HDR - The Autotune of the Photography World May 06, 2011 | Verrazzano, Italy

Yesterday, while browsing one of my favorite non-photography websites, the topic of HDR came up in a comments discussion and one of the comments contained the following quote:

"HDR=The autotune of the photography world"

This ignorant commenter is relating the use of autotuning in the music industry - the process of digitally modifying a vocal track by making pitch corrections - to the creation of high dynamic range images. This implies two misconceptions about HDR that need to be cleared right now.

1. The HDR image creation process (also called tonemapping) is easy.

False. For proof, check out my HDR Tutorial. I think there are a lot of people out there that think HDR is simply a button on the camera or a program that easily turns a standard image into a tonemapped one. This is not true, it has taken me almost 2 years worth of trial and error with all the different sliders and settings possible, to get the production of my photography to where it is now, and I am still learning new things every day. No two images are ever the same, and each image that I produce requires a different balance of settings to achieve the right balance of light.

Ok, so maybe it is not easy to create a tonemapped image from brackets, but any amateur can create a compelling HDR once they learn tonemapping, right? This brings me to misconception #2.

2. The HDR process can turn any photo taken by an amateur photographer into something appealing.

This couldn't be further from the truth. When producing an HDR image, all the rules of good composition, lighting, and time of day still exist. If you don't believe me, take a look at some of my early work and you will notice a complete disregard for many of the core principles of composition. I will admit that a byproduct of the HDR process is the creation of excellent looking texture and this leads certain subjects to be more suited towards HDR than others. The below image of a wine cellar at Castello di Verrazzano is a perfect example of that. That does not, however, mean that any composition, with any set of f-stop, white balance, ISO, and expsoure settings would come out looking like the image you see below.

I give my readers the benefit of the doubt, and I believe that it is only a small percentage of people that still have these misconceptions about HDR photography. For the critics that are still out there though, I ask you to stop looking at HDR as some sort of cheap equivalent of autotuning in the music industry and start seeing HDR as what it really is. HDR is simply a breakthrough technology in the photography industry. Photographers can embrace this technology, or they can ignore it.

The Cellars of Verrazzano.

The Cellars of Verrazzano.

View Exif Information View on Map
Posted by Dave DiCello on May 06, 2011 7:20am

Love this shot man, awesome details, great symmetry, and well processed

Posted by Scott Wyden Kivowitz on May 06, 2011 8:46am

well said and nice shot

Posted by Chris Nitz on May 06, 2011 8:48am

Love this shot, but the content in the post is so spot on. Well said man!

Posted by Dave Wilson on May 06, 2011 8:48am

Well said! HDR is no more "the auto-tune of photography" than Photoshop is. As in computing, garbage in, garbage out.

Posted by Jim Nix on May 06, 2011 8:49am

yep, agree with the above on all counts! Jim

Posted by ShutterRunner on May 06, 2011 8:54am

Thanks for reading my rant guys! Glad we all agree.

Posted by murphyz on May 06, 2011 8:56am

Love this! Those green um...things...on top look great and add a nice touch of colour. Great post also.

Posted by Bob Lussier on May 06, 2011 8:57am

Great points .. I completely agree! Great image too!

Posted by Sean Galbraith on May 06, 2011 9:01am

While I have my opinions about the look of tone mapped images, I think "autotune of photography" refers to it being a trend or a gimmick rather than what you posted above. Autotune has been in the music industry for a long time, and using it correctly (i.e. so that you don't notice it) is difficult and takes a skilled artist to achieve. However, in the last few years, there has been a trend to make the technique obvious so that a song screams autotune (T-Pain, etc). I think it is to this which the comment refers. Exposure blending, zone system and bracketing has been around as long almost as long as there has been photography (give or take a few years), but the goal was almost always to make it not seem obvious to the viewer that it was anything but natural. With few exceptions (Rustyjaw on Flickr being one, the photo above not being one), the invention of tone mapping has brought the technique to the forefront and makes it obvious. In music, T-Pain's music screams "autotune", and similarly, many photographs scream "HDR" (being a catchall phrase for overcooked/hyper real tone mapping).

