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Are We Losing The Art Of Tonal Creativity In Our Landscape Photographs?

By Matthew Saville on March 12th 2014

17matthew-saville-tonality-essayAgfa Ultra, Yosemite, 2004

Last night I was browsing through a couple of my favorite books on landscape photography, and a few of my favorite online galleries, when I realized something.  Often times when I’m viewing images online I can spot digital capture from a mile away.  To be precise, I can usually tell when an image was captured in RAW and processed in Adobe’s Camera Raw program.  (Lightroom and Bridge both use the same engine.)

The tones, the way highlights and shadows are “recovered”, seem to exhibit the same processing habits of many digital photographers today.  Images seem to be homogenizing.  And no I’m not talking about milk, I’m saying that they’re all becoming very similar, to the point that it becomes un-inspiring if I am not careful.

Some of the time, that is.  Other times I see an image in a book and I could swear it was captured on Fuji Velvia (slide film) yet lo and behold it was captured on a very common DSLR that I’ve used before.  So, I don’t always guess right.  However it is definitely a one-way road.  Some digital photography masters can achieve a look that matches that of a particular film, or at least the image is just so timeless that I would never discern which digital camera, or what RAW processing software, was used. However I have never, ever seen a film image and thought “Oh, that looks like it was captured on a Nikon D800 and processed in Lightroom”

Nature Photograph“Nikon, please figure out yellow / green!”
(Nikon DSLR) 

So what is going on here?  In my mind at least, I feel that many photographers are getting out of touch with a finer sense of tone, and the art of playing to the strengths and weaknesses of whichever medium they’re using. Instead, they blast every image with maximum detail retention and color accuracy.  Sometimes this is a good thing, of course, but sometimes it results in a boring photograph.

I have to wonder:  what ever happened to using the dynamic range of this or that film as a creative tool, instead of considering it a disadvantage?  What ever happened to letting an intense color totally overpower an image?  This is part of the art of photography, if you ask me…  If your camera’s “sensor” couldn’t handle a scene, you picked your emphasis and let the rest of the image fade into subtle shadow, or be overpowered by a bright color. Indeed a graduated filter here and there could be useful, but my point is that each metering decision, each exposure choice, was much more critical and even a part of the creative process.

18matthew-saville-tonality-essayFuji Velvia Film, British Columbia, 2005

15matthew-saville-tonality-essayAgfa Ultra Film, 2010

20matthew-saville-tonality-essayFuji Velvia Film, Corona Del Mar, 2007

I’m not even sure if this is a “film versus digital” debate.  Really, it’s not about your medium of capture, it is just about how you use it as a tool.  Digital is certainly capable of amazing, artistic results. However, here is what I suspect.  Digital is capable of TOO MUCH, sometimes.  We are being hit with information overload, and sometimes this is not conducive to maximum creativity.

Dynamic range on many of the latest DSLRs is what, triple that of slide films?  And yet slide films are still considered to be a respectable, even superior choice, for any landscape photographer who is into large format photography. Also, RAW White Balance control is so vast and arbitrary that it often causes us to completely forget about how colors were originally represented in a scene.

In short, we just do whatever we want with our images, almost as if they are just the foundation of a CGI art piece.

19matthew-saville-tonality-essayFuji Velvia Film, Corona Del Mar, 2007

16matthew-saville-tonality-essayAgfa Ultra Film, 2006

Again, don’t get me wrong, digital photography in general is an incredible tool. In fact I wouldn’t be where I am today without it, I am eternally grateful for it, and I plan to continue to use it almost exclusively.

There is no denying that digital photography, with its information overload and incredible levels of post-production potential, is the ultimate learning tool.  It can aide both in technical and creative learning, too.  The instant feedback can help someone who just barely picked up a camera become a world-renowned photographer in just a few years’ time.

I just think that sometimes, less is indeed more. It’s part of the reason why portrait photographers (and many others of course) use prime lenses.  Working within a limitation is a key ingredient in nurturing creativity.  So why do we go so crazy in post-production, trying to make every single tone in our image do exactly what we command it to do?  True perfection, sometimes, can get boring after a while.

You could argue that this is exactly what great landscape photographers such as Ansel Adams did-  they commanded precise tonal responses from every part of their images.  Very true!  So what turns today’s incredibly powerful tools into a disadvantage, sometimes?

I’m not entirely sure, but I hope that an awareness of all this will inspire me to continue a pursuit of photographic creativity and individuality.

[Rewind: Is Photoshop Ruining Landscape Photography?]

I still use Adobe Camera Raw every day, both to pay my bills and to pursue my creative passions.  (Sometimes the two align, and others, not so much.)  There is a camera geek inside all of us, and I do enjoy obsessing over shadow detail or corner sharpness even when I know an image will probably never get any further than Facebook or a 4×6 print.

