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Unveilling the Secrets of Dynamic Range in Photography

Hello hello! Welcome back to my blog! Today I have an interesting subject that should help you get closer to your camera and get to know each other a little bit better which will definitively improve your photography.

If you have been reading my blog, you’ll remember I constantly mention that you should get to know your camera because this will be a game-changer. Well, today I’m ready to share with you all I know about dynamic range. Understanding and harnessing dynamic range can take your photos to the next level, allowing you to capture the full spectrum of light and shadow in your scenes. So, grab your camera, and let's unravel the mysteries of dynamic range together!

What is Dynamic Range in Photography?

Not a lot of people talk about this but there are actually 2 dynamic range in photography: the dynamic range of the scene and your camera's dynamic range. It is important to know this because what your camera is able to capture is not the same as what you are seeing in your scene.

Our friends from Adobe say that dynamic range describes the ratio between the brightest and darkest parts of an image, from pure black to brightest white. It's the ability of your camera to capture details in both the shadows and highlights without losing information or introducing unwanted artifacts (aka noise and some other nasty things we don’t want in our professional pictures).

High dynamic range image of Two ladies surfing in Kaikoura, New Zealand
Two ladies surfing in Kaikoura, New Zealand

A wide dynamic range enables you to create stunning images, especially in challenging lighting situations. I do have to mention that mid to professional-range cameras will have a wider dynamic range than a beginner’s camera. This DOES NOT mean that you have to spend thousands of dollars on a camera. We will discuss this in a little bit so don’t get a second mortgage just yet and keep reading.

Why is Dynamic Range Important?

Mastering dynamic range is crucial because it can:

  • Preserve Details: Knowing your dynamic range ensures that you don't lose details in areas that are too dark or too bright. This is essential for retaining the richness of your subject.

  • Create Balanced Exposure: With proper control of dynamic range, you can achieve well-balanced exposures in high-contrast scenes, like landscapes with bright skies and dark foregrounds.

  • Enhance Creativity: Understanding dynamic range gives you the creative freedom to manipulate light and shadow for dramatic effects and storytelling in your photos.

Using dynamic range

So our eyes roughly have 15 stops of dynamic range. Granted, our eyes move around very quickly so it’s able to capture a lot more information than our cameras do.

When your eyes don’t move around and they are static, the dynamic range reduces significantly. Why? Because sometimes we think we can see something when in reality we fill in the gaps by grabbing information from the next scene.

So how do I use my dynamic range to my advantage? Well, say you are shooting in a studio. You have a model with some nice designer clothes with a variety of colors; some dark and some bright. You can easily check with your light meter your darkest area and see how underexposed it is and then repeat the process with the brightest area. If the darkest area is too dark then you can always add a set of lights to brighten it up. If it's too bright then we can increase the shutter speed or lower the ISO, etc. If you do not understand what I am talking about now, head to my ‘How to Shoot in Manual Mode’ post to read about the exposure triangle.

Understanding the exposure triangle

In this scenario which I know is extremely simplified, since we know the light is not going to change from one second to the other, it’s easy to solve it. You put more light into the dark areas, and not so much into the brightest areas. Simple, right?

But what happens when we are outside? What happens if a cloud decides to go in front of the sun for a couple of minutes? What happens if you are only shooting in natural light and you can’t add more light to the shadows? Or what if you are shooting wildlife and of course the lion won’t like you using a speedlight? That’s when knowing how much detail can my camera retain in the shadows in an underexposed shot comes in handy. If you are able to know that your camera will still retain all the information even if you are 2 stops underexposed then you can take the shot without losing any sleep that you might have ruined your once-in-a-lifetime picture.

Mastering Dynamic Range

So here are some pro tips for mastering dynamic range:

  1. Understanding light: This is probably the hardest part of learning photography because you would think understanding light would be easy, but it's not. So what I used to do (even when I wasn't taking pictures), first was use my hand to see how the light created shadows. Understanding how to use the sun/light to my advantage was a game changer.

