[Hot Topic] Use Of HDR In Photojournalism: Is This Going Too Far?

Last Friday, January 13, 2012, The Washington Post published an HDR photograph on the front page depicting their top story.

“The photo depicts a plane taking off from Reagan National Airport, the 14th Street Bridge in the foreground and the orange glow of the setting sun in the background. The photo references the Air Florida jet that crashed into the bridge 30 years ago.” (source)

For anyone who doesn't know by now, HDR is a set of techniques that allows a greater dynamic range between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than current standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods.” 

The overly saturated, almost comic or painterly like look and feel of the image, raised some concerns from readers.

They claim that the use of HDR was for the benefit of the image and doesn't change the authenticity of the image itself.

If this was personal work and not in the realm of photojournalism, I don't think it would have caused the reaction that it did. However, due to the intention of use, it raises a lot of questions.


What Do You Think?

Does the use of HDR in photojournalism bother you? Do you think it compromises the integrity of the original image?

Also, where do the limitations begin with photojournalism in regards to post processing? Does it stop right when the image is taken, or perhaps with minimal color correction in post?

As photographers, we would love to hear your thoughts on the subject.


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Jimmy Denham's picture

I am a fan of good HDR, mainly because it does allow the artist some creative flexibility in making the image what they want it to be. That seems very far from photojournalism to me. It would seem that the creative part of photojournalism would happen mainly before pressing the shutter rather than after.

Malcolm Debono's picture

Very interesting topic. One thing that bothers me though is the image's caption. Why is it referenced that the image is an HDR? HDR is only a tool or technique used by the artist, just like many others (such as long shutter photography), and as such I don't see the need to reference it in this particular way.

I believe that the choice of image should also go hand in hand with the subject and story being covered. In this case, the story is written in remembrance of the bridge, so in my opinion something a little more on the artistic side compliments the story better.

There are stories however in which I believe that the use of HDR may not be ideal, such as travel writing. In this case, an HDR image of a place will more than likely be misleading to readers as it depicts a scene that is different from what a human eye can see.

Mike M's picture

"Why is it referenced that the image is an HDR?"

"HDR is only a tool or technique used by the artist"

1: This is supposed to be journalism, aka, no exxagerations or "doctored" facts, whether they are in an article or an image.

2: You said "artist".  Some photojournalists are artists, but photojournalism is overwhelmingly not about creating art, but capturing events as they happen.  While you may want to add your uncle ted to an image because he adds to it "artistically", that (or HDR) belongs nowhere in a NEWS PAPER, where people come for unbiased, undoctored facts.  By adding these colors which were not in the original image (Note how HDR requires multiple exposures) it is absolutely adulterated. 

What's next, some hack like you going and HDR'ing conflict photography? I don't think so.

DigitalOxygen.ca's picture

I thought the cardinal rule of photojournalism is that you are reporting the truth, the facts.  It's my understanding that any manipulation (with MAYBE the exception of basic exposure or white balance) is breaking that cardinal rule.  I have seen several news articles about photojournalist photoshopping their images (add/removing objects, etc) to make them more appealing or impactful and they were shunned and discredited.  I don't think this is much different.

Geoff Lister's picture

Dodging and burning is acceptable in photoj, isn't this just taking that to the extreme? I don't think this distorts the true nature of the photo, that's what the eye sees for the most part. You're aloud to remove dust, edit for colour to reflect the real nature of the image, etc. 

PhotoJ is about revealing the truth, I don't think this photo tells any lies.

Mike M's picture

"I don't think this photo tells any lies."

That the sky was that blue, that the horizon was that red, all while the middle of the sky was completely white.

Sunset/rise never looks like that, and don't you go telling me that's the truth.

Daniel Paz's picture

The camera was made to be a tool in showing the absolute truth, the objective truth. As time went on the camera began to transition from the sciences to the arts because ou were able to create great fine art pieces with it. I believe that what we see on the Washington Post is someone living in our society who is bkurring the line of the actual truth or the truth that he wants to depict to us.

Writing this my opinion is that in order to be true, HDR does not belong in photojournalism. But as I go on to think about how biased and deceptive the news aka "the truth" is now, HDR fits pretty well with today's norm.

