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Maximizing Dynamic Range | Minute Photography

By Pye Jirsa on March 7th 2017

Welcome to our latest series, Minute Photography, where we explain photography and lighting tips & tricks, myths, and techniques. For more education and detail about this concept, be sure to check out our Photography 101 Workshop.

In this episode, we show you how to maximize your camera’s dynamic range for every scene, and why it’s so important to do so.

What is dynamic range?

Dynamic range as pertaining to photography essentially describes the ratio between the maximum and minimum measurable light intensities. Maximizing dynamic range simply means that we are capturing as much light information information as the camera sensor will allow. This technique allows for the most flexibility when it comes to post processing styles.  Cameras with a greater dynamic range, measured in stops, will retain detail to a greater extent than a camera whose dynamic range is smaller.

[REWIND: how to read your histogram]

Step 1: turn on your camera’s live view

Press info to reveal your histogram. The left side of the histogram represents the shadows in your image while the right side represents the highlights. Adjust your shutter speed and aperture for the composition while using the lowest native ISO possible to retain all of the available detail and information in the image.

To learn more on how to read your camera’s histogram check out this video!

step 2: Adjust your exposure settings

As above, adjust your shutter speed and aperture for the composition while using the lowest native ISO possible to retain all of the available detail and information in the image. Aim to keep your overall exposure between the left and right edges of the Histogram.

Exposing your image to the right of the Histogram, also known as ETTR (exposing to the right), is sometimes better than underexposed images where the shadows are lost – but that depends on your particular sensor as certain sensors have broader dynamic range and you can get away with more on that end.

step 3: enable highlight alert

If your image looks a bit dark, there is nothing to be alarmed about. You want to preserve as much detail in the shadows as possible and underexposing typically allows us to have more wiggle room once we start post processing the image.

In order to double check your exposure, enable your Highlight Alert function to see which portions of your image are overexposed. Once you see the areas you can determine whether or not it is worth it to lose detail in those areas and adjust accordingly.

[REWIND: work smarter & faster in lightroom with these tips]

Canon 5D Mark IV, 24mm, ISO 100, 1/800 of a second, f/1.4

Using the SLRL Preset System we took the original image and transformed it with just one simple click. As long as you’ve successfully preserved the shadows in the original image, pulling up the darker parts of the image won’t result in grainy image quality.

What is the camera with the highest dynamic range?

The following list of cameras are just a recommendation and are by no means an end all be all to the question of which camera has the best dynamic range. Is it logical for you to switch over to Nikon if you have 6 Canon lenses? Most likely not.

Learn more about your camera & how to make it work for you in our Photography 101 workshop, or upgrade to SLRL Premium to stream it along with a plethora of lighting and post-production education.

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Stay tuned for more simple & effective photography tips & tricks in our Minute Photography series!

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Founding Partner of Lin and Jirsa Photography and SLR Lounge.

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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Thomas Gibson

    Your post is fine and ETTR is correct, but one key thing you left out and others I read is, which tone(s) are you meter on or off of.  If you meter the sky your subjects will be underexposed even if you ETTR. Expose on the subject gray suit is perfect.  Thus meter the most important tones for your vision/subject and do not blow the highlights which is not always with bright skies and let the shadows fall where they may.  Thanks for the quick lesson.

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  2. adam sanford

    Nice read.  Besides staying in as low an ISO as possible, I’d also recommend always working in RAW to maximize your latitude in post. 

    I shoot JPG + RAW on everything and it’s amazing what gets blown out on my highlights in JPG that the RAW file can walk back in post. 

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