The curse of the tone map­ping op­er­a­tors

Very smart al­go­rithms are se­duc­tive, but the re­sults can be ju­ve­nile

NPhoto - - Nik Pedia -

You might well ask in re­sponse to this ti­tle ‘What curse? Aren’t th­ese tools such as high­light re­cov­ery, clar­ity and de-haze sim­ply mar­vel­lous new ways, in­con­ceiv­able in the days of film, of bring­ing out any­thing and every­thing from an im­age and en­abling to­tal cre­ative free­dom?’

Th­ese rel­a­tively new al­go­rithms work at the level of neigh­bour­ing pix­els in quite com­plex op­er­a­tions, and are all the chil­dren of HDR tone-map­ping, hence the term tone map­ping op­er­a­tors, or TMOs. They work lo­cally but are nor­mally used glob­ally, al­though Adobe’s ACR (that is used by both Light­room and Pho­to­shop) en­ables you to ap­ply them lo­cally, as in a ra­dial fil­ter. The seem­ing mir­a­cle of open­ing up shadow ar­eas, restor­ing de­tail in high­lights and gen­er­ally mak­ing every­thing look more de­tailed and clear has been widely em­braced. So what’s to com­plain about?

There are two is­sues. One, which may sound churl­ish, is that they make im­ages look less tra­di­tion­ally pho­to­graphic, which we dis­cussed in Treat it like a photo, op­po­site. It’s enough here to say that they all have one thing in com­mon – they’re de­signed in one way or another to re­veal more from the im­age. That seems to be hardly ques­tioned nowa­days, but many pho­to­graphs in fact de­pend on not re­veal­ing all. You might call that the value of shad­ows.

The se­cond is that there are no re­straints on us­ing them to ex­tremes. They in­vite play­ing around and the re­sults can be, frankly, child­ish. And yes, that’s just my opin­ion.

A spec­tac­u­lar cloud­scape as a storm builds over the high grass­lands of west­ern Sichuan (above), with a highly over-pro­cessed ver­sion gen­er­ated with TMOs in what has be­come known as HDR style (left). This kind of treat­ment is easy to over­cook

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