson 3800 printer and I was hooked. Suddenly, good or bad, it was a little old print maker me, right from the comfort of my own studio.

Which brings us back to the present. In the quest for better and better prints with ever more exquisite detail, I decided a week ago to take a stab at processing some images as HDR in CS5 using its HDR Pro tools. To be truthful, most of the HDR I’d seen so far seemed to be somewhere between a little to extremely over the top. Even some images processed by professionals that I’d consider to be at the top of their game seemed to push the envelope. Still there were the somewhat rarer but stunning when done properly images that suggested to me that it could be a beneficial avenue to explore. I was not, however, going to purchase Photomatix Pro as the most serious offenders of the comic book renderings did so with Photomatix Pro as the weapon of choice.

Seizing a couple of Photoshop Guru Scott Kelby’s books, I’ve played around with a few of my own images with the HDR treatment. I’ve gone first for the radical tone mappings to see how they are done and then tried for a few more subtle renderings of some simple landscapes. Frankly, in the process I’ve been learning something else along with the techniques.

Although our eyes are wonderful instruments and can see many more levels of detail and definition than the digital camera’s sensor (or a roll of Ektachrome if you can find it) can embrace, our brain has also done some data conversion for us when it comes to photographs. The subconscious mind has gotten used to the fact that a photograph can’t render it all and so, once it recognizes that it is looking at a photograph, it lowers expectations quite a bit. It looks for photographically acceptable levels of detail and information in the print and is pleased when the photographer has managed to eek out a bit more charm and finesse than the norm. When suddenly faced with a two dimensional image that holds considerably more information than it has downsized its expectations for, the gray matter is alarmed and says “Hey wait! Something is amiss here.”

Which brings us full circle to the debate of the century. Is HDR yet another attempt at fooling the public? Is this more Photoshop Tomfoolery? And the big question is “Should we be labeling HDR images as photo art?” Actually I don’t think so any more than I think a color photo taken with an 81b filter should be condemned as manipulated or Ansel’s red filtered startling black skies in his black and whites should be considered lying to the public. Certainly the photographer should not be criticized for attempting to make an image closer to the scene he or she saw through their own eyes.

It is our minds, as viewers which need to be flexible and open to new levels of experience and growth while still separating the wheat from the chaff. We need to own the fact that we downsized our photographic expectations, just as we now accept as normalcy that our calls to the credit card customer service line will be answered by “Johnny” with a thick foreign accent. We should now grasp that due to new technology our experience potential has changed and improved.

Me? I’m workin on it!


One day after posting this, I was reviewing a potential book purchase and noted that on page 27 of his new book, The HDR Book: Unlocking the Pros’ Hottest Post-Processing Techniques, author Rafael Concepcion expresses a very similar viewpoint here. (This is Amazon.coms review and it didn’t let me link directly to page 27 so keep clicking until you see chapter two and then on to page 27, two more pages over using the right arrows. You’ll see. Read the text.)

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July 2011

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All Photographic Images ©Arni Cheatham, Segami Images and Eyes and Ears, 2009. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of photographs without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.

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