Posted by Heath O'Fee on May 06, 2011 9:01am

Very well said, Matty. Sad that there are people who still have this view.

Posted by Jesse Pafundi on May 06, 2011 9:20am

Great post Matty. Love the shot as well.

Posted by Evan Gearing on May 06, 2011 9:41am

Well said. I agree! You can still have crappy HDR pictures just like you can have crappy traditional ones. HDR just is a new form that allows you to express photography in another way and I think it's great!

Posted by Dave on May 06, 2011 10:01am

HDR is nice, but the end results are in no way representative of how the actual subject looks to people. It can be used stunningly, but most people simply fuck it up. I'm not a great fan of that cellar photo, as the normal processes by which people understand 3D space represented in 2D is screwed with by the high dynamic range. It looks more like Unreal Tournament than something actually real.

Posted by Chris on May 06, 2011 11:35am

Awesome image Matty. I totally agree with your points here.

Posted by Harmenszoon van Rijn on May 06, 2011 12:08pm

Clap, clap, clap... for Sean Galbraith. The worst thing about these tone-mapped pictures is that, five years from now, they will be completely dated. No one will see them as a work of art, but as a passing fad. So many photographers these days confuse technique with art. It's in fact one of your points, Matty: just because it is hard to learn it doesn't mean it is admirable. Nobody would say that an acrobat is an artist: he's just an accomplished technician. People complain against HDR because they mainly see a work of technique: even if the underlying picture is a good picture (well exposed, well composed, etc.) they see that the goal of it was the HDR, not the subject itself. The cellar is the excuse, and it might as well be a completely different thing, as long as you could apply tone-mapping over it. The cellar for that kind of photographer is the club of the juggler: an object to play with, to show its technique, and any juggler would say to you that the club must be a well-balanced club, but it's just an object, not a work of art, just as the juggling is an ability game, not a fine art.

Posted by ShutterRunner on May 06, 2011 12:45pm

Thanks to both the crowd that likes HDR and the one that does not for the comments and for taking the time to read this. @Harmenszoon van Rijn - I'm not comparing myself to one of the greatest artists ever, but based on your logic, couldn't you argue that Michelangelo was not an artist, but rather an accomplished technician in the skill of carving rock. The rock, of course, being his "club" and his statue of David is merely an object showing off his technique.

Posted by Dave DiCello on May 06, 2011 1:12pm

We've all come across this point in our HDR work at some point. To me, it comes down to this: HDR is a style of photography, and if you don't like it close the page. Matty, I think your style is fantastic, and no one out there says that HDR in general has to be realistic. We all have our own ways of processing images. A lot of people forget that that is one of the great things about HDR, is that it has the ability to take a normal scene, like this one, and turn it into something really cool. Very few people would take this shot if it weren't for HDR; HDR brings it to life. HDR can also take an already incredible skyline, or sunset or whatever and make it that much better. Do you NEED HDR? Nope, not always. But it makes for a helluva great picture. Nice point on Michelangelo too Matty.

Posted by Toad Hollow Photography on May 06, 2011 1:12pm

What an awesome blog post today, well said my friend! That image you posted is just so fabulous, too, I love all the textures and crisp details you brought out with you, *ahem*, HDR processing! GREAT post today, I truly enjoyed it.

