Monday, September 23, 2013

How Much Should We Alter Photographs?

As you may have gathered from some of my past Posts, I am very much a Purist when it comes to photography. I maintain that if a photograph does not have classic photographic qualities, then I cannot take it seriously.  But that's just my personal opinion. As a good example of what I mean, High Dynamic Range (HDR) does not have that classic photographic look to it, and therefore, I cannot refer to it as HDR Photography - I might be inclined to call some of it "HDR Art" if it's well executed, but aside from the fact that it's done using a camera doesn't make it photography in my books.

Now consider the two photos above. These were both done by me, using yet another "new to me" camera that was given to me by a good friend, software developer Michael Milne, in exchange for some photo projects he will be working on in the future for which he wishes to call on me. The camera is a Canon EOS Rebel XT (or the EOS 350), with a standard Kit Zoom (EF-s 18-55mm) and the short lived, but excellent EF 55-200 USM Zoom. I wanted to mention this both to thank Mike, and also to say that I did not use a film camera, nor my new to me EOS 5D Classic. But this is a side-note, again to say "thanks Mike!"

These are shots of the recent "Harvest Moon" we enjoyed seeing last week. I'm sure that any trained eye will be able spot what I did, either because I didn't do it so well, or because it is known that just a camera (any camera) by itself is unable to execute this without some help. That's correct - it's the moon itself. To have any kind of exposure in the picture's foreground, or in the beauty of the setting sunlight, the surface detail of the moon would not have been captured, and what I actually ended up with from the camera was this:

Obviously I took the liberty to use another shot of the moon itself, and exposed it only for the moon to capture it's surface detail. Then I used the "Layers" function in GIMP to replace the detailed moon over the actual one in the shot, scaling it to look bigger. What I did was in fact a kind of HDR - one shot was exposed for the scenery, and the other shot was of the moon itself, correctly exposed. If I do not consider HDR as Photography, but something else, am I being true to myself here?

I will say that this is the way I saw it - I could see the foreground detail, as well as the moon's surface with equal clarity, so my "editing" represents, in fact, what I actually saw. But it could be argued, in favour of HDR, that when standing in a dimly lit room and looking out the window, you will see both the room's detail and the outdoor detail with equal clarity, but a camera cannot - to combine them together, one must combine two or more separate exposures of the same scene if both the outdoor and indoor subjects are required to be seen. Personally, in that scenario, I would rather have the indoor subjects exposed correctly, and let the outdoor highlights blow-out, because that would represent the aesthetics of a photograph. But this was different - the drama of actually seeing the moon's surface as it rose low on the horizon simply had to be shown, and so I took a separate shot of the moon, and layered it in, HDR style.

My objection to HDR as most people have seen it is this - to have everything correctly exposed in a photograph makes for an extremely flat photograph. It makes everything in the picture possess an equal exposure value, with all shadows lifted, and all highlights flattened. For me, in most situations, it is best to lose shadow detail, and allow some highlight blow-out, because this is one of the most important ways to keep depth in a picture. With HDR, especially when it's poorly done with no thought put into it, you lose the emphasis of good exposure that is supposed to be on your subject. For my pictures above, the moon is in fact the subject, but the camera didn't see it that way. At the same time, there is enough compositional strength and subtle plays of light to provide beautiful textures that would've been lost if I had exposed only or the moon. This is one of the very few times that I will put an HDR technique to work for me, and I did not HDR the entire picture - only the moon itself, allowing me to maintain a correct exposure for the real subject, while at the same time capturing the beauty of what was surrounding it with proper exposure related depth perception.

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