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16 Jun 2024

Dynamic Range

dajnæmɪk rendʒ
Term: Dynamic Range
Dynamic range refers to the measurement of the difference between the brightest and darkest areas in a given image or scene. It is a term commonly used in photography, digital imaging, and video to describe the range of tones that a camera or display device can capture or reproduce. A higher dynamic range means that the device can capture or display more detail in both the highlights and shadows of an image, resulting in a more realistic and nuanced representation of the scene. Dynamic range is often expressed in terms of stops or EV (exposure value), with higher numbers indicating a greater range. A camera or display device with a wider dynamic range is generally considered to be more capable of producing high-quality images with greater detail and realism, particularly in challenging lighting conditions.

What Exactly is Dynamic Range?

Dynamic range is the range from brightest to darkest visible area of an image. The human eye can see brighter and darker areas than can be captured on a sensor, but the more dynamic range a sensor is capable of capturing, the greater the range that will be represented in the image.

Sensors with more dynamic range provide greater latitude for shadow and highlight recovery. The fact that a camera can’t capture everything that a human eye can process in one shot has paved the way for High Dynamic Range photography – a popular technique that involves the combination of multiple images which are each properly exposed for different portions of a scene.

How to Improve Dynamic Range

Shoot in RAW

One of the best ways to improve dynamic range in your photography is to shoot in RAW format. RAW files contain more information than JPEG files, allowing you to recover more detail in both the highlights and shadows during post-processing. Shooting in RAW also gives you greater flexibility when it comes to adjusting exposure, contrast, and other parameters.

Consider Exposure Bracketing as Needed

Exposure bracketing is a technique that involves taking multiple shots of the same scene at different exposures. This is useful in high-contrast scenes where it may be challenging to capture all the detail in a single shot. By combining the shots in post-processing, you can create a final image with a wider dynamic range.

Use the Histogram to Maximize Dynamic Range

A histogram is a graph that reveals how much of your image is made up of shadows and highlights. In a histogram, the blacks and shadows occupy the left side of the graph, the midtones reside in the center, and the highlights and whites occupy the right side (along the X-axis). The Y-axis represents the amount of shadows or highlights in a given area of the frame. It’s worth getting to know your histogram as it represents a critical tool in your photography arsenal, both in-camera and during post-production.

highlights and histogram correct exposure triangle case study 02

For the image above, here is how the different zones of shadows and highlights can be analyzed.

histogram and highlight alert exposure triangle shadows midtones highlights
Shadows (left), Midtones (center), Highlights (right) – Click to zoom.

As you can see the majority of the shadows can be found in the rocks on the lefthand side of the image, which is exactly where they show up on the histogram. Meanwhile, the ocean makes up the midtowns and the sky contains the highlights, again, just as they’re represented in the Histogram. These graphs will look different for each image, but the information breaks down the same way, and what it’s telling us is important to understand.

When discussing maximizing dynamic range, it involves retaining as many shadow and highlight details as possible. Adjusting the exposure up or down shifts the shadow and highlight details to the right or left. To maximize dynamic range, the exposure should be adjusted so that the shadows and highlights move as close to the center as possible. It’s important not to push too far in either direction and “clip” either the shadows or highlights, as this would result in the loss of detail wherever clipping occurs (see the image below).

histogram and Highlights kept shadows clipped
If we expose (or underexpose) the image too far too the left, the shadow details are clipped (lost).

Use The Highlight Alert

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The highlight alert is an important that should be used in conjunction with the histogram. If any highlights are blown out, an enabled highlight alert will blink over the affected area (see the image below).

histogram highlight alert clipping

Pro Tip: Add the Highlight Alert as one of the items in your quick menu (if you have that option – be sure to check your camera manual if necessary) so that you can turn it on and off quickly as needed. Although you’ll want to enable the highlight alert while shooting, you may want to show your clients the images on the back of the camera at some point, and you don’t want to distract them with the blinking highlight alert.

Adjust Picture Style to Flat Profile

understanding exposure
By creating a user-defined picture style, you have the ability to retain the information you lose in the Auto Picture Style settings.

Locate your Picture Style settings in your camera’s menu system. Your camera will likely default to the ‘Auto’ option and we don’t want that, in fact, none of these picture styles are ideal so we are going to make our own User Setting.

iso aperture shutter speed
Screenshot this image and apply these settings to your custom picture style function!

You want to make this custom picture style as flat and neutral as possible. I’ve turned the Contrast, Sharpness and  Saturation all the way down to keep the image looking as flat as possible to retain all the information in your image. Your images will look a bit more flat and less contrasted in-camera but at the end of the day, you’ll get better information when you’re exposing.

Shoot at the Optimal Time of Day

The time of day can have a significant impact on the dynamic range of a scene. Shooting during the golden hour, which is the hour after sunrise or before sunset, can result in a wider dynamic range due to the softer and warmer light. Additionally, shooting in overcast or cloudy weather can also help to reduce the contrast in a scene, resulting in a wider dynamic range.

Use Graduated Neutral Density Filters

Graduated neutral density filters are used to reduce the amount of light entering the lens in specific areas of the image. These filters are particularly useful in landscape photography when the sky is much brighter than the foreground. By using a graduated neutral density filter, you can balance the exposure between the sky and the foreground, resulting in a more evenly exposed image.

Manually Select LCD Brightness Setting

understanding exposure
Adjust your LCD brightness to ensure you aren’t over or under exposing scenes based on your ambient light.

Locate your Camera LCD Brightness setting in your menu. Most cameras are set to ‘Auto’ LCD brightness to adapt to the ambient light around you. What ends up happening is that as we go from indoor to outdoor scenes we rely more on how the image looks on the LCD screen as a depiction of our camera exposure which in turn can make you over or underexpose your photo. Setting the brightness manually gives you a more reliable way to judge what you see. If you 100% trust yourself to remember to change it between different shooting scenarios, you can manually adjust it so that you know exactly how your image is meant to look and the LCD is optimized for different ambient light levels, but for most of us, selecting a brighter setting and sticking with that throughout your shoot.

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