This recent example set is from our workshop in Guatemala during the pre-Easter festivals in Antigua. Readers please weigh in with your opinions and perhaps examples of your own, but keep it civil. The two camps of HDR and straight can be very critical of each other. Reminding everyone there are as many uses and perceptions of imagery as there are photographers and viewers.
When working with a photojournalistic image – as opposed to an interpretive art piece or abstract, I do think there comes a point where too much HDR begins to look fake. By fake I mean unreal, flat, lacking in authenticity, lacking in the emotion and flavor of the actual place or event.
I started serious work on this image of a morning procession from La Merced church. The lighting was very hot and contrasty, with deep, almost impenetrable shadows in which there lodged fascinating details. In addition to the wide lighting range, there is a challenging crossover in color of the church building, which is more lemon yellow with stark white details. Inexplicably the facade took on an orangy-yellow cast and some of the white vining filagree looks greenish.
But the main problem is the shadowed Christ figure and the archbishop figure that is just emerging from the very dark church interior.
Here’s the original image, which was cropped for impact and elimination of another photographer in a combat vest. To me the details lost in shadow obscured the action in progress. So much is happening; the viewer wants to see better – a perfect use of HDR processing. We want to see the Christ is portrayed as a person of deep color, but not the archbishop who is definitely white. Spanish tradition of course, with a nod to the sensitivities of the indigenous population; Antigua was long a hotbed of evangelization in Central America.
The next image I worked extensively in the spirit of HDR, though I did the manipulations by hand, rather than automated. Wow! It looks pretty good. The color is more intense, mouthwatering without supersaturation. The statuary really stands out. There’s detail deep into the shadows of the doorway and the other end of the platform float. But then I looked again, and I became dissatisfied. Gone was the remembered brilliant light and its contrasting, almost mysterious, shadows that evoke the mystery of the faith’s greatest celebration. To my mind there has to be light and darkness. An emergence from darkness. The day was hot, hot, hot, and the color of the church is just not right. I decided I’d gone to far with HDR.
Starting again, I tried for a more subtle interpretation. A rendition of the facade, the costumes, the gilded statuary and the overall flavor that were my memories – both mental and emotional. Enlarged, the details are now there, but the varied lighting is preserved. This contributed to a feeling of depth of both distance and light, rather than the flatness of the first interpretation. We do remember and mentally reform dimension in a scene with shadows. It's also wise to remember that shadows are often cyan or green in tint, because the Kelvin temperature of shadow is way different from sun.
Whether you agree with my final, or perhaps have a different take, if nothing else, this example set is the most eloquent reason for the thoughtful photographer to do her own postproduction. Only you can know the circumstances and atmosphere of when and where your image was made. How could you realistically trust this creative work to someone who was never there?