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Some Thoughts On Photorealism and HDR — Interview at Photography.ca

June 19, 2012
Old Prairie Church & Storm Front, Mundare

Old Prairie Church & Storm Front, Mundare. Is it a painting? Is it a photograph? It’s a photorealistic HDR B&W photograph. Ugh, what a mouthful. But what I mean is, it’s got the faithfulness of a photograph to the real detail of an actual scene, but with a somewhat painterly treatment of tone & color.

Those who know something about me and digital photography, know that I’m not an adherent of the “get it right in the camera” school of photography. I view the camera just as one tool among several I have access to within my creative process. None of the tools are anointed by a supreme deity. None are superior to the others, except insofar as their strengths & weaknesses can help me make the final image I want to make. But that’s a functional concern for me, not a religious-like conviction or primary lifestyle choice. (Or so I tell myself, anyway.)

With the advent of digital photography, many of the other tools besides the camera are based on computer software. (And, after all, a digital camera is just a special kind of computer running a camera software app, with a lens strapped onto the front of it.) For me, the main point in my work is “getting it right — however I can”. Where “right” is not something absolute, but just a code word for “the way I envision it should be” — my creative interpretation of the scene, through use of subject, composition and light.

To support my creative goals in the arena of interpreting light, among other things I use computer software for a digital technique called HDR — High Dynamic Range.

I use HDR a lot. I use it for most of my landscape work and a lot of other types of work I’m doing more these days, such as architecture. But a key for me, and one of the constraints that I do willingly adopt, is to maintain a fairly photorealistic visual style. While I’m using HDR technique to treat light in some ways like a painter would, I still want the end result to look like a photograph… or rather, what people have come to expect a photograph to look like.

Think about it too much, and it can get tricky. Someone once suggested that perhaps I’m creating photographs that look like paintings that look like photographs. Hmm… tricky. 🙂 But yeah, that description kind of works for me. There are painting styles called photorealism and hyperrealism, and so when I talk about “photorealistic HDR” I’m in part intentionally tipping my cap to this mix of visual art metaphors.

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir

That Halloween Mood, Glenmore Reservoir. This one is in color. It looks in most ways like a photograph, but in some ways perhaps not. But there are many types of photographs — extremely fast shutter speeds that show a bullet shattering a glowing light bulb. Extremely long shutter speeds that show whirling arcs of stars in concentric rings around Polaris. What does a photograph look like? What should it look like? Whatever the answer is, that’s photorealism.

There is a lot of HDR or pseudo-HDR work out there that is clearly not photorealistic, i.e. not like what people have come to expect photographs to look like. Instead, this type of HDR work is surrealistic. Many people like this type of work, many others don’t. Like or dislike, it’s simply not my style. Instead, I use HDR to provide other benefits to my creative process — helping me counteract some downsides of digital photography such as noise or limited ability to handle high contrast lighting conditions.

For me, HDR is really about getting a high fidelity master image that represents the original light on the scene as closely as can be reasonably achieved right now. I’m kind of greedy; I want to work with as much light as I can get my grubby hands on, and do so in a work space that has the fidelity to let me push and pull that light around and get it to go where I want it to. I want tools that give me more flexibility to creatively develop the light into an image I can show on a screen or in print. At the end of the day, that’s what all photography is about — creatively interpreting light, and reproducing it in a more limited medium of some kind while still being compelling. If I do the job right, viewers will not notice or care about all the techniques I used. They’ll simply respond to what is hopefully a great photograph.

Bear with me, I do have a point to this long-ish bit of setup. 🙂 And here it is:

Montreal-based Marko Kulik is a fine art photographer, instructor and operator of the website Photography.ca. He recently interviewed me on the topic of photorealistic HDR for his solid podcast series. Marko is a great interviewer, and helped steer through what’s a fairly technical topic in a way that seems clear to follow (at least to me!), even in purely audio-only format. If you’re interested in digital photography technique, by all means stop by Photography.ca and check out the podcast archive and community forums. There are a lot of previous podcasts I’m going to work my way through as well. 🙂 Thanks for the interview opportunity, Marko!

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