How to Understand Dynamic Range in Photography

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The word photograph comes from the greek words phos and graphe, which mean light and drawing, respectively. Thus to create a photograph, in the strictest definition, literally, means to paint with light. But painting with light can be quite difficult given the amount of light you have to work with!

Sometimes you might find yourself in a situation with plenty of light, such as outdoors or in a well-lit gymnasium, and other times things will be so dim that you need to create your own light with a flash or leave your shutter open for a very long time. However, it’s also quite likely you could end up taking pictures when there is a lot of light as well as a lot of shadows, then it can get tricky to nail the shot you want. Fortunately, there’s a term that can greatly assist you in these situations – it’s dynamic range. Knowing what it means and how it can affect your photography will go a long way towards helping you get the photos you are trying to create.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Setting the Scene

Dynamic range has two main applications when it comes to photography. The first relates to the scene which you are photographing, and the second is more technical in nature and helps describe the attributes of your camera’s image sensor. (This is the little rectangular microchip a digital camera uses to capture an image, much like a little square piece of digital film.)

Most of the time a photographer will attempt to create a picture with a good overall exposure, meaning the bright parts aren’t too bright and the dark parts aren’t too dim. In this sense, Dynamic range refers to the total amount of light being captured in a given scene. If you are taking a picture with a lot of bright parts full of light in addition to a lot of dark parts shrouded in shadow, the scene could be described as having a great deal of dynamic range (high contrast). If, however, the scene is lit in such a way that it is neither too bright nor too dark it could be said to have a low dynamic range (low contrast).

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

This picture of a goose has low dynamic range, meaning it’s evenly exposed with no parts being exceptionally light or dark.

Neither is right or wrong

Neither type of scene is necessarily good or bad, but it’s important to know when you go out to take pictures what the lighting conditions are like so you can plan accordingly. If you are shooting in broad daylight you will likely end up with images that are very bright with lots of shadows because the sunlight is strong and overhead. This is known as a high dynamic range scene because it contains elements that are very bright and very dark. You need to know how to control the scene, as well as your camera when this happens in order to get the shot you want.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

This picture of a goose was taken in conditions that resulted in very high dynamic range. Parts of the image are very bright, and other parts are covered in shadow.

Capturing Your Vision

Dynamic range is important to consider when taking pictures. An understanding of the situation in which you’re shooting is essential to capture the shots you want. If you’re painting with light, you need to understand how that light is going to affect your final images.

As an example, here is a portrait I shot outside on a sunny afternoon. My subject was well lit but the background behind her was extraordinarily bright. This resulted in an image that I wasn’t happy with. The viewer’s attention should be on her face but the bright background is competing for attention.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

The histogram will give you clues about the dynamic range

A peek at the histogram for this image reveals what I already knew to be true just by looking at the scene. Much of the image data is gathered at the right and left sides of the graph. This indicates that the scene contains both very bright and very dark portions and thus would be considered to be rather high in terms of dynamic range.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Pictures like this aren’t necessarily bad. Some photographers actually prefer scenes with really high dynamic range because they create a sense of contrast and punchiness that is often lacking in other conditions with a more even exposure. Personally I’m not a huge fan of these types of images, and in this case, it was easily fixed just by turning a bit to one direction and using the side of a building to create a more even exposure.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Once again I can look at the histogram in Lightroom and see that now the image data is not separated at two extremes but gathered more evenly in one portion. Alternatively, you could use Live View on your camera and see the histogram in realtime as you photograph. If you see that it looks like two mountains on either side with a valley in between that’s an indication that the scene is going to come out with a lot more contrast than you may otherwise prefer.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

HDR – High Dynamic Range

One trick that more photographers have been using lately is called HDR, or High Dynamic Range processing. This is a way of getting the best of both worlds by allowing you to combine multiple exposures into a single image, using only the parts from each that you need. Thus, in a scene where there are extremely light parts as well as very dark parts you can take a few separate pictures that are both under and overexposed, combine them using software on your phone or computer, and end up with an image that appears to be evenly exposed. One downside to this is that the final image can appear somewhat fake and artificial to our human eyes (if the HDR technique isn’t done well).

Technology to the Rescue

The human eye is a biological marvel. As good as modern digital cameras are they can’t even come close to matching the performance of our own ocular instruments. Digital camera sensors today are leaps and bounds ahead of their forebears from 10 or even five years ago, but our own eyes still trounce them handily when it comes to dynamic range.

