The blessing and curse of HDR

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When exactly does good enough become too good? Most of us have the memory of coming home from a night trick or treating on Halloween and gorging yourself on sugary treasures. At first it's delicious eventually it becomes sickening. Just as hard as it is to stop devouring unlimited chocolate peanut butter cups until it's too late, it’s just as easy to over do our technology usage and consumption. But abundance isn’t the only cause of sinking into a tech whirlpool, there’s also ease of use, and exhibit A of this issue is high dynamic range image capture.

If everyone got exactly what they wanted all the time, we’d all be millionaires and yet no shops would be open. The same is the case with high dynamic range, or HDR, image capture. HDR makes nearly every pixel of an image brilliant with color through close to zero effort. To successfully create an HDR picture a photographer must capture 3 or more of the exact same image in succession made at different exposure settings. Following capture, the images are blended together saving as much luminance as possible.

Don’t let words like exposure, luminance, succession, or the seemingly technical “high dynamic range” trick you into believing this is a hard process, most modern cameras can produce HDR images automatically. Basically handing photographers eye-popping images with no worse. In other words, Millionaires with no shops to spend their wealth in are not rich, they’re middle class shut-ins; Photographers who don’t work to frame, dial in the correct settings, and take the time to color their shots in post are not photographers, they’re lazy shutterbugs.

To be fair, some HDR photographer skip the scenic route and painstakingly process their images in Adobe Photoshop in Lightroom. But for the vast majority HDR is a fun trick that gets overused. Need proof? Look no further than Instagram or any photo-enhancing application. If you upload pictures to Instagram and Google Plus or use insta-edit applications like VSCO cam or Mextures then you’ve probably been faking HDR for years. These photo filtering tools are worse than HDR as they fabricate the effects and distort light and color to produce HDR-like imagery.

But photography doesn’t lay sole claim to HDR, video producers are starting to embrace the concept of HDR pixel pumping. Streaming right now on Amazon Prime you can watch two web series that employ this technique. While not as surreally colorful as most HDR photos, HDR video is generally used to utilize as much light as possible. This allows for filming in darker situations and illuminating more of the depth in an image. Circling back to our candy crushed halloweener who eats every ounce of sugar insight, HDR video can just as easily become a bad idea for the viewer and the videographer.

To video producers HDR video promises more storytelling options, but chances are to audiences it spells an unpleasant viewing experience. Over the last few years filmmakers have employed two tools that have either crashed and burned or slowly slipped into irrelevance in high frame rate image capture (a.k.a. HFR) and 3D respectively. Both meant to engage viewers, but ultimately distracting from what’s meant to brought to theaters in the first place, entertaining stories.

While I tend to agree with photographers who irritated with HDR, in the end what’s the point of getting enraged? In the end whether HDR, 3D, HFR or something else, all of these are simply tools to be creative. Just as nothing else tastes quite like a Snickers, HDR can capture some images like nothing else, and that is cool.

Patrick Boberg is a central Iowa creative media specialist. For more tech insights, follow him on Twitter @PatBoBomb


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