High dynamic range imaging, or HDR, is a technique through which three or more photographs of different exposures are merged to create a single image that displays a greater dynamic range of luminance, characterized by more shadow and highlight detail.
Attempts to capture a higher dynamic range are not new. They go back as far as the 1850s, with Gustave Le Gray rendering seascapes to capture both sky and sea. In the film era, photographers used ND filters and stacked multiple exposures to create an image showing, for example, a properly exposed sky as well as the landscape.
Reproducing What the Eye Sees
Theoretically, high dynamic range is designed to better reproduce what the human eye actually experiences. If you look outside your window on a moderately sunny day, for example, you can see both shadow detail and highlight detail in a way that your camera cannot. (See some examples of HDR photography at HDR Spotting.)
But HDR is a controversial topic for photojournalists.
The Times’ John Tierney, however, recently asked readers if this was the right decision:
Some [HDR] images seem otherworldly, but others strike me as more natural than the alternative made by conventional means, like the one of the scene at Glacier National Park … Should The New York Times and other publications consider allowing news photographers to use this HDR process for giving readers a clearer view of the world?
Ideally, the media wants to publish images that represent an event as realistically as possible. They want to put the audience at the scene of the story.
HDR imaging has the capacity to do that, by replicating what the eye resolves in a way that a single photograph cannot.
So then, is a single image — dodged, burned, noise reduced and color balanced — more of an unaltered picture than multiple images, merged to show a higher dynamic range?
Which image is a better representation of the story?
The trick is vetting a submitted image composed of three or more photographs for publication. The photo editors of news organizations have enough trouble catching manipulated images as it is. This might only multiply their ethical headaches.
What do you think?