Feature Story

Our brains can't process HDR.

All that's left is a picture and memories

HDR is really cool... but like every other tool it can (not will) lead to... how would I say this, pictures that appear too surreal.

Why is this? Well after too many firings of the synapses in my gray matter I believe I have a somewhat plausible theory. So here goes... by the way the following exemplifies a more extreme case but I believe the resultant procedures can be extrapolated to more effectively render/expose/adjust any scene.

Imagine if you will standing in a large darkened room. At the far end is a window. It's rather small (.3m x .3m or 1' x 1') and looks out over a gorgeous pastoral scene. Bright green grass with a black and white cow and a few puffy clouds. Inside the room on the left hand side wall there is a perfectly exposed and printed photograph of that same exact scene located right outside of the window illuminated with an intimate spotlight. If you scan towards the window you see the beautiful scene and if when you pan back to look at the picture on the wall they appear virtually identical. Well at least that is the image in your mind's eye. We all know that it's our eyes that have adjusted their aperture when viewing the window and the picture. In fact if you select a focus point in between the wall and the window all the while holding the picture and the window in your peripheral vision it's easy to see that they are really different. Think about it and interestingly enough you would expect them to be.

This is were I believe most people fall into the HDR trap. They are trying to replicate the same exact visualization after the eye has accommodated to each of the various elements within the frame without taking into account the changing aperture of the eye along with the desired effect of composition of the scene.

This brings me to propose the following recipe for a more successful and natural looking HDR picture.

Select the main subject matter of the composition and expose it correctly. Then the rest of the image can be brought in with HDR but closer to the expected exposure as you would have experienced it if your focal point was somewhere in between both areas. Adjust accordingly. Another way to look at this would be to bring the secondary areas into the desired exposure range then pull them back by 20-50% for darker areas and push them for lighter areas.

I hope this makes some sense and comments are more than welcome as I fully realize this note can be vastly improved upon.

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3 responses

  • Antonio Chrysostomou

    Antonio Chrysostomou said (13 Jul 2009):

    An interesting idea, Bob. I think there is merit in what you say and the example you describe. You could also do this with the use of a camera. You could take a perfect photo of either the picture on the wall or the scene out of the window but not both at the same time. The contrast range is too great (and I'm assuming that it’s a nice sunny day). The biology & physics of the eye and brain are much more sophisticated than a Canon or Nikon ever could be.

    So have you tried out your technique? You know you have to, right?

    I will say two things. First, I don't think that it’s the pursuit of recreating the scene your eye sees that leads people to the surreal look. By definition of 'surreal', it's anything but a faithful representation of the original scene. I'm tempted to hypothesise that there's something in our genome which predisposes us to over-saturated colours, just like tropical birds performing for the attention of a suitable (or any?!) mate.

    Second, I don't believe that a faithful recreation of the scene the eye sees is what drives a photographer. If so, then we wouldn't muck about with Levels, Curves, Clarity, masks etc. as much as we do. (Was the sky really black when Ansel photographed Half Dome all those years ago?!) If HDR can help you make an interesting/compelling/provocative/etc image, then it is as viable a technique as dodging, burning or an ND filter.

  • Bob Douglas

    Bob Douglas said (14 Jul 2009):


    Thanks for the response. First off I am not anti-HDR IMHO it has it's place in photography. Hence I purposely used the words "too surreal". From Merriam: marked by the intense irrational reality of a dream ; also : unbelievable, fantastic.

    Don't get me wrong I am not arguing that attempting faithful recreations is the only valid photographic process. All methods and results have their place. As you pointed out Ansel pushed dark skies via red filters. Some could argue on a purely technical level that it's surreal but hey it worked. I have never yet encountered anyone who commented that his work appeared surreal.

    The HDR process was originally designed to overcome the lack of coverage of the dynamic range of some images. This was accomplished via PS for many years prior to Photomatix style programs. In fact the original intent was to create more believable images.

    The whole purpose of the article was an attempt to describe a method to rein in those same genes that want us to push out saturation to push out those addictive HDR sliders.

    In the end it's not the technique that matters but rather how it is used within context of the work.

  • Antonio Chrysostomou

    Antonio Chrysostomou gave props (15 Jul 2009):

    hear, hear!

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