However some of the time I feel like I’m missing a piece of the puzzle.  Have I lost touch with the subtle art of deep, rich shadow tones and bright highlights?  Have I lost interest in the technical challenge of thinking creatively within the limitations of a particular medium, be it film or digital? Sometimes, yes.  Other times, hopefully not.

Believe it or not, I actually still shoot JPG sometimes, and/or I shoot RAW and then use Nikon’s View NX 2 software to “pretend” as if I’ve shot JPG.  Sometimes I’ll even shoot streetscapes / travel photography at ISO 1600 or 3200, even if there is plenty of light for me to hand-hold at my base ISO.  Not because I’m trying to be an elite “artiste” oor re-invent the wheel, but just because it’s kinda fun to see the results.

So, experiment.  Limit yourself.  Can you get your final image with just a single click, and the picture styles etc. that your camera offers?  You might have fun, or you might even re-discover a passion for basic photography…

08matthew-saville-tonality-essayNikon D300, Seville Spain, 2008

02matthew-saville-tonality-essayNikon D300, Sea World, 2007

06matthew-saville-tonality-essay Fuji Velvia Film, 2008

05matthew-saville-tonality-essayNikon D300, in-camera processing, 2008

Take care,

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Matthew Saville is a full-time wedding photographer at Lin & Jirsa Photography, and a senior editor & writer at SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Karran

    I often go over old photographs I’ve taken and in lightroom, make a virtual copy, hit reset and reprocess it. Reading this article reminded me of what I this exercise has made me realise. While some reprocessed images may come out better because my skills and eye for details have gotten better, some of them are a lot worse. And the worse one are usually the ones where I try to bring out details from the shadows and highlights rather than let the camera do what I told it to do in the first place.

    It is a habit I picked up from shooting HDR, where all the details are needed. But in recent months, I have all but abandoned HDR. While I was never the all out “clown vomit” HDR shooter, I did use it to get realistic results. And that process has thought me a lot. But it seems along the way I forgot the drama that a blown out highlight can bring, or a black so black it consumes you.

    What I guess I am trying to say is that we need to experiment. We need to make terrible photos, try new techniques and abandon the past. Because when we do return to it, and we eventually will, we will bring the best of what the “fads” or “trends” has thought us.

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  2. Martin F

    I completely agree with your points Matthew, but I think it is worse than that. Not only are people losing sight of the creative aspects of photography, the advent of voting sites and social media is actively pushing us in the other direction. How often have you seen the gaudy sunset with saturation and vibrance sliders at 11 receiving hundreds of “likes” while a well balanced and thoughtfully composed landscape is completely ignored? How many of those voters have seen a real sunset like that? I think this positive feedback is actually pushing many photographers towards over processing their work because that is what they perceive people want. It seems that IS what people want, but it is a shame to lose the true art of photography for the sake of a popularity contest.

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  3. colin

    another comment on this topic. I have recently got into Fuji’s new x series cameras (the xe1 currently). They have done an amazing job of using film emulations directly in the EVF. You set the fims, either different color films or B&W. You can actually see with a fair amount of accuracy what the final image will look like before even hitting the shutter. It is a very interesting feature and something I hope to take more advantage of.

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  4. colin

    Completely agree that having limitations and being limited is a key ingredient to creativity. That is one of the reasons why I love shooting with my iPhone. Having such limited control forces you to be creative to get amazing shots. The more I have access to the less i have to rely on creativity.

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  5. Bill Bentley

    “There is a camera geek inside all of us, and I do enjoy obsessing over shadow detail or corner sharpness even when I know an image will probably never get any further than Facebook or a 4×6 print.”

    So true! It’s like the habit of the workflow just overtakes you.

    This was an interesting read Matthew. I had similar thoughts while scanning hundreds of Kodachrome slides from the 60’s and 70’s into our family archives. Oh the contrast in so many of those shots. But to be honest I would not want many of my pictures to look like that today. I have tried the different filters and presets that mimic different types of film and they rarely “work” on my photos. It’s almost like you have to go and shoot intentionally for this to look good in PP.

    My enjoyment with photography comes from “seeing” an image, capturing it as technically sound as possible and then gently massaging the RAW file into what my mind remembered from the experience of being there. Obviously some images deserve more attention than others. The real key is deciding which ones.

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    • Matthew Saville

      Very well spoken, Bill. I find that when I shoot film today, it is only “for fun”, and I still shoot digital side by side with it usually. In short, as beautiful as a transparency is, I do enjoy the added control that digital affords me. I just have to remind myself to not go crazy with control, and instead use that control to create my own unique vision & style. Not to mimic the exact level of “shadow recovery detail” achieved by this or that other photographer. Indeed, I want my images to be “decisive” captures of a landscape scene. Limited dynamic range, and tonal management in general, (what used to just be known as CONTRAST) …are not just limitations, but also creative tools.


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  6. alex


    Tokina 11-16mm f/2.8 I know you have been using this alot with the 5300 would you ever use it on a fx platform camera and hope to achieve similar results. Have you tried what the crop mode does on a d600 / d800 etc?

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