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

  • Gereon

    I think that depends on the purpose of the HDR. If HDR is used to “shine a light” on things that lie in shadows, i.e. crime scenes, HDR becomes some kind of forensic tool and should definitely be allowed. If it is used to distort the information contained by altering light and thus the whole situation it shouldn’t be used. If it is done for aesthetic purposes only it should be up to the publisher. I don’t think it’s too good as a newspaper or website to gain a reputation of altering images for no special reason. Once a liar, always a liar.

  • Seriesrover2

    I think thats exactly it.  Compositing, layering, filtering, whatever….its all pixel manipulation which is the root of the problem.  What about low aperature to use a shallow depth of field – are objects blurred in real life?

    Whether a pixel is manipulated via mechanical means [the iris], electronic [the quality of the sensor], firmware [software in the camera], or desktop software post-capture [hdr, white balance, color correction, sharpening] it doesn’t matter whether its done automatically or manual – its still manipulation.The more important thing to consider is whether it _reflects_ reality in a reasonable, non-deceptive, manner.

  • Vtphoto

    As a photojournalist I say no but people have brought up some really interesting points that I agree with. Ultimately, we use the camera to document an event with a little bias as possible. I think photojournalism has changed over the decades due to technological advances. Today’s viewer expectations are high. We want everything to be sharp, well lit, framed well, and perfect. Photographers have to create an attention grabbing image to grab the attention of the readers these days. I feel sad that we have to “bend” the truth even more so than we do now in order to grab someone’s attention. To me that is no longer a documentary style. But, what do I know. I do appreciate the excellent discussion.

  • Seriesrover2

    I think thats good analysis.  I’d add that HDR as a concept is fairly new to the world of digital photography and theres no mistaking that it can make a photograph “pop” so people are pushing it.  And as competition for image capturing has increased exponentially many people are trying to make their photos stand out…and HDR fits the bill well.  Thats fine for artistic or personal photos but not so much for photojournalism.

    Its a bit like saying is Saturation bad…and yes, it is if over used but not if its used wisely.

  • Seriesrover2

    Or low aperture that causes blur?  What about black and white photos – thats edited since its removed the hue from the light captured?

  • Seriesrover2

    I’m curious as to why thats important?  Its still manipulation.

  • Travis

    HDR should be considered perfectly fine in PJ.  It’s not like it’s changing the image, it’s only changing the exposure.  You wouldn’t get mad at them if they brighten or darken an exposure so why complain about increasing the tonal range?  HDR is just a tool, a means to reproduce the tonal range our eyes can produce.

  • Tito

    what the hell! Next they will say it’s not allowed to remove political incorrect people. What sort of totalitarian system are we gonna have then?

  • Kevin

    best response yet.

  • doug b

    Since when was photography a medium of some kind of “perfect truth?” Images taken with film or digital cameras pass through a number of different “filters” that adjust the subject that was captured. I think the real issue is when the manipulation of the photo manipulates the viewer’s impressions of the scene beyond what they may have seen with their own eyes. But at the same time, the lay person doesn’t see like a photographer and that is why photo editors choose images that show a thought provoking composition that brings a new perspective to a scene that may otherwise go unappreciated.

  • Graysmith

    What bothers me is not so much about it not being a representation of truth so much as being ugly as sin.

    HDR itself isn’t necessarily evil, but finding an HDR enthusiast who actually uses the technique in an appealing way is like finding a needle in a haystack. I can probably count the number of HDR photos I really love on one hand.

  • Kbwaldron

    Oh, get a life. They were very upfront about the process, the picture doesn’t purport to be about anything, simply the place something happened a long time ago.
    Every picture ever taken has been a manipulation of light of some sort or another. Please pick your lines to draw somewhere more realistic and worthy of debate.

  • Bogdan

    That’s not photojournalism in that particular scene. The picture is simply an ilustration, a pretty picture of a location, nothing more so for all intents and purposes they could have been running it thru Corel Painter and do one of those Monet-like impressionistic filters or whatever.
    Besides, the WP states plainly in the description what the image is and how it was done. Why all the fuss?

  • Skinner photographs

    Friends don’t let friends HDR.

