As photographers, preserving detail in the shadows is a goal that we often go to great lengths to achieve, both through good exposure practices and post-processing. Preserving, and in some cases, enhancing, detail in the darkest shadows may be important for some shots, but it's not a rule that needs to be applied to every photograph. One thing that causes some HDR images to look so unconvincing is the improbable level of detail that is visible in the darkest areas, even in scenes that are obviously backlit or photographed looking directly into the sun. Just because you can show detail in the darkest parts of the scene, doesn’t mean that it adds anything worthwhile to the image. Indeed, there is much that can be gained in terms of dramatic impact, mystery and depth by purposefully pushing the image into the darker realms of the tonal scale.
Whether or not a photograph is suited for such interpretation depends on your own artistic sensibilities, as well as the image itself, and the mood you wish to create or the story you want to tell, but it is always worth exploring this possible visual path, to see if it leads in a promising direction. The following images, presented in their original and final state, are examples of how emphasizing the darker tones can enhance and transform an image.
The scene below shows the Westman Islands off the south coast of Iceland. There is nothing wrong with the original exposure, but by emphasizing the relationships between the dark shadow areas of the riverbed and distant islands and the bright reflective qualities of the water and the sky, the final image is much more visually intriguing.
The next example is an exposure that I almost deleted when I was first reviewing the images from that trip. It shows the road that leads to the ghost town of Bodie on the eastern side of the Sierras in California. The light was bad, its direction was all wrong for the angle I was shooting, and it was very hazy due to distant wildfires. But there was something about that ribbon of road that intrigued me. I found that converting the image to black and white and making it much darker actually brought it back to life for me. The darkness of the landscape makes the thin line of the road stand out much better and transforms it into a key element of the scene.
The barren, rocky landscape in Lassen Volcanic National Park in northern California is the scene of the image below. By making the scene darker it lessens the harshness of the mid day sun (normally I would have been there at a more photographer-friendly time of day in terms of light, but my role that day was first as a parent on a school field trip, so I had to deal with the light that was present at the time of my visit). Darkening the image also makes the black volcanic rock a much richer tone and makes the lone tree stand out more from the background.
The final image is also from the Lassen Peak area and was taken with my iPhone. I was drawn to the composition because of the simple arrangement of the lone cloud floating in a blue sky above the forested hills. I still like the original color version, but in experimenting with the image using apps on the iPhone, I found that I liked it more and more the darker I made it. It took on a stark, moody quality that was mysterious and enigmatic. The minimalism of the original image was reduced down to its essentials: the cloud, the distant ridgeline, and the glow between them. By making the details much less, the image for me became much more.