How Much Detail?

MesaVerdeHDRCompareI have often suggested that three of the key attributes that tend to be preferred in a photographic image, at least in terms of what can be affected significantly in post-processing, are contrast, saturation, and warmth. We tend to prefer images with relatively strong contrast, relatively high saturation, and a relatively warm color tone. That’s not to say there aren’t countless great photographs that don’t exhibit these qualities, but they do tend to be considered favorable qualities for an image, all other things being equal.

Among these attributes, the one I find most interesting is contrast. It seems to me that contrast is more subjective among photographers than saturation or warmth. And I think the advent of high dynamic range imaging (HDR) has only increased the debate among photographers.

To me there are two basic extremes when it comes to contrast, and they are defined on an axis between detail and drama. I feel that most photographers tend to fall into one camp or the other.

For example, I remember my days many (many) years ago working with the great nature photographer George Lepp, and performing initial adjustment work on images for publication. More than once, after optimizing an image to the point that I felt it was perfect, George would tell me that the contrast was too high, and that as a result there was too much detail missing from the photo.

Before too long, I started to realize that there was simply a difference of perspective at play. George loved having every bit of detail visible in a photo, and I enjoyed having a bit more drama evident as a result of “extra” contrast.

At some point, high dynamic range imaging (HDR) entered the scene. At first I didn’t think much of HDR photography. In fact, most work I saw was quite poor. It was either way over-processed, or it was just too obvious that some sort of extreme processing had been performed.

With time, I began to like HDR photography, dividing it into two basic categories. There was the “showing lots of detail” category, and the “taking some creative license” category. Each served a unique purpose. But with time, I found that I still tended to not want to reveal lots of detail, but rather used HDR in situations where I wanted to create a more dramatic statement.

I suppose there’s an element of this just being a part of who I am as a photographer. And I suspect that explains a great deal of why HDR photography seems to be so divisive in photography. Either you like lots of detail or you don’t.

What do you think? Is less detail preferred sometimes? Or is more detail always better? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments below.

About Tim Grey

Tim Grey is in the business of making photographers smarter and happier. He is the author of more than a dozen books on digital imaging for photographers, has written hundreds of magazine articles, and publishes the Ask Tim Grey e-mail newsletter as well as the Pixology digital magazine. He also speaks at a variety of events and leads photography workshops around the world.
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One Response to How Much Detail?

  1. Allan Duby says:

    Excellent post. The pictures posted demonstrate perfectly what you explain in the article.

    I think that each photographer decides with each picture how much “detail” and how much “drama” to show; it is a continuum. The trick for amateurs, like me, is learning the techniques to optimally take the picture, and the techniques to optimally process the picture. With mastering these techniques, you can decide the levels of detail and drama in the final picture.

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