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Posted at 11:29 AM ET, 01/17/2012

Post photography and the use of high dynamic range


The photo that appeared on The Post’s front page Jan. 13, 2012. (Photo by Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
Friday’s front page carried a photograph marking the 30th anniversary of the crash of Air Florida’s flight 90 into the 14th Street Bridge.  The photo was taken using a high dynamic range. Several readers and journalists have questioned its use. On Saturday, Poynter.org ran a story about the photo and some of the reactions to it.

I selected the photograph, taken by Bill O’Leary, because it was a visually arresting image of the bridge.

To get a closer look at Friday’s front page, click here .

Some readers were confused about our explanation, in the caption, of the technology used to achieve the image. The caption read:

A jetliner flies high over a tranquil scene at the 14th Street bridge, where 30 years ago winter weather and human error conspired to bring down Air Florida Flight 90 in a disaster that claimed 78 lives. This image is a composite created by taking several photos and combining them with computer software to transcend the visual limitations of standard photography. See stories, B1. For more photos, video and other coverage,  go to postlocal.com.

Two points of clarification are worth mentioning — the use of the phrase “visual limitations” probably added to the confusion of some readers. “Exposure limitations” would have been a better choice. The word “composite” also seems alarming. One reader thought we created the elements of the image. We did not. In this case we should have said “composite exposures.”

Brief captions do not allow more than a small amount of space to fully define the digital photography technique used to make the picture. Our efforts to be transparent to the reader and convey that we had performed a technological task outside of our normal process created greater misunderstanding. I regret that our efforts to explain created confusion; I do think that our readers deserved some hint of the new photographic technology employed in the image.

We have done many stories on the Air Florida crash; this time we wanted to try something different. We thought readers would appreciate the beautiful scene of the bridge 30 years later.  Historical images appeared on the Metro section front.

HDR is a relatively new photographic process unique to newer digital cameras. HDR is software and camera processes that collect multiple images in separate exposures or layers to achieve High Dynamic Range. Indeed, the digital camera sends light and exposures to a sensor in the camera instead of film. In the front page photo, HDR allowed us to capture the brilliant sunset in the sky and in the water. It also gave us better detail in the bridge.

David Scavone, a professional photographer from Alexandria, sent us a letter regarding a previous HDR image that we published on the front page on Dec. 23. He defined HDR this way:

HDR is all about extending the tonality of image[s] to more accurately represent what the human eye can see as opposed to the limitations of the digital or film capture. HDR, by combining multiple images, creates a composite that has more information in the shadows and bright areas of an image than any single image could capture.

We are very ethical about photography at The Post and do not manipulate photos.  When we use technology for illustration imagery, we try to be transparent to the reader.

Michel du Cille is The Post’s director of photography.

Related:

Gallery: The 30th anniversary of the Air Florida plane crash

30 years after Air Florida crash, skies safer than ever

Poynter: Washington Post raises eyebrows, questions with ‘composite’ photo on front page

By Michel du Cille  |  11:29 AM ET, 01/17/2012

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