New Tools, New Possibilities

High-quality sensors can open up creative, interpretive options

Rocks and Surf, Pacific Grove, California

A camera is a tool that allows others to see through our eyes. I’m a landscape photographer, so my camera allows me to capture how I see the landscape as I explore it. The tool renders an image, showing the lighting I see and the arrangement of objects within my frame. My job is to record my experience with it. What’s the mood of that brief moment when the shutter opens? How will I interpret what I see and feel? I find it helpful to remind myself about the process of making creative photographs.

I have a new tool, the Sony a7R II. I’m usually not a gearhead, but I admit to being caught up in the excitement of its announcement, the speculation on its specs and the social media bantering of its pros and cons. I haven’t been one to chase after the latest technology. I used Pentax and Nikon 35mm film cameras for 10 years, then a 4×5 view camera for 20 years, and Canon digital cameras for the past 10 years. The simpler I keep my gear, the more I enjoy the creative process of making images.

I read about the latest cameras with improved dynamic range and resolution and cleaner high ISO performance, but at the time I was content with what I had. As I taught private students and helped them learn how to better postprocess their images, I noticed their new cameras’ files were better than images of the same scene taken on my camera. Creative options from the newer sensors, especially in the management of shadow detail, were greater; that’s when my frustration began to grow.

I really knew I was ready for a new camera when I found processing limitations in my own files. In a small percentage of high-contrast images, I needed more dynamic range, like what I was seeing from newer sensors. As much as HDR or image blending can be a good option, my old-school background using a view camera makes me want to get it right in one frame. Also, since I have clients that want large mural prints, I’m happy to have the high-res files from the new camera, which are twice the size of those from my previous one.

Rocks and Surf, Big Sur, California

Fast-forward to the present, and I have my new tool. Slowly, I’ve made new images and I’ve enjoyed the process of learning a new system. I’d like to show a few images made with my new tool. The key lesson I want to share is that high-quality sensors can open up creative, interpretive options. After capturing a normal scene with normal processing, the histogram would show a full range of tones with the classic bell curve. Here’s where some playfulness in processing can lead to new creative horizons.

I often try quick experiments in Lightroom to interpret the scene. Most often, I’m fairly literal and straightforward, but if I think the light and mood aren’t coming through, I might darken or lighten an image to see those options. I’ll make virtual copies for lighter or darker variations, or make black-and-white and color versions to compare.

These images were made in the Big Sur/Monterey area. I made the normal exposures, but the literal interpretation didn’t express what I felt. They were too dark and heavy in mood and tone. I wanted to show a sense of lightness and brightness. To work the file for the Big Sur photograph toward this high-key style, I experimented in Lightroom, lightening the shadows and overall exposure. Because of the camera’s high dynamic range, I could brighten the shadows with little digital noise. Although this technique could be used with any camera and digital software, I found limitations with this approach in the past, especially in high-contrast scenes where I wanted shadows full of light and detail.

In “Rocks and Surf, Pacific Grove, California,” the wide dynamic range allowed me to push the tonal values to the high end of the scale (+89 Shadows, +28 Exposure), to the right on the histogram, with very little noise in the shadows. I love to create high-key images like this one to convey the strong sense of brilliant light I saw on that early morning.

Yes, a camera is just a tool. Great images can be made with any camera, with the key element being the photographer, not the tool. Different cameras have different strengths and weaknesses. Most photographers, including myself, don’t process images as radically as I’ve shown here, and may never find limits in their systems. I just know I have a tool that opens up creative possibilities.

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William Neill is a renowned nature and landscape photographer and a recipient of the Sierra Club's Ansel Adams Award for conservation photography. Neill's award-winning photography has been widely published in books, magazines, calendars and posters, and his limited-edition prints have been collected and exhibited in museums and galleries nationally, including the Museum of Fine Art Boston, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, The Vernon Collection and The Polaroid Collection. Neill's published credits include National Geographic, Smithsonian, Natural History, National Wildlife, Conde Nast Traveler, Gentlemen's Quarterly, Travel and Leisure, Wilderness, Sunset, Sierra and Outside magazines. He is also regular contributor to Outdoor Photographer with his column “On Landscape”.