The Sins of HDR – Part I – Economics

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The Sins of HDR – Part I – Economics

Note: This series of posts on HDR photography is not written for pro photographers. It is written to help amateurish photographers improve their work, and for real-estate agents to realize that there is a perceivable difference between the shots of a pro charging $200-$400  to shoot a home beautifully, and those of an amateurish photographer cutting prices to $125-$150 to get a job.

 

HDR, High Dynamic Range photography, is a beautiful invention. Your eyes interpret light and color very differently than photo film or a digital camera sensor. They also perceive a much wider range of nuances in shades and lights, which is why you can “see through” the darkness of a shaded area and discern volumes and objects, when your digital camera can only see pitch black.

In a very contrasted scene, with both highly lit and very dark areas, the photographer is a between a rock and hard place. Overexposing the well-lit areas or underexposing the dark zones?

In certain situations, using artificial lights (flash, strobes) enables lighting up the dark areas while preserving the tones and definition of the well-lit areas. But artificial light can’t always be used and does not always solve all the issues.

Technical remedy

There lies the central idea of HDR: how do we increase the range of colors and nuances registered by a camera sensor?

The technical answer is to take 3 to 7 photos of the same scene at different exposure values (under-exposed, correctly exposed, over-exposed), and to use specialized software to blend the resulting photos. All well-lit areas remain colorful; all dark areas become visible. High Dynamic Range photography was born.

Excited by the new possibilities offered to their creativity, photographers and digital artists went ‘all in’. In the space of just a couple of years, HDR became the hottest new trend in creative and commercial photography.

In this series of posts, I will not discuss the purely creative side of HDR to focus only on the commercial side.

Pushing the envelope

As far as commercial applications are concerned, HDR is heavily used today by the real-estate industry. It enables lighting up the darker recesses of a home while equalizing contrast when shooting outside in high-contrast scenes. It is also a simpler technique than using flash and strobes to capture a home and its lights at dusk. Realtors love dusk shots, for good reasons.

Because HDR dynamically expands contrast in a scene, it is used by real-estate photographers to create impressive skies that stage a home in its scenery. Often, way too theatrically. Reality can pale in comparison with an HDR rendition.

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HDR shot with glow effect. Too much, way too much. I took this photo: I’m not dumping on someone else’s work.

Likewise, some home interiors do not sparkle. They may be a turn-off for the visitors of the MLS when they look really bland. Realtors use HDR to accentuate colors and contrast, and give banal interiors a whole new life. But too much of a good thing becomes a sin.

Playing on the possibilities offered by the technique, photographers pushed the envelope. Realtors followed suit as a $200,000 cookie-cutter home in a subdivision will look much more remarkable in HDR than in true colors. Getting more eyeballs looking at your listings is the name of the game.

Cheap tricks

The trend towards “more HDR, less reality” has produced a whole lot of real-estate portfolios that look like cheap repros of impressionist paintings. Excessive HDR filtering generates artificial-looking photos.

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Dramatic skies, unnatural colors, typical HDR shot. Once again, my guilt.

The cause of this excess is not just rooted in a lack of measure on the part of the professionals of the industry. True, many real-estate agents will reach for the most super-natural shot. But to what degree should the shot be a faithful reflection of what the prospect’s eyes will see? HDR doesn’t really lie: it embellishes reality.

Underlying this surface issue however, the economics of real-estate photography are in question. A photoshoot by a professional photographer will cost money: $200-$400 depending on the city and the size of the property to be shot. Listings below a certain value don’t pay enough for realtors to afford the extra-cost. Between the necessity to represent their client so that enough potential buyers notice the listing and inquire, and the harsh economics of promoting a listing… what alternatives do realtors really have?

It’s the economy, stupid

When a listing can’t bring in decent commissions, the most cost-conscious realtors will take shots from their own cameras: consumer-level digital cameras or smart phones. That’s usually the worst-case scenario for the home seller because these pictures suck. Plain and simple.

When prospective commissions on the listing give the realtor just enough leeway to hire a photographer but not a top-notch photographer, the former will call on amateurish shootists willing to discount their services to $125-$200, depending on city and property size.

For some realtors, it’s a matter of “How can I lower my cost to a minimum… while giving the client the appearance of value that justifies my commission?” For other realtors, choosing the lower-cost, not-so-skilled photographer just reflects a lack of education in what is a good photo. Lack of education results in a lack of discernment.

Realtors are not the only party dealing with economics, however. Photographers do too.

When a photographer is paid $150 to produce 40 finished shots of a 2,000 sq.ft. home, the maths go this way: 60-90 minutes of travel time, 2 hours to shoot, about 3 hours of photo editing. That’s 6-7 hours of work, paid $150, i.e. $21-$25 per hour. Add the cost of gas, tires and car maintenance, and the cost of gear (computer, camera, lenses, software)… the per-hour compensation is pretty low.

Where can the shootist save money? Answer: On location and at the photo editing stage. Shoot fast, edit fast.

