Author’s Note: This article is specifically about landscape photography. While I do believe high dynamic range (HDR) is a much-needed feature in many realms of photography, I wrote this article as a devil’s advocate, hoping that you'll think more about what you know about light and whether working with narrow dynamic range systems is good for our collective learning and development as photographers.
Every once in a while, I get into a conversation with someone who wants to shoot landscape images with high latitude film or is seeking a wide dynamic range digital sensor for use in landscape photography, and in turn, this has given me pause for thought. Dynamic range (DR) beyond what I already have access to is not something I particularly need, nor does it limit what I do—I’m still a 100% film shooter, so I typically work with four to five stops of latitude in my film of choice. I’ve been wondering why there tends to be such an interest in DR and a feeling that we need more. Digital cameras now offer more DR than most of us have seen until recently, so in some regard, we’re more spoiled than we’ve been in the past. The tech side of photography can easily lead us to believe we need more, rather than less, to improve our landscape photography.
HDR is to tonality what high resolution is to detail: an often more-wanted-than-is-actually-needed feature.
For most of my photographic career, I’ve shot with small latitude film such as Fuji Velvia, which has around four to five stops of DR to it. I’ve found the limitations of the film to be beneficial to my understanding of light and development as a photographer, and it’s because of these limitations that I've had to go through the pain of learning what good light is.
Good light tends to be soft light, and soft light tends to have a low dynamic range (LDR) to it.
You can peer into the shadows while also enjoying the highlights of a photograph made in soft light. In comparison, high contrast light is ugly light, and no matter how much DR your camera has to offer, you will still come home with an image of well-recorded ugly light.
Perhaps the issue is that most photographers who seek wider dynamic range from their cameras aren’t aware of what the limitations of their medium can offer them or bring to their work.
I’ve learned a lot about light because I had to figure out how to get all the tones of a scene into a limited DR. I had to go through the pain of shooting in crappy light and once I get those images uploaded realizing they looked a lot worse than images shot in soft light.
If I’m metering a scene and the DR is more than five stops, I tend to avoid it. I’ve learned that this is my boundary between good and bad light, not because it’s the boundary between the limitations of my medium.
Good landscape photography light tends to exist in a narrow dynamic spectrum.
But the quality of light is only part of the story. What about those scenes where the rocks in the foreground are far too dark and even with around six stops of grad (graduated ND filters) on the camera, you’re still struggling to fit it all onto your sensor/film? I learned long ago that recognizing how certain tones register is of great importance.
This is perhaps the most vital of skills to be learned: to be able to see how a camera sees, and understand at a glance what tones will or won’t work in a scene.
We learn to restrict ourselves from certain scenes or compositions because we know that even with a lot of grad in place, the scene is still hard to record. I can fully appreciate that wanting to have a wider DR available would allow us to shoot these scenes, but are we truly benefiting? Aren’t we always going to be looking for more DR in our cameras, and always want to shoot what we can’t? Perhaps the real issue is that we want to be able to shoot anything, at any time, in any way we want. So won’t we always want what we can’t have?
Limitations are good for us. We have to learn where the boundaries lie and how to work within them.
It’s never going to be possible to shoot everything we want, at the exact moment we want to make that photograph. If we recognize this and accept it, we can stop chasing rainbows and get down to the real task of perfecting our craft.
For me, I’m happy with my limited range film. I’ve often found great experiences are learned from working at the boundaries of the medium. I’ve learned a great deal about which tones I can shoot and at what times it may be possible to do so and under which types of light conditions, which has given me a sense of clarity and focus to my work. Rather than try to be a master of many things, I now specialize. And because of this, I don’t get so lost when working toward my goals. Things are simpler. Fewer choices mean fewer obstacles, and therefore, a clearer picture of where it is that I want to go.
Improvements in photographic skill are made in small steps. You need to notice changes, and for this to happen, you need the changes to happen in manageable bites for your mind to digest them. Learning what good light is doesn’t come from having a flexible system that can handle all kinds of light; this system records ugly light as well. Learning about good light comes from working within the confines of what nature has provided.
Cameras don’t see the way we see, and hoping that an HDR camera will allow you to cut corners in your photographic development is a false economy. You have to do the work and earn the knowledge.
I’ve learned the hard way what good light is and what ugly light is. I’ve learned that I have to work in a narrow spectrum of the range of light that is present on this planet each day, and I seek this light with a dedicated passion. Knowing what limitations are out there has made me value those golden nuggets of beautiful light even more. It’s become a lifelong study, and I don’t feel I would have benefited as much than if I could just shoot anything because my camera can handle it.
If I had my way, DR would be another parameter I could change in my camera, just like I can change shutter speeds to blur and reduce detail or freeze and increase detail, so I would wish to use LDR to restrict myself to working within certain kinds of light.
I’d encourage beginners to use an LDR setting because it teaches how to look for softer tones. From there, I’d encourage beginners to work toward expanding their experience and newly-gained knowledge of light by increasing the DR of their cameras, thus further cementing the knowledge of where the boundaries are between beautiful and ugly light.
I would argue that this is what many of us have been doing over the past decade since the digital revolution began—only some of us are probably not so aware of it. Since the introduction of affordable DSLRs in early 2000, the DR of most new cameras has increased each year. If you’ve been studying the quality of light, you should notice how much easier it is to record certain tones, but you should also know that you still need to get out there for twilight, sunrise, or overcast days to get the best light, regardless of how much DR your camera has to offer.
Either way, part of being a good photographer is about gaining a breadth of experience of what light is and how your camera’s sensor or the film you use transforms it. Seeking an HDR camera from the beginning can do you a disservice because you are effectively trying to shortcut a vital learning process.
You need to spend many years—if not decades—learning what kind of light works best, and that can only happen by finding out where the boundaries are and by actively studying the quality of the light in the images you make.
Bruce Percy is one of Scotland’s most notable landscape and travel photographers. His work has been published throughout the world in numerous travel and literature publications. His client list includes the Sir Edmund Hilary Foundation, National Geographic Traveler magazine, American Express, and Fujifilm UK.
His first monograph, The Art of Adventure – 40 Photographic Examples, was prefaced by Michael Kenna. His second monograph, A Journal of Nocturnes, was published in 2012.
Bruce is a keen photographic instructor and regularly conducts landscape workshops in Scotland, Iceland, Norway, Patagonia and Bolivia through his own photographic workshop company. For more information and news about Bruce, visit his website.