In a recent conversation with a fellow photographer, we were discussing the over-use of HDR or high dynamic range photography. His description of HDR is “cartoonish” and in most instances I would agree. HDR toning can be applied in a variety of ways. but the basic application is essentially taking 2-3 exposures or brackets of a composition and merging them into a photograph that has more detail in all tonal ranges. This concept is not new to photography. Photographers can employ a variety of techniques to reduce the highlight-shadow ratio that include several types of fill-light applications.
The point of HDR is to improve the dynamic range of high contrast subjects. In traditional B7W film
photography one would “expose for the shadows and develop for the highlights.” This meant that the are of crucial concern was our shadow detail areas. We did not want to lose the detail there, but our development times and temperatures were crucial to preserve the details and tonal ranges in the highlight areas.
In digital photography, the development step is no longer an option. Digital media does not preserve highlight detail very well over several zones. It drops off very quickly and get blown out. Once the detail is gone, you cannot bring it back in Photoshop no matter how hard you try. It cannot be recreated but it can be merged into the highlight area from another image with a different exposure that preserves the highlight detail.
The one caveat to HDR before you run out and get the latest and great mapping software is that well exposed photo with a bit of adjustment using Curves, can come very close to HDR without the ghosting, glowing and surreal over-done images.
So, is HDR being over done? Like most gimmicks it can be pushed to the limit. I still hate images that are skewed sideways, but my general philosophy is if the image is not well composed to start, then all the filters, adjustments, crops or tricks in the world will not make it better.