If you recently shopped for a digital camera, you probably heard or read something about HDR photography or dynamic range. Unless you know something about modern photography, you may be wondering what is dynamic range, and why does it matter?
What Is Dynamic Range in Photography?
In photography, the term dynamic range refers to your camera’s ability to capture light. More specifically, dynamic range refers to how well a camera captures shadows and highlights in one frame.
Why You Need to Understand Dynamic Range
If you want your photos to look good with shadows and highlights that set off your subject, you need to understand your camera’s capabilities and how to achieve the best possible exposure. Modern photography has opened a world of possibility with digital cameras and software to manipulate scenes regardless of the dynamic range.
Dynamic Range in Cameras
Though all cameras have a dynamic range, they aren’t all the same. Since a camera’s dynamic range relies on the sensor, some have more range than others. For example, compact cameras use smaller sensors, so their dynamic range is smaller than digital cameras, especially DSLRs with larger sensors.
High end, full-frame cameras have the highest dynamic ranges in the photography world, but even among that subsection, there are differences. Some high end digital cameras have better sensors for capturing more highlights and shadows for a higher dynamic range.
The Dynamic Range of Scanners
If you use scanners for photography projects, you may want to note that they have a similar dynamic range to digital cameras but use different terms. Scanners register dynamic range as the pigment density.
Generally, you need to know two things about dynamic range and scanners in relation to photography projects. First, the darker the tone, the higher the pigment density. Second, when choosing a scanner, you look for the Dmax value or the maximum density. The higher the maximum density, the darker the scanner can go.
Tips for Comparing Dynamic Range in Different Products
The takeaway here is that the dynamic range varies among devices. It isn’t easy to make comparisons, not just between digital cameras and scanners, but there are significant differences in dynamic range among classes of cameras.
When deciding between products, it’s important to remember that manufacturers tend to exaggerate contrast ratios. Further, the listed values usually represent approximations for results under optimal viewing conditions.
The Human Eye and Dynamic Range
You may be surprised to learn that the human eye perceives a more impressive dynamic range of your camera or any other camera on the market, for that matter. Since our eyes adapt quickly and automatically to variations in light, we remain superior in most settings.
What Influences Dynamic Range
Since dynamic range addresses the depth of highlights and shadows in an image, specifically a photo, there are a few things that influence the outcome. Obviously, the amount of light in a shot significantly impacts the number of shadows in a photo, but there’s more to it.
Influence of Light
The intensity of light in a setting can be incidental or reflected, and both impact the dynamic range of a scene. Understanding how illuminance and reflectivity affect a scene is crucial for capturing the shot you desire.
When preparing a shot, consider your setting and look for strong reflection, like water shots. Be aware of the uneven incident light, like skyscrapers, that create extreme variations with partially lit spaces contrasting against areas in direct sunlight.
How is Dynamic Range in Photography Measured?
Photographers measure dynamic range in a unique way. If you ever heard the term “stop,” it references the brightness level. Each f-stop doubles the brightness level of the one before it, so an F2.8 gives you twice the brightness of F4, and so on.
Consider the Scene’s Dynamic Range
You know that light has a massive impact on the dynamic range in photography so that the same scene can look different on a bright sunny day than on an overcast day. The time of day and weather could impact the dynamic range of your shot.
- Sunny days, especially when there are no clouds, create high contrast scenes with bright highlights and dark shadows.
- Overcast days with limited sunlight created low contrast scenes. These low contrast situations are easier to shoot because they don’t exceed your digital camera’s dynamic range.
Capturing Your Vision
The amount of light affects every aspect of a shot and can even detract from your subject in some cases. It’s necessary to consider how bright your background is compared to your subject and how shadows or bright lights could impact your shot.
Note that some photographers prefer high contrast scenes and use the conditions to create certain images. You need to decide your personal lighting preferences and create scenes that work with those parameters.
What if It’s Too Bright for My Camera?
If it is too bright for your camera, you won’t capture both the highlights and the shadows in the scene. It would be best if you chose to focus on one or the other. Focusing on the shadows overexposes your highlights, but concentrating on your highlights leaves your shadows underexposed.
How to Manage Dynamic Range
At some point, you will shoot a scene with highlights and shadows that exceed the dynamic range of your camera. It doesn’t mean that you’re out of luck; it just means you need to take some extra steps.
Reduce the Dynamic Range of a Scene
Your first option for reducing the dynamic range of a shot is to reduce the contrast of the scene. There are two ways to achieve this.
