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Why I Don’t Do HDR

I sometimes get asked about HDR (high dynamic range) images. Those who haven't browsed my website extensively will ask if I do HDR. Many will assume I do HDR or some sort of variation on it. Those who know me a little better will ask why I don't do HDR. Whatever the case, I thought I'd post this entry to lay out my thoughts on HDR.

First things first: I don't do HDR. I've never done an HDR. None of my images on my blog or website are HDR, nor have they ever set foot in Photoshop. I never airbrush, combine, dodge, burn or heavily alter my images. In the interest of full disclosure, however, I'll tell you that I make very minor adjustments to my digital files in order to get them to more closely resemble the film I used to use - Fuji Velvia. I'll also tweak the white balance on the RAW file because I don't like to think about white balance when I'm out in the field. And, of course, I'll straighten crooked horizons.

Now that that's all cleared up, let me tell you why I don't do HDR.

1. Time

HDR images take too long. Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know you HDR guys have some Photoshop plugin that does it in a snap, but that's still more time than zero minutes of no HDR. Also, you are spending more time in the field bracketing exposures, loading the files in your computer, opening multiple files, processing them, blah, blah, blah. Besides, the auto-HDR plugins aren't perfect and you usually have to spend a decent amount of time tweaking it/correcting it so that it looks "good."

2. Look

To me, HDR images are hideous. I can usually spot them a mile away...then I'll get a taste of vomit in the back of my throat. I know, those weird halos around trees are absolutely gorgeous, but they scream Photoshop.

3. Skill

I know I'm going to offend a few people with this, but don't worry, you don't have to agree with me (no angry letters, please)...

I feel HDR, for the most part, is a tool used by bad photographers to make up for a lack of skill behind the camera. These people are great (I'm using that term loosely) with Photoshop, but don't know squat about photography. Yep, you need HDR if you shoot at the wrong times, under ugly light, don't know how to manually meter, don't know how to use split ND filters, don't understand your camera's limits, don't know how to use those limits to your advantage, don't know what makes a great picture great, can't use light to your advantage and/or just haven't practiced enough. If you learn to be a photographer and not a graphic designer, you'll get better results without the need for HDR.

4. Contrast

Let me say something that I hope the entire world, especially camera manufacturers, will one day understand: a limited dynamic range is a good thing! Photography is an art form, and like any art form, it doesn't simply document the world perfectly so that others can see it exactly as it is. The limited dynamic range of our camera is a tool to create art that represents the world differently than we see it in real life. Photographs that capture the scene EXACTLY as it was are boring and unimportant. Constantly battling our camera's limited dynamic range is a battle no one should want to win. This contrast we get from our camera's limited range is partly what makes photography a beautiful art form. Just stop shooting in the middle of the day when the contrast is too strong - the light is ugly then anyway.

5. History

The old saying "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" comes to mind when I think of HDR. If you were to take all the best photographs ever taken in the history of the human race, I'd bet less than 0.0000000001% are HDR. All the gorgeous photographs taken by Galen Rowell, Frans Lanting, David Muench, etc. etc. utilized nothing more than a piece of film and what they could put on their lenses. Thank God they never had HDR because their pictures wouldn't be nearly as dramatic. Yeah, HDR is new and that might be part of it, but the contrast and limited dynamic range in all these iconic photos are partly what makes them gorgeous.

6. Auto-Tune

Ever hear of Auto-Tune? It's that annoying sound effect hip-hop artists have been using on their voice lately that makes them sound kind of robotic. It was cool at first, but then we all realized it's just ugly. Well, HDR is the auto-tune of photography. It's new, people with no taste think it's awesome, it's been overdone and, really, it's just way worse than the old way of doing things - with skill and practice.

7. Split NDs

Learn to use Split NDs on your landscapes (or better yet, hire me to teach you 😉 ). They take 5 minutes of work in the field and will negate the need for HDR. Plus, you'll get the added satisfaction of getting the image perfect in the camera without spending an hour and a half combining multiple images later. Oh, and they look way better than an HDR image.

