Since I have been shooting HDR (High Dynamic Range) images, I constantly hear and read some rather nasty comments against this technique. Trey Ratcliff told me he takes the attitude just to ignore them, but I wonder just what it is that these individuals find so distasteful? Yes, I have seen some really over-the-top HDR images, but I have also seen a lot of over-the-top non-HDR images. It would be a very big stretch to conclude that all photography is bad just because one particular image isn’t the best. However, there are those who apply that logic to HDR!
The image at the top of this article is the famous painting “The Music Lesson” by the Dutch master, Johannes Vermeer, painted around 1662. I recommend trying to find a larger version of the image and study it carefully. Please note, that this image was produced long before photography. Do you note that it is an HDR image! Note the detail that is contained in the shadows as well as the highlights. Had Vermeer been a 17th century digital photographer, this image would have darker shadows with little detail and those windows would be white blobs (unless he was using a number of strobes to match these values – just another way to deal with dynamic range!).
Yet, the canvas was just as incapable of containing this full range of values as modern photo paper. The tone of the raw canvas is the brightest value that can be represented and the choice of inks limit the darkest values. So, the genius of Vermeer was being able to “tone map” the room into the dynamic limits of the canvas he painted on. Just like photographers have to tone map the series of images for final presentation.
Since Vermeer didn’t have a Nikon DIV or Canon VIID, nor could he even imagine the dynamic limits of film or digital sensors. He painted what he saw. Like it or not, we see in HDR. Our eyes are amazing and can constantly adjust for changes in light levels as we scan a room or landscape. Check other paintings – particularly those before the invention of photography and notice that paintings capture an apparent range of light values, because that is the way our eyes see the world.
Perhaps that is why people often exclaim when they look at an HDR image – “why, that looks like a painting”!