1. Lighten Shadows
It is possible to add light to shadows to appear brighter and closer to the naturally lit areas of a scene. This method is common in studios and location shots since you can do it with reflective surfaces, like mirrors. You can also lighten shadows by:
- Use a flash to light up the darker parts of a scene.
- Shooting in RAW allows you to make changes in post production by adjusting the shadow slider up.
- Many photo editing platforms, like Lightroom, allow you to lighten certain areas of your photo.
2. Darken Highlights
Alternatively, it may make sense to darken the highlights. This method doesn’t work as well in every situation, especially with landscapes. However, to reduce highlights in an image, you can try these steps:
- Diffusers can block some light from a shot.
- Try employing an ND filter to darken the sky’s brightness.
- Shoot the scene in RAW and adjust the shadow slider down during post production.
Note that many landscape photographers manage to capture brilliant shots of scenes with high dynamic ranges by using graduated neutral density filters. Though graduated neutral density filters existed in photography for more than a century, modern photographers can apply the effect digitally during post production.
Avoid High Contrast Scenes
In the world of photography, you sometimes need a change of scenery. No, you don’t have to change your subject, but you may have to shift your angle to avoid extreme highlights and shadows.
- Try to photograph subjects positioned in shaded areas.
- Avoid photo shoots during the middle of the day when the sun is brightest.
- When photographing people, arrange them with the sun behind them.
Embrace the Dynamic Range of a Scene
The third option involves a little extra work, multiple shots, and some magic. When the dynamic range of a scene exceeds your camera’s capabilities, consider using HDR processing. Read on to learn more about this method.
Understanding HDR Photography: Technology to the Rescue
High Dynamic Range processing combines multiple exposures into one image by using specific parts from each picture to create the desired effect. By taking the extreme lights and darks from multiple pictures, you come close to replicating an evenly exposed image.
The Problem with High Dynamic Range Processing
Unfortunately, this photography technique isn’t perfect. If it’s not done well, the HDR technique can create a final image that looks fake to human eyes.
Look out your window on a sunny day, and you should see everything outside. The walls around the window remain visible to the naked eye, and you probably see an impressive variety of colors, light, and shadows.
Now, take a photo looking out the window. The outside should retain much of its lights and shadows, but the walls inside probably look dark.
If you do the opposite and focus on the interior walls, the outside appears as a blur of bright light, as you can see in the photo below.
HDR processing could give you the means to combine pictures to have the best of both worlds. However, it may not be realistic enough to fool the human eye.
Don’t Underestimate Technological Advances in Photography
HDR processing is a newer technology. Coupled with some of the new cameras, the gap between photographs and what the human eye sees narrows. As new technology emerges, cameras could likely capture images as clear and pure as the human eye sees.
Getting Creative With Dynamic Range in Photography
Most people tell you to choose between focusing on highlights or shadows. That said, you have plenty of room in photography to explore your creative style and preferences.
As a photographer, you can choose how to make the most of light, shadows, and exposure by manipulating each aspect. You have the power to make creative choices and the capabilities to alter them in post production.
Dynamic Range and Photo Editing
You absolutely have room to improve your images with photo editing software, but that means understanding how dynamic range works and how technology can help. Most photo editing software includes tools to help decipher the dynamic range of an image and even fine-tune the highlights and shadows to your preferences.
Histograms Give You Clues About the Dynamic Range
Histograms show you the amount of information recorded for color values. Spikes show more recorded data (more pixels), and dips reflect less (fewer pixels). That means you can use the histogram to explore the dynamic range of your photo.
Photographers who like high contrast should see extreme peaks and dips. Low contrast photos appear more level.
The Influence of Image Type & Tonal Curve
If you have done any work in photography, you probably already know that all file types are not equal. When discussing images, they are generally all capable of an infinite dynamic range. However, when converting a digital image, like a RAW file to edit it, there is some alteration.
There is currently only one solution to translating the infinite dynamic range with limited image posterization: using the high dynamic range, or HDR, image files in a photo editing program capable of supporting it.
Dynamic Range and Camera Choice
In the past, digital photography focused on the number of megapixels in a shot. Now, those super-important megapixels don’t matter much because nearly every camera has more than enough.
Manufacturers shifted their focus to the dynamic range to keep up with photographers’ needs. It seems that the future of photography is dynamic range, so you may want to keep that in mind when shopping for your next camera.
Final Thoughts on Dynamic Range
From manipulating settings to performing edits on the back end, understanding dynamic range can help you create the look and feel you like. Good luck with your next photoshoot!