The Changing Language of Photographs and the Mystery of HDR

In the last few years I’ve noticed photographs changing. They don’t reflect what is. From magazine shoots to real estate ads, there has been a change in how our world is expressed. Things are more luminescent and vibrant. More, evocative. I think what I’m seeing is HDR. That’s taking several exposures and combining them into a single image to get a better or different looking image than with one shot alone. There’s a technical definition.

“High-dynamic-range imaging (HDRI) is a . . . technique used in imaging and photography to reproduce a greater dynamic range of luminosity than is possible with standard digital imaging or photographic techniques. The aim is to present a similar range of luminance to that experienced through the human visual system.”

So says Wikipedia. Am I alone in saying that an HDR photograph doesn’t exhibit a “similar range of luminance” to that experienced through our own eyes? Take the two photographs below. The first is what you might develop after some work on contrast and exposure in Photoshop. The second is just plain crazy. While it looks fantastic, in an over the top sort of way, it certainly doesn’t bear resemblance to what I see.

You may not have sensed this change in photography but I think its because HDR can be dialed in. It can be subtle. A photograph doesn’t have to look like a Thomas Kinkade painting, although many of them do. Check this site for some examples (external link). Although high end fashion photography can be considered a lie, what with all the processing done, as well as every copy of Playboy ever published, it’s a little disconcerting to see our everyday landscape changed.

Not every photograph has HDR, of course, perhaps just a small percentage, but enough photographers are incorporating it that I feel the earth unsteady. What is real? The photographs below are from Wikipedia, the Kinkade could have come from anywhere. At least I knew his landscapes weren’t reality.

Before:

After:

Does this Kinkade look similar?

About thomasfarley01

Freelance writer who specializes in history, technology, and human interest stories.
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