How old is HDR Photography?

Before answering the question the title poses, I’m going to start by attempting a definition of High Dynamic Range photography.

HDR photography encompasses a range of techniques geared toward representing a greater range of contrast in an image than is possible in a single exposure. Two or more images, taken at different exposure levels, are intelligently stitched together so that the final image records detail in both highlight and shadow areas.

How old is it? Who was the first to employ those techniques and when?

The start of the digital era and  the launch of programs such as Photoshop made it easier. But clearly it antedates that. Was it during the era of Ansel Adams, and his ‘Zone System’ circa 1939 or a bit earlier with the work of Charles Wyckoff? Or earlier still?

Well, I have a fascinating photographic fact for you today – that may well astonish some of you – it certainly astonished me.

Last week I and other members of the Camera Club for Retired Fellows of the Royal Society of Medicine went on a guided tour of the recently opened Photographs Gallery at the V&A Museum in London. It was a real treat to see some of the first ever photographic images – the oldest from 1839. The gallery chronicles the development of photography, its uses and styles with images by a range of exponents including Margaret Cameron, Man Ray, Cartier Bresson, Cecil Beaton, Ansel Adams, Bill Brandt, Irving Penn, Diane Arbus to name a few. It is a feast for the eyes and also an opportunity for a re-appraisal of how immensely skilled those early pioneers were: using primitive bulky cameras, handling toxic chemicals and struggling against the odds to produce images that still survive today – some of them for over 170 years. It’s hard for us, in the era of the instant image, to appreciate the difficulties they faced.

'The Brig' - Gustave Le Gray

One image stood out for me and led me to revise my knowledge of the development of Photography. The image is ‘The Brig’ by the French Photographer Gustave Le Gray dated 1855, an image taken 157 years ago. It is a stunning image – perfectly exposed – an early example of a seascape taken ‘contre-jour’, or into the light. It is both timeless and modern at the same time. The quality is superb. This is my own ‘snap’ of it in the gallery’s low level lighting, not of high quality and taken obliquely to avoid reflections, but hopefully good enough for you to appreciate this image.

How did he achieve such a perfect exposure?

He took two negatives at different exposures, and printed the sky with one, and the sea with the other.

And those simple facts results in Le Gray being credited with being the first photographer to employ the essential concept of HDR photography more than 150 years ago in the infancy of photography.

There’s a comprehensive appraisal of the importance of Le Gray and this image by the V&A here. It’s well worth taking a look at. And for what it’s worth, Wikipedia also cites Le Gray in its article on HDR Photography.

So there’s a fact that astonished me and may cause a lot of us to revise our knowledge of the history of Photography and our appreciation of the skills and ingenuity of those pioneers.

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About LensScaper

Hi - I'm a UK-based photographer who started out 45+ years ago as a lover of landscapes, inspired by my love of outdoor pursuits: skiing, walking and climbing. Now retired, I seldom leave home without a camera and I find images in unexpected places and from different genres. I work on the premise that Photography is Art and that creativity is dependent on the cultivation of 'A Seeing Eye'. I'm not averse to manipulating images to produce derivatives that may sometimes be far removed from the original.
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14 Responses to How old is HDR Photography?

  1. Great post. Very informative and I agree with your comments about The Brig.. Thanks for sharing. Last night I decided I should learn a little more about the history of photography and ordered a DVD copy of the BBC series The Genius Of Photography which I missed when it was screened on TV a few years back. It has some great reviews and doesn’t sound like it is going to be like one of the recent “dumbed” down documentaries that seem to fill our TV screens. at the moment. If you are interested to take a look, I picked it up on Amazon for a good price. With your interest in photography I’m guessing you may have already seen it? Best wishes…

  2. hdrexposed says:

    Wow, that certainly is amazing Andy. I knew that it was old, but I don’t think that I had ever seen an “original” great post for sure man.

  3. Terrific post Andy. I didn’t know about Le Gray but it doesn’t surprise me. Many people believe that the older photographers couldn’t have used “modern” techniques because of the limitations of film. Many of them were masters in the wet darkroom. Having developed in the darkroom (very rudimentarily), I really appreciate the work that goes into a great image like this.

    By the way, that’s quite a name your camera club has.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks Len. Life is full of surprises. I was really surprised that someone had the idea and was able to execute it so early in the history of photography. The Camera Club is a nice social club, nothing competitive. We may be all retired ‘Docs’ but we haven’t given up on learning!

  4. jimdenham says:

    Pretty awesome image and history! I’m sure there are folks who will say that Le Gray cheated though. Purists! Excellent information and post!

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks for commenting Jim. I thought this might cause some debate! Unless the image comes straight out of camera and stays like that, then I guess we are all cheating in some way or other. I often wonder how famous photographers like Ansel Adams would have reacted to Photoshop if it had been available to them – I have a feeling they would have embraced it warmly.

  5. Wonderful post andy and history. It just goes to show (for the “purists” out there) that post processing techniques were imployed well before the digital age in order to create an extraordinary image.

    • LensScaper says:

      Thanks for commenting Edith. Ansel Adams was a master at darkroom manipulation. I tried a bit of burning and dodging when I used to print B&W. I found it difficult to say the least.

  6. Phillip says:

    Very interesting post Andy. Reminds me of my Mother saying that “there’s nothing new under the sun”. I guess that we just refine it and put it into different packages.

  7. Totally awesome post and lesson, Andy. I can really appreciate these types of insights into the pioneers of the craft. You did an excellent job writing this up and also capturing the image itself. It hearkens back to those days when it was captured, Nice job, man.

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