In my previous question someone pointed out that unnatural HDR based toning will get more objections from the photography community than cropping. I personally feel that slight HDR based enhancements are OK from an artistic perspective as long as the final image is not changed drastically.

Why are hardware-based manipulations, like black and white photography (traditionally using black-and-white film), long exposure, etc., which also result in an "unnatural" image, acceptable while software-based manipulation (like HDR) is frowned upon by the photography community?

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    Frowned upon by whom? And why do you classify desaturation as "hardware based"? Can you find another example besides long exposure? – mattdm Sep 27 at 13:54
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    I think you're generalising from "using HDR on every image at max effect level is bad", which certainly is a common complaint, to "software based manipulation is bad" which is at most a much less prevalent theme. – Philip Kendall Sep 27 at 14:08
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    Beyond the hardware that does storage and retrieval of digital data, and the hardware that captures and displays that data, there is very little if any "hardware based manipulation" of images - it's all software. But it might be software running in your camera/phone, or it might be software on your laptop or desktop. Anyone who frowns on "software" manipulation over "hardware" manipulation doesn't get that point... – twalberg Sep 27 at 14:49
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    I personally frown upon (excessive) HDR, not only because it is unnatural, but because it is ugly - in my opinion. It comes down to personal taste I think. – osullic Sep 27 at 15:09
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    It's not that HDR is frowned upon when it is well used to depict a high dynamic range scene using a medium (print, screen, etc) with a lower dynamic range. The best HDR images aren't immediately noticeable as HDR images, but instead appear as a scene might look to the eye of an observer. What many object to is using the tone mapping features of HDR applications to produce what is often referred to as "overcooked technicolor rainbows of vomit." – Michael Clark Sep 28 at 1:46
up vote 10 down vote accepted

Why are hardware-based manipulations, like black and white photography (traditionally using black-and-white film), long exposure, etc., which also result in an "unnatural" image, acceptable while software-based manipulation (like HDR) is frowned upon by the photography community?

Because we feel we need to put a line that separates photography from painting somewhere.

Most will agree that straight-from-camera photo of a brick wall constitutes photography. Also, most will agree that 1996 John Corkery's depiction of Hedy Lamarr used in Corel Draw ads does not.

Ultimately, one can take a photo of a something and "keep modifying" it over and over until nothing of the original photo remains and digital artist's vision takes over. The easiest and least controversial threshold is to refer to older times when photography was already established but digital art was non existent.

So to answer your question: it's a convention out of tradition/inertia/whatever you call it.

It keeps changing and evolving. What's frowned upon today would likely be mainstream in few decades.

I intentionally used "lifelike vector illustration of Hedy Lamarr" (actual legal description) as an example of something that is undoubtedly 100% digital art, yet it's based on a photograph.

  • This answer correctly understand the essense of my question and satisfactorily answers it without being too argumentative and without being nit picky about any wrong terminology I might have used due to my lack of experience – kiran Sep 30 at 16:46
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    Calling it "tradition" doesn't answer the question with respect to HDR toning because there are people who object to the use of HDR toning, but not other techniques that are not "tradition", such as removing distracting objects from the edge of the frame with content-aware fill. – xiota Sep 30 at 19:27
  • I agree with your general point, I really, really, really disagree with the distinction being drawn against painting. Maybe "digital painting"? – mattdm Sep 30 at 19:43
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    @xiota On the other hand, there are people who object to digital alteration like that but think HDR is fine. – mattdm Oct 1 at 14:11
  • Why does cropping break traditional photography rules? ... Why are you worried about cropping when you're using HDR? ... Why is HDR unacceptable vis-a-vis traditional manipulations like cropping, B&W, and long exposure? ... It's "Tradition" all the way down... – xiota Oct 1 at 15:29

Why are hardware-based manipulations, like black and white photography (traditionally using black-and-white film), long exposure, etc., which also result in an "unnatural" image, acceptable while software-based manipulation (like HDR) is frowned upon by the photography community?

