HDR How We See

The eyeSeveral years ago there was a lively debate going on about HDR still photography. At the core of the debate were people saying that HDR would never be ‘real’ photography because it was crude, garish and cartoon like. The back and forth was predictable and uninformative because no attention was given to two essential points. First, the raw cartoon appearance of HDR images was largely the result of inadequate software used in ways that were far from subtle. Second, HDR is about digital technology. More than a century of black and white and nearly a century of color still photography taught us to see images in very specific ways. HDR was well outside our normal understanding of what photographs look like.

It is important to remember that HDR is not a film photography technique. Sure you could bracket and scan several frames to get some sort of increased dynamic range out of film but that seems a ridiculous notion. Photographic film is a legacy medium that should be used to make the best possible chemical based analog images. It should not be used to imitate something else.

The imitation game also applies to digital technology. I happen to enjoy making black and white images using my digital camera. For years I’ve listened to people tell me that digital black and white could never be truly correct because it did not work by exposing light sensitive chemicals smeared on plastic film. Right, I can’t imitate analog silver, platinum or any other oxidized metal salt on paper. Nor do I wish to spend my time imitating analog photography. My goal is to make the best possible black and white images using the digital technology at my disposal. Sometimes that means using HDR to get the best possible images.

Photojournalism feels the pinch

So what happens when photojournalism, which huffs and puffs about standards and integrity, confronts standardized HDR image capture? More to the point, what happens when photojournalists find themselves producing images for display on HDR output technology? Well, then it’s time for a rethink of standards.

If you display images as facsimiles using ink on paper you are fine with the current standards. On the other hand, if your images are used on 4K televisions, you have to compete with 4K HDR video. HDR, unless captured using discreet data streams and created in post process, bakes a certain level of digital manipulation into the output. HDR output requires a reevaluation of what constitutes ‘clean’ source information. Not to mention that as imaging technology evolves so must the standards.

Legacy is fine but technology marches on

The still photography I practice will soon be as much a legacy activity as making images on film. My digital camera is essentially a video camera that is adapted to capture high quality single frames. Once you can get continuous high resolution capture, at whatever frame rate is appropriate, still cameras will be legacy technology. In addition, high resolution wide gamut output screens will pretty much mandate HDR content. It seems likely that HDR will be how we will see the world presented on our entertainment devices. Otherwise it will appear dull and lifeless to modern consumers.

Time to become a fine art photographer

If I want to stay involved with photography in the future as a non-professional then the audience for my work is likely to change. One-off hand crafted images may be thought of more as art in the future. There will always be a place for finely crafted works made by highly skilled individuals. Whether they are made with traditional artist materials, legacy photographic processes or some more modern technology makes little difference. Art is about communicating ideas. The practice of art may be closely tied to a particular medium but ideas are the free currency of creative expression. The opportunity for self expression is always present but the audience must value your work. Otherwise you must be satisfied to make work only for yourself.

The New Photography

eye_2There are a great many ways to interpret ‘New’ in terms of photography. The most common may be to associate the phrase with visual trends or hipster image makers. There are also diehard old guards who insist chemical based imaging is true photography. Anything else is well, something else. There can be nothing new there. That attitude is about as valid and non sequitur as ‘cane makers are the true buggy whip manufacturers’. It’s just hype to satisfy golden age readers. I admit to fitting an aging demographic but not the sentiment.

Another common way to connect ‘New’ with photography is the latest digital camera technology. Huge pixel counts, novel sensor configurations, see in the dark ISO limits. Certainly these are new in the sense that they have not existed in consumer products in the past. They are evolutionary Improvements in current technology not revolutionary in any sense. Not really new. Any school kid or marketing guy can see that stuff a mile away. I’m not sure exactly what new photography is but it is not more of the same.

Sensor makers, camera manufacturers and admen will not determine a new direction for photography. It will be people who use technology in interesting creative ways who push us forward. I know this is just another rehash of the young titans who brought us garage built computers, cell phones and the like. I just believe it will be those sorts of people who define the path. I’m old but still a technologist at heart.

So, what will be the new photography? My guess is that it will be a convergence of technologies we think of as VR. I believe immersive imaging in some form is the new photography. We are currently preoccupied with artificial boundaries between different forms of image presentation such as still, video, immersive and so forth. Once you have sufficient technology you can derive any type of image presentation from the same source material. In the end new photography will be something that allows consumers to capture moments in time with fidelity that closely matches what our eyes perceive as reality.

My Eye Is the Camera

eye_2Lately I’ve been reading articles about vision augmentation. That got me thinking about William Gibson Zeiss-Ikon eyes and other such fictions. Is there a future where journalists or average people can stream live video directly from their eyes? Will there be a time soon when we can store and reason using augmented visual information? Maybe but I have no knowledge of such things.

A quick internet search turned up someone who has a wearable artificial eye capable of streaming video. It is the ultimate point-of-view device at least until someone figures out how to integrate imaging with the visual cortex in full fidelity. Rob Spence, the gentleman who experimented with the video capable artificial eye may have moved on to more commercially viable ventures. In any case you can see for yourself what he accomplished at EyeBorg Project. It is quite impressive given the state of technology at the time.

It is rather extreme to even consider replacing your eyes with imaging devices. Perhaps not so extreme if the devices were genetically engineered replacement eyes rather than electromechanical devices. Either way, when they become available many people will opt for the prosthetics.

None of the devices I’ve seen even hint at anything like eye replacement. Current research seems to be about providing useful information for navigation. Finding nearby services just as mobile phones do today. One area where augmented vision has great promise is in complex manufacturing where product details could be highlighted as overlays directly into your field of view. That sort of technology combined with good speech recognition could have far reaching scope. However it is more likely that specifications and product guides will be available hands-free as a first step.

Vision augmentation poses the same sort of social and privacy concerns that were experienced by Google Glass users. The difference is that you can tell if someone is wearing Google Glass but you might never know if someone is scanning you with a more subtle device. We also need to consider what the government and military will do with such technology. It is a Brave New World.