Is Dynamic Range Important in Landscape Photography?

Is Dynamic Range Important in Landscape Photography?

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.

Without going into discussion about camera brands, modern cameras do have amazing high dynamic range capabilites. It even exceeds the capabilities of our eyes. This is a selection of the cameras I have reviewed up to now.

Without going into discussion about camera brands, modern cameras do have amazing high dynamic range capabilities is a selection of the cameras I have reviewed up to now.

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.

Shooting an exposure bracketing series makes it possible to capture nearly every dynamic range. This photo is a HDR from a series of five images with different exposures. There is no need to use the dynamic range capabilties of the sensor itself

Shooting an exposure bracket series makes it possible to capture nearly every dynamic range. This photo is a HDR shot from a series of five images with different exposures. There is no need to use the dynamic range capabilities of the sensor itself.

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.

It is fun using filters in landscape photography. It also allows you to reduce the dynamic range, making it possible to capture it in one single image.

It is fun using filters in landscape photography. It also allows you to reduce the dynamic range, making it possible to capture it in one single image.

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.

Combining graduated neutral density filters and exposure bracketing allows you to deal with every light situation.

Combining graduated neutral density filters and exposure bracketing allows you to deal with every light situation.

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.

Using the sliders in Adobe Lightroom Classic it is possible to make use of the dynamic range of your camera.

Using the sliders in Adobe Lightroom Classic, it is possible to make use of the dynamic range of your camera.

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.

Although it might be over the top, this image shows what is possible when using the dynamic range of a camera to the maximum extend. But noise may occur.

Although it might be over the top, this image shows what is possible when using the dynamic range of a camera to the maximum extent. But noise may occur.

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.

Using exposure bracketing and filters makes it possible to deal with almost every situation. But a good dynamic range is very handy also. If you can have it all, go for it.

Using exposure bracketing and filters makes it possible to deal with almost every situation. But a good dynamic range is very handy also. If you can have it all, go for it.

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.

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20 Comments

John Vander Ploeg's picture

Great article! Very well thought out. I agree, exposure bracketing works most of the time and a high dynamic range camera isn’t absolutely essential. However, bracketing can present problems in post with compositions containing a significant amount of foliage, especially if there is a lot movement in the foliage. Also, in some instances, light changes VERY rapidly and one frame in an exposure bracket may be much better than the rest, resulting in the use of a single frame. (If given the opportunity I prefer to work with a single frame as it is just cleaner.) You never quite know when high dynamic range will come in handy but when you need it, you won’t regret having it! Also for wildlife photography (goes well with landscape photography imo) it’s absolutely essential. I find filters useful for seascapes, or any situation where light or the environment is rapidly changing and requires constant focus. I think there is still a place for both filters and exposure blends in landscape photography. Thanks for a great article!

Nando Harmsen's picture

If you rely on the real HDR software, merging every part of the image, then yes, foliage can be a problem. But I often use layers and masks in Photoshop. In that case you just use the parts you want, not merging everything. That works very well.

Tim van der Leeuw's picture

I’ve had these problems too, with foliage spoiling the HDR merge. Perhaps I should also try this blending technique, although it requires quite a bit of effort getting the masks right!

Nando Harmsen's picture

Not necessarily. Perhaps I should write an article about it.

Never Mind's picture

I agree with John above. I bracket if necessary, but I wish I didn't have to. The amount of effort that goes in the process, issues with moving clouds or grass...

Even if I bracket, I tend to have a separate shot where the exposure seems acceptable for postprocessing, and try to avoid bracketed shots altogether.

stuartcarver's picture

I’ve seen a technique where you layer the shots then just brush in parts you want to change, seems a much better option than relying on software to account for moving objects.

In honesty even my APS-C camera has awesome dynamic range now (although the internet will tell you it doesn’t) so just exposing for the highlights then lifting shadows seems to do the job 99% of the time anyway with brilliant results.

Never Mind's picture

Thanks for pointing that out. I thought I was the only one hating those software solutions ;-)

stuartcarver's picture

I got Aurora HDR free with a magazine and it’s the best job I’ve seen so far but I’ve not used it in so long, on top of it still not looking great it’s just extra processing steps too isn’t it.. plus I like to apply a film sim in capture one to my shots and once they have been through there it no longer recognises the file as Fujifilm so doesn’t allow it.

Below is a single shot I took recently, the RAW, and final edit.... from an X-T2. Bearing in mind Full Frame and Medium Format will offer even more dynamic range, is there even any real need for bracketing these days when you can pull shadows like this with relatively little noise. I admit shooting into the sun offers more of a challenge and it becomes more useful but even then I’ve still found plenty of headroom.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Indeed, Stuart. That is the best way of combining multiple exposures. Merging often leads to ghosting in those cases. Combining with layers and masks not.

stuartcarver's picture

Full agree Nando.

Ian Browne's picture

A very good and needed subject for the inexperience ; especially those using jpeg .
I personally have not used a grad filter for years. Not even sure why people still have them. Just seems to add more complexity to photo taking .
Filter effects are basically impossible to remove but easy to add with most edits apps . . Also; each bit of extra stuff we add in front of the lens can have an affect on the recorded image. [My old (and thick :) ) polarising filter is never used to enhance skies -- read third line again ;) -- Waste of time with wider a lens anyway IMO.]
When in doubt it always pays, and has paid to bracket exposures, and even white balance when jpeg is used. My older olympus Em1 can usually exposure bracket three files handheld if everything is in favour of that; but a tripod is pretty much a should have item IMO. I will usually try to manually merge just 2 files as it's so much easier. Never been a fan of HDR apps
Exposure bracketing is just good/sensible insurance. I often need only the one file because the high dynamic range and raw files makes my happy snapping so much more enjoyable if not a little too care free .

Good article for the less inexperienced -- that's most of us in one way or another .

Cheers -- keep safe .

Nando Harmsen's picture

Using filters is just fun to do. That is why many people are using it. But I has the most benefit for the jpeg shooters.

Mark Smith's picture

I have a question: what is a camera with a "high dynamic range"? It would be helpful to define your terms.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Why do you think that has to be quantified? If you want a number, I think 12 stops and more is a high dynamic range.

Mark Smith's picture

Why do I think it needs to be quantified? Because it's a term I'm not familiar with.

Nando Harmsen's picture

Did it became clear when I mentioned 12 stops or more?

Mark Smith's picture

Yes. Seriously, I had never heard the term before as applied to particular cameras and I regard myself as an experienced photographer (evidently I'm not). And I was never asking you to endorse a particular brand. So thanks, now I know what your article is about. That wasn't so hard, was it. Thanks.

Jon Kellett's picture

There've been times that I'd have liked more dynamic range... If time is short you may spot meter a few different places in a scene and think that all will be fine - Only to discover when you get home that one tiny (but significant) element was too bright/dark and no amount of post will fix it.

Another reason that I love overcast weather!

A point to note: Dynamic range is dependent on the ISO used, even in ISO-invariant cameras.

Nando Harmsen's picture

You could try to shoot every scene with AEB, even without tripod. Activating AEB takes more time than the actual bracketing series. If you're short in time that could help.
Thank you for the reminder about the DR being ISO dependent.