Of the 4,070 photos I have uploaded to flickr so far, this image of the wonderful and awesome Silbury Hill in Wiltshire is by far the most viewed, with over 5,000 discrete hits. This is a relatively modest total compared to those of some other flickr members, but then I haven’t posted many sunset, flower or kitten pictures, which are consistently and disturbingly popular.
The largest man-made mound in Europe, huge and mysterious Silbury Hill is comparable in height and volume to the roughly contemporary Egyptian pyramids. Probably completed by about 2350 BC and part of the Avebury 'sacred landscape', it apparently contains no burial or shrine, and was clearly important in itself: but its purpose and significance remain enigmatic.
If I do a Google search for images of Silbury Hill, it doesn’t show up in the first ten pages, nor does it show up in the first couple of hundred photos in a flickr search. As far as I can tell, it isn’t linked to from other sites either, so I’m a little curious as to why it is so popular.
I uploaded the photo in April 2006 and since then it is regularly in the top ten of my most viewed photographs. I think the reason is because it is a ‘high dynamic range’ or ‘HDR’ image, and these are initially quite appealing.
HDR is a set of techniques that allow a greater dynamic range of luminances between the lightest and darkest areas of an image than standard digital imaging techniques or photographic methods. It is a popular method because it can produce stunning results if applied with subtlety, but is actually often used rather crudely resulting in painfully garish images.
Here’s an old example of mine which illustrates this. Even though I was consciously trying to keep things at the realistic end of the HDR spectrum, I was a bit too enthusiastic.
I very rarely use HDR now, but if I do I try to be very subtle with the settings to avoid the ‘explosion in a paint factory’ appearance these images often have.
I also quite like the effect in monochrome:
This photo of Silbury Hill is actually a ‘fake’ HDR made with Photomatix Pro. Usually Photomatix would be used to blend and tone map several different exposures of the same scene but I wondered if I could improve an old image (a single exposure) and push iPhoto a little bit. I made two copies of the original and in the first I increased the exposure adjustment, whilst decreasing it in the second. I then processed the resulting three images as usual with Photomatix and finished off with a little post-processing in Photoshop.