Photography and the (Lost) Art of Seeing

Two online photography fads that are annoying me: HDR and fake tilt and shift.

High dynamic range photography (HDR) is a technique of digitally sandwiching multiple exposures of the same scene in order to increase the dynamic range of the photograph. (The “dynamic range” refers to the number of values in between dark and light). In theory, this it to make the photo appear more like what the scene would look like in person – the human eye has a high dynamic range, which means it can see detail in a wide range of intensity levels, whereas film, and now digital sensors, can only detect detail in a narrow range of intensities. By combining a regular exposure with an underexposure (which captures detail in the light areas) and an overexposure (which captures detail in the dark areas), the resulting photo will have much more dynamic range than a single exposure, which (in theory) makes the photo look more “realistic.” The problem is that most HDR photos end up looking like this:

Or this:

Namely, heavily over-processed, fake-o photoshop jobs rather than actual photos, nevermind how far off the mark they are in terms of making the scene more “realistic.” For some reason this is technique is taking over the internet photography world: Flickr is overrun with HDR pools, sites that used to be cool like Pizdaus and are 40% HDR, even deviantART is crawling with HDR. With all the hype over post-processing, people are forgetting what it’s like to look through a viewfinder and see. It’s how you see that makes a good photo.

Tilt and shift photography has been around for a long time. (So has HDR as a matter of fact.) Tilt and shift photography has typically been used as a way of correcting perspective on photos where the camera angle is restricted, such as in architectural photography, in order to make lines parallel. For example, a photo of a high-rise building taken from the ground will end up with the sides of the building converging toward the top of the photo. By shifting the lens in relation to the film plane, the edges of the building can be brought back into parallel. Tilt and shift lenses typically look like something this:

Some photographers use tilt-shift lenses to restrict the depth of field of photos taken at infinity to a strip across the middle of the frame, which produces cool (albeit gimmicky) miniature-looking pictures like this:

This was taken by a guy named Olivo Barbieri, as part of a set that cascaded through the blogosphere and initiated a resurgence of interest in tilt-shift photography among online photographers. Unfortunately, cheap-ass photoshoppers got a hold of the idea and decided to take the low road and post-process tilt-shift effects into normal photos. So now we have photos like this:

Where low-rent snapshotters take their rejected photos and add cheesy effects and borders in order to make them more “artistic.” Jeff Croft, yet another Flickr member to fall victim to this craze, admits, “This is far from a great picture, but it’s exactly the kind of picture that lends itself best to this technique.” Once again, if you learn to see what’s going on in your viewfinder, you won’t need to post-process in order to give your work some kind of aesthetic merit.


5 responses to “Photography and the (Lost) Art of Seeing

  1. thnx for enlightening me on HDR…..i totally agree with u….some people are into photography like fishing….u don’t exactly have a great catch in mind but pick up whatever you have

  2. InTheEyeOfTheBeholder

    And the photography nazis begin to emerge. Why is it that some people think that they alone hold the right to determine what is art and what is not?

  3. theobservantimagist

    Not so sure that an effect from a lens or an effect from within PS are all that different. The camera is just a tool, so is the lens, the computer, etc..

  4. there is a difference between light and PS

  5. “””Namely, heavily over-processed, fake-o photoshop jobs rather than actual photos, nevermind how far off the mark they are in terms of making the scene more “realistic.” “””

    Who cares about making the scene more “realistic”?

    Photography is not about realism, except if you’re shooting passport photos.

    Were Man Ray’s pictures “realistic”, to name but one photography artist?

    HDR is a processing stage, it can be applied however the photographer wants to better express what he feels. Both HDR pictures you show could show more about how the photographer/viewer felt this scene, and remembers it in his heart, than a drab B&W “artistic” shot.

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