Is HDR Acceptable in Photojournalism?

The Washington Post raised some eyebrows last Friday after running an uber-saturated front page photo with the caption stating that it was “a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography.” After emailing the photo editor, Poynter learned that the image was simply an HDR photograph. While it’s a pretty common technique these days, some believe that it has no place in photojournalism,

Sean Elliot, president of the National Press Photographers Association, 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.” [#]

What complicates matters is that many new cameras (e.g. Nikon D4, Apple iPhone 4S) offer HDR features that create single images from multiple exposures in the camera. The Washington Post published a response to the controversy yesterday. Do you think HDR is an appropriate technique for photojournalists to use?

(via The Washington Post via Poynter)

Image credits: Screenshot from The Washington Post, and photograph by Bill O’Leary

  • Anonymous

    You missed my point by explaining my point.

  • stanimir stoyanov

    Oh, so if you cover an object in the scene with your finger, it’s “in camera,” and then not a manipulation?

  • Daniel Hoherd

    Regarding “I would argue that I more often see HDR shots that look much more compelling than their 1-exposure counterpart”, in regards to what I personally shoot I strongly disagree.  I’ve been shooting HDR for over 5 years, usually going for a subtle look, and within the last two years I’ve found that more often than not, versions of photo sets I had intended to process through Photomatix and Photoshop look better if I just run one shot through LR.

    Here’s an example:

    On the technical side, I did some digging and found that Photomatix handles RAW processing really terribly, which is a big part of why LR works so well as an alternative.  See these examples:

  • Daniel Hoherd

    It’s interesting to me that none of these comments make the distinction between image compositing for dynamic range vs tone mapping.

    Image compositing is compositing, plain and simple.  Do they allow multiple exposures in photojournalism?  Do they allow any compositing?  Probably not except in editorials.

    Do they allow tone mapping?  Why, in fact they do in some cases.  How about that photo of the atom bomb?

    HDR = high dynamic range.  Some day our cameras will take one shot and the result will be a an image format of high dynamic range information.

    The original question is ambiguous.

  • Anonymous

    HDR images need post processing for that visual “appeal” . So, it’s similar to photo-manipulation using photoshop, which is obviously not acceptable…unless you are photographing models…and you don’t use HDR to photograph fashion models-which makes HDR unacceptable for photo journalism…

  • Matt

    The HDR argument is ridiculous.

    The very act of snapping a photograph is editing.  Unless I’m the only one, I don’t see in 4×6 frames.  Every single photograph ever taken has manipulated ‘reality’.  From the most casual mistaken shutter snap pointing at someone’s feet to Ansel Adams.  

    HDR is only another variation of manipulation.  A HDR photograph doesn’t need to pass anyone’s arbitrary judgement on whether it is ‘natural looking’ or ‘good’ HDR.  Such arrogance is indicative of the commentator’s intelligence or gives an insight into their agenda.

  • jbhaber

    Is black and white photography acceptable in photojournalism?  Duh!

  • jbhaber

    So, if it’s horrid, then it’s unacceptable? Gee that would preclude 1/2 the articles, too. But what about Black and White? Why in today’s world, is manipulating an image to remove color acceptable? By your logic, if you have to remove color to make it look good, then don’t publish the photo at all.

  • MG

    I, too, think it’s not acceptable when you end up with something not realistic. I mean, look at these sunset colors. Not real! 
    That’s because when you open the paper you expect accurate information on what’s going on, in the same way that the stories you read are not fiction (or poetry for that matter). The fact that photos might be “edited”, in-camera or via software is no foul per se. Cropping a photo does not necessarily misinform, unless crucial information is left out. Use of HDR to bring a photo closer to what the eye can see (in high contrast situations) is to me equally acceptable. Generating exaggerated color tones, as in this case, is not.     

    A note on Black & White: It’s important to acknowledge that Black & White photography was established at a time when there was no alternative (color photography started becoming commercially available about 100 years after black and white photography was invented, and even then years had to pass for the press to adopt it due to the higher cost of printing in color). Even so, nowadays papers use color photos for their front page, not B&W. B&W is sometimes is still used for artistic reasons (this could also be the case with exaggerated HDR), but also because the lack of color (but addition of tones) in a B&W photo adds to the realism, as many would argue.   

  • 9inchnail

    Our eyes are limited when it comes down to perception of light and shadow contrast. Cameras can even cover less dynamic range. HDR is a good way to circumvent that. You can get closer to human perception and even beyond it. Just because we can’t see some details in the shadows with our eyes, doesn’t mean they’re not there. So HDR can be closer to reality than a single exposure shot.

  • Unai Risueño

    Dear Thomas, that’s not true at all. Some albine tribes don’t see any colour (see the work of Oliver Sachs and many others. And seeing colours it’s quite subjective as well. Think about the colourblind. But anyway, you’re right as well… This is such a difficult debate! Philosophers are discussing this issue since the beginning of mankind. But anyway, as photojournalist, my opinion is that every picture is unique, just a single moment. And HDR is more than a moment and more than a single reality…

  • Jaap Arriens

    At the end of the day it’s the message, the idea that counts so who cares if HDR or any other technique is used? In the b/w days there was so much dodging/burning going on in newspaper darkrooms and nobody complained. Second digital photo’s aren’t objective to begin with because of the bayer interpolation etc. It ain’t Kodachrome no more! Most important of all in the near future me thinks we will see more and more HDR in the press, this is just the start so instead of trying to be purists better start anticipating the digital future IMHO.

  • Ed

    Thomas, B&W photography was the standard used by photo journalist due to processing and the ability to get it into print quickly. Color took longer and was more difficult to process. When processing and printing technology improved you saw many more color photos printed in news media. B7W is not an altered reality, a b&w image can actually provide more detail that can be noted in a color photograph. The eye tend to be distracted by a variety of colors. 

  • John Hudson Photography

    Yes!  Tell the story with any technology that communicates what is in your mind.  Share with all your heart and use technological capabilities that help you accomplish this. 

  • Anishkarb

    Then log exposure photography is also not acceptable because i have seen images being expose for more than 50 mins. It is not a moment(1-5) as one of our friend pointed out. I think HDR is totally acceptable

  • Aristeo Valdez

    HDR is digital manipulation but it is not meant to manipulate the details in that single moment. If you compare a non-hdr photo with what the human eye sees. the non-hdr photo is nowhere near what an actual person would see with his/her eyes. an hdr photo, in seconds or less, captures that moment without too much manipulation of the details, well, not as much as what the human eye discerns anyways. It actually uses digital manipulation to increase detail in that certain moment. when you take a photo of an overcast sky with a shadowy foreground/background, you would probably get one of them right but the other without or lesser detail. But a problem with hdr it is slow when it comes to freezing motion, especially if you have a moving subject. I guess HDR is good to be used for news but not in all cases. rather not use it though because it would impair a photographer in taking that moment. but its not something to be totally unacceptable for news as well.

  • D. Mosley

    I think it should be allowed, as long as it is stated in the cutline that it is not a “photo,” but a photo illustration, or HDR, or some other way that clearly describes that it is not a traditional photo.

  • James

    This comment is two years old so I doubt you’ll read this, but apple recently developed a technology that allows for the image sensor of a camera to be read multiple times as it’s taking a photo meaning that it can be read at +2ev, 0 , and -2ev. in a single shot.