Jeepers. Do I really need more dynamic range? Should I drop all other considerations and rush towards the camera with the biggest dynamic range?

Lighthouse via Panasonic G9.

I recently made some portraits on a remote location. The light was interesting. We were on the verge of a winter storm and the thick, swirling clouds acted as multiple diffusers. There was little difference between the quantity of light in the shadows and that in highlight areas. What was missing was not dynamic range but rather interesting light for portraits. The prevailing light was great for all the foliage and mountains (and fog) in the background but rather flat on my subjects' faces. I added a light from one side in order to provide some directional illumination which made the portraits much more interesting. But I never thought for a second that the solution to getting a great image was dynamic range. In fact, in situation after situation, over six weeks time, I might have faced bright sun, rainy days and the golden glow of magic hour but I never stopped and said to myself, "If only I had a stop or two more dynamic range."  

I'm speaking from experience as a portrait photographer, not a landscape photographer, but the thing I find in just about every photography situation is the need to add light or control the direction of light in order to control how the images look. If your main concern with dynamic range is your desire not to burn out highlights I suggest that you engage the blinking highlight indicators in your camera's menu and use them as a guide to set the right exposures. Problem solved. Aha! But what about blocking up detail in the shadows? In most situations you can fill the shadows more convincingly with a reflector fill since bringing up all the highlights via a slider control in post opens the shadows everywhere in the frame. That kind of manipulation creates a flatter file overall which is contrary, I think to the way we imagine photographs should look. Just because you can pull up shadow areas with sliders doesn't mean you are adding any information in those darker areas, you are just flattening the overall file and creating a contrast curve that, to my eye, appears unnatural.

In the days when most cameras had dynamic ranges of 7 to 8 stops the mania for increased range was understandable. Now that we have cameras which can capture more range than a monitor or print will be able to even show it's become as much of a red herring as demanding 16 bit files for images that will mostly be displayed on 6 bit phone screens. You can already map your current 11-14 stops across the 6 stops of your monitor in any way you please. Do you really need to condense down even more discrete tones in order to be happy? I don't. 

At the top of this blog post is an image of a lighthouse. It's lit by the sun. One side is in shadow. Nothing got lost. No burned highlights. No crushed, black shadows. There are so many controls to help you get the contrast curve you need in camera for success, it's just up to you to practice good exposure technique and make sure you are putting your rich supply of tones into the correct exposure slots in order to reproduce them the way you want them. Most extra dynamic range is lost in process. 
Get everything right in camera and your file will be better than those from someone who depends on the available "slop" in a raw file to compensate for lack of technical discipline. 

Don't get me started on white balance......

Some blacks are blocked up in this shot. That's intentional. It adds to the graphic quality I was aiming for in the black and white file. Deep, dark shadows are NOT evil. They are graphic elements. 


TMJ said...

Oh woe is me!! I an a poor Canon FF photographer, and the Internet Says its dynamic range is shocking, barely capable of making a decent image. But methinks mine is a 'special' version, possibly intended for the 'Special One', (José Mourinho), because I find that when I get it right, (which sometimes happens), it makes rather nice images.

Anonymous said...

There should be a "Best of VSL" or a "Must read" section, and this article should be in it. Simple, but important stuff. Thanks.

Jason Hindle said...

Ummm.... If you’re talking about baking JPEGs, in camera, I would say that advice applies to some cameras more than others. They all bake differently (a subject of vaguely nerdy fascination, to me). It certainly applies to my two Olympus cameras. OTOH, I recently shot my Olympus and Sony cameras together. I was a able to get JPEGs from my Olympus kit that I could not get from my Sony. Compared to the DR optimisation in Olympus and Panasonic cameras, Sony’s DRO seems poor. With Sony it’s raw and slop all the way.

Anonymous said...

As an old photographer once said "If God wanted you to see into the shadows, He wouldn't have made them so dark."

Jason Hindle said...

The trick is to get what your eyes saw. The DR of modern cameras leads us to a fashion of rather flat photos and elements you didn’t really see. The flexibility is nice to have but often misused, The shadows matter, and sometimes darker than seen is better. Vast areas of absolute black, OTOH.... I think that rarely works (and rarely reflects the experience of seeing in a given moment).

Dave Jenkins said...

"The DR of modern cameras leads us to a fashion of rather flat photos and elements you didn’t really see."

I think that is so true. At the risk of sounding like an old codger, I believe I did my best work on slide film (35 years!) and never found its limited DR a handicap. In fact, I much prefer the look that slides gave me and try as much as possible to maintain that same look in my digital photography.

Anonymous said...

The obsession with DR is probably rooted in two separate issues affecting photographers:
A) the horrible clip to pure, senseless whiteness, that only in the latest years (sensors/processing) has been somewhat mitigated, and that truly caused early and mid- digital to sore the eye of every caring photographer.
(it never went alone, by the way... It always stood at shouting distance of its very next of kin, the dreaded Mr. Clip Highlights and Crunch All Shadows to Black: equally if not more painful with its imaging style a la polaroid with flash...)

B) to help differentiating between sensor sizes and technology, so that those invested in large(ish) formats can feel properly reassured their expenses, and the weight they lug around, truly makes a scientific difference.
(it does actually. Sometimes at least)

If A) is removed, B) becomes... trivial? :)


Ps both you and the honourable Michael Johnston are extolling the DR virtues of the latest Panasonic cameras.
Perhaps they have finally climbed the very last step of the ladder to full imaging status? (the E-M1 had excellent,but excellent high iso noise management, but abrupt highlight cutoff even at low iso)

Anonymous said...

T-Max 100 could record 18 stops of information on the negative. Getting it into a print was the problem. Shooting Kodachrome 25 for years for publication had us learning how to expose film so we did not blow out the highlights - and lived with the shadows.
That said, I do find times when having a greater dynamic range so I can lift shadows a bit without penalties in 'noise' and color problems would be great. Still shoot B&W film, mainly with the 8x10 and Hasselblad. For the rest it is digital and the results look very good. Digital negatives for Platinum/Palladium prints are worth it and smaller, lighter gear with all the lens choices make for more spontaneous images than the older 12x20 view camera.