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How To Capture Beautiful Images With A Low Dynamic Range Camera

By Justin Heyes on January 18th 2016

High dynamic range cameras have been all the rage as of late, and for good reason. Nikon set the bar back in 2014 with their D810 that could pull almost 15 Evs of dynamic range (14.8 according to DXO). Today, just about everyone wants to shoot with a camera that can pull 13-14 stops of dynamic range. Unfortunately, not everyone can drop that kind of money on a camera, and many of us are faced with the challenge of shooting with lower DR cameras. The good thing is that you don’t necessarily need the newest and best cameras to shoot beautiful pictures, you just need to know what your limits are and how to make the most of what you have.

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What is Dynamic Range?

The quick and dirty answer for “What is Dynamic Range?” is the range from the blackest black to the whitest white, usually expressed in Evs (Exposure Values) or more commonly referred to as “stops.” The dynamic range of a human eye is on average 14-20 stops of light, compared to a LCD screen that is only about 9.5 stops. Most cameras produced within the last five years will have at least around ten stops of dynamic range (according to DXO).

Essentially, dynamic range is the range of available light that a particular camera can “see.” Colors are merely reflections of light into our eyes; the higher the dynamic range, the more capable a camera is of seeing a color in all ranges of its brightness.

If you are shooting with an older Canon DSLR like the 5D Mark II or an Olympus OM-D E-M10 Mark II, or any camera that has less than 12 stops or less of DR, the truth of the matter is that capturing gorgeous images doesn’t require you to obtain that large of a dynamic range. It is possible to create beautiful work with a camera that only has 10-11 stops, even as low as eight; as long as you pull out all the stops (as it were) and shoot within your camera’s limitations.

[Rewind: A Simple Photography Tip Which Could Drastically Improve Your Photography]

The most obvious way to fight low dynamic range is by using light. If you are shooting a high contrast situation that is beyond your camera’s limits, adding in fill light is a viable way to get the exposure within a few stops. You don’t need to have access to the most expensive lighting kit on the market; you can get fantastic results by using the most basic of gear. Check out SLR Lounge’s Lighting 101 and 201 to learn techniques and how to utilize the equipment you already have. For the purpose of this article, I will be focusing on how to achieve excellent results without using an external light source.

1. Blow the Highlights

In high contrast shooting situations, one of the best options is exposing your subject (or even skin tones) causing the highlights to blow out. My general understanding of this point is that you don’t want to fight the fact that your camera has low DR. It is common practice for shooters to find a middle ground in their exposure to squeeze a little bit of dynamic range from their sensors. In reality, they should be choosing to expose for the shadows or highlights.

In Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, there are many scenes where the highlights are blown, so don’t feel like you can’t do this technique in a pinch. The key is knowing when to do and why you are doing it. Only do this when the mood calls for it

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2. Silhouettes

Silhouettes are the exact opposite to the previous point. Instead of exposing for your subject or model in a high contrast situation, you should try exposing for your highlights instead and let your subject fall into silhouette. Doing so can be a good technique regardless of the camera, but it is especially effective for low DR cameras.  Silhouettes can create a beautiful mood that completely alters the feel of any given frame. Obviously, this isn’t for every subject; you probably don’t want to shoot fashion like this, but if your scene calls for a more dramatic touch, this works wonders. In essence, you are using all dynamic range to capture the highlights and allowing your shadows clip to black.

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[Related: Creating Stylish Silhouettes With A GOBO and Fog | Lighting 201]

3. Reflectors

The first two options are good choices if you are willing to let you subject to fall into the shadows or blow your highlights, but what if your scene calls for something more? What if you need to show both the skin tones and the details of your background, but your camera is forcing you to choose one or the other. The obvious answer is to use some light to fill in those shadows. Without using off camera flash, you can harness the power of the Sun with a simple 5-in-1 reflector.

Reflectors or bounce boards can act as a strong light source when used properly. One big benefit to using bounced light is the color temperature. Assuming you are bouncing sunlight into your subject, the bounced light will always match (temperature wise) with the rest of the ambient light (within a few degrees Kelvin). As the sun sets, the color temperature will shift, and your reflected light will follow suit. To see more techniques using reflectors see SLR Lounge’s Photography 101 course.