Before you start writing a long-winded rebuttal, understand that I'm not looking for a debate. These are just the reasons why I don't do HDR and why I don't like HDR. I'm sure there are some exceptions to my arguments and I'm sure there are a few awesome HDRs out there. If you do HDR, cool. Have fun. I'll stick to my split ND filters. And we can still be friends...we don't have to agree on everything 😀

More Ranting About Microstock

So I'm in line to checkout at Barnes and Noble yesterday when a stack of books catches my eye. The title of the book is "Best Easy Day Hikes Orange County" and features a photo of a hiking trail on the cover. There's something weird about the picture. I know where that trail is, I know I've been on that trail, I know I've taken a picture of that trail... hey, wait a minute... that IS MY PICTURE. But something about it is off... the sky isn't how I remembered it, but I am almost certain this in my picture. So, I take a shot of it with my iPhone so I can compare it my file at home.

Sure enough, it's definitely my picture. They just decided to switch out the sky for something else and lighten up the whole thing. If you're thinking "well, maybe someone else took a very similar shot under a different sky." No. The perspective, the arrangement of leaves, the debris on the trail - everything is identical to my shot. Here, check it out:

And here's a closer look of the book cover:

So, there's no doubting this in my picture. But am I happy about my picture donning the cover of this widely-published and widely-available book? Sort of, but mostly no. Sure, it's good to add to the resume, if you will, and it's nice to say my picture is on the cover, but I don't remember getting paid for this!

Then I remembered my sad, early days with microstock (check out my†earlier†post entitled "My Thoughts on Microstock" to learn more about microstock and how I feel about it). I used to have my entire catalog of images with Shutterstock and iStockphoto - 2 microstock agencies that are raping photographers on a daily basis. Unfortunately I was uneducated on the market of stock photography and made the unfortunate decision to do business with these corporations.†

Nevertheless, I did†do business with these companies and I did sell some images through them. So with that in mind, I checked the book for a photo credit... it was on the back cover: (C) Shutterstock!†

That's right! Not "(C) Nick Carver"! It was "(C) Shutterstock"! I didn't even get a photo credit for this! And you want to know how much money I got for this wide use of my image on a book cover? 20 bucks! That won't even cover a tank of gas!

So that's why I'm not happy about this. I got 20 measly dollars for this major publication and I didn't even get a photo credit. And the worst part is, it's totally legal because I was dumb enough to put my images on a royalty free microstock agency. So I'm not mad at the book or the agencies, I'm mad at myself for being ignorant in my early days as a professional. If I'd researched stock photography better and if I'd really thought about fair use rights, I never would have sold this image for unlimited use†for 20 greenbacks. I'd rather not sell it at all than get 20 bucks for unlimited licensing rights.

Shame on me.

DISCLAIMER: I have strong opinions on this and I am blunt, I know that. If you are offended by any of this, I apologize, but I'm just being honest. I'm not greedy or self-righteous, I just feel artists should get fair pay for their hard work. And, again, it was MY mistake to join up with these agencies.

PhotoShelter Collection

The PhotoShelter Collection closed its doors on September 11. This date is turning out to be the Friday the 13th of the 21st century.

I was a recent convert to PhotoShelter. I learned about it through Chase Jarvis and finding it was like experiencing a heroic rescue from Batman. I felt like I could finally tell my microstock agencies to (insert f-bomb here) off so I could start supporting a stock agency that was out to make the industry better and actually make it possible for photographers to buy more than half a bag of M&Ms with an image sale. I was so jazzed to shut down my accounts with iStockphoto and Shutterstock and move my portfolio over to this gallant lionheart of stock. I knew it was the best thing for me, for the industry and for photographers everywhere.

Unfortunately, PhotoShelter broke the news on 9/11 that they'd be closing their doors on their Collection. They're still in business and will still be offering their Personal Archive services, but this is such a horrible loss for photographers everywhere.

PhotoShelter Collection, you are a fallen hero. Thank you for your efforts, honesty and integrity. You will be missed.

For more information on this announcement, read their blog about it and check out the FAQ.

Also, please read this blog by Vincent Laforet about the close of the PhotoShelter Collection and his thoughts on microstock. We share similar viewpoints on this matter.