  2. Change your camera's metering modes: Just like understanding light, you need to understand how your camera works. The camera's light meter is your best ally when shooting a high dynamic range scene (well, any scene really). Most cameras today, from beginner's to professional ones, offer different metering modes for measuring the proper exposure of a scene. Different metering modes will let your camera know what parts of your scene are more important to you and it will expose accordingly. Choosing the correct one can be the difference between succeeding and failing your shot. Luckily for you, I already have a post about this and you can find it here.

Post cover about camera metering modes and when to use them

3. Learn how to use your histogram: The histogram shows you the dynamic range of your scene captured by your camera (meaning the dynamic range of your image). In a nutshell, if your histogram is within the width of your histogram display, then everything is right with the world.

Example of a histogram of an appropriately exposed image capturing all the dynamic range
Example of a histogram of an appropriately exposed image

If your histogram is shifted to the right or left, it means that your photo is over or underexposed respectively. This means your photo is "clipped" and you have lost information that you cannot recover.

Example of an underexposed image

Example of an overexposed histogram

4. HDR Photography: When you are in a situation where you have several subjects in a scene and they each need their own exposure triangle (like the picture below). Then HDR photography is the way to do it!

Example of a high dynamic range scene
Example of a high dynamic range scene

High Dynamic Range or HDR photography involves taking multiple images with different exposures and merging them together using specialized software. You can achieve this by using bracketing or by manually adjusting the exposure in each shot. Do not go crazy with this! Use HDR sparingly for natural-looking results.

Example of how HDR Photography works
Example of how HDR Photography works

5. Shoot in RAW: RAW files contain more information and provide greater flexibility in post-processing to recover details in shadows and highlights. If you see the picture below, even if it isn't the best picture, look at how much detail I managed to recover.

Example of detail recovery from RAW image
Example of detail recovery from RAW image

Same situation with this picture of the keas. Look at the details on their wings!

Example of detail recovery from RAW image
Another example of detail recovery from RAW image

6. Post-Processing: Use software like Adobe Lightroom to fine-tune the dynamic range in your images during editing. There are some other software you can use as well but Lightroom and Photoshop are normally my go-tos.

7. Graduated Filters: A graduated neutral density filter (GND) is a handy tool to balance the exposure in high-contrast scenes. I will talk about this later on in another post.

Image of a bunch of flowers using an ND filter to increase dynamic range
Difference between using and not using a ND filter

I currently have the 67mm 2-5 stop Peter McKinon Grad filter and I love it. I wish I used more because when I do, the results are absolutely amazing. It is not cheap unfortunately but if you have the budget, do invest in a good filter.

Example of ND filter
Example of ND filter
Peter McKinon ND flter to increase dynamic range in photos
This is the ND flter I use. You don't need to use the same one, just one that works for you.
Peter McKinon ND filter cover

8. Last but certainly not least (probably the most important one) understand your camera: Get familiar with your camera's dynamic range capabilities. Some cameras perform better in high-contrast situations than others but you won't know until you put it to the test. The best way in my opinion is learning about the zone system and the stepped grayscale test. Lucky for you, I do have a post about this that you can find here.

Do I need to invest more money for a better dynamic range?

Absolutely not! Ok, if I'm being honest, yes a more expensive camera will have a better camera sensor and, therefore a better dynamic range. Having said that, there are ways around it. So don't break the bank just yet. I am a firm believer that you shouldn't upgrade your equipment unless it is actually stopping you from achieving your goal. So if you are trying to take pictures of wildlife and you only have a wide-angle lens, then yes, you should invest in equipment. But in this case, like I said, there are ways around it. Also, keep in mind that having to think of ways to achieve your shot means that you need to really understand the basic concepts which will help you a lot along your career.

Dynamic range is a powerful tool that can take your photography to new heights. By understanding its importance, practicing various techniques, and experimenting with different scenarios, you'll become a master at capturing the full beauty of the world around you. Don't be afraid to push the limits of your camera's dynamic range and let your creativity shine through in your photographs.

That's all for today! Keep shooting, keep learning, and remember that dynamic range is your key to unlocking the full potential of your photographic vision!


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