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.