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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 😀

Top 10 Annoying Things to Say to a Landscape Photographer

DISCLAIMER: Please read the following post with the tone of heavy sarcasm and humor with which it was intended. None of these points are directed at any of my students, friends or colleagues. Anyone who knows me knows that I am far from cocky, arrogant or holier-than-thou. This post is meant for entertainment, not as a means to hold myself up on a pedestal. If you don't have a sense of humor, please don't read this post.

I thought I'd do something a little different today. Instead of new pictures, how-to's or tips, I wanted to post something I thought might be funny and/or entertaining for all you photographers out there. This is the Top 10 Annoying Things to Say to a Landscape Photographer. I cannot take credit for this idea as it was inspired by a post I saw at another great photography blog by Paul Burwell (check it out here).

Let's get it started!

10. I hate using a tripod. They're bulky and slow.

Yeah, I know. Sharp pictures suck. And being able to use any shutter speed I want is a real drag. If only I could just be patient while I’m out enjoying nature! Between answering my cell phone, texting my friend, updating my Facebook, Twitter and MySpace, listening to my iPod and trying to watch my portable TV, I just don’t have the time to set up my tripod for a sharp picture.

9. Have you heard of HDR?

Yeah! It’s hideous! I mean, excuse me, it’s awesome. HDR pictures look so unnatural, especially those halos around trees against the sky. Really vomit-inducing beautiful stuff. And boy do I love sitting behind the computer for 3 hours to create an image that looks way worse almost as good as it would have looked with 5 more minutes of work in the field with a simple filter and zero time at the computer. And HDR definitely creates awesome landscapes that far surpass any without HDR. Iconic photographers like Galen Rowell and Peter Lik have thoroughly proven that. What’s that? Neither of them use(d) HDR? Like ever? Oh...

8. You should do weddings. You'd make so much money!

My god... You, my friend, are one hell of a businessman! A real captain of industry! Really, you should be selling these ideas! I had no clue wedding photographers made a lot of money! And God knows that’s why I’m shooting landscapes — to make lots of money. I’ve been wondering when my huge payday as a landscape photographer was going to come in, but I shall wait no longer! Wedding photography industry, here I come! Thank you, sir, thank you for your sound advice.

7. Will you shoot my wedding?

I think I just threw up in my mouth a little bit.

6. I won't be able to get great pictures - I don't have any pro lenses yet.

Oh! That’s right! I forgot Canon and Nikon don’t put the “Awesome Picture” coating on their consumer lenses! They only put that on their pro lenses... Oh, well. I guess you’ll just have to start saving up.

5. How can I get great landscapes in the middle of the day?

Step 1: Get a 20”x30” piece of glass from your local hardware store
Step 2: Download any of these images by Galen Rowell and print out at 20x30
Step 3: Tape the print to the glass
Step 4: Have assistant/friend/monkey hold glass upright
Step 5: Stand 10 feet away and photograph it
Step 6: Crop out assistant/friend/monkey as necessary
Step 7: Enjoy smug satisfaction

4. What kind of camera do you have? It takes amazing pictures!

Yeah, it does. I often send it out to get some new shots while I stay home and watch reruns of Three’s Company. I actually have a new prototype from Canon with built-in legs and artificial intelligence they harvested from the brains of Ansel Adams and Albert Einstein. It’s awesome. Once these things hit the market, everyone will be an amazing photographer. I definitely couldn’t have gotten that picture with a lowly Rebel or D40. Definitely not. Those cameras take horrible pictures even though they have the exact same technology and sensors.

3. Split NDs are cool, but I have a Photoshop® plugin that does the same thing.

No you don’t and no it doesn’t. You have a crappy simulation of a split ND. That plugin darkens blown out pixels. A split ND darkens the light coming through your lens so that your sensor can actually record the sky correctly. It’s kind of like those cell phone towers disguised as trees. If you take a passing glance over it, you might not notice the difference, but really, who are they fooling? That fake tree is still hideous, tacky and it reeks of Photoshop (wait, scratch that last one).

2. Did you Photoshop® that?

No. No, I didn't.

1. Why aren't my landscapes as good as yours?

This is actually a very subtle insult if you look carefully (although not everyone who says it intends it to be that way) because it implies getting good landscapes is just a matter of following a checklist of items I could hand off to you and, thus, allow you to create the same images. I’ll give the response I always think but am too polite to say out loud.

“Gosh, I don’t know. You’ve been shooting how long? 6 months? Okay. And you only shoot in the middle of the day? Uh-huh, okay. That’s weird...there shouldn’t be that much difference, then. Well, I’m really going out on a limb here, but it might be my 10 years of experience or the fact that I only shoot under good light. Or it might be the fact that I travel further than a 5-mile radius around my house. Again...just going out on a limb.”

There you have it, the Top 10 Annoying Things to Say to a Landscape Photographer. If any of this offended you or made me sound like a pompous ass...lighten up, it's a joke 🙂 Thanks for reading!

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.