A pro photographer will use all his skills to create acceptable shots, and will use HDR as a quick remedy to some of the lighting issues on location and to spruce up his shots.

Amateurish (not ‘amateur’, see below) photographers don’t have the same skills, and HDR (which almost anybody can do) will be the band-aid that will “solve” both the deficiencies born in a lack of skills and in the lack of time.

Hence the volume of sloppy HDR work that has hit the real-estate market in the last 12-18 months. It’s the economy, stupid. And low-level skills.

HDR done right

HDR is one tool in an arsenal of techniques. It has a place in the pantheon of photo techniques. But it has to be done right.

Doing HDR right means going easy on the software cursors: less is more.

I will not discuss the settings of the various HDR software programs here; many good textbooks go over them very thoroughly. Here’s a few books I recommend:

  • Rick Sammon’s HDR Photography Secrets for digital photographers (Wiley)
  • Christian Bloch’s The HDRI Handbook (RockyNook)
  • Michael Freeman’s Mastering HDR Photography (Freeman)

Remember, this post only covers commercial applications.

In commercial applications, faithfulness of the shot is usually a prime concern. This is why good HDR photography does not push the cursors. It takes care of the overall contrast of the shot with settings at the lowest possible values.

As a technical footnote, I prefer to use the ‘Exposure Fusion’ method over the ‘Tonemapping’ method. In Photomatix, I may use the “Fusion/Real-Estate” settings. I don’t know why real-estate phtographers don’t use this method and setting more often, this would produce much less artificial-looking photos.

But that’s not all…

As we will discover in other posts of this series, HDR creates multiple problems that require further post-processing to be corrected. That’s why any base HDR photo should be corrected in Lightroom before being delivered. Lightroom is in my opinion the best software there is to adjust lights and reduce problems such as noise.

Unfortunately, this is where Economics don’t jive with Results. The $150 purse has not increased in size, but the post-processing time is inflated by this extra step.

This is one of the big differences between the amateurish photographer and the pro. The pro will go to great lengths to provide the best possible shot within economic reason. It’s the pro’s ethics. The pro works faster: time spent on post-processing is reduced by habits, routines, presets and knowledge. So his short-term economic equation doesn’t vary that much because of the additional step.

Amateurish photographers don’t care about correcting their HDR shots. They leave all sorts of ugly things and deliver to the client. Low skills, dubious professional ethics, cut-throat pricing.

Note: I am purposedly not using the word ‘amateur’ to designate these photographers. Amateur photographers can be exceptionally accomplished in their mastery of the art. They just don’t make a living off of it. Conversely, the meaning of the word ‘pro’ in this post doesn’t designate photographers making a living with their camera but sloppy in their execution and without much concern for the end-result. “It will do, they don’t pay me that much” is the favorite excuse of the sloppy shootist masquerading as a pro. A pro is an accomplished photographer with a conscience and some decent bucks falling in their hands when they deliver the shots.

What do we shoot for?

In many situations, HDR is not really necessary. HDR is all too often used to mask a deficiency in lighting skills or insufficient lighting gear. Applying proper lighting techniques with enough of the right gear, the pro will create a clean, faithful shot in which the scene is correctly lit. This shot can be used in small and large dimensions, e.g. 24×36 posters, without showing horrible defects.

A well-respected fine-art printer wrote: “What separates digital photography from fine-art photography is the printed result”. He was 100% right. Print an average HDR shot on paper, and look at the problems that plague the print.

But amateurish photographers (and realtors selecting a photographer mostly on pricing) will object that realtors rarely (if ever) blow up and print the shots they show to prospective home buyers. They will also point out that the MLS degrades the resolution of the shots of a listing to such a degree that one can legitimately wonder why spend so much time and effort to, in fine, display ugly photos on uncalibrated computer monitors.

The difference is in the attitude. Pros are pros to a fault.

Pro realtors will never lower themselves to using smartphone shots for their listings, and will as often as possible (if not always) hire a pro photographer  that will cost them $75-$200 more, but will create superb shots that the realtor will be able to use in print, on the web, in sales materials, on magazine covers and full-spreads, possibly in posters to demonstrate their prospects that for them, they will walk the extra-mile and more.

Pro photographers are passionate artists: their work is their legacy. They have pride in their work, and all shots coming out of their hands to be delivered to clients must meet strict standards of quality. Even if it sometimes means that a job doesn’t pay well. They consider their client’s mission: this home must sell fast. Their shots are the first tool to make this happen. They don’t compromise with their work ethics, and will not compromise the sales tools of the realtor.

In conclusion

As a photography technique, HDR offers definite advantages but also has some fundamental flaws that will botch up a job if not taken into consideration. Overdoing HDR is a guarantee of failure.

In fine, the problem is not HDR: no photography technique is perfect. The problem is having enough skills and ethics, and being compensated fairly enough that the photographer can do his job well, and be the pro he wants to be.

In the next blog posts on the topic of HDR, I will cover some of the most common issues found in HDR shots.