  • Jamal Photo

    just one thing !!
    who put the rules of everything ?
    i dont think there are any rules in photography ,, rules are for fools !

  • Pub Louis

    HDR is painting, why not putting paintings in Newspapers but the reader has to be informed

  • Justin

    Are long exposure shots considered photojournalistic?

  • Anonymous

    Remember it is possible to create an HDR image from one RAW photo…  So the plane argument might not even be valid.

  • Toomas Kadarpik

    HDR if done in natural way  makes images more similar as we have get used to see through human eye vision system. There are of course many artistic forms that does not suit into press. Current visual interpretation implementation comes from technology and press has adopted it, but is not natural or resembles human vision. Photographer is the interpreter in this process.

    HDR is very old thing and was huge success in painting from year 1600, quite many scenes just does not work without HDR, all artists were convinced after that. Look at the HDR history

    In photography  there is not HDR alone, size constancy, color constancy, our eye HDR like interpretation, perspective distortions, our 3D virtual world around us. 

     Photography is anyway interpretation like our own vision is interpretation from real world around us. I think we should also argue is white balance allowed to change. Future press photography is definitely some sort of HDR done by camera implicitly trying to mimic our human vision system more accurately. Current system is just implemented due to the lack of CPU and sensor speed. 

  • Anonymous

    If HDR is not allowed in photojournalism we should throw away all those magnificent black en white images since they show us something that never existed. 

  • David Shapton

    If you’re there, you’re there. If you’re not there, then you only have someone else’s record of what happened. That might be a photograph, or it might be a (possibly exaggerated) recollection. Even analogue photography changes things. Digital photography invokes any number of processes and manipulations inside the camera that we’re not even aware of: Sampling, quantization, DSP etc.

    All of this comes down to a few simple questions that are more to do with ethics than technology. Was the intention to mislead or simply to overcome the dynamic range restrictions of the camera? Were objects in the image moved or fabricated?

    Finally, another question: how far is it OK to enhance pictures that are used in journalism? Up to a point or never? What about contrast, saturation, curves, sharpness?

    What’s wrong with journalism being about drama *and* beauty?

  • Radek Bajenski

    Yes. And you can also have an HDR image from only one photograph.

  • Alan Dove


  • Aaron Campbell

    No different than what Ansel Adams did in the darkroom…

  • José Antonio Rocha

    Is NASA galaxies photos acceptable in photojournalism? They are composed of dozens of exposures…

  • John Gore

    Not to be too technical, but the article states that the new iPhone 4S shoots HDR in one shot. This is not true. The 4S (and the 4 before it) offer an HDR mode which actually shoots 2 exposures, one after the other, and then blends them in camera (er.. I mean in phone).

    This can be tested by taking an HDR of a moving subject, the resulting HDR shows ghosting (double edges), which is a typical issue with HDR.

    The new Nikon D4 and Canon 1Dx, however, are both capable of shooting multiple exposures in a single exposure (i.e. multiple exposures of the same moment, but the shutter only opens once).

    To many of the comments above, I think some may not know / may have forgotten, that photo journalism is very different from other forms of photography, and needs to be authentic.

    As a regular HDR shooter myself, I can fully respect the comments of Sean Elliot above, and agree that HDR which results in a manipulated images has no place in photo journalism.

    That said, pros are using multi exposures (usually dodge and burn, shadow and highlights, etc) all the time to “completed” a photo in post production. At what point does that become HDR?

    As a final comment, HDR can be done so well (by certain people) that the viewer will not even know that they are not looking at an HDR photo. That is true art (but still does not belong in photo journalism IMHO ).

  • Kyleneuberger

    “Photojournalism” is telling a story through photos.  Often times, the story can be told more clearly and dare I say accurately through a photo process that lessens or eliminates the limitations of equipment.  Quite simply, HDR can tell a better, more vivid and accurate story.  Isn’t that moving us closer to better journalism?

  • Kyleneuberger

    Ben, I think I would have agreed with you maybe 12 months ago. However, HDR education and processing has come a long way already.  While there might be some psychedelic “technicolour vomit” out there, I would argue that I more often see HDR shots that look much more compelling than their 1-exposure counterpart. 