Differences from human perception that are due to limitations of the medium are generally more accepted than intentional alteration that is free from such limitations. Obviously, there's a range of opinion, but this isn't just a "some people think" thing because there's a difference between outcomes which feel, for physical ("hardware") or historical reasons, natural for a particular art form and those which don't.

  • Black and white photography is not a "hardware manipulation", even if we consider film to be "hardware". It's a historical technical limitation, and because of its history, has become part of the language of photography.

  • Long exposure — I'm assuming you're thinking of the smooth-as-butter waterfalls, or traffic as streams of lights — may not exactly match human perception, but neither does short exposure! The human visual system builds an always-updating, time-based model of the world. We don't see a stream (or cars!) frozen in time. Any shutter speed selection results in something that is an artifact of the photographic process.

Similarly, one might find visible brush strokes in an oil painting made with physical brushes to be fine while adding brush-stroke effects digitally to be "frowned upon" — even when the digital result looks amazing.

  • "The human vision system intrinsically builds an always-updating time-based model of the world." Perfect description. Kudos. – IconDaemon Sep 28 at 1:15
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    Indeed, although I'm not a fan of HDR aesthetic, I'd say in its defence that what it's trying to achieve is ideally to create something closer to human perception (hyper-real maybe). The vision system involves changes of aperture etc integrated into an imagined image very different to a single photographic exposure. Of course, HDR isn't always attempting to appear naturalistic though. – PeterT Sep 28 at 14:59
  • You've made a persuasive argument that no photograph ever perfectly duplicates human perception, but I'm not sure I see how that makes distortions based on mechanical choices more acceptable than distortions based on digital manipulation. – 1006a Sep 28 at 20:44
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    Simple — differences from human perception which are due to limitations of the medium are generally more accepted than intentional alteration free from that. I can expand a bit, but basically that's why a challenge the premise. There is a simple, natural difference between the examples given and HDR imaging, and it isn't to do with "hardware" per se. – mattdm Sep 28 at 21:01
  • to really answer OP: I think the difference is because hardware wired algorithms passed the consensus filter, by the product's team. Which means the maker believes the executed alteration is so standard, that it's good to have it natively. example: auto skin cleaning of most digital cameras today. By contrast, software changes are more easily controversial because they are more easily not universal, since there is an infinite space of possible filters. – v.oddou Oct 1 at 8:37

Is it frowned upon? Photography has always made use of whatever technology was available, whether in the camera, the darkroom or, now, the computer.

It's a long time since other forms of art were required to be 'photorealistic'. No need for photography to be either! If you find yourself among people who disagree, work within their rules if you find benefit, but work elsewhere as well.

I got into photography with a compact digital P+S just before DSLs became affordable, when all the photography experience and wisdom to absorb was about film. Because the people I learned photography from were all analog shooters, when I got a digital rebel and shot raw, I always made certain not to manipulate the image in a way that could not be done "for real" in a darkroom.

You can do a lot in the darkroom: curves, contrast, channel mixing, USM, solarization, cropping, dodge/burn, perspective, vignette, etc. There's also a lot of digital-only tools you can use, but I never touched: clone brush, most filters, art history, paint bucket, text, gamma, plastic camera fx, etc. I felt like those were cheap or virtual or cop-outs, something along that line. Instagram was/is a total abomination under this view.

Why did I feel that way? I guess because I respect the methods and techniques of those who inspired and taught me. Maybe I wanted to make sure they could advise on all aspects of my prints, so I kept the process familiar. Looking back though, it's likely a pointless handicapping, and I could have saved a lot of shots if I weren't so pedantic.

I'm probably not that unusual though, so perhaps it's just the honoring of tradition that guides the relative acceptance rate of various photographic techniques, at least among experts and veterans, who then guide newcomers. In that sense, things that can be done only in the virtual world of digital will be subtly perceived as unrealistic, and realism is a valued quality for most types of photography, and especially for photos that other photographers like; things they can do but didn't.