The ultimate high dynamic range and the problem it presents

As an example, try standing in a room on a bright sunny day with most of the shades drawn. That creates a high dynamic range scene because there are parts that are very bright (outside the window) and other parts that are very dark (inside). Your eyes will still be able to see colors and shapes inside the room as well as everything out the window. But try to take a picture and things go downhill quickly. You will either get an image that is exposed for the highlights (i.e. outdoors) with the room being virtually black, or the image will be exposed for the room (i.e. shadows) and nothing out the window will be visible at all.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Camera exposed for the highlights, leaving the room completely dark.

Most cameras take an either/or approach to scenes like this. However, HDR techniques can be utilized to capture three or more images at different exposures which can then be combined to form a more evenly exposed final picture.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Camera exposed for the shadows, leaving everything outside far too bright.

Technology improves

Even though our eyes still outperform any camera, in recent years digital camera sensors have gotten much better at capturing not just the brightest or darkest portions of a scene, but the brightest and the darkest portions. In this sense, the term Dynamic Range refers not to the lighting conditions but to the capability of the image sensor inside your camera.

Some models like the high-end Nikon D810 or Canon 5D Mark IV are so advanced that a single RAW image fro these cameras can be processed so as to reveal data that might otherwise be lost. For instance, when I shot the sunrise below I exposed for the highlights so I could get a nice clean picture of the rich colors in the sky, but the side effect of this was that the ground went entirely black.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Thanks to the technology baked into the sensor of my Nikon 750, the camera captured far more data than what you can see initially. I shot in RAW at ISO 100 which meant that I could take advantage of the bucketloads of data that were embedded in this picture and I was able to recover a huge amount of information from those shadows.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

The same image, but with the shadow levels boosted significantly in Lightroom.

This is an extreme example and I wouldn’t normally recommend applying this much post-processing to a picture. But I’m using it as an example to illustrate how much dynamic range a modern camera sensor actually has. Another example, perhaps a more realistic one, showing the importance of having a camera sensor capable of capturing a high degree of dynamic range can be seen in the following images.

The first image is straight out of my camera (Nikon D7100). While the background elements are fairly well exposed, the squirrel and tree are much too dark. Since the scene itself had such a high degree of dynamic range it made getting a proper exposure tricky. Thankfully I was able to use Lightroom to pull up a lot of data in the shadows that would otherwise be lost if the sensor had a lower degree of dynamic range.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Unedited, with a well-exposed sky and underexposed subject.

A couple of clicks on my computer resulted in the final image which is vastly improved over the original.

Understanding Dynamic Range in Photography

Conclusion

For many years camera manufacturers were engaged in a battle to see who could produce a device with more megapixels. But in recent times, this digital arms race has tapered off since the standard 20-24 megapixels that most cameras shoot at is supremely adequate for almost any situation. Instead, the focus has now shifted towards things like better ISO performance and higher dynamic range on image sensors. It won’t be long until sensors are so good that you will be able to shoot pictures in just about any condition and still get usable images.

Indeed we are living in such incredible times that our cameras can create amazing light paintings, so to speak, in almost any light imaginable. But what about you? Does this article answer your questions about dynamic range or is your head still spinning with terms and technologies? Do you have any questions that weren’t addressed? Please leave your thoughts and questions in the comments below.

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Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as sringsmuth.

  • Joel

    Simon, another good article. I like your no-nonsense approach to the subject.
    Thanks!

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  • Kam Tong

    excellent article.

  • walwit

    I think there is a misunderstanding here (see the picture of a goose):

    If a picture has a very bright overexposed zone and a very dark underexposed zone doesn´t mean It has High Dynamic Range, High Dynamic Range apply only when you can properly expose both zones in the same picture.

    In other way if a camera or a software can show both zones with good exposure then you may say that the camera has high dynamic range or you have HDR software.

  • Tom Almeida

    One day the cameras will do double-exposure or triple in the same capture>

  • Manuel Perez Cuevas

    Straight to the point article of a bit complicated subject , well done .

  • oji kanu

    Nicely done. I thought HDR multiple exposures technique, manual blending and use of graded filters were the only means for dealing with high contrast scenes.Now I can try exposing for bright scenes which may leave the foreground under-exposed which I can recover in lightroom.
    Now to go to some practice.Thanks.