Mike M's picture

Photography has never been true... sigh.  It shows you one very small part of the story for one infinitely brief moment, and yet will almost never tell you what happened before and relatively after that small period in time.

There is no norm of dishonesty today, the fact that some people manipulate media is beyond our control, though.

Alexis's picture

I understand photojournalism colorwork was done on slides rather than neg so the postprocessing would not alter what was captured by the photographer who supposedly had exposed and filtered with intention. That says  A LOT and it was just about exposure and color, so now talking computer artwork at worst or human artwork at best, I'm asking myself whether the clone tool has already been validated ?!

waiting now for real time war zone live footage being broadcasted with some movielike soundtrack ....


Mike M's picture

"I'm asking myself whether the clone tool has already been validated ?!"
For some of our fellow Fstoppers, I would imagine their answer is yes.

"waiting now for real time war zone live footage being broadcasted with some
movielike soundtrack ...."

I can just imagine the Washington Post.com doing that 2-3 years from now,
let's make it happen guys.

David Martin's picture

Your eye does not see a whole image at once. It scans scenes and adjusts exposure and local contrast to suit in a very small window, pretty much like an HDR tool. If anything an HDR image is a more accurate reflection of how we perceive a scene than a straight photo, though a straight photo is a more accurate representation of the scene itself.
I have no problem with HDR - no different to dodging and burning. Cloning and retouching is another matter, as is cropping to mislead by omission.

Anonymous's picture

It's really hard to justify when to or not use HDR in photojournalism. For war, crime scene or an article is about the photo then it is a 100% no HDR. If it is an article on a place opening or architecture photography, HDR (realism version... not grunge) is okay... a lot of architecture is already shot in HDR. This article is the in-between area... the photo is not the story, but a representation of the article... almost stock photography in nature. I'm meh on if they should have used it.

Gareth Bogdanoff's picture

The main reason I use HDR at all is because of the low dynamic range of my camera's digital sensor.  I suspect that if I could afford a Phase One, I would use HDR less or perhaps not at all. To me it is just a tool, and my goal is always to blend the exposures in a way that looks natural. The fact that I do not always succeed is a source of great frustration to me.

Mike M's picture

That's just technical jargon for "I can't find a great image myself with the limited tools I have".  The Medium Format Digital cameras are terrible for landscapes, 1: because they're more than most cars, 2: because you're only going to be shooting iso 80 with a ridiculously large zoom lens on it, and 3: 99% of people who say they need a DMF back have no f*reaking(* idea whether an image was shot with a DMF or D3x/D7000.  I guarantee you never look at an image online (with the exception of point and shoots, or smaller sensor DSLRS like the 4/3rds format, and can tell what kind of camera it was taken with.

The digital SLRS of today take incredible pictures, with worlds more dynamic range than you're even capable of seeing.  Most people with that mindset tend to look in all the wrong places, it's okay though ;P.

If you really just can't shiit with low dynamic range (um... okay...) then start shooting film with a slow speed roll.  Anything under 200 should give you good enough results.  And if something like Fuji Velvia 50 doesn't give you enough dynamic range to achieve decent results... you're doing it wrong.


Jayge Dreier's picture

Years from now we will look back at HDR photography and laugh.... wait, I'm already doing that

Like Zack Arias recently said: "HDR? Horrible Digital Reproduction!"

Brian McCarthy's picture

It doesn't bother me, so long as it's being used to represent what the eye would naturally.  After all, the human eye can capture a much greater dynamic range than any camera, so why should current camera technology be the gold standard?  However, we've all seen HDR that looks clearly artificial -- and that's where I would draw a fuzzy line in the sand. Does the image accurately represent what a person would see? Or does it depict a scene that was never there to begin with?

Travis Putman's picture

I think the root of the photojournalism is to not move or remove pixels.  I think using HDR is fine since (if is shot right) the information represented at each pixel location should be the same from exposure to exposure.  Thus no foul on using HDR.  I don't think it is necessary for photojournalist to be limited by the dynamic range of the equipment that they use.  HDR is just overcoming the limitations imposed by the camera.

Patrick Hall's picture

Here is my take and I'm shocked no one has asked this yet..."how was the HDR created?"  My humble understanding is true HDR can only really be created with bracketed images which would clearly be a violation of photojournalism because the photo would now not represent a true moment in time (what is a moment in time though really?  1/250th?  1/5th, 10 mins?).  