Posted by Harmenszoon van Rijn on May 06, 2011 1:54pm

The difference is quite simple: you see Michelangelo's David, you see a man standing right before you, and you immediately begin to ask questions about human beauty, about human proportions. If Michelangelo did it right, (unless you are a sculptor yourself) you won't see at first a specific technique but the appealing subject. That's why Michelangelo could say "beauty is the purgation of superfluities". You see a picture like the one in this page, you see technique: you see the guy painfully touching and retouching the picture in his computer to get as many fancy colours as he can from an opaque original. You don't see first a small room where the wine is being slowly made, you don't think about the wine sleeping in those barrels, you don't feel the darkness of the place, the damp in the wall, the quietness of the cellar, that is to say, you don't see anything related to the original picture because it was all removed and altered, the original picture is not important. Any content is just shapes: the first guy who commented said "great symmetry", and then added "well processed", and that's the spirit of HDR. What you have to admire is not what the subject says to you, but what the photographer did with the image, how good is he with the technique, how "well processed" is. See the difference? Michelangelo wants you to think about David as a man, to think about his body, to think about his posture, his eyes: is he about to fight with Goliath? The expression of his face, what is he thinking right now? Is he sure he will defeat Goliath, or is he afraid? You wouldn't even dare to think you're just looking at a piece of technique, the result of a sweating man over a rock over four years: you see David, the subject. You show that picture here, and nobody thinks about the subject, the wine cellar, the idea of a town making wine since already a thousand years, you don't think about Chianti, you think that "those green um...things...on top look great", because they "add a nice touch of colour". Symmetrical shapes, rare colours, not emotions: it is the careful construction of an intellectual object and if you're lucky, an excessively toned-mapped picture like this one will trigger an equally intellectual admiration, but it will never make the spectator really feel the subject and forget the medium, as Michelangelo did with his David. That's the simple difference.

Posted by ShutterRunner on May 06, 2011 2:28pm

@Harmenszoon van Rijn Thanks for taking the time to respond! What you've just explained is simply a dislike for the artisitic style of photography known as HDR. HDR is not for everyone. Neither is Impression, Surrealism or any other artistic movement. It is unfortunate that HDR photography doesn't have the same emotional connection for you as it does for me and most people, but that's the way that art works. As far as the "well processed" comment goes, you are naive to think that the post processing of photos is something unique to HDR. In fact, post processing, such as dodging and burning has existed for just about as long as photography itself has. HDR is really just a technologically advanced post processing technique.

Posted by Harmenszoon van Rijn on May 06, 2011 3:21pm

It's silly to be against artistic movements, as you imply: you are for or against particular works, not against techniques, even HDR. I'm sure Michelangelo knew his tools and what to do with them very well. But back to the example of the juggler, when you see juggling, you don't see anything else but juggling: the end and the means are the same. When you see a good painting, the canvas, the painting, the painter and his style vanish, I'm overwhelmed by what the subject conveys. You show me a cellar this way, I don't have the slightest idea of what you wanted me to feel about it. Perhaps someone among the admirers here can tell me what they *feel*, not what they think about the picture, but how the picture is compelling to them, how they were moved by the cellar after seeing it this way. I think technique and processing are just means, they're necessary and the artists must avoid them being all that you see. From the rock to the David there's a lot of processing, but Michelangelo made it invisible, unimportant. I saw lots of good HDR pictures that I wasn't aware they were made through HDR, or at least that was not the first (and last) thing I noticed about them. It is what the other guy said: this picture "screams HDR" instead of letting me in silence with the intimacy that gives the aesthetic fact, that particular moment when you know that something other than what you know touched you inside.

Posted by Rasputine on May 06, 2011 3:41pm

Well said, Harmenszoon van Rijn. I agree 100% with you. It seems the goal of HDR is HDR, nothing more. There are times when HDR is warranted. Those times are when you don't notice HDR, but the image. The colour jump at you and paint a subject more vividly. The image above shows a subject well, but that subject is the color you've created. The photograph is hardly needed, it's merely a frame for you to hang your technique on. I'm really just paraphrasing Harmenszoon, and i haven't got anything real to say that he hasn't already said.

Posted by Dan on May 06, 2011 3:52pm

This photo is nice but way overdone...it looks like a painting instead of a photo. People need to tone it down a bit to make photos that can still deliver the dynamic range without looking like it was heavily manipulated. Its when you spend 10x more effort on post processing than taking the photo that people start thinking poorly of HDR techniques.

