The job of a photographer nowadays isn’t just to shoot photos. Their work also involves post processing to make sure that the image is all cleaned up, balanced, and ready for publishing or for distribution. We don’t mean “post processing” to stand for heavy image editing or photo manipulation though, like the photo from the Sacramento Bee or the image from Kim Jong-Il’s funeral.
A commonly-used set of image editing techniques is high dynamic range imaging (HDR). These allow a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest parts of the image when compared to the current standard digital imaging techniques. As a result, the contrast in the photos become enhanced and more pronounced. But does it, in any way, alter how images can be perceived?
This leads to the following question:
Is using HDR for photojournalism appropriate?
The debate on this was stirred when the Washington Post published a photo on its front page showing the 14th St. Bridge shot at sunset. This was to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the tragic crash of Air Florida Flight 90. A caption below the photo read: “This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.”
Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association, stated: “HDR is not appropriate for documentary photojournalism.” He explained that the organization’s code of ethics clearly state that photographers should respect the integrity of the digital moment, “and in that light an HDR photo is no different from any other digital manipulation.”
He adds: “By using HDR, The Washington Post has combined different moments, and thereby created an image that does not exist. The aircraft visible in the final product was not there for all the other moments combined into the final, and that alone simply raises too many questions about the factual validity of the actual published image.”
Elliot also said that using HDR on the photo was unnecessary: “The selection of photos is by nature a subjective process and the alternate, unmanipulated, image looks to be as strong a documentary image of the bridge in question as one could want.”
However, John Omvik, who is the Marketing VP of HDR software maker Unified Color, begs to disagree. Omvik asserted that using the technique was okay, as long as it was being used properly. He stated: “I strongly disagree with Elliot and the NPPA’s viewpoint. When properly used, HDR does the most accurate job of reconstructing the dynamic range of the original scene at the time the photo was taken. In fact, if one really wants to split hairs about what is ‘real’ and what isn’t, consider this; from the moment you open your eyes in the morning until the moment you close them at night, everything you see in the world around you is in HDR.”
He continues: “There is no camera in existence, digital or film, which can accurately reproduce what the human vision system can capture and process in real time. While today’s digital cameras capture a much larger dynamic range in a single shot than any color transparency film ever could in the past, they still can’t match the tonal range humans can see. And so, using HDR software and processing tools is the only method a photographer has to deliver precisely what he or she witnessed at the time of an image capture.”
Omvik concludes his point, saying: “Proper use of HDR does not alter, mislead or misrepresent a scene. In fact, true color HDR processing and tone mapping techniques restore the integrity of the photograph, and is the best way to reproduce the original high contrast scene, in low dynamic range media such as newsprint or on our LCD computer or handheld displays.”