The Ethics Committee held an open discussion on the subject of High Dynamic Range photography at the recent Northern Short Course. We found that each of the three members of the committee had different levels of acceptance of HDR but that we all agreed on the basics. The discussion was precipitated by the use of an HDR image on the front page of the Washington Post several weeks before the NSC. It was a photograph of a plane flying over the 14th Street Bridge in Washington for a story on the anniversary of the horrific crash there. Six frames were used to create the photo and the colors were more saturated than could be obtained by normal
photographic techniques. The Poynter Institute raised questions concerning the appropriateness of using the image in a news context and NPPA’s president Sean Elliot commented that he thought it might be inappropriate to use an HDR image due to the fact that the public might think there was some photographic deception in the use of HDR on the front page in a news story. Elliot wrote before the NSC, “My argument with the HDR is less than it being an intentional deception but that it is too easily lumped into the category of manipulated images. This may be less true of single-frame HDR processes but it still begs the question in the viewers’ minds of how much manipulation is going on and whether or not that effects a wider sense of trust.”
All agreed that was no attempt to deceive the public in the use of the photo. The Post was trying to use new technology to make an interesting photo from a potentially dull situation (anniversary photos can be very dull). This point is what makes the HDR situation different from the L. A. Times incident several years ago where two photos were combined to create a third, more interesting photo. That deception cost the photographer his job.
Steve Raymer was the most accepting. He wrote, “If I had to summarize, I’d say that Peter and I argued that so-called high dynamic resolution photographs were part of a long evolution of photographers finding innovative ways of seeing the world — one that is being accelerated by rapidly changing technology. So long as HDR photographs are published in ways that do not deceive readers, they do not breach ethical norms.”
Peter said, “I came away with the feeling that we agree far more than we disagree, and that we are all committed to defending the same turf: the fundamental integrity and purpose of photojournalism.”
There was no sense that deception was intended but some, especially John Long, felt that even though it might not be intentional, the question remains, “is the public well enough aware of the technique to understand it or does the newness of the process cause red flags for the reading public?”
Long also had reservations due to the fact that it usually takes multiple exposures to make one HDR image, thereby challenging the idea of “Moment.” Using Henri Cartier-Bresson’s definition of a Decisive Moment being that instant when form and content come together to create the perfect photograph, does the HDR process negate this concept and if so, it is time we redefine “Moment?” This is a great concern for Long and one that he will discuss in a future column.
After many questions from the audience, the consensus seemed to be that HDR is a technique worth exploring as part of the inevitable evolution of photography but that it is important that it not be used to create inaccurate photos. Honest reporting is always the goal and if HDR images help in this pursuit, there is no ethical problem.