Over-cooking a good thing – the future of nature photography?

October 29th, 2010 § 9

Recently I helped judge the New Zealand Geographic Magazine Photographer of the Year awards with Andris Apse, Arno Gasteiger & James Frankham. Some interesting things stood out, but one in particular really surprised.

I’d guess 50% of images submitted in the landscape / scenic section had overly heavy use of HDR (high dynamic range) or some other overworked tonal mapping technique. For me it’s becoming the ‘graduated tobacco coloured sunset filter’ of the 80’s; obviously fake, overblown and often used pointlessly. It knocked how I felt about current landscape photography for a number of reasons…

Nature blesses us with remarkable beauty. We should seek to be good enough to do her justice in a photo. Sure, it can be tough dealing with the light she gives us, but we should rise to the challenge and learn how to capture it with strong technique and novel ideas when you’re out in the field, and then maybe touch it up with a light hand back home on the computer. We learnt good field skills before digital was invented.

Now it seems many just bracket shots, run them through an HDR program, wiggle a few sliders and output a terribly…overcooked photo. Yip, sure they can look stunningly surreal and we can now see into the shadows and still see details in highlights, but something died for me in that process. You’ve just demonstrated a skill with software and computer. You’ve forgotten to demonstrate a respect and love for your subject, and a desire to challenge yourself against the vagaries of the natural world and what she gives you to work with.

HDR, tonal mapping, and light/dark recovery certainly have their place, don’t get me wrong, but it should be subtle and ideally not noticeable. So, I hope that, like the tobacco grad filter, overblown HDR finds it’s own little niche in photography history soon and we can all look back and just cringe at it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts people….

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§ 9 Responses to “Over-cooking a good thing – the future of nature photography?”

  • Tim Berry says:

    Iv done 1 hdr not my thing really , id really like to learn how to capture the right exposure in camera and do less work in the desired program.

    These programs are getting better and i think to some extent people are getting lazy the phrase “I’ll Fix It On Computer” comes to mind

    I wish i had gotten into photography in the film age instead of waiting until i was well into my 20’s

  • Ben Kepes says:

    Rob – that reminds me of something I had written on the side of my photography portfolio in the 6th form (go Mr Gunn!):

    “One can understand photography as a science and yet remain oblivious to photography as an rt”

  • Chris Gin says:

    I think this debate will go on for some time. I don’t like the extreme HDR look but I do go for high saturation/contrast in my own photos.

    Unlike the tobacco grad filter phase I think HDR is here to stay however, in much the same way that CGI art is.

    I’d be interested to here what you think about the NZIPP finalists though (http://www.nzipp.org.nz/NzippWeb/Default.aspx?tabid=350). They don’t seem to HDR necessarily but are very heavily processed. There doesn’t seem to be any room for the natural look in that contest, and I don’t understand why.

  • Kevin H says:

    A classic example of highly stylised but beautiful Photoshopped images is, for me, the photography of Peter Eastway. http://www.petereastway.com/index.php .
    In the days of film, a revelation was the large format photography of Yousef Khanfar and Joseph Holmes or from New Zealand Scott Freeman and Craig Potton. The very high resolution of materials being used and the angle of composition seemed to be saying much more about the ‘art of seeing'(and vision), than the art of ‘re-presentation’ that we have become used to in these days of evolving Photoshop techniques and the influence of advertising. Done well (and mindfully), both approaches can have positive, creative outcomes on our ongoing development as photographers!

  • Thank you for your words the other night Rob, really appreciate it and on behalf of Katrina too. It’s great to see another photographer who appreciates the basics more. Being in the moment, focusing on composition and drawing the eye in, rather than piercing it with pseudo halos and surreal colours.
    Chris, my thoughts exactly on the NZIPP. It’s more of a photoshoppers awards rather than a photographers.

  • Rob Brown says:

    Couldn’t agree more with your comments on HDR Rob….in the main I find most HDR I see gruesome and off putting. It is one of the reasons why I’m sticking mainly with film for landscape in the meantime. The great and long lasting photos don’t need to resort to such tricks although the fans of HDR say they are only manipulating digital in the same way Ansel Adams dodged and burned with B&W….but I can’t agree. AA & B&W have soul and are moving and for whatever reason I don’t respond at all to the often muddy colours of HDR digital.

  • Malcolm Gunn says:

    Hey Ben – I hope I gave you a good mark for that comment!!
    Agree with you 100% Rob on the HDR kiss-of-death treatment not showing respect for the subtle way that nature lights our world. For image manipulation, so often, less is more.

  • Ben Kepes says:

    Malcolm – I don’t believe I id get a good mark for that assignment, but you were in good company, Wellington Poly also weren’t overly impressed with my application to the professional photography course – there went a potential career path!

  • Getting bit late for this discussion, but even couple of years after the original article there are a lot of photographers using this technique. It hasnt died entirely but no one would be sad if it has.

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