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.
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.