What Is Dynamic Range In Photography? Plus, How It Affects Your Photos
In our digital world, “dynamic range” is essential for understanding how to create exceptional photos. Oh, and since digital cameras see our world differently, they have greater limitations vs. the human eye. These limitations can cause havoc on your image.
For example, if the sensor in your digital camera has a limited dynamic range, it could result in over or underexposed photos. Compared to your eyes, you see all the detail in the highlights and shadows. But even then, if it’s too bright or dark, you also are unable to see all the details.
When an image is over or underexposed, it will lack texture, contrast, and detail… all the ingredients of an average, dull, lackluster image. We can’t have that!
That’s why you’re here, right? To learn about the dynamic range for creating exceptional photos?
Awesome! Let’s start off by discovering what dynamic range in photography is.
Table of Contents
What Is Dynamic Range?
In essence, the dynamic range in photography refers to the measurement between maximum and minimum values of light.
Dynamic range in photography is simply the effort of your sensor to capture all the details from the highlights to the mid-tones to the shadows.
The brighter the scene, the more “range” of highlights to shadows there will be.
Due to the limitations of digital sensors in general (and film), they cannot capture the same amount of detail vs. your eyes.
The lower the dynamic range of your sensor, the higher the chances that you’ll be able to capture all the details in a particular scene.
Understanding Dynamic Range... Deep Dive
To better understand your digital camera’s dynamic range limitations, let’s break down light into shades of grey.
In our digital world, your recording device, whether it’s a digital sensor in your DSLR, smartphone, or a digital file itself, “visualizes” the brightness (luminance) in 1’s and 0’s. Zero is pure black, and 255 is pure white for a total of 256 shades of gray.
On the other hand, Mother Nature has an infinite level of “gray” or brightness levels. Since your eyes are not limited to 256 shades of luminance, you can see a higher range of light intensities. Let me demonstrate with the following gradients.
The gradient (above) starts with pure black and transitions to pure white. In-between are different shades of gray that creates a smooth transition from one side to the other. In total, 256 shades of gray.
The next gradient was created with fewer levels of gray… let’s say 150. This time, we started with a dark gray and transitioned to a light gray. Therefore, this is considered a low tonal range.
How This Can Affect Your Photos Negatively
If your digital sensor is only capable of capturing 150 shades of gray, it will not be able to capture all the details in the highlights or shadows. This means you’ll have to expose either for one or the other. Which one is it going to be?
Your decision is going to result in part of the image being over or underexposed! That being said, you will not always be in a situation where there are pure blacks and or pure whites. Instead, you may find a varying level of light intensities that range from black to white, for example.
In that case, your camera is more capable of delivering a full tonal range of grays based on the light values available. Therefore, parts of your image will not be too dark or too bright. Or will not be over or underexposed.
Dynamic Range vs. Tonal Range
Dynamic range is often confused with tonal range. But, they are not one and the same. As you now know, dynamic range is the limitation of your digital camera’s ability to capture the full luminance of a scene. The tonal range is the actual luminance range of a scene.
Stops & Dynamic Range
Dynamic range can be described in “stops.” A Stop refers to a level of luminance that can be captured by a sensor. That being said, not all cameras are created equal. My Fuji S2, from 2001, has a dynamic range of 7 stops. Compare that to my Nikon Z6 that has a dynamic range of 14 stops. Double the range!
Why does it matter? A digital camera with a broader dynamic range is more capable of capturing the full (high) tonal range of a scene.
How To Improve the Dynamic Range Before Editing
You can do several things, in-camera, to improve the dynamic range at the time of capture. Let’s go over a few options.
Control the Light
This can include adding additional light with artificial light or strobes. Or you can filter the light with a scrim to lower its intensity.
A Neutral Density Filter or ND Filter controls how much light enters your lens. This can reduce a high dynamic range to a range your sensor can adequately capture.
Wait For the Weather To Change
If the sun is too bright, you could wait for a cloud to cover it. Or come back on an overcast day.
Either way, when the sun is being filtered through clouds, it’s intensity is lowered. The thicker the clouds, the lower the strength, and the lower the dynamic range.
Shoot From a Different Angle
Directional lighting can be intense too. If so, try shooting at a different angle to reduce the intensity.
Shoot From the Shade
If waiting for the weather to change or coming back another day isn’t an option… move to the shade.
This could be the shade from a tree, building, or another large object that will provide the shade needed.
Although this will lower the dynamic range of your subject, you’ll need to consider the background’s brightness level.
If the sun is filtering through the forest, located behind the subject, it might still be too intense, and you may end up with overexposed areas.
How To Judge the Dynamic Range
Remember that gradient with 256 shades of gray?
On the left, we have the blacks, followed by the shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and then the whites. Reading the histogram is a skill all photographers should learn.
Here’s why… the histogram will show whether your image is exposed correctly or if it needs adjustments.
Once you know how to read a histogram, you can fix any exposure issues in two ways…
Fix it at the time of capture. Take a photo and look at the histogram via the LCD screen of your camera. Is it over or underexposed?
If so, fix it now by reshooting until you get the proper exposure (or at least as close as possible). Or…
Fix it during post-processing. You will have to spend time fixing it if not done in-camera, but you’ll also end up with a lower quality file.
If the image is too over or underexposed “fixing,” it could add digital noise, artifacts, and possibly the loss of detail.
How HDR Can Improve the Dynamic Range Through Photography + Editing
The following technique for improving the dynamic range of a photo is done through both photography and editing.
This technique is known as HDR, which is short for High Dynamic Range.
HDR is the art of taking multiple photos of a scene at different exposures. In post-processing, you’ll merge those photos together to retain detail in both the shadows and highlights.
This technique can be done with three or more photos. To merge them, you can use editing software like Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, or other alternatives to Photoshop.
You could have the best camera in the world, and it still has a limitation when it comes to dynamic range.
Even editing software can do so much. If the detail wasn’t captured in-camera, not even Photoshop could bring it back… at least naturally.
There are ways to remove backgrounds in Photoshop and replace them with “fluffy” clouds that were not visible at the time you took the photo. This, in itself, is time-consuming and doesn’t always look natural.
You may want to consider HDR photography since you’ll capture the full tonal range of the scene (all the details in the highlights and shadows).
If HDR sounds perfect, it’s not. It has limitations too.
For example, it’s challenging to use this technique on moving objects since the object will be in a different position as you take each additional image. This causes what is known as “ghosting.”
It’s possible to overcome this if the subject isn’t moving too fast. Or by using a fast shutter speed and using continuous shooting mode.
Improving Dynamic Range With Editing
You can improve the dynamic range when you shoot in the Raw format. A Raw file contains a lot more information vs. a JPEG.
When shooting in JPEG, your camera has to make creative decisions for you when it compresses the file.
In other words, your camera has to determine how much detail it should retain in the shadows and highlights. Unlike a Raw file, it can’t keep it all. So, the first step of improving the dynamic range is shooting in Raw.
After that, you can use Adobe Lightroom or Camera Raw to tweak the highlight and shadow adjustments to bring back or reveal detail.
Being able to read the histogram will tell you if there’s detail hidden in the shadows and highlights.
If you notice that the histogram isn’t capturing all the detail at the time of the shoot, you may want to consider the HDR technique.
Next, you need to find out what the dynamic range of your camera is. Either check the manual for your camera or Google it. But, what does the number of stops for the dynamic range of your camera mean for you?
Anything less than 10 means you’ll have a hard time in high luminance situations. In that case, consider shooting multiple images for a High Dynamic Range (HDR).
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