  • Well said, articulated and focused. You expressed many of my thoughts and beliefs as well. – Alaska man Sep 27 at 19:28

Why... acceptable while... frowned upon by the photography community?

The context changes what is acceptable and what isn't. The context of your original question was "traditional photography rules" not "photography community". But what is photography community? Everyone who owns a camera? There are so many subgroups with contradictory preferences that it doesn't make sense to ask about the preferences of the entire group as a whole.

Nature photographers are expected to photograph nature, not caged animals or taxidermy specimens. Documentary photographers are expected to represent reality as nearly as possible, not to airbrush people out of photos. No such restrictions apply to ordinary people.

In my previous question someone pointed out that unnatural HDR based toning will get more objections... than cropping.

By the numbers, more people will object to the HDR toning than to cropping. Those who object to cropping are likely to object to HDR toning. Many people who find cropping acceptable object to HDR toning — X + Y > X.

Your previous question was about "traditional photography rules" and cropping. While cropping has a long history and can be justified as falling within the bounds of "traditional photography", HDR toning is a recent development that is far less likely to be considered more "traditional" than cropping.

While there are darkroom techniques to combine multiple exposures and increase dynamic range, HDR toning has a distinctive look and modern computational requirements that set it apart from darkroom work or programs that simulate darkroom processes.

HDR Toning

It's very much like looking at impressionist paintings. The execution is at least as important as style choice. Some nice images have been created using HDR, but the effect has been over-used. Many people are now tired of it. There are also images where HDR is not well used. This includes images with lifeless colors; halos; desaturated, low-contrast shadows; harsh, blurry transitions between light and dark; and exaggerated, over-sharpened details.

Hardware vs Software

Why is hardware based manipulations... acceptable while software based manipulation... is frowned upon...?

Restrictions to limit photography to in-camera processes might have originated as a guideline for documentary photographers to reduce the temptation to edit their photos. For some, it's a point of pride to get it "right" in camera. For others, it's a time saver to not have to post-process.

As others have mentioned, the distinction between "hardware" and "software" isn't clear because modern cameras are specialized computers. Most cameras have multiple toy modes, and some cameras have in-camera raw processing, along with other editing capabilities.

mattdm speculates: "Differences from human perception which are due to limitations of the medium are generally more accepted than intentional alteration free from that." The dichotomy is natural vs unnatural, in and for a particular medium, not hardware vs software.

Eye of the Beholder

I personally feel that slight HDR based enhancements are OK from an artistic perspective...

You can do whatever you want and call it art. You don't even need a camera. Whether other people agree with your "artistic" tastes is a separate issue.

When people are concerned more about a technique than they are about whatever effect an artist intended, that piece has failed as art. HDR toning tends to be so glaringly obvious and ugly that it draws attention to itself before anything else can be considered, causing the image in which it was used to fail as art.

... as long as the final image is not changed drastically.

Where did this requirement come from? Is it no longer art if the image is "changed drastically"? Regardless, HDR toning does change the image drastically because every pixel is modified in the process.


HDR is a tool. It is used to create pictures with an equal exposure all over the image, to show all details, the ones which would be underexposed, the ones that would be overexposed and the normal viewable details.

Another tool is a hammer. Not for taking photos, but for hammering nails into something. But a hammer can also be used to shape a sheet of metal into something different.

Similar is HDR, you can use the tool to create something new out of an existing image. You take a picture of a boring place and change it into something fantastic and unreal.

People who frown upon HDR may also frown upon flashlights and reflectors.

