All too often I see HDR used as THE important element of an image. It’s not, it’s a process, it’s a tool. Lately when I post images I don’t even say, this is an HDR. It’s irrelevant. Just as what kind of camera did I use, or what shutter speed I shot at or what editing program did I use. They aren’t relevant to the end image. Just how you got there.
So I have been thinking about the above paragraph for a while now but what I didn’t realize was that my shoot this weekend would prove it to me.
Before I begin that tale, let me first explain what I believe is great photography. Great photography is all about the light finding great light and most importantly shadow and the placement of shadow with-in an image. Great photography is about having an artistic mind to see that great light and also the eye to place that subject of light within a field or more plainly stated, Composition. Once you have the eye for the light, shadow and composition, it’s having the knowledge to capture that and frankly, NOT F*** it up! This is , to me, the essence of great photography and what I will always and forever strive for. HDR is just one of the tools I use to get there.
Back to the shoot
I always say I never preconceive what I will shoot when I go to a certain area because the area always tells me what to shoot. This day was no different as I headed out to the Anza-Borrego desert in California. I had thoughts that I would like to shoot the Calcite Mine in the north-east section of the park. Just finding the trail to go off-road on was tough enough and once I got half way there, the trail took a turn for the worse, too tough even for my mighty blue steed and all I could picture was myself being on one of those Video mishap shows with my truck tumbling down a drop off to the desert floor below. So at that point I choose to turn around and look for something else.
I was told there were also some Slot Canyons in the area. So I set off to find them, a short distance away I found them and started hiking the trail. Aha, my best friend the desert had once again, told me what to shoot.
One note of caution. Never hike alone, always have sufficient water and food, NEVER hike in a slot canyon without first checking weather conditions. Even storms miles away can quickly fill a slot canyon with torrents of water that you cannot escape. And finally NEVER EVER EVER EVER drive off road without a minimum of a trail map but really GPS GPS GPS. Really…not kidding. I use a GPS enabled laptop with mapping software that can show some off road trails that a standard GPS unit for cars may not.
As I hiked into this amazing find not only did I think , here was my shoot I also thought here is my story or my next The HDR Image post. I was really excited. What could be a better post then talking about shooting a slot canyon? Because they have always been almost impossible to shoot the way you want because of the high dynamic range of clear blue sky down into the dark recesses. So I shot away, excitedly assembling the blog post in my mind as I walked along and shot. This was a very cool slot canyon with a lot of amazing rock structures to see. But as I shot, something was wrong. Usually I can tell just from reviewing the images and histograms when I will have a good image. Something was wrong but I just pushed it aside because I was excited about the story I wanted to tell.
When I got home, I started reviewing and processing the images and again, something was wrong. Ummm these…sucked. So I pushed the HDR process harder and harder well past where I normally would go. And they got more let’s say HDRy, but the didn’t get any better. Until I finally realized, this was a high dynamic range scene for sure, but in the majority of the scene, there was absolutely No Light or I should say, QUALITY light.
While there was a nice blue sky and some cool light on the peaks at the top of the canyon, The majority of the scene was extremely flat shadowless light. We may call this “Tonal” light. Which can be good for showing tones in an image. The problem was the canyon walls were very mono tones, not even the various tones of reds and yellow you may see at say Antelope Canyon, AZ. A lot was pink or gray mud colored rock. The rock was however full of texture. but to show that off you need “textural” light or light with high contrast. which at this time of day just wasn’t there. And me pushing processing in HDR to the max was NOT going to give me that. Even processing in B & W didn’t help, in fact it proved the point. On conversion almost everything in the image became the same tone.
So you may say, “Your friend the desert lied to you, there wasn’t a shoot there at all” Well actually there was. As I pulled my mighty blue steed up out of the ravine and back onto S22, the sun had just set and it plunged the desert into twilight. My friend told me, pull over, now it’s time. and with the beautiful light of twilight over the desert, I got these shots.
Moral of the story: Great photography will always be about the light. No amount of manipulation is a substitute for that. Your mission should always remain true to make a great photograph. High Dynamic Range does not = Great Light. HDR will not make great light. And sometimes a hike is just a great hike. Lesson learned.
Hope that helps,