An extensive Guide to Dynamic Range in Photography

A Comprehensive Guide to Active Range in Photography

A guide to dynamic range in photography

Dynamic range is a basic concept in photography, one that every photographer must understand. Unfortunately, it generates a lot of confusion, because of its technical components plus difficult-sounding name.

But dynamic range isn’t nearly as complex while you might think. And in this article, I break it all down for you. I explain:

  • What dynamic range in photography actually is
  • How dynamic range affects your images
  • How you can use your understanding of dynamic range to instantly improve your photos

By the time you’re done reading, you’ll be good equipped to capture photos that require major dynamic range know-how – in particular, landscaping, cityscape, and night pictures.

Let’s get started.

What is dynamic range in photography?

Dynamic range refers to the range of sounds in a scene, from the dark, blackest shadows to the cleverest, most brilliant highlights. The greater tonal range present in a scene, the greater the powerful range.

Therefore a scene full of bland, gray midtones – for example an elephant against the tan wall – has a low active range , while the scene with intense highlights and shadows – such as a sunset over a shadowy forest – has a high dynamic range .

In pictures, dynamic range is quantified in terms of prevents , where each stop corresponds to a doubling associated with light levels. The details are irrelevant; what’s important is that a scene with ten stops of dynamic range has greater tonal variance than a scene with 5 stops of dynamic range, and so on.

But how does this affect your images?

Every camera is capable of capturing a certain dynamic range. And once the dynamic range of the picture exceeds the dynamic variety capacity of your camera, then you definitely get blown-out highlights and clipped shadows (i. e., loss of detail at the powerful range extremes), which is a main photography no-no and should generally be avoided.

For example , a standard camera might offer a 12-stop dynamic range, which makes it very easy to capture an image like this one:

goose with low dynamic range
This goose scene has a low dynamic range; no parts are exceptionally light or even dark.

But if the sun were to come out and backlight the goose, the dynamic variety would increase dramatically and your camera would struggle to record both the shadows and the best parts, as you can see here:

backlit goose with high dynamic range
This particular backlit scene has a huge dynamic range. Parts of the particular scene are very bright and other parts are covered in shadow.

In the scene pictured above, the background fountain has been so bright and the foreground shadows were so darkish that my camera couldn’t handle the entire dynamic variety. While I managed to keep most of the highlight detail within the areas behind the goose, the shadows were trimmed, leading to black, detailless nicotine patches in the foreground. (And had I deliberately increased the particular exposure to brighten up the foreground, the reverse might have occurred: nice detail within the foreground but a loss of detail in the background features. )

What causes high versus low dynamic range?

Active range is caused by a mixture of your subject and the light .

Certain subjects are usually bright, such as silver cars, white egrets, and cold landscapes. Other subjects are dark, such as black motorbikes, oak tree bark, and light-blocking curtains.

If you place a dark subject on a dark background or perhaps a light subject on a light background, you’ll have a low powerful range scene (i. electronic., very limited tonal variation).

But if you place the dark subject on a lighting background, like a black motorcycle in front of a snow-covered mountain, you’ll generally have a high powerful range scene.

The light matters, too. High-contrast light, like you find on noon on a sunny day time, creates lots of highlights plus shadows, resulting in a high active range scene. Whereas cloudy light is very flat; the entire world under a blanket of atmosphere features far less tonal varietie. (The same is true of color, which is why portrait photographers often prefer to position their subjects under trees during midday photoshoots! )

Note that the subject and the light together create the dynamic range of a scene. If you put a dark subject in front of a light background then add high-contrast lighting, the scene will increase in dynamic range. And if you put a darkish subject in front of a light track record then add flat, low-contrast light, the scene will reduce in dynamic range.

So dynamic range cannot be evaluated in terms of only subjects or only light; both factors matter.

For instance, I chance this image with my subject in shadow as the background was lit from the sun, which resulted in a comparatively high dynamic range photograph:

woman posing for portrait in front of bright background

Yet by adjusting the position associated with my subject, I was capable to shoot against a shady background, which evened away the light for a low powerful range image:

woman posing in front of dark background

In other words, by adjusting the light, I was able to replace the dynamic range, even though the genuine tonal value of the subject and the background didn’t change significantly.

Dealing with high dynamic range scenes: 4 simple strategies

High dynamic range scenes can cause problems for photographers; they make proper exposure very difficult, and beginners usually get frustrated by the loss of fine detail in HDR shots.

So what do you do? How do you handle HDR topics, such as a shadowy foreground towards a beautiful sunset?

Below, I share four methods. Note that no single choice is necessarily better than the others. It all depends on the situation!

1 . Bracket your pictures

Bracketing is the procedure for taking several images on different exposure values within the hope that one picture turns out well exposed. The simplest – and most common – method of bracketing involves having three images, each using a slightly different shutter speed .

That way, once you get home after a photoshoot, you are able to pick the image with the best exposure, then you dispose of the others.

Bracketing works well when capturing scenes with a relatively high powerful range, as long as the DR isn’t therefore high that it exceeds the capabilities of your camera. For instance, if your digital camera can capture 12 halts of dynamic range as well as the scene you’re photographing rests at around 10, if you can get the exposure perfect, you’ll be able to pull details out of both the highlights as well as the shadows. On the other hand, if you skip the exposure even with a couple of stops, you’ll shed detail and the shot is going to be ruined.

So by bracketing in such a scenario – that is, by capturing several variations, just to become safe – you can make sure you do get that perfect publicity and come away having an usable image. Here, your own camera’s histogram and LCD playback function are also greatly helpful as you can check each file to ensure you’ve avoided clipping (then make any kind of necessary adjustments to the exposure based on what you see).