    If a WELL-PROCESSED HDR image can look more vivid and tell a better story, doesn’t that get us closer to what we are looking for in photojournalism?  Why limit incredible possibilities of illustrating a story in fear of something that might fall short of subjective expectations? 

    This is such a great discussion.  I really do see both sides, but lean more towards embracing HDR.

  • Jeroen

    The photo in this article acts as an illustration, not documentation. The photo was taken at an entire different moment (30 years later) than the story it illustrates and the plane in the photo is not the plane the story is about… so in this case, in my opinion, there is absolutely no valid argument against a HDR image.

    In a case where the photo is documenting the story, i.e. it was taken while the story took place or so shortly thereafter that the results are still visible, it might be a different case, although in most cases a HDR photo will not change what is visible and it might still be acceptable.

    Most people above who dismiss the use of HDR photos do that because they don’t like the looks of the HDR photo, not a good reason in this case…

  • Notjustsomeonelse

    of course not! what the hell.

  • Matt Mason Photography

    I agree with your sentiments. Perhaps a rule that HDR images must be created within 1-5 minutes so that it is still a “moment” captured. We are limiting our creativity and losing detail to ban HDR. It seems like a good solution to simply point out that the image is HDR.

  • tatyana skymyrka

    The Big Picture showcased HDR photo (#24) for Haiti’s earthquake anniversary coverage.  I support the editor’s decision.

    HDR is great if done right, especially for an editorial.  It after all only reflects true range of what the human eye sees, something that camera is not capable of in a single exposure.

    AND HDR is old as film itself.  So I hope to see more widely acceptable use.  I am of course not rooting for those toxic radiating oversaturated photomatix gone crazy abstract “works” (:

  • Thomas

    We should not use B&W pictures also, because we do not see without colors… it is also a “manipulation” of reality. Bu we can also do it with words… you can describe a situation in many ways, using different words, without lies, but leaving someone to think about the situation in a specific way…

  • Paul Laroquod

    This is all very much nonsense. There is no such thing as capturing a “single moment” in photography. Even a short exposure is still a combinaton of different moments. An absolutely instantaneous single-moment exposure would not be capable of capturing any light at all.

    The right question to ask is not, ‘Does the image combine multiple moments’, because the answer to that is always ‘YES’ no matter how the image was captured or processed, HDR or not. The right question to ask is, ‘Did the elements depicted ever actually exist in that spatial relationship to each other?’ And the answer to that is YES for standard photography, YES for HDR, but no for other types of compositing.

    To insist that say, a long one-second exposure is ‘real’ whereas a composite of three HDR shots taken collectively in *less* than a second is *unreal* is simply nonsensical.

  • MrNew

    Might us well ban the use of digital cameras, if that’s the case.

  • Andrew


  • Sungyle

    HDR has nothing to do with adding an airplane.  It just opens up the shadows and tones down the highlights so you can see more clearly what the scene contains.  Good HDR is just the ultimate burn and dodge.  We cannot take one single poorly executed HDR sample and use it to challenge a whole technological advancement.  

  • Sungyle

    It never deviated from painting with light.

  • Sungyle

    “long exposure” is definitely an interesting long moment!  Fire works photos, volcano explosion night shots, stars moving across the sky and cars moving along the highway… Journalism is about telling a story.  If all the elements in the photo contributes to the story, illustrates the written words in the story, I think HDR will be a valuable tool to show what’s hiding in the shadows or the highlights in that interesting moment.

  • Spope

    All photography involves some manipulation of reality. At a
    base level the manipulation of reality is not avoidable since our eyes can often
    perceive much more than cameras can but sometimes cameras can do more than the
    eye can. This has been the case since the beginning of photography.

    Black and white versus color is certainly a manipulation. The
    lack of color is a manipulation. The use of filters in BW photography extends
    the manipulation but has been an accepted practice in journalism forever. Who hasn’t
    used a UV filter to change the way an image is recorded? Who didn’t have a
    favorite paper to produce a particular level of contrast or grain?

    Color usage in cameras has also been regularly manipulated. Who
    hasn’t used a polarizer filter?  How many
    professional journalists from the film age did not think about and then select a
    particular type of film to get a particular effect. Are Kodachrome colors real?
    How about the color shifts inherent in most other film brands? Is the resulting
    tonal range reality or preference?

