A couple days ago I mentioned that I didn’t have any troubles pulling detail out of the shadows on a very dark image taken at ISO 6400. The incredible landscape photographer Elia Locardi similarly noted in his review of the X-T2 that he’s been able to recover roughly two stops from the shadows without losing details and clarity. I haven’t seen any scientific measurements of how much dynamic range the X-T2 has, but it’s probably in the range of 13–14 stops (top DSLRs are approaching 15 stops these days). And DPReview’s investigation of the X-Trans CMOS III sensor in the X-Pro2 and X-T2 notes that it has “plenty of flexibility when it comes to pulling extra tonal information out of the shadows.”
Put all of this together and you’ve got a camera with extremely sufficient dynamic range. Historically, a major advantage of film has been in the dynamic range of color negative films like Kodak Portra. But advancements in digital technology and post-processing techniques like luminosity masking now give the advantage to digital cameras.
Enough technical talk, though. It’s time to ask the question: do we even want that much dynamic range?
Obviously, the answer is a matter of opinion and depends on the situation. Having plenty of dynamic range to spare can be hugely helpful when shooting high-contrast landscapes, as it can eliminate the need for fussing with graduated neutral density filters. It can also be helpful when you have moving subjects and are thus unable to bracket and blend the exposures in post-production.
That said, I see a lot of images online where people seem to be going crazy with the possibilities of dynamic range… There are obviously a lot of bad HDR shots out there, but there are also plenty of less obviously egregious shots in which the photographers seem to have lost sight of the value of black shadows or blown out highlights. So often I see tutorials in which the photographers robotically set the black and white points to avoid any clipping as though this is the one optimal solution. But in many cases, I think this does a disservice to the image.
Believe it or not, with this shot I could easily crank the Shadows slider in Lightroom to 100 on this image and show you all the (albeit somewhat grainy) detail in the shirts of the pedestrians in the foreground. I actually just switched over to Lightroom to prove it. The resulting image is terrible. To me, the silhouettes are a key part of this image. I don’t want the viewer to focus on all the goofy faces of these pedestrians…I want the viewer to focus on the sky! The people are the supporting cast in this image’s story, and deliberately limiting the dynamic range puts them in their proper place.
Obviously, having the option for 14 stops of dynamic range isn’t a bad thing, and I’m certainly not knocking Fuji (or whoever produced the sensor…Sony?) for creating a tool that gives us photographers so much flexibility. I’m simply saying that just because we have a tool doesn’t mean we always need to use that tool…
For more thoughts on this topic, check out this wonderful post by Bruce Percy!