Note that bracketing is really a generally useful practice, one which will increase your exposure precision even when you’re photographing scenes of medium dynamic range, so feel free to bracket as often as time allows!

However , while bracketing is great for medium and medium-high DR scenes, it won’t give good results when the dynamic range is extremely high, like when photographing intense sunsets or cityscapes at night. In such instances, even if you nail the exposure, you’ll still end up with lost details, so you’ll need to use another method:

2 . Do HDR blending

HDR photography involves capturing several pictures with different exposures (i. e., bracketing your photos, since explained in the previous section), after that blending the images collectively for a final, perfectly uncovered file.

For instance, if I’m photographing in a very house, I might take one particular shot that captures the outside details:

image of the street outside a window

And a second shot that catches the indoor details:

image of an interior with a window

And blend them together for a last image that includes details in both areas:

high dynamic range image blending the two previous images

This method of imaging is ideal for handling sunrise and sun scenes as well as interior-exterior shots, but it does come with a number of drawbacks:

  1. You generally need to utilize a tripod to keep the framework consistent.
  2. You have to spend extra time processing every image (though many exposure-blending programs are so good that this editing time increases simply by only a few seconds per shot).

The post-processing workflow can seem daunting at first, but programs such as Lightroom and Photoshop possess easy, built-in algorithms to get handling the HDR combine process (and if you need utmost control over the highlights and shadows, you can learn to undertake manual blending, a complex process that can nevertheless give you outstanding results).

3. Use a graduated fairly neutral density filter

Prior to the development and popularization of HDR blending, scenery photographers utilized graduated neutral density filters , or GNDs, to take care of high dynamic range moments.

Such filters simply mount in front of the zoom lens and feature a gradient that goes from clear to dark.

The idea is to position the dark part of the filter over the best part of the scene (generally the particular sky) and the clear portion of the filter over the darkest section of the scene (generally the foreground), thus reducing the overall powerful range and allowing you to catch the entire scene in gorgeous detail.

A few photographers still use GND filters, especially those who would rather spend less time editing and much more time shooting. But high-quality filters can be expensive, plus they offer less flexibility compared to HDR blending, so their popularity has waned.

My suggestion: Unless you love the idea of using GND filters (or you’re a film photographer), go with one such other strategies instead.

4. Skip the shot (or wait for better light)

Oftentimes, high dynamic range scenes are predictable.

Certain types of light produce bright highlights and strong shadows, such as harsh midday lighting or backlit night light.

Right now, in such cases, you may want in order to capture the high dynamic variety scene, and when that happens, you should utilize one of the strategies outlined over.

But in additional cases, if you’re struggling to capture a well-exposed shot, one option is to just move on. Skip the chance. If you like the overall scene yet aren’t attached to the current lights, you can always come back later when the light is less contrasty.

This is especially important when you’re shooting landscapes in the middle of the day. The harsh light will develop powerful shadows and shows, your camera will fail to expose for the entire scene, and even if you use HDR blending, the result probably won’t look very good simply because midday light plus landscapes generally do not blend well.

Sure, there are some exceptions, but it is often best to avoid midday landscape photography entirely. Rather, come back at sunrise or even sunset, when the sky appears amazing and the scene is definitely less contrasty. You might also think about coming back on a cloudy time, especially if you’re photographing inside a forest.

Ultimately, the choice is up to a person – but just remember that, within photography, patience often pays off.

Dynamic range and modern camera technologies

As I am sure you’ve gathered through reading the previous sections, coping with high dynamic range scenes takes time. Each way of handling HDR situations consists of extra shots or additional steps, which isn’t at all times convenient (and in certain situations, isn’t feasible).

Fortunately, as camera detectors have improved, dynamic range capabilities have soared . While photographers once needed several images to photograph an HDR scene, certain cameras – such as the latest full-frame Digital slrs and mirrorless models – are capable of capturing 13-15 halts of tonal range. Quite simply, they can record an entire HDR scene in a single file.

For instance, this sunrise image appears to lack details in the shadows, which you might expect from such a higher dynamic range scene:

dynamic range in photography sunrise silhouette

But as being a bit of post-processing reveals, thanks to the impressive dynamic range capabilities of my Nikon D750 , the particular detail is actually present:

sunrise over a field with boosted shadows

When using this kind of intensely capable cameras, it is still a good idea to bracket when you have the time, as you’re usually working with a very small window of exposure. And you may nevertheless wish to do exposure blending to maximize image quality. But this isn’t always necessary for an excellent shot, so I encourage you to experiment with your camera plus determine what it can and can’t capture.

How to use dynamic range creatively

Low dynamic range scenes don’t offer many opportunities beyond the obvious: capture the well-exposed subject.

But high dynamic variety scenes present you with a choice:

Use a strategy to capture the entire dynamic range of the particular scene…

…or embrace the loss of detail to get a creative shot.

For instance, you might deliberately uncover for the shadows and let the shows go white for a brilliant, airy result. Or you may deliberately expose for the shows and let the shadows go black for a moody, somber picture.

Powerful range in photography: final words

Ideally, you now realize that dynamic variety isn’t a tricky concept – and you know how you can use various techniques to capture beautiful images of HDR moments.

So get your camera. Find some HDR scenes. Practice recording some photos. And have fun experimenting with post-processing!

Now over to you:

How do you feel regarding dynamic range? Do you like high dynamic range photos? Do you prefer to shoot in low dynamic range situations? Reveal your thoughts in the comments beneath!

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Simon Ringsmuth

Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technologies specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys spreading his enthusiasm for pictures on his website and podcasting at Weekly Fifty. This individual and his brother host the monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts frequently to Instagram where you can adhere to him as @sringsmuth.

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