If you are simply pushing the fill, black, and recovery sliders around then IMO that's not much different then sliding a WB slider to an extreme (which could emulate a "real" color change from say a tungsten film) or fixing the color balance like they used to do in photolabs off negatives.  It's just altering the processing of the film and not changing reality necessarily.  

Of course I could be wrong if HDR actually means any image NOT processed in an uneven way through dodging, burning, gradient filters, etc etc.  But since dodging and burning seem to be acceptable, I'd say exposing a single frame to pull out the most detail isn't any different.

Mike M's picture

"can only really be created with bracketed images which would clearly be a
violation of photojournalism because the photo would now not represent a
true moment in time (what is a moment in time though really?  1/250th?
 1/5th, 10 mins?)"

Very good point Patrick, I agree with you fully.  The unabbreviated term does mean an image with a high range of contrast, but HDR as an acronym has mostly come to mean something created with software à la Photomatix, or whatever Adobe's new plugin for it is called. 

I doubt it wasn't more than one frame, but even then, people who argue that it's "more of the way that our eyes see it", have most likely never seen a real sunrise in their lives.   I have seen a lot of sunrises, and it almost NEVER looks like the way these hacks make it look.  Not ever.

Anonymous's picture

To add to your first scenario (bracketed exposures) - what if a person had been jogging across the frame at the time of the exposures? Now when you go to edit those together you have three 'ghosted' joggers that need to be cloned out further violating the principles of photojournalism.

This is obviously a feature photo. Also the credits do say that the image is a composite and the result of combining images. The paper owned up to the reworking of the image so as not to mislead the public.

Bogdan Radu's picture

To me HDR is as cheesy as Selective coloring... 

Joop van Roy's picture

It's simple really.
HDR can make an image look more realistic, more like our eyes see it.
The problem is that the software is very unrefined so it oversatures the image quite easily(among other things) and if the photographer doesn't have a keen eye (and most that use HDR don't) the photo will look like utter shit.

So even though it is a potent technique, it requires an expert photographer to handle it.

Mike M's picture

Based on how they're doing right now, I'm honestly surprised anyone even noticed this. 

Regardless, I think that the individuals who believe using a plug-in to create one image out of many is fine for PHOTO JOURNALISM, should also be fine with cloning, adding people who weren't there, maybe even PS'ing in a Moon or something.  In other words, one day their will be two overarching movements of photographers.  Those who pray to HDR, and those who don't.  I'd love to usher in that day, if only because it will separate the real artists from the hacks, and I don't know any real pro who would mind having a bunch of misguided, photomatix'd images to laugh at,

Po-Ming Chu's picture

I think people become confused with how photos are doctored and what photojournalism describes. 

Firstly our eyes have way more dynamic range that what any camera can record. (As others have described)If a camera has equal dynamic range to our eyes, no one would complain about this photo.
However, if this photo was over pushed in terms of HDR photography that what LOOKS realistic, I would say it is unacceptable. However, if HDR was used to simply document what was seen by the photog, there shouldn't be anything against the doctrines of photojournalism.End.

Joshua-James Cunliffe's picture

When it makes the bridge look like it's made of plutonium then yes, probably.

IS BLACK AND WHITE ANY MORE THE TRUTH THEN EXAGGERATED COLORS? What if they created a camera that had a greater dynamic range then our eyes...would it not be considered news-worthy?

Eamon Queeney's picture

As a working photojournalist, I would say the photo needs to labeled as a "photo illustration" or other equivalent term. HDR isn't much different than using a long exposure to blur a car or runner, just another technique to create a unique image. That aside, I hate most HDR photos and think they should be kept out of the newsroom unless they are really revealing something important to the reader. Also it is usually a composite of a few images which is deceptive. 

Garrett Graham's picture

Wow hot topic! My opinion is that for historical purposes the image should only be edited lightly from the original scene. Slight adjustments to brightness, contrast and color should be sufficient. HDR has it's place in historical photojournalism only to bring out important elements in dark areas. I think this particular shot is taken to the extreme and may not be representative of the original scene. I am not a huge fan of HDR photography, but when it is tempered and used appropriately it can make some scenes very exciting and interesting. At least they disclosed the method, but it does not excuse the extreme application.

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