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Photo by Kishore Sawh

[Related: Simple Natural Light Swimwear Shot | How I Shot It]

4. The Golden Hour

Shooting an hour before sunset/hour after sunrise is probably the easiest solution on this list. The quality of light during the golden hour is second to none. Most photographers make their careers off shooting in this light as it offers a mood and texture that can not be easily replicated. For those shooting with low dynamic range cameras, the golden hour offers a much lower contrast. Opposed to shooting at midday when the Sun is overhead, and shadows are dense and defined, during the golden hour, the Sun is low on the horizon, so the light is much softer and more forgiving.

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[Related: Can You Tell The Difference Between Golden Hour And Artificial Golden Hour?]

5. Neutral Density

When shooting at the golden hour is not feasible, and reflectors offer little in the way of help, neutral density gels can be your best friend. Imagine a situation where you need to shoot inside a car on a bright day. Obviously, it would be impractical to use a reflector or bounce board; rather than trying to add light to the shadows, you can take away from the highlights by using ND gels.

ND gels and filters have been used forever on sets and productions as they provide an excellent method for light control. Attaching ND gels to a window or strong light source will bring the exposure down to within a few stops of your shadows, allowing you to capture the entire scene more easily.

One of the main problems with dynamic range is found in landscape photography. The sky is often too bright to maintain detail if the landscape is exposed correctly. To counter this, a graduated ND filter is used. Using a graduated ND filter in front of your lens will allow you to capture the brights in the sky while not affecting the shadows.

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6. High Dynamic Range

While the other five ways can be achieved in camera, HDR requires the use of Photoshop to combine different exposures of the same image into one high detailed picture. HDR sometimes gets a bad rep due to the overuse of the technique to create unrealistic depictions of a scene. When used properly, images can seem lifelike and natural looking.

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Photo by Matthew Saville

[Related: What is HDR Photography and What Exactly is High Dynamic Range?]

Conclusion

Achieving beautiful images with a low dynamic range camera is completely possible. If you are not dealing with any light modifiers, I suggest either exposing for your subject or the highlights and avoid the muddiness of the middle ground. Planning ahead and choosing to shoot during the right time of the day can make all the difference as well. Remember that many photographers make a living by using iPhones as their main camera; it’s all about working with what you have and knowing the limitations of your gear to maximize its capabilities.

About

Justin Heyes wants to live in a world where we have near misses and absolute hits; great love and small disasters. Starting his career as a gaffer, he has done work for QVC and The Rachel Ray Show, but quickly fell in love with photography. When he’s not building arcade machines, you can find him at local flea markets or attending car shows.

Explore his photographic endeavors here.

Website: Justin Heyes
Instagram: @jheyesphoto

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Dave Haynie

    The DR wars aside in pro cameras, this is good advice for shooting on “the camera I have with me”… maybe a good Smartphone camera, maybe a P&S, maybe an older DSLR. As annoying as Smartphone shooters can be, I keep trying to encourage those I know to actually learn the basics of photography. That’s possible these days. I’m on the second Smartphone that shoots photos I don’t immediately regret taking (LG V10) — shoots in raw, decent resolution, not totally worthless when I’m not outdoors between 11am and 3pm, etc.

    The goal, of course, is to get that person interest enough to get a real camera. Not everyone will respond, but you’ll remember your successes, and enjoy their images for years to come.

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  2. Lakin Jones

    Your use of the term “High dynamic range” (although not all caps like HDR) is a bit confusing in the article. Wide dynamic range (how DXOMark speaks to DR) is potentially more clear. Although searches for “wide dynamic range” brings up results for surveillance cameras. Also, while I might be mistaken, your ND photograph looks like the sky was adjusted in post production using a gradient adjustment and not shot using an ND graduated filter. Otherwise a nice list of options to maximize a cameras DR.

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  3. Colin Woods

    A quick shout out to Trey Ratcliff. His Aurora HDR software is excellent for natural results as well as the ugly stuff. Its well worth the $100 asking price.

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