Posted by dustoff on May 06, 2011 5:36pm

"HDR is not for everyone." This seems to be the only argument that HDR lovers can ever offer. Either this or "if you don't like it then go look at something else." In your post, you do a decent job of explaining why creating this stuff isn't as easy as you might think, but I see nothing that convinces me why I should take this style seriously as a "movement." While I can appreciate the energy that you might put into creating these visual abominations, the process behind it doesn't change the fact that it's still just a picture of some casks in a cellar. It's like putting whipped cream on cardboard. If this style has its share of critics, it's because the people who use it the most don't seem to have much to say about the world other than "hey, look at this!" It's boring with HDR and it's boring without it. Show me a series that makes me feel something other than "trippy!" and maybe you'll convince me, but in the meantime your crummy art is on par with howling wolf t-shirts and black velvet paintings of clowns. While auto-tune is a slightly hamfisted comparison, it's not too far off the mark either. All glaze, no substance.

Posted by Le Andros on May 06, 2011 7:40pm

I think the last posts are spot-on. Visual imagery with no meaning behind: a sign of our times. I guess modern photographers are desperate: they know, as photographers, that the only thing that they can ever do is press a button. I mean, a painter starts with an empty canvas, a sculptor starts with a rock, a musician with an empty music sheet. Everything from there is creation. A photographer can only point the camera with some decency, but the image is already there. That's it, there's not creation whatsoever for him than look and press his button. After that, the desperation: let's convert something that is already visible in the real world into something that means it had my work on it, my mark on it. In a sense, the photographer is no different than the man that sees shapes in the rocks carved by the wind. He sees something, captures it with a device, shows it to other people, "look what I saw". But then, what he saw is what everyone else can see as well. The desperation is still there, enter Photoshop. Something has to prove the photographer's hands on it, right? There's no art in intervention: Duchamp ironically showed it with the urinal. An object is no art because a self-proclaimed artist touched it. Contemporary art shows it: an object is no art because a self-proclaimed artist worked hard on it. Hideous images, as Dan and dustoff put it, are still hideous no matter how much work it took. HDR haters can elaborate about what such pictures lack and what such pictures have in excess. HDR lovers can't go beyond "it's a matter of taste". Taste is not what moves the heart of art lovers.

Posted by Levi on May 07, 2011 1:15am

There are some images in which I think a heavy post-processing hand, including this kind of HDR processing, can be used to great artistic effect. Techno-fantasy sorts of images, or mechanistic stuff, can be made more vivid and "hyper-real" through this kind of processing. But a wine cellar? No, the technical execution here is good, as far as these things go, but the artistic merit just isn't there. You've taken a very dark, earthy, vintage setting and completely removed all traces of gravitas from it. The grain detail on the casks is beautiful, but it looks like they're coated in epoxy or polyurethane. You've brought out the small details in EVERYTHING, and completely removed the effects of shadows. Shadows and varying levels of detail are some of the most powerful visual effects available to crafters of images, as they help draw the eye to the subject and set a mood for the image. Given the processing you've done so far, however, I have an idea for a next step for you. You've got few shadows, uniform detail, and sharp, high-contrast lines. This image is begging to be transformed into an old-style woodcut or copper plate illustration! Something like this, except less half-assed: http://www.dropbox.com/gallery/24259220/1/Sample?h=13de31 Le Andros apparently has never actually tried photography beyond point-and-shoot. If all it took was pressing a button, I would have some of my own photos hanging on my wall. There is, in fact, quite a bit of composition and a lot of variables to be tweaked in the setting up and taking of a good, artistic photograph. A photographer starts with an empty frame, too.

Posted by Levi on May 07, 2011 1:24am

By the way, I just looked through your list of "favorites", and I really like a lot of them. HDR adds a lot of drama to sunsets, cloudy skies, etc. One of my favorites was the shot of the sky framed with mirrored skyscrapers, which I think was an excellent application of HDR. There were still a few in which I found the HDR overdone and which I thought diminished the artistic potential of some well-framed shots. Anyway, thanks for showing off your work and giving the opportunity to leave comments, and I hope you take my comments and criticism in the constructive spirit in which they were intended.