Funfact: HDR Photography is nothing new. Check it out:

Personal note: I frown upon modern art, like Beuys "Bathtub"

This is a psychology question rather than a photography question and as such can be extended to other mediums:

  • Why do people frown upon MP3s even though they can't tell the difference between that and a lossless recording?
  • Why do people frown upon CGI and applaud physical stunts, even in cases where they personally cannot tell the difference?
  • Why do some people frown upon digitally drawn art as opposed to hand drawn art?
  • Why is wearing makeup considered acceptable but photoshopping skin defects is frowned upon?
  • Why do some people applaud photographers who shoot on film, even where digital can achieve the exact same results?

As you can see various people can frown upon hundreds of different issues. Sometimes there's a wide consensus on a given issue, other times only a few fringe groups protest against a given practice.

Whether you should give the slightest attention to their opinion strongly depends on the context - if you're interested in becoming a member of a given photography club and its rules forbid using software-based manipulation, then you should probably adhere to their standards. On the other hand if adhering to the standards of photography purists is not your cup of tea, then you can easily ignore them at will. Its their right to criticise just as much as its your right to completely ignore their criticisms.


Hardware manipulation usually means one know what they wan to do and how they are about to it prior the shutter is released. Software manipulation usually means one is squeezing the best from the image after it was shot.

Some people, inscluding me, consider photography as painting with light.

In old days one need to take light, scene and the desired image into account and set everything up manually (focus, shutter speed, aperture, strobes, film sensitivity) to get the film image. Then the have to develop it and build the resulting photograph in the darkroom.

Great photographs were crafted usually by skilled photographers who have the sense for the scene and timing and the knowledge of how to accomplish desired effect.

Todays cameras have plenty auto regimes ranging from simple (and quite old) shutter/aperture priority to full auto. To accomplish desired effect one still need to know what is the key parameter (slow shutter for silk-smooth waterfall; aperture wide open for shallow DOF) and what can be automatically set.

On the other hand, postprocessing can be considered as painting with matrix operations. All you need is to apply some filters, brushes, and other. One does not need that deep knowledge of "what the hell is going on" to change the photograph some way. Some "photographers" do postprocessing just because the photograph was badly shot and they desperately try to undo the mistakes.

Anecdotally, once I forgot my camera set to night scenes - high ISO, apperture wide open - and made several shots in the sunlight. They were badly overexposed. Later at the computer I just played with those images and randomly set the filters to the limits. I was lucky, some of them were not that badly overexposed so I was able to get weird image out od them. Finally, I sometimes do that overexposed images on the purpose, when I want to get the effect that I get accidentaly.

Anything you do on purpose and you know what you are doing all the time from pointing the camera somewhere and pressing the button to uploading the image to your portfolio there is nothing to be frown upon - You wanted to do that and it was your decision.

The problem with excessive digital manipulation is that it results in a reduction of information. This is a bad idea when starting with something like JPEG since JPEG is a format that has significantly reduced the amount of data based on a human image perception model, including things like coarse quantization of "less important" features and chroma subsampling. As a starting point for image processing algorithms, the assumptions underlying the lossy compression are not valid. As an extreme example, significantly blurred images may be sharpened (at some loss of quality) but if JPEG decided "I can throw away all of that information since the human eye is not going to see a difference in this blurry mess" you may be more out of luck than you thought.

Now even with RAW images, there will be quantization. All of that means that in general you are much better off starting with good solid image quality rather than saying "I'll fix this up later on".

Now make no mistake: fixing stuff later on is actually standard fare but you still want to start with good (not necessarily perfect) input. It turns out freckled models are unpopular since they seriously complicate post production fixups: "too much information". They are actually also annoying in pre-production fixup since they are a much more complex work area for makeup specialists than more homogenous skin types.

So there is good reason to create as good material as possible before entering the digital domain, and that's the job of a photographer. Processing used to be an area of different specialization and still is, to some degree. It's a different craft that usually is not intended to contribute significant creative energy but rather convey what the photographer delivered to the process in the best manner.

Your mileage may vary, but far and wide good results depend on good starting material. So the good starting material becomes a category of pride of its own.

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