Let‘s imagine you would need to choose a new camera for landscape photography. I’m pretty sure a large dynamic range would be something on the priority list. But is the dynamic range important or not?
Modern cameras can have an amazing dynamic range. A daylight scene with a sunny beach can have a dynamic range of 17 stops, however. Most modern high-end cameras will manage to capture the complete dynamic range in most cases, except the extremes.
Do you need a camera with a high dynamic range in landscape photography? Or is a camera with less dynamic range sufficient to do the job? Most cameras with an enormous dynamic range are very expensive. But not everyone has that amount of money to spend. Let’s have a look at the need for a large dynamic range in landscape photography. Perhaps it is perfectly possible to do without.
Reasons Why You Probably Don’t Need a Huge Dynamic Range
There are two things we often use in landscape photography. The first thing is HDR techniques, and the second is the use of graduated neutral density filters. Both are excellent ways to capture a high dynamic range scenery. I would like to take a look at both.
Exposure Bracketing and High Dynamic Range
In a landscape with a high dynamic range, the easiest way to capture every available light value is the use of exposure bracketing. Determine the lightest part in the image and measure the number of lights present in that part. Do the same thing with the darkest part in the image. Next, you can shoot an exposure bracket that covers everything between the two extremes.
You can calculate the number of stops that are present between these measurements and set up a range of exposures that capture every single light value without problems. It is possible to make an exposure bracket series of three, five, seven, or nine images. If you perform the bracketing manually, there is no limitation on the number of images. In theory, you could even capture the dynamic range from a recognizable surface of the sun up to the darkest shadows.
Although the last example is far from necessary and probably a very difficult task, it is possible to capture every imaginable light situation in this way. Combine the exposure bracketing series in your favorite post-processing software with HDR capabilities. The result is a high dynamic range photo that will transform everything well within the limits of a jpeg photo with not more than 256 tonal values per channel.
Using Graduated Neutral Density Filters
The second option is the use of graduated neutral density filters, also known as GND filters. These filters can reduce the dynamic range of scenery, and bring it within the capabilities of your camera. Using the right GND filter is very important, and even the stacking of the GND filter can be necessary to obtain a good looking end result.
There are a lot of limitations though. The gradient is always in a straight line, and there can be situations when the dynamic range exceeds the strength of the filter or filter stack. Besides these downsides, it is often possible to achieve very good results without the need to use the extreme dynamic range of a modern camera.
Combine Graduated Neutral Density Filters and Exposure Bracketing
If you run into a situation where the use of graduated neutral density filters can’t do the job, perhaps it is a good idea to combine the previously mentioned methods.
By using the GND filters, you can reduce the dynamic range of the scenery. This way, there will be fewer extreme highlights in your image, making it much easier to capture the remaining dynamic range. Fewer highlights will also reduce the risk of light spills from the overexposed areas when capturing the images for the darkest parts.
Reasons Why a Huge Dynamic Range Can Be Helpful
Often, there is plenty of time when photographing landscapes. You can use a tripod and take all the time you need to perform an exposure bracket and to use graduated neutral density filters in a very precise way. This becomes more difficult or even impossible if you don’t use a tripod. Although a tripod is advisable for landscape photography, there are situations when a tripod can’t be used. Or perhaps you don’t like to use a tripod altogether.
If you shoot with the exposure to the right, the shadows can be lifted in your post-processing steps. This can lead to significant noise levels if your camera doesn’t have good dynamic range.
There are limitations to this method, of course. Even the camera with the best dynamic range can’t capture the maximum amount of stops that might be present on some occasions. Also, the noise levels in the darkest parts are made higher. The use of a camera with a high dynamic range is also preferable when shooting scenes with moving subjects when exposure bracketing is completely impossible. It will allow you to retain details in the brightest parts of the image.
Nevertheless, even with high dynamic range capabilities, a landscape photographer might just prefer to use exposure bracketing or graduated neutral density filters. This way the best possible quality is achieved because there is no need to lift the shadows and all the risk involved with increased noise levels.
Is a Camera With High Dynamic Range Capabilities Necessary for Landscape Photography?
I believe the answer to this question is "no" without any doubt. Most landscape photographers will probably go for the image with the most detail and the lowest amount of noise. Even if the camera they are using has an amazing capability to lift shadows, the noise that occurs will be considered too much. Especially when the use of a tripod, exposure bracketing, and graduated neutral density filters is possible, few landscape photographers will need the extreme dynamic range capabilities of their camera.
But, if there are situations when a tripod or exposure bracketing is impossible, a high dynamic range can be a great thing to have. That is why a landscape photographer will choose a camera with the best dynamic range, even if most of the time, it is not necessary. If by chance you can’t afford the top-of-the-line camera with the best dynamic range, don’t worry. On most occasions, you won’t need it. Just use exposure bracketing or filters, and you’ll be fine.
If you are a landscape photographer, what are your thoughts on this matter? Do you use your camera's dynamic range in your photography or do you prefer exposure bracketing and filters? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.