  • Leonard

    Not sure if I understand you. I think this feature has been standard for years on DSLRs. My Canon 40D does it. It is called Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB).

  • pete guaron

    I love the first paragraph of your conclusion, Simon – my cams range between 13MP, 24MP and 36MP, and I couldn’t agree more wholeheartedly with what you’re suggesting. Any one of them is quite sharp enough for all my requirements. But what would endear me to the techos who design and make this gear, is the ability to use a higher ISO for available light photography, without drowning in noise.

  • No, he’s saying if the scene has a very bright zone and a very dark zone, the scene itself has a high dynamic range.
    If the camera can properly expose both zones (without post processing), it has great dynamic range.

  • walwit

    That’s exactly my point: one thing it’s to say you have a scene with a broad range of luminosity and other it’s to say a scene with HDR: In the first one you cannot see details on the brightest parts nor on the darkest, in the second you can.
    So, the scene with the goose has a broad range of luminosity but not HDR.

  • Ravindra Sathvick

    True agree

  • Ravindra Sathvick

    Clear communication crisp and up to the point. Thank you for a wonderful article throwing light on HDR

  • AE Bracketing involves taking several shots at different exposures–typically with one properly exposed, one (or more) under-exposed, and one (or more) over-exposed. I believe what Tom is referring to is taking one picture with multiple exposures, as opposed to several pictures each with a different exposure.

  • Yeah I think we’re saying the same thing. ?

  • Jim Pool

    Good article and well explained with sample images.

  • Tom Almeida

    I know that my friend. By selecting AEB you can quickly take three shots (usually 3) at different exposures without having to manually change any settings. This way you end up with the three images in a series with exactly the same composition but at different exposures. I am saying in the future (we hope) you will be able to Exposure different areas of the image and register it separately on the same shot. AEB works based upon what its metering thinks is right, and then it will take one other shot on either side of this best guess, one over exposed and one underexposed. It is not YOU doing your select exposure over each area. Lets wait for the future!

  • Pi

    Excellent article, thank you. HDR helps manage undesirable extremes, but what to do in heavily overcast conditions? When highlights are almost non-existent I struggle to bring ‘life’ into a photo.

  • Pi

    Yes, built-in processing power is advancing relentlessly, so a camera may soon be able to automatically apply variable exposure to one shot. My cellphone camera HDR is already challenging my SLR. https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8c5978fed3aa5dd97bad520a4e75a54fe5da91992065f436483f60b4b5a6e2e2.jpg

  • Papa-TheMan,TheMyth,TheLegend

    As always, a great article. I really look forward to reading them. Never fails to give me pause on how I approach my photography be it landscape, water shots, people or animals. There is always something to learn. He who stops learning will miss the little things that makes life great!

  • clemsgn

    I agree Pete, but it has gotten better, we just always want more. I like a smaller camera, so I have an APS-C sensor. I’d rather have the dynamic range of a full frame, but I don’t want the bulk of the larger equipment. Another downside, if you do this as a hobby as I do, is the cost of quality large aperture lenses to allow you to lower the ISO.

  • clemsgn

    Simon, great article as always. I would think that if a camera can show you where the shot is over and under exposed using the histogram, then it should be able to make a correction to those areas and do an “in camera HDR” on it’s own. It could give you a bit of control in the settings to raise or lower the exposure in those over/under areas by a certain amount, ie: 1/3, 1/2 or 1 stop etc. You may still have to bracket your shots, but it would make life easy. I take quite a few shots every year, even though it’s just a hobby, but I don’t have the time to post process my work (or even HDR) all of those high contrast shots. I strive to have all my shots come out of camera the best they can be, so I’m not PP for hours afterwards. Few of my shots are perfect OOC, but where I’m not working for anyone, all I need to do (and I’m pretty fussy) is take shots that I’m happy with. I still say they could easily build HDR into the camera, that works as well as dedicated software (although HDR software companies would frown on it), and save us all some time….and who doesn’t need more time? Any comments would be appreciated. Thanks again.

  • Jojo

    Very informative, i finally understood what dynamic range really mean, now i have a better grasp of what to look for when hunting for a good camera

  • Patrick Nolan

    Great! This info turned the lightbulb on! Thank you very much. Explained perfectly.

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