In modern digital photography, every new camera model announces its increased dynamic range, or ability to capture a broad range of light. All camera manufacturers are fighting to exceed their last model and their competitor's model, growing what seems to be an endless data sheet into a camera that can see in the dark, in all spectrums of light, can capture 10 gigapixels of data, and is essentially noise free...oh, and can also successfully fly into an erupting volcano. While I am all for the advancement of technology, part of me cringes when I see these specifications on all new camera bodies. What's missing in so many modern photographers is the ability to see and capture quality light. Mind you, I am writing this in the perspective of a landscape photographer. The advent of modern digital cameras have their place in other photographic mediums and strongly believe are important for the industry, so take what I say with a grain of salt.
"Quality light" might be a vague, subjective phrase, but let me explain. The human eye sees, photographically speaking, about 20 stops of dynamic range and modern digital cameras are quickly approaching this number with the advent of new technology. What this means is the human eye essentially has the ability to cognitively see nearly every shadow and highlight in nearly any given scene. What people don't realize is what the brain focuses on and what the eyes are seeing are two entirely different entities. This is where the art of photography and anatomy differ entirely.
Let's say that it's 2020 and cameras can be shot handheld at ISO 1,000,000 and capture 20 stops of noise-free dynamic range. Great for technology, bad for the art of photography (and tripod companies.) What the camera has actually done at this point is separated the highlights from the shadows and grouped them together into midtones. This creates a flat, unappealing image that, while being technically correct and what the "eye" might see, does not accurately depict what the human mind is seeing or feeling. That's where the subjectivity and artistry comes in.
Picture yourself standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon, witnessing the most vibrant sunset you've ever seen. You are looking towards the west, the sun is below the horizon and the clouds are glowing in shades or red, purple, oranges, and yellows. Your eyes are constantly scanning the scene, selecting information, processing that information, and building a scene in your head. You look towards the sky and ignore the deep shadows of the inner canyon. You look towards those deep shadows and ignore the highlights in the sky. Together, this builds a scene in your head that you remember and you take that home and tell your mom and grandma about. As an experienced photographer, you approach this scene a bit differently, attempting to tell a story about this evening and letting the viewer of that image have their own emotional response (and hopefully going to tell their wealthy mother and grandmother about how much they want to own that photograph). You might look for a subject to silhouette, maybe focus on a telephoto detail shot of the reflected light inside of the canyon, or perhaps look the other direction entirely. Learning to tell this story comes from experience and knowledge of the "quality of light." With a digital camera, an amateur photographer now has the ability to capture every tonality at his fingertips and can capture the scene exactly how he witnessed it. Sounds great, right? In reality, what is missing is the story - the message. Telling a story through light comes with years of experience and toying with the balance of tonality. Essentially, you are fighting the biblical battle between light and shadow and artistically guiding the viewer on their own emotional train ride, where you are their conductor.
My background is from digital photography - that's how I learned to compose. It was an incredibly useful tool to learn, have instant feedback, and not have to pay an arm and a leg to learn that I did an incredibly poor job in the field. I feel it is still an invaluable tool for amateur photographers and I wouldn't encourage anyone in the modern age to try their hand at photography with anything else as they're starting out. I photographed digitally for about 4 years. I combined exposures in photoshop, manually blended, focus stacked, etc. I tried everything in the books to create compelling images. It wasn't until I picked up a film camera and loaded Fuji Velvia 50 that I learned to truly see light. If you are unfamiliar with this film stock, it is a highly saturated positive film that has about five stops of dynamic range. Queue the gasps. Five stops of dynamic range may be appalling to those Sony a7S II owners and it was to me too at first.
When I purchased my Linhof Technorama 617 back in 2011, I was frustrated with stitching panoramas. I loved the 1:3 format, but was creatively limited in what I could photograph due to the amount of time to complete a single image in the field. I was digitally stitching 7 vertical images together to create a panorama and from the time I exposed my first frame until I finished the 7th, any motion in the scene would ruin the shot. So I said the heck with it and bought this panoramic film camera, which I had dreamt about for years. I felt it was the easy win-all solution to creating perfect panoramas. My first night out with the camera, i had a scene picked out in my head that I thought would be perfect for a panorama on this new camera. I got out the camera, incident metered the scene (metered for the shadows, essentially), composed the scene, and fired off four shots. Incidentally, I had the camera pointed directly into the sun and lo and behold, the images looked like total crap. After this incident, I had many sleepless nights, wondering if I had drained my bank account for nothing. Something kept me going out with the camera and kept me trying this treacherous film stock. About a month and ten to twenty rolls later, on a frigid December morning, hoarfrost clinging to every tree branch, I exposed another 4 shots of a barn in twilight, lit by the rising sun. When I got the developed film back from the lab, I had a beautiful, perfectly saturated, perfectly exposed image staring back at me from my light table and all of the lightbulbs came on.
From that point, I began to study light. There were times where I would sit at a scene, cameraless, and watch how the light moved at different times of day. I began to see that a decent landscape photograph isn't always looking directly into the sun and capturing all the highlights and shadows in that scene. In fact, more times than not, that image isn't even approaching decent. What I found was that if I looked away from the sun and allowed it to light my subject head on, or when I placed the sun to my immediate right or left, I could contain my scenes within five stops of dynamic range and they looked really damn good. This light is what I consider "quality light." It is light that is colorful and soft, where you can peer into the shadows and maintain detail in the highlights. It appears pleasing and natural on a computer screen and in print. It isn't forced, but it is subject of patience and experience. It isn't created - it is found. I feel it's our responsibility as landscape photographers to create images that are true to what we see, but as an artist, I feel there is more to be said in an image captured with quality light.
I approach images very similarly to this day. It's a very slow, methodical approach, but as an artist, it connects me to the compositions I find. I strongly believe that you don't have to shoot film to approach photography in this manner and I challenge any digital photographer to find a composition, watch the quality of light throughout different times of day, and keep their exposures within 5 stops of light. It can be a slow, frustrating journey, but it has a rewarding destination. Great experiences can be had while containing yourself to the boundaries of a medium and learning to see and capture tonalities are vital for a photographer to be successful.
Limitations should be embraced. Seeking a high dynamic range camera before you learn to see qualities of light will do you a disservice in the future. Learn to see within the boundaries of your medium and expect failure. More importantly, get off the computer, get outside and study yourself and discover your own quality of light.