    How about depth of field? Who hasn’t used aperture to modify
    depth of field in a way that the eye can’ match?

    How about shutter speed? Was the motion blur in that prize
    winning photo reality or is it an artifact produced through the manipulation of
    the shutter?

    HDR in many respects is no different. In a pure sense it
    allows a camera to more closely record the wide tonal range our eyes perceive.
    If done correctly from a journalistic perspective it results in an image that
    is closer to the reality an individual looking at the scene would see. That said
    HDR and all of the tools mentioned above can be used in ways that are not
    journalistically acceptable.

    As Paul notes the issue of time and spatial relationship is
    critical. A series of photographs taken in quick sequence and then composited
    into an HDR image should be acceptable if they pass the test of being similar
    to what a real person would see viewing the same scene at the time the photo
    was taken. Similarly a single image processed multiple times and then composited
    as an HDR image would pass the test. Using images taken over time and then
    combined in a way that removed a Coke can from a table would not be acceptable.

    Oh wait-the can disappeared before HDR became common as a result
    of Photoshop manipulation. That is definitely not acceptable.

  • Anonymous

    So how does HDR differ? 

  • minotaur

    This is great timing considering Kodak’s bankruptcy.

    HDR is merely expanding the dynamic range in my opinion, and eventually it will be standard in all digital cameras as an option, so this argument will be moot. 

    True photographic journalism is video.  The image has historically been manipulated. It’s too romantic of a fantasy to say that an image has EVER been pure.

  • Ellis Vener

    “Is HDR an issue because it’s simply not automatic in the camera?”
    That is not the issue. Unless the photo is clearly decribed asa  illustration based on photographs the assumption made with documentary and photojournalistic images is that the photograph  you are looking at it is recording of a unique moment in time and is something you would have seen if you were standing where the photographer stood at the instant he took the photo.

    Images with exaggerated colors (And not all (so called) HDR photo illustrations need to have these overly saturated colors  do not fit that definition.

    There is also the question of time. 

    Since  this a composite made up of different images photographed at different discrete points of time,  why is the jet depicted in only one location?) 

     “HDR” images can also be created by processing a single raw photo processed with multiple development settings and then the three resulting documents combined into a single one. Do you think that  would that have over stepped the line? 

    Either way it is contrary to the implicit promise of a photograph used for journalistic purposes: “I was there. This is what I saw”. 
    And that is why it is wrong to use HDR and similar techniques for photojournalistic purposes. This is not a technical or aesthetic issue- it is an ethical and moral issue;  If had simply been labeled as a photo-illustration there would be no issue. 
    The good news here is that “The Washington Post” clearly described how the photograph was made – but simultaneously failed to address the issue of the jet’s apparent. non-movement. 

    If a photograph were being used in a non news context or simply been labeled as a photo-illustration there would be no issue. 

    Whether you like the idea of HDR processing  or not, or how a photographer  used the technique (and mostly I don’t), this type of processing is absolutely fine for non news purposes. . 

  • Ellis Vener

    “As long as the “truth” isn’t altered”

    Except that it has been altered and in several ways. 

  • Fockafino

    I think if they want us to be able to see the details in the shadows *and* in the highlights, instead of tricking us with a combined image, they should show us the separate images side-by-side.

  • –Z.

    ALL Photography “manipulates” what we usually call “reality”!
    These arguements go back to the “Original Sun Pictures”, and
    get repeated every time there is a progressive shift in technology.
    What are you all going to say when the sensors in the cameras can
    capture a greater dynamic range in their “native” format, with NO
    in-camera “extra” processing, just due to the “better” chip design
    and construction?…and at, say 48 M.Pxl.s in a DX-chip?
    At some point, it is just the inevitable march of innovative technology,
    trying to make our “captured moment” more and more like the
    “real thing”.

  • Just Visiting

    True. Long exposure sometimes takes up to seconds, while HDR require less than that, by average.

  • Just Visiting

    Even JPG is subject to some sharpening and signal amplification. Photography should banned altogether, because it freeze moment. That’s unreal.

    Get real Sean Elliot.

  • Just Visiting

    How about in camera HDR?

  • Just Visiting

    Like what, the plane supposed to be a bird in normal photography?