Posted by Le Andros on May 07, 2011 6:56am

Levi, I never said photography has no variables and no work. Photographers die to have variables to tweak, something "real" to do, that's why gear and software is so important to them. What I am saying is that the creation they can achieve is limited. If I painter sees this cellar, with an empty canvas he can do whatever he wants with it: put people in there, paint it as there was only one cask, force a geometry that wasn't really there, show us the wine, I don't know. Everything is up to the painter. He is no tied whatsoever by reality, by what he sees, but what can be real, by the existing light of the hour, he has no "variables to tweak". The painter can perfectly see all that, be back to his studio and paint something vaguely inspired in the cellar. He may even paint a vineyard, thinking on the cellar. It's all creation. Photographers can only say "this thing I'm seeing now is worth a picture", tweak settings, move levers, press a button. Digital technology allows him to press it thousands of times and keep those pictures in a huge memory card, for a later work at the studio: choose the best among them, do a heavy post-processing that hides any mistakes and make it alluring to the eye. In the case of pictures like this one of the cellar, it seems that the second part of the job is the most important.

Posted by Avena on May 07, 2011 1:32pm

Wow, you've got some live ones here! Being an HDR girl myself, I appreciate all this feedback. I have yet to figure out why an image taken in the most perfect situation processed with a bit of HDR technique can cause such negative reactions. I have definitely had my share of verbal attacks from other photographer's stating that my images are not "real." My father (a hardcore photo-purist in my opinion) recently said it perfectly. He said that when a photographer takes a shot of a scene and barely alters it (though we all know our camera's are incapable of capturing that perfect moment without a little help (i.e. filters, dodging, burning, etc), s/he is documenting a scene. When a photographer processes the same image using HDR, it is not only documenting the scene but creating a piece of art. No one said HDR was supposed to be anything more than it is. If you don't like it, then don't look at it for goodness sake.

Posted by Le Andros on May 07, 2011 2:08pm

Again the same argument: "don't like it? Don't look at it". Better figure out why any other post-processing procedure is not criticised as much. Hint: they're not against HDR because it does not look "real". That was never an argument against any piece of art. I would go as far as to say "art never looks real", because for real we have reality, thank you very much. Bad HDR pictures (yes, there are good ones) get negative reactions because they're hideous for most people. People who are not against them see them as Harmenszoon said: in terms of a succesful procedure, not in terms of art, i.e., people are amazed by how it looks, while not being emotionally moved in the very least by what is being showed that way.

Posted by dustoff on May 07, 2011 4:41pm

"When a photographer processes the same image using HDR, it is not only documenting the scene but creating a piece of art." -- -- -- this is quite possibly the funniest/dumbest thing I've read all week.

Posted by Levi on May 07, 2011 11:22pm

Some art looks very real. How real something looks is irrelevant to its artistic merit, though. What separates art from other visual phenomena is the intentional composition of elements according to artistic principles. Composing the elements of a work is essentially the same whether you work in paint, sculpture, or photography. This is what separates mere image from art, not the media in which the work is done. HDR nether transforms an image into art nor does it disqualify an image from being art. It's just a technique that can be applied towards artistic ends or otherwise. And Le Andros still displays a remarkable ignorance of the art of photography. A master photographer can create better art with a cheap disposable camera than an average art school student can with the best canvas, paint, and brushes. Art is in the composition, not the techniques or tools.

