Digital Landscape Photography: New Possibilities in Storytelling

Bluff Spring Fen-120821-0010-00-HDR-FINAL by Mike MacDonald, Copyright 2012, All Rights Reserved

This is the story of a savanna, its towering bur oaks and an August fog that envelops the distant fen. The wide tonal range of this scene was recorded by first digitally capturing a range of exposures, followed by the use of HDR software to combine all of them into one realistic image, emulating how humans experience the world.
Location: Bluff Spring Fen—Elgin, Illinois
Forest Preserve District of Cook County

Not until recently, did I begin to photograph the landscape with a digital camera, leaving behind the beauty of transparency film and the process of leaning over a light table, one eye to the loupe, to immerse myself in the colorful world living within.

During my film capture days, I developed a sense of what I could shoot and what I couldn’t, based on the lighting conditions. For instance, there are times when what you see is not even close to what you’ll get. So, it’s best to just walk on by and forget about it. The scene and the story pictured here is one of those moments that could not be accurately represented with film. Luckily, this image was captured digitally.

Though I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for several years, film remained my choice for landscape photography until June of 2012, when I made the full transition to digital capture.

Up until that point, I used a 12-megapixel Nikon D300 digital camera to photograph individual subject matter such as flowers, insects, people, etc., but for landscape photography, I relied on a Pentax 645NII camera loaded with Fuji Velvia medium format color transparency film.

I chose medium format film (2.7 times larger than 35mm film) because the innumerable elements that comprise a landscape are rendered so small that a large print is required to savor the details. That’s why my standard print size is 24×36″, though I’ve made prints as large as 43×56″. A high-resolution digital scan of medium format film delivers up to 105 megapixels of information, allowing for 24×36″ prints with little or no interpolation (inventing new pixels based on existing pixels).

But, transparency film can be hard to work with, especially when there’s a large amount of contrast between the brightest and darkest portions of a scene, a.k.a., a high dynamic range (HDR) scene. In cases where a fairly straight line divides the opposing areas, like a sunlit sky and the low lit land separated by the horizon, a split graduated filter (split grad) can be positioned over the lens to cut down the light from the sky.

A split grad is rectangular and resembles the top of a car’s windshield, gradually fading from, say, dark gray down to clear. With a little know-how and finesse, lining up the dark portion of the filter over the brighter sky and the clear portion over the dark land, the image will look very much like you experienced it. However, the HDR image, pictured here, would have been impossible to record on film. Because there’s no straight line dividing the areas of contrast, a split grad can’t be used.

More and more, I found myself needing to photograph high contrast situations like this, so in June, I stopped capturing images on film and began photographing the landscape digitally with the new Nikon D800E, a 36-megapixel 35mm DSLR. Remarkably, I rarely require a split grad filter with this camera.

(NOTE: “Digital capture” is not the same as “digital photography.” I’ve been a digital photographer for many years, even when I was exclusively shooting film. That’s because film is just a scan away from a digital image. After the film is converted into a digital file, the steps are the pretty much the same, just a little more challenging.)

The exposure range of this HDR scene even exceeds the capability of the very forgiving Nikon D800E. However, if the wind is calm, it’s possible to make two or more shots at different exposures and blend them into a single image using specialized HDR software like Photomatix. With film, it’s theoretically possible to make two exposures and merge them, but, in practice, scanning multiple images is time-consuming and the scans don’t align very well.

If you’ve seen HDR images, especially those of nature, many look unnatural, like half the people in Alabama. Some look weird because the lighting doesn’t match what humans are used to seeing. Others appear surreal or grainy or whatever. Anyone can use HDR software. Just drop in two or three image files at different exposures (usually separated by 2 stops) and it’ll spit out a picture. It’s a breeze, as long as you don’t care about reality. It’s more challenging if you want to make an image that closely approximates what you saw.

Now, how can blending two or more images create a photograph that’s more truthful than a single shot? It’s obvious. Any time you look at anything, your pupils change their size to adjust for the light. Therefore, you’re taking multiple exposures and blending them together, too, just like the HDR process. If done correctly, an HDR photograph should appear true to your experience.

Of course, I could have recorded this scene with a single shot, setting the camera to properly expose the blue sky and letting everything else turn into black silhouettes, but that wouldn’t have represented what I saw. That would be my only choice with film. However, with digital capture, it’s sometimes possible to have it all—at least when the wind is perfectly still. Luckily, it was. So, I took five exposures separated by 1 stop and merged them. Photomatix recommends three exposures in 2-stop increments, but that was before I read the instructions!

Digital landscape photography now allows me to more accurately tell my nature stories, in this case, the foggy prairie-fen habitat as viewed from under the dark canopy of the oak savanna. For years, I’ve been waiting to make this kind of image, one that conveys my experience, not a silhouette of it. And now I can. With a digital camera (and sometimes with the help of software), telling the story of the landscape is easier than ever.

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2 Responses to Digital Landscape Photography: New Possibilities in Storytelling

  1. Dave Boege says:

    Your digital HDR image at Bluff Spring Fen in Elgin is truly exquisite. I never would have known that was an HDR blend if you hadn’t mentioned it. It does look just like we would see it in real life. Beautiful work!

  2. Thanks, Dave! That’s exaclty the point. It’s more challenging to use HDR to make a picture that doesn’t exhibit that phony HDR look.

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