To HDR or not to HDR?

After reading this excellent post with tips for using Instagram (written by Anthony Quintano, Senior Community Manager for NBC News), I went ahead and downloaded a couple of the iPhone photography apps he recommended: Pro HDR and Color Splash. Both are great applications and are really fun to play around with, but while Color Splash has no real news value, I had never really used an HDR app before, so I didn’t know what the ‘rules’ were — what is and isn’t ok, if anything, in news photography?

First, the basics.

What is HDR? HDR stands for High Dynamic Range Imaging, and basically involves a camera taking two or more photographs at different exposure levels and combining them to provide greater contrast. A lot of smartphones, including the iPhone, incorporate HDR, as do DSLRs (such as Nikon’s recently-announced Nikon D4). I could post a few photos showing examples of HDR, but it’s probably a better idea that you click on this gallery of impressive-looking HDR pictures. Also on that link is a tutorial of how best to use HDR.

After playing with Pro HDR on my iPhone a little, I found that I felt pretty uncomfortable using it — while the pictures were pretty cool (despite the limitations of the camera and your humble blogger), there was an element of it not feeling quite right. So I asked a few friends what they thought. On Facebook, the response was not tremendous:

HDR Responses on Facebook

A few more people gave their two cents on Twitter (FYI – Shashank Bengali is National Security Editor for McClatchy Newspapers, so he’s talking about McClatchy):

I also had quick Twitter conversations with Pedro Ugarte, head of AFP‘s Asia-Pacific Photo Service, as well as Anthony Quintano of NBC News. Pedro said (via direct message) that he would not accept HDR photographs for the AFP photo wire, much like McClatchy. Anthony had a somewhat more nuanced position:

Interestingly, the Washington Post on December 22, 2011 and January 13, 2012, not only published an HDR photograph in the newspaper, but did so on its front page on both occasions. The newspaper’s director of photography Michel du Cille told Poynter: “Ten years from now, HDR may be built into cameras, and who will know it?”

The move drew criticism, however, from the National Press Photographers Association, and a variety of photojournalists. Poynter does a great job summarising the debate about HDR among photojournalists in this article. Speaking to Poynter specifically about the January 13 photograph, NPPA President Sean Elliot said:

“HDR is not appropriate for documentary photojournalism.” The organization’s code of ethics say photographers should respect the integrity of the digital moment, “and in that light an HDR photo is no different from any other digital manipulation.”

“By using HDR,” he told me by email, “The Washington Post has combined different moments, and thereby created an image that does not exist. The aircraft visible in the final product was not there for all the other moments combined into the final, and that alone simply raises too many questions about the factual validity of the actual published image.”

So for now, the rules seem pretty clear to me, an aspiring multimedia journalist who wants to improve at news photography – HDR is not allowed. I might take the odd HDR picture on my iPhone, but will not be using it much at all, at least until conventions have clearly changed.

UPDATE (26/02/2012): I linked to this post on Google+ and my friend Sam Nahata rightly pointed out that in the right context, HDR can be entirely appropriate, and while I focused solely on news photography, there are several situations in which HDR is used, and rightly so. His comment is below in full.

Sambhav Nahata on Google+

What do you think? Let me know in the comments!

Further reading:

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