I object, your honor

Knowing me and my curmudgeonliness when it comes to photography as well as my friend Dirk does, I was not surprised to see his little “shout out” to me in his recent post about HDR (High Dynamic Range) photography:

although my friend Higashimori [my sometime online nickname] is bound to object, with good reason as always

Dirk didn’t specify what exactly I might object to, the example of HDR that he posted, or the idea of HDR photography itself. But with such an invitation to object, who am I to show up to the party and just stand in the corner, so let’s object to both!

The photo itself is okay, just that. The shot is not really that interesting and I fail to see what positive (or negative for that matter) effect the HDR “filter” has had. (There are others in this user’s “photostream” I perhaps would’ve chosen over this one but no matter). It certainly is not as “amped up” as it could be, and I suppose the photographer can be credited with employing a bit of subtlety in a genre usually so sorely lacking of it. But it still announces itself as HDR, and I don’t think it would ever transcend that.

As for the current flavor of the month (or year), HDR, it strikes me as a fad not much different than that “tilt-shift” god-awfulness that was making the rounds of design mags and Lomo/Holga-esque websites a few months back. (Or is that shit still going around, I lose track of these trends). As Dirk noted, when used in moderation the HDR effect can be nice (I can’t go as far as to use his word “remarkable,” however), but that’s just the trouble: with trends like this they most often are not used with restraint. It mostly seems to be about who can pump up the volume and out-HDR the rest. Or who can rack up the most “cool photo” comments on Flickr. The mutual admiration society that is Flickr only serves to attract even more artiste-wannabees for whom “awesome photo” is only a plug-in away. As Dirk writes, “You run the software and you’re there. And so is everyone else.”

Just taking a spin around some of the HDR groups at Flickr (there are tons of them, including a few “no HDR” ones), I can’t help but be underwhelmed by the sheer mediocrity of it all. It’s like a whole bunch of folks just discovered they could buy a “paint-by-numbers” kit at Wal-mart and kid themselves they could paint. For what purpose, other than to prove to themselves they could follow a tutorial and do it? If the vast majority of HDR photos didn’t look like something just this side of black light posters, would the Flickr-ites even be paying much attention? But hey, as long as the “community” thinks it’s a “great use of HDR,” then who gives a shit, right?

As you may have noticed, I’m at the point where Flickr annoys me, and it may well be that my reaction to HDR is being colored by my feelings about the portal. Would I be so bothered if the galleries at photo.net or fredmiranda or luminous-landscape were being inundated with this pastiche of pretentiousness? Well, yes, I would. That said, it does strike me that Flickr and HDR are somehow part and parcel of the same problem. What “photoblogs” were a couple of years ago to Coolpix users posting artful and oozing-with-meaning shots of their back porch dappled in sunlight, Flickr seems, with its “groups” to gather users and their photos together, and its much-ballyhooed “community” aspect providing the seal of approval, the perfect echo chamber in which to incubate banality masquerading as profundity.

I’m sure there will come along something else to tickle the fancy of the Photo 2.0 crowd in no short order, and then it will remain to be seen whether there will be a separating of the wheat from the chaff (or pixels from the halos if you prefer) and we might be able to experience HDR work that engages one on a deeper level than simply “look at me.” But if I were a betting man, I would put my money on it dying under the weight of its own trendiness.

5 Replies to “I object, your honor”

  1. As one of the paint by numbers crowd that sometimes makes HDRs, I’ll throw in two cents on this issue. Of course 95-98% of HDR you see on Flickr is boring, mediocre, mindless (I know mine are!) – But there is the 2% of it, that while the photos might not stand up to the test of time in a decade, help you look at a familiar scene object or composition in a new way.

    Of course if you just click click the default settings of the plug in you get a certain HDR look, but it is possible to use in a subtle fashion to improve exposure in difficult lighting situations, get a little extra depth of color from a point and shoot, etc. In this way it can be like white balance and the exposure settings when you import a raw file. So for the majority it makes garish candy, but it can and will be used tastefully and become another choice.

    With that said, I agree about the tilt shift photos – I haven’t seen examples of that technique used in that subtle fashion (but perhaps it is possible). One expects these techniques will become popular in ads in the next few years, so I was shocked when I saw tilt-shift esque photos used in National Geographic a few months back: http://www7.nationalgeographic.com/ngm/0608/feature1/gallery1.html
    (I know some are just DOF, but the second one in particular)

  2. If it helps you “look at a familiar scene, object or composition in a new way”, it is clear that the intention is to use it as an effect to beef up an image which had little meat on the bone at the first place (sorry for carnivore references, Kurt). Like making a photo more interesting by turning into black and white.

    Anyway, not much more to add to the topic of HDR, we have had all this before. It got my 30 minutes of attention so let’s move on while keeping an eye on the original “what’s new with digital” watching brief. Fake T&S, HDR… perhaps we will see a pattern emerge after all.

  3. The first ’tilt-shift’ was interesting…perhaps they’ll publish a whole book of them? As someone said recently, I’ll stick to B&W film for my HDR fix – plenty of lattitude with that Ilford XP2.

  4. Dirk – I would agree with you to a degree, but the key difference is that unlike intentionally blurring an image or removing the color, HDR is adding more information – your main problem is the processing of that information. I think a better comparison would be the very long exposure night photography (also to be found in several groups on flickr).

    This technique might seem like a gimmick to serious photographers, the same way an actual musician might roll their eyes at pop music that relies on hooks to beef up the lean meat of love songs – but the typical set of eyes viewing photographs responds to photos that help them see things in new ways, regardless of quality.

  5. I completely agree kurt, mainly about flickr in general. It’s a mutual admiration society, and I think you’ve put my vague feelings into more pinpoint focus- there are worthwhile photographers on there, and people that will leave quality comments, but it’s a large community.

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