Not All Dynamic Range Is Created Equal

Wanna know a secret? At heart I’m a black and white photographer. What does that mean? Well, it means I shoot every scene as if I were going to print it black and white. That’s opposed to the other kind of photographer that does a black and white version if the color looks like shit. Whoa, wait a second. Hold on, then why the hell is 99.9% of any StupidCrap™ I post on my blog color? Short answer; meh, it doesn’t matter as most things I post are whatever might illustrate something that crosses my mind I feel like chitchatting about on a particular day.

Obviously, I shoot color even when using real film. Sometimes I would rather a color rendition but even if I do I approach every scene as if I were going to print it in Black and White. When doing commercial work I had no choice in most cases. Client wants color, concept calls for color, product has color, must shoot color. In some ways I’m biased to look at color as rather pedantic. You know, the quintessential, strait up, perfectly lit, every reflection controlled, camera movements for all things in focus, box stock representational product shot. Worthless as soon as it’s served it purpose for being. Yep, I’m biased. That brings us to the topic at hand, the ever popular mesurebating number that bandied about which is dynamic range.

An aside, yes I am hell with the asides. When shooting for color I’ve developed a methodology over a long, long time. After looking at things six ways from Sunday I find most color confusing. Step one — get rid of colors in the frame. Special rule, white and black don’t count as colors. I shoot mostly people. If they have clothes on (99% of the time) I have to live with those colors unless I can actually change them out. Okay where does that leave us? Well we have skin and clothing colors. I then add in maybe one more color unless of course I am shooting a specific scene that has it’s own built-in color or colors. Then I don’t add anything. Since I have skin I tend to add green to blue green/aqua and that’s that. Except for when it’s not. There you go. That’s my recipe for color. From that point on it’s a black and white shot where I only give a hoot about light and shadow and density relationships.

I drone on and on about the demise of film and how the majority of the photographic community has somehow at some point just dropped all of the points where digital falls down as a capture medium. Sure digital has some fairly huge advantages but there are a few things we all used to care about that film is truly the gold standard and blows the crap out of digital as a capture medium. I’ll qualify that a bit more. I am talking about negative film. I’ve maybe mentioned positive transparency (aka slide film) in passing twice or three times. That’s mostly nostalgia for Kodachrome more than any particular love for working in that particular medium. Positive film is very much like shooting digital. Pedantic, and carries with it the need for precisely controlled lighting ratios, etc, etc. A boring exercise if there ever was one. Not fun and not well suited for the lighting conditions we all happen to live in most of the time on most days.

Here’s another secret no matter the medium. Lower the freaking scene contrast dummy. That’s it. End game. Do not pass go, do not collect your $200. It’s that simple. Want to make pretty pictures that look “perfect” as in they look like the scene you are looking at? Lower the freaking scene context. That’s it, no other story. That’s all extremely pejorative but it illustrates a simple point. Pedantic representation of accurate color in simulating the actual literal visual experience of a high ratio world on a relatively low dynamic range playback medium. There are 10,000 ways to accomplish this. Shoot only scenes that fit, bring gear to the table to make it all fit, learn how to use that gear so that it doesn’t look like you did, etc, etc. The camera and all mediums used to capture a scene and all techniques used to render that to screen, paper, whatever work this way. Wana here the super duper advanced secret? Lower the scene contrast but use the highest contrast medium (capture plus processing plus display) to get that pop. Done. In other words light it with flat ratios and use crazy high mid-tone contrast. Done. You now have poppy pictures that trade off real-world scene contrast for shitloads of mid-tone contrast that can be technically rendered on paper or a screen.

Okay enough rant. Let’s take the somewhat strange image at the top. Digital black and white. Shot it quickly last week along with a bunch of other variations as a promo for a workshop I’m hosting in two weeks. Simple enough shot, looks “natural”, easy-peasy. Too bad it wasn’t. It’s actually a fairly complicated lighting setup to get it to look “natural” that obeys the secrets unleashed upon you above.

Part of the complexity is something you might not really notice unless you fetishized photo related rendering of tones for a while. No matter what medium you happen to be using care and attention are required to do that skin highlight thing against white wall stuff that you can see. That tonal differentiation of “white on white” is a particular fetish of mine. Told you I was a highlight fetishist (as opposed to a highlight nazi). In color you have the color contrast of skin vs white to fall back on. In B&W not so much and they merge or you can go with the standard fare which is skin darker than white wall/background. I also wanted the shadow side of the skin to be darker than that same white wall. This is stuff that’s common to all photographic endeavors and all has to do with light. See what I mean regarding me being a black and white photographer when it comes right down to it. I make sure this plays the way I want it to (sometimes badly but as intended) sans color contrasts. So none of this has anything to do with slides/digital vs negative film or dynamic range so far. Standard photography related stuff.

The main light you see comes from two honest to god real windows with Mary situated in such a way to cause the skin against white wall effect seen. In reality it’s like two lights one lighting only Mary, the other lighting the background white wall and also serving as a rim light on the back edge same side. Where does that complex stuff come in? Well, it’s to get the shadows not to render black, so far down into the depths of digital dog shit worthless “Dynamic Range” that is the lower quadrant of your histogram.

If I were shooting black and white neg this scene would be like falling off a log. Shoot so the shadows/dark parts render about a stop lower than mid tone. Done. Perfect. Would look just like this no matter if I used the latest greatest strait-line rendering negative film tech or the crappy-est eastern European 50’s era black and white recipes poorly quality controlled. Hell I may even expose the dark parts at exactly mid-tone if I wasn’t super sure where the blacks would be. What blacks you say? All of ‘um. Negative would give me boatloads of real detail with the same tonality everywhere in the scene. Shadows, highlights, everywhere. I only have to worry about relative values.

Digital gives me really shitty quality in the “detail” of the shadows if I want to keep fine gradation in the highlights. Anything remotely below that last quarter looks like crap if pushed up. What good does that dynamic range do me if the tonal separation looks like a broken cracked 8 bit JPEG? We’ll I guess it’s great if you happened never to see black and white film before that gives you the exact same tonal separation and smooth photographic gradation everywhere.

So to deal with a relatively simple real-world scene I had to bring two four by eight foot white flats to the table which didn’t quite do the trick. I also had to bounce a big giant strobe into the rest of the room to bring the rest of it up a stop. What’s the difference? Can’t really do that on-the-fly? Can’t really do that in most real-world spaces. Even when you can it significantly influences the photographer/subject dynamic. Hmmm. that’s kind of super important to me as I really don’t want to shoot perfect versions of Brillo pad boxes or perfume bottles and the like.

Here’s another random shot from the same session. Completely different set of lighting by the way. Even lower ratio/more fill brought to the table so that it can look like “no additional fill” on digital.

My current crop of digital cameras is better than my last crop. I can shoot more like I want to shoot in a few more real world conditions. When will I stop ranting about this? When I don’t have to give up what simple black and white film affords me in terms of rendering real-world light and frees me from shooting as if I am shooting a pedantic product shot as if I were shooting it on frigging slide film. Oh yea, and when I get a body with a great viewfinder that is the same size capture area for capture area as my film bodies…


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