Do we really need High Dynamic Range?

Before I begin this posting, I wish to stress that this topic is specifically about landscape photography. I do believe high-dynamic-range is a feature much needed in many realms of photography. I've put this article together to really play devils advocate, and to hopefully make us think more about what we know about light, and whether working with narrow dynamic range systems is actually good for our learning and development as a photographer. --

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.

Reine-Sunrise, Lofoten

This has in turn, given me pause for thought. More dynamic range than I already have access to,  is not something I particularly need or feel is limiting what I do, and considering that I am still a 100% film shooter - I'm typically working with 4 to 5 stops of latitude in my film of choice. So I've been wondering why there tends to be such an interest in dynamic range and a feeling that we need more. Digital cameras right now are offering more dynamic range than most of us have seen until very recently, so in some regards, we're more spoiled than we have been in the past.

I think there is certainly the techie side of photography that can easily suck us into believing we need such a feature for our landscape photography. High DR is to tonality, what high resolution is to detail: in my opinion - an often wanted  than is actually needed feature.

I've been shooting a small latitude film for most of my time as a photographer. Fuji Velvia, which has perhaps around 4 to 5 stops of dynamic range to it. I've found the limitations of the film to be beneficial to my own understanding of light and development as a photographer. It's because of these limitations that I have had to go through the pain of learning what good light is.

In my experience, good light tends to be soft light, and soft light tends to have a low dynamic range to it. You can peer into the shadows while also enjoy the highlights of a photograph made in this kind of light. By contrast (bad pun), high contrast light is ugly light, no matter how much Dynamic Range your camera has to offer - you will still come home with an image well recorded - of ugly light.

And this is perhaps the issue. I think 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 dynamic range. I had to go through the pain of shooting in crap light and getting my images home and realising they looked a lot worse than images shot in soft light.

It's now got to the point for me, that if I'm metering a scene, and the DR is more than 5 stops, I tend to avoid it, because 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 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 6 stops of grad on the camera, you're still struggling to fit it all onto your sensor / film?

Well, for me, I learned a long while ago that recognising 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 / not 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 really benefiting? Aren't we always going to be looking for more DR in our cameras, and always wanting to shoot what we can't?

Festhelltinden, Lofoten

Perhaps this is the real issue at hand: we want to be able to shoot anything, at any time, the way we want. In other words, won't we will always be wanting 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 simply never going to be possible to shoot everything we want, when we want. If we recognise this, and accept it, we can stop chasing rainbows and get down to the real task at hand: 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 kinds of light conditions. It has given me a sense of clarity and of focus to my work. I now specialise, rather than try to be a master of many things. Because of this, I don't get so lost when working towards my goals. Things are simpler. Less choice means less obstacles, and therefore, a clearer picture of where it is that I want to go.

Improvements in photographic skill are done in small steps. We need to notice changes, and for this to happen, we need the changes to happen in manageable bites for our mind to digest.

Learning what good light is, does not come from  having a flexible system that can handle all kinds of light. This kind of system can just record ugly light well. Learning about good light comes from working within the confines of what nature has provided us with. Cameras do not see the way we see, and hoping that a high dynamic range camera will allow us to cut a corner in our own photographic development is just false economy. We have to do the work, and earn the knowledge.

Ytterpollen, Lofoten

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 go seeking this kind of light with a dedicated passion. Knowing what limitations are out there, has made me value those golden nuggets of beautiful light even more. It has become a life long study, and I don't feel I would have benefited so 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 (reduce detail) or freeze (increase detail), so I would wish to use low DR to restrict myself to working within certain kinds of light. I would encourage beginners to go out there with a low DR setting on their camera, because I think it would teach them to go out looking for softer tones. From there, I would encourage beginners to work their way towards expanding their experience and newly gained knowledge of light, by increasing the DR of their camera. This would further cement the knowledge of where the boundaries are between beautiful and ugly light.

I would argue that this is in fact what many of us have been doing over the past decade since the digital resolution began, only some of us are probably not so aware of it. Since the introduction of affordable DSLR's way back in early 2000, the DR of most new cameras has been on the increase each year. If you've been studying the quality of light, you should have noticed 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 Dynamic Range 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 it is transformed by your cameras sensor or film you use. Seeking a high dynamic range camera from the beginning can do you a disservice, because you are effectively trying to shortcut a learning process that is vital. You really do 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 return home with.