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Natural Dynamic Range ™ — When Only the Best Will Do

May 18, 2010
Village In the Clouds, Argiroupolis

Village In the Clouds, Argiroupolis // tinted B&W HDR

Recently, I was thinking about the evolution (in several cases revolution) of our photographic capabilities. Digital photography has gone mainstream in an incredible way, probably surpassing what any of the film industry giants would have foreseen. As a side effect of this, I was reminded of the occasional challenge in using certain terms of technical origin, once they enter the mainstream and in so doing become partly or completely stripped of “real” meaning.

About two years ago I had posted a semi-rant on a mailing list. The topic was what the term High Dynamic Range (“HDR”) means, and what it seems to mean in popular or marketing use. When I dug back through my email archives and found the thread, it made me chuckle. Now, it’s true that I’m easily amused, but I thought I would post it again here in case anyone else is as easily amused as I am.

Roll the clock back to March, 2008…

(… Previous discussion on whether we should or even could try to enforce some specific meaning on the use of “HDR”…)

There is nothing wrong with educating people, because terminology does actually mean something, especially within a given domain. Helping more people to use key terms clearly makes communication simpler and less error-prone. It also helps a few more light bulbs go “click” in future situations because peoples’ use of the language influences how they understand and think about what is going on. Better understanding can help them get the results they want, especially when an approach is immature enough (as HDR photography is) that you can’t treat it just like a toaster oven.

I can’t count how many times I’ve seen internet forum & blog posters blast away at HDR photography as an approach, because they don’t like some tone-mapped image they saw somewhere, or because “you can’t print an HDR file anyway so why have it”. By conflating HDR, tone-mapping, and good photography into one undifferentiated stew, they draw poor conclusions and then recommend those conclusions to everyone else. So maybe educating people about proper usage is tilting at windmills, but if so you can call me Don. 🙂

// satire alert

This year has seen Pentax come to market with the K20D camera containing a menu setting for in-camera production of “HDR” images. It’s basically a single exposure JPEG run through some kind of local contrast enhancement filter in the camera, to cook the image and make it look like “all those Flickr HDR images”. Nothing to do with High Dynamic Range at all. Yet I have seen discussions (including one presumably serious camera review) where some people are broadcasting the impression that the K20D is doing in-camera multiple exposure blending & processing of some kind, because they understand that is what HDR means. Misleading use of terminology. We can thank Pentax marketing for that one.

Then we have recently announced Epson printers, the 7900 and 9900, with their new UltraChrome HDR inkset. Again, nothing to do with HDR as applied on this list. In fact, given the physical reality of ink on paper reflecting light, I’m not really sure under what useful context one could consider the new inkset as “high dynamic range”, based on any common understanding of what dynamic range means in imaging. But I guess it was easier and cooler to call it “HDR” than to call it “incrementally refined pigment inkset with marginally improved gamut in the reds and slightly greater black density” — IRPIWMIGITRASGBD doesn’t scan. Again, a misleading (or at least meaningless) use of terminology, which most people in this case fortunately will ignore. We can thank Epson marketing for that one.

What’s next, HDR ND filters? HDR flash storage? HDR bulb blowers and lens caps? If we really jump on this, perhaps we can do some effective cross-market campaigns to extend HDR brand awareness into other verticals, capture customer mindshare and add more shareholder value. How about HDR gasoline and motor oil? HDR breakfast cereal, snack bars and power drinks? HDR mixed martial arts competitions? HDR cosmetics could be good, or maybe “HDR” is too “hard” a term for that market. I’m sure we can think of a few others.

Now, none of us have trademarked the term “HDR”, so we don’t get to control how people use it. And yes, HDR could mean many different things in many different contexts; heck, some of those meanings might even be legitimate! But the more the concept becomes perceived as “hot” or “cool” in the broader imaging industry, the more people and the more marketing departments will apply it to anything & everything they want. It may become so devoid of specific meaning as to be useless. How will we talk about HDR then, and market our images, books and workshops? Our differentiator will have become commoditized, and that’s bad news for building shareholder value.

We’ll just have to invent a new term… any nominations? I vote for Natural Dynamic Range — NDR. Partly because we’re trying to capture the range of light naturally present in the scene. And partly because we all know that whatever is natural is good. Whatever term we pick, let’s immediately trademark it and then form an industry consortium to protect and market the brand, as well as properly control media use of the term. We’ll have a certification arm that will provide the seal of approval on branded products & services, so customers can buy them with confidence that they are getting true dynamic range, not something fake.

Any takers? (But remember, I got dibs on “NDR”…)

// end satire alert

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir // HDR

Dial back to May, 2010. It’s useful to note that since I wrote the above diatribe, something has started happening that I predicted years ago. (No, I mean besides the triumph of marketing over engineering.) Namely, we’re starting to see cameras with something more like genuine High Dynamic Range functionality. That is, making multiple exposures to sample a wider dynamic range (from deepest shadows to brightest highlights) than can be captured in a single exposure, and merging them together into a single image file. Yes, all in the camera.

I tweaked Pentax above for releasing the K20D camera with a faked-up “HDR mode” that was really nothing to do with HDR. But they subsequently released the K-7 which does actually combine multiple exposures in-camera. The downside is that the function is not supported with RAW or any 32-bit HDR file format; it only emits a single, tone-mapped JPEG file as the end product. The photographer has pretty minimal control, but it’s a step in the right direction.

If reports are to be believed, Pentax is committed enough to this technical direction that they will support a similar function in their forthcoming 645D medium format digital body due for release in Japan sometime in the next few weeks. Now, I’m quite interested in the 645D, if it ever makes it to North America. It could break new ground in as convincing a manner as Canon did when they introduced the EOS 5D years ago, which went on to become a market-leading, iconic DSLR. But I hasten to say my interest in the 645D is not for reason of its half-baked HDR function. Christian Bloch wrote of the K-7 on his blog that only producing a tone-mapped JPEG both removes the fun and makes the function less professionally useful. I agree completely, and this will be true in spades for many people likely to purchase a 645D. Still, once again it’s an incremental move in the right direction, and it gives me hope of something genuinely better to come.

Natural Dynamic Range — when only the best will do! Coming soon to a camera near you! You will believe that a camera can capture the entire light on a scene. What you do with it after that is up to you. I’ll have more to say on that subject…

One Comment leave one →
  1. May 29, 2010 17:18

    Its a fun and thought provoking read. I am currently writing an article for Amateur Photographer with the working title ‘The War on HDR’… haha. Its not going to be called this of course, I hope it to enliten people that they can actually get NDR from HDR. I would certainly like to talk to you further about this as part of my research.

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