Architectural Photography & HDR Tone mapping – Is It Overused?

HDR tone mapping has become increasingly popular amongst photographers as a post-processing technique, where several exposures at different shutter speeds are combined to produce an HDR image, followed by a tone mapping operation. This has unfortunately, in several instances, become particularly prevalent with architectural photography when trying to capture high-contrast scenes whereby the shooter can retain detail in both the highlight and shadow area of the scene. Tone mapping can also be performed on a single image, as was the case with the attached image, although the effect is less pronounced, especially in the amount of detail that can be captured. The final result can often look quite stunning with rich detail in all areas of the image, deep color and tone and with an overall dramatic and clean appearance.

But you ask, “Why unfortunately?” I was recently perusing a web site that was displaying predominantly HDR tone mapped, architectural images and was struck how cold my response was to the images. Truthfully, they simply did not look real, rather they were closer to drawings in appearance, had no subtle gradations of light, little warmth or evocation of mood and with an overall homogenous look that did not draw me into the scene. I didn’t want to live there!

It brought to mind a wonderful book, Timeless Interiors, author Alex Vervoordt, with stunning architectural photography by Christian Sarramon, where the scenes have been carefully reproduced using existing light that I am guessing was only gently enhanced and manipulated to paint the scene as naturally as possible. The images bring one back in time and, time and again I found myself wanting to settle into and be a part of the scene. I wanted to live there!

With the accompanying images to this article, one was photographed using existing light with minimal enhancement of the scene using professional strobes, two strobes in this instance, while the other image has been single image tone mapped to deepen tones and enhance detail. If the scene had been photographed using HDR technique whereby several exposures were melded together in post-processing and then tone mapped the result would produce even more detail in the highlight and shadow areas and have an even ‘cleaner’ almost surreal look. The second image with much warmer tones, to my mind much better portrays the living room’s warmth and comfort and does not have the over-processed, homogeneously even lighting and lack of subtlety found in the tone mapped image. The eye is drawn through the welcoming, homey scene to the piano, which is bathed in light from the adjacent window.

Admittedly, the tone mapped example is rather coarse and tone mapping can certainly have its place in all forms of photography, but I believe it is overused far too often and relied upon as a ‘quick and dirty’ solution to photographing a scene where the desired end result is big, bold and dramatic. I believe it typically lacks soul and realism and the true art form of architectural and other areas of photography is being lost. I have been as guilty as many in its use, but have increasingly being finding myself pulling back and returning to the old art form of photography that always tried to emulate the great painters of the past and present.