Posted by Le Andros on May 08, 2011 9:04am

Levi, many photographers (like you, I presume) show a remarkable ignorance of art. Period. Take your idea about "composition". Real composition is something a painter or a sculptor can achieve, since they can decide which objects, with which colors and which shapes, are positioned exactly where. Photographers, as I said before, they can't really decide much about where objects are, what are their relative sizes, shapes, colors, can they? They can only look for pleasant images that already exist. Their tools are perspective, framing, optical laws, Photoshop over what they found. Photographers name the rule of thirds as a power word, that's the extent of their knowledge about composition. Most of them would never study the history of art, the artists and the works that formed that visual canon they seem to strive to obey. If they did so, they would find out that what makes a work of art is not in the composition, not in "the intentional composition of elements according to artistic principles". That's dictionary. Art, would say Whistler, just happens. Art is not something you achieve by will. Art can't be found in procedures, in rules, in gear, in aesthetic canons, those are only means. Art, for the artist, is to have a message that can't be communicated just by plain words, art is the need to put that message in a bottle and the expectation for someone to find it. Art, for the one that finds bottles, is to read the message and receive something that somehow has to do with him, but that can't be expressed just by plain words. Most of the times, the message written and the message read are not the same. How far from that is to use a wide lens to take a picture of a cellar in a way that the casks are arranged symmetrically and by means of a software devoid it of any meaning to get it to show the most colors? Of course there are good photographers, capable of moving you by showing you a scene that somehow touches you, something that you can relate to, and I would be ready to call that "art". None of those, though, would do hideous images with HDR, leave alone the chance of considering any procedure as a kind of magic wand that turns "a document into a piece of art". That's what the average photographer seems to think: technology tools as magic wands, rules as magic wands. They love to show a "before-after": look how my magic procedure turned a dull photograph into something incredible. You won't find any of this in any other real art: good musicians who think any standard of composition as the very end of their music, good sculptors who think their last statues are just an exceptional example of how good is the new marble they found, good painters who are all about fads in color trends and will show you the sketch and then the finished painting just for you to see how it all changed for good. That's the cancer of photography. These days, with the explosion of DSLRs, you find photographers everywhere. Take a look at Flickr, they're millions. They don't have a clue about art, they are desperate because there are so many other photographers out there. Take a look at the Digital Photography School site, at what they try to teach each other. They need rules, they need new gear, new trends, new software. Do you see them studying what makes a painting great? Never. They are not interested on how the rule of thirds was developed in the first time. They are not interested on why the rembrandt light is called like that. Just give me the rule. Do you see them studying the work of renowned photographers like Man Ray (who considered himself mainly a painter), Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Alfred Stieglitz? No, because they don't seem to be examples of novel tech-buzz, they just focus on emotions. I'm not saying they didn't know jack shit about whatever technology they needed, I'm saying that, in their best works, that does not explain anything about why their messages are so compelling. So please, don't compare an average art student with a master photographer just to "prove" your point, that's silly. Think about art, don't let technology drive you, open up to emotions.

Posted by Levi on May 08, 2011 8:58pm

Le Andros, I am not much of a photographer, though I do like to take pictures. I am certainly not an artistic photographer. Perhaps I am not as well-versed in the history of painting as you are, but I like to visit art museums when I am travelling and I have some level of appreciation for what art is. But you seem to contradict yourself in this latest post. You deny that photographers can "compose" in any real sense and claim they can only hope to capture a pleasant image at the beginning, but at the end you claim that there are photographers deserving of some praise and study who are somehow able to "focus on emotions" and convey compelling messages with their work. I agree with the latter, and that's been my point all along. There are masses of people who create images by painting or by taking photographs, but few in either media really rise to the top in production of works of high artistic value. In painting, as in photography, there are hoards of people who copy the style of an artful piece without being able to capture the emotion or essence of the art. Yet, technical skill is highly important to both fields. The great artists had to hone their skills doing exercises or less interesting works, painting everyday scenes, making all sorts of images of varying quality. Whining about photographers developing their technical skills is hardly fair, especially since many of them don't aspire to create fine art. But there are some photographers who do, and there are a few of those with the talent and ability to do it, and trying to claim that they can't because photographs can't be art is plainly wrong. And if photographs can be art, then HDR can be used as a technique in the creation of art. Or it can be used to show off tastelessly-manipulated images to HDR fans. But don't denigrate a technique just because a fad forms around it and hordes of people apply it tastelessly. Hopefully as the fad dies down, many will learn more skill in applying it artfully.

Posted by Harmenszoon van Rijn on May 09, 2011 6:43am

Wise words you spoke, Levi. I think your last discourse was the most balanced here, between the people who don't understand the difference between technique and art and the people who are plainly horror-stricken by pictures like this one here of the wine barrels. Probably Matty didn't expect this level of analysis, he just wanted agreement, he wanted his regular people to applaud him, as they always do. He has a blog of tone-mapped photographs, and he's used to deal with people who like them. He made the mistake of provoking the herds of Reddit, I suppose, and now he knows critics are not that few and uninformed. I'm glad we all not agree.

Follow Me On TwitterAdd To Facebook500pxSmugMugFlickr