What is dynamic range in photography?

Dynamic range is the measurement between the maximum and minimum values that can be perceived in an image or video – from the lowest values of density to the highest of luminance. The greater the contrast between the deepest blacks and the brightest whites, the larger the dynamic range.
 

In photography and video, the term is generally used to talk about the maximum dynamic range a camera can capture.

Dynamic range photograph looking down the coast at sea level.

 

Why is dynamic range important?

The greater the dynamic range, the fuller the image and deeper the detail. That’s why a strong dynamic range is essential to any photographer or filmmaker. In scenes with significant contrast between light and dark colours, dynamic range is an important consideration.
 

Digital cameras are constantly improving and extending their dynamic range – from the minimum to maximum tones they can reproduce. However, digital technology used in photography and video cannot yet perceive the same dynamic range as the human eye.
 

Explore the dynamic range of your camera.

Finding the right balance between light and dark can help you produce better-quality images - so test your camera’s limits. You should consider both the dynamic range of your camera and your subject. When you’re photographing a subject on a bright and sunny day, it can increase the dynamic range beyond that of your camera, leading to poor exposure. Try to capture highlights and shadow detail in various lighting conditions.

View the dynamic range of your photography with the histogram.

Use the luminosity histogram, which you can view on your camera’s LCD, to explore its range. This graphs the pixels you’re capturing at each intensity level - starting with the deepest black on the left, through to the brightest white on the right. The chart’s width represents the dynamic range of your camera’s sensor.

When the histogram fits inside the display area, it means the subject is within its dynamic range. However, if the graph has spikes on the left or right and a valley in the middle, the image exceeds the dynamic range of your camera. Adjust the exposure to fit the histogram inside the display (and the image within your camera’s dynamic range).

Depending on your equipment, you may need to make an editorial sacrifice – it’s generally best to lose any dynamic range in the shadows as it’s often harder to see detail there anyway.

 

Reading a histogram on Photoshop.

A: Overexposed photo B: Properly exposed photo with full tonality C: Underexposed photo

A: Overexposed photo B: Properly exposed photo with full tonality C: Underexposed photo

A. Channel menu B. panel menu C. Uncached Refresh button D. Cached Data Warning icon E. Statistics

A. Channel menu B. panel menu C. Uncached Refresh button D. Cached Data Warning icon E. Statistics

How is dynamic range measured in photography?

Dynamic range for cameras is measured in f-stops. These are the different settings that specify the aperture of the lens. Using a camera with a lens that has a larger maximum aperture lets in more light – essentially increasing the whitest whites at the top end of your camera’s dynamic range.

 

The aperture scale goes from f/1.4 (incredibly wide aperture that lets in a lot of light) all the way to f/32 (small aperture, letting in little light). Check the f-stop of your camera - a simple way to boost its dynamic range could be to use a more powerful lens.

Nature landscape picture of a lush, jungle valley.
Beautiful capture of dynamic range in this photo of a rock at sunset.

Stretch your camera’s dynamic range with High Dynamic Range photography.

HDR photography involves taking multiple exposures of the same image while adjusting the f-stop on your camera, which regulates the amount of light passing through your lens. It’s usually best to use a tripod so the image composition is identical in each shot.
 

Take a photo with your f-stop at a normal setting, then take one underexposed by one or more stops and one overexposed by one or more stops. These images can be combined in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom for a much wider dynamic range than is possible with a single exposure. 
 

Camera setting values for HDR.

Some cameras have an HDR mode you can use to automatically follow this process and provide a wider dynamic range. If you’re setting up your camera manually for HDR photography, set your camera to:
 

  • Aperture Value (AV) mode. This setting will let you control the aperture of the exposure (though remember to keep it the same for each shot to preserve depth of field). When selecting your aperture, consider that f/5.6 will let in a considerable amount of light – making it great for capturing landscapes and cities.
  • The Time Value will keep the shutter speed consistent. Fast shutter speeds will effectively capture quick-moving action, while slower speeds can introduce blur.

Illuminance and reflectivity in HDR.

The levels of light in a scene can significantly affect your results in HDR. If you’re photographing a scene with high reflectivity (for example, an ocean) the real-life dynamic range may exceed your camera’s. That’s what makes accurate light measurement so important when assessing dynamic range and setting aperture. Measured in candelas per square metre, illuminance reads more strongly in direct sunlight than starlight. However, it’s not as simple as telling night from day – on a partially overcast afternoon, the presence of both direct and obstructed sunlight would greatly increase the dynamic range of a scene. Remember that your camera’s in-built light meter will only measure reflected light, rather than light from the source itself (AKA incident light).
 

Dmax and Dmin.

Dmax and Dmin measure the density of an image - 0.0 is pure white, 4.0 is pure black. Various hardware used for producing images have different Dmin and Dmax ranges – and it’s important to bear this in mind when shooting, as it will affect quality and crispness of the end product. For example, most printers have a Dmin and Dmax range of 2.0 (the difference between the brightest white and the deepest blacks it can produce) and often won’t be able to replicate the variance in illuminance you may have captured on your camera.
 

Discover how to capture HDR images.

Learn how much to vary your f-stop, how many exposures to use, and how to merge to HDR.

Rocky island grows dark as the sun goes down.

Merge multiple exposures with this step-by-step tutorial.

See how to use the HDR tool in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom to combine multiple exposures.

 

Try focus stacking in Adobe Photoshop.

Explore how taking multiple exposures allows you to switch your focus from one object to another, sharpening every element in the photo.

Rolling farm land before snow-covered mountain peaks.

Shoot in a raw file format.

The pixels in modern image sensors can capture a wide range of light, but if you shoot in a format like .wmv or .avi that results in compression, you may lose a lot of that dynamic range.
 

“If you’re shooting raw, you have a ton of information in that image,” video editor and director Dominic Duchesneau says. “When you pull it into the computer, you can get back a lot of the image that you could see with your eye.”

 

Post-processing is your friend.

Tools abound to help you get the images you want after you’re done shooting. As for adjusting the dynamic range of your video in post-production, you can learn to do your own colour correction and balancing with tutorials and experimentation..

Title frame of a Color Grading tutorial in Adobe Premiere Pro.

 

Explore colour grading.

See how to set up a colour workspace, then learn how to do colour correction, apply different looks, and use the Curve tool to make colour and brightness adjustments. 

Individual making edits to a photograph in a photo editing program.

 

See how to improve contrast and brightness in still images.
Watch this video to learn how to use Levels in Photoshop.

Film effect being applied to a video of a young man hiking.

 

Learn how to make your video look like film.
Discover the Lumetri Color panel and Scopes and see how they can help you adjust your footage.

Remember that great images usually begin with good lighting. “It all starts on the front end,” graphic novelist Van Jensen says. “There are colourists who can save a bad bit of footage, but it’s a lot easier to give a colourist a good bit of footage that they can make better.” 

 

How do you know when your lighting is right and when your camera is capturing the range that you want? Continue to practice, experiment, and learn from your mistakes to improve your skills.

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