You’ve probably heard the term dynamic range thrown around a lot on photography websites. But what is dynamic range in photography? What does dynamic range mean?
It’s an extremely popular term that not a lot of people fully understand. At its core, dynamic range is the measurement between the maximum value and the minimum value. In other words, between the darkest black and the brightest white. Dynamic range is the difference between the brightest and darkest aspects in a photograph.
Another way to describe dynamic range is contrast. In other words, having high dynamic range means there is a huge level of contrast between the dark shadows and the brighter highlights.
Unfortunately for everyone, cameras are not able to operate with the same dynamic range as our eyes. No camera on Earth can see as well as the human eye. And even if a camera has a fantastic dynamic range, it doesn’t always mean that the tonal differences will be visible once the photo is printed or posted online.
How is Dynamic Range Measured?
Dynamic range is measured in something called “stops.” To understand this better, the human eye can perceive roughly 20 stops of dynamic range in real life. What this means is that the darkest tones we can perceive with our eyes at any given time are roughly 1,000,000 times bigger than the brightest tones we can see in that same instance. This is why humans can see something extremely bright and something extremely dark at the same time.
Cameras are not so powerful as our eyes. Even with the best modern cameras right now, they get a maximum of 15 stops of dynamic range. That doesn’t even come close to what we can see with our eyes. And this is only with the highest-end cameras.
Most ordinary digital cameras only give you around 12 stops of dynamic range. The issue with this is that when you’re taking a picture on a sunny day or in intense light, your pictures often look bleached or way too bright. Your camera is trying to decide between the lights and darks, and this usually ends up with you having whitened photos with totally black shadows. The sky in the background will be very blue, but the shadows, even the slightest shadows, will be pitch black.
But here’s another issue with dynamic range. Even if your camera can handle 15 stops, most screens can only display 10. This means that when you get your photos professionally printed, they sometimes look even worse.
How to Improve Dynamic Range in Photos
There are a few great ways that you can improve dynamic range in your photographs to make them look infinitely better. A lot of it is in post-processing, but you can adjust your camera settings or use artificial light or a special filter.
Graduated Neutral Density Filter:
A graduated neutral density filter limits the amount of light that goes into your camera sensor. The filter is a special piece of glass with a gradient that goes from light to dark. It’s used to prevent too much light from over-exposing the brightest part of the image. By using one of these special filters, you’ll get bright backgrounds with properly exposed foregrounds too, no more black shadows.
To properly use a neutral density filter, you need to take a light meter reading of the foreground and the background and work out the difference between the exposures. Then you have to set the filter to within one stop of the light difference.
Once your filter is set, put it in front of the lens, make sure everything in your scene is properly exposed, and then take the picture. If it doesn’t look quite right, simply make some minor adjustments and then retake the picture.
One of the best ways to prevent ugly pictures with too much exposure is by using artificial light instead of natural light. You can use the camera flash or extra lights in your picture to fill the darker areas of the scene with artificial light. This decreases the range of light that your camera is trying to capture. Instead of making your camera try and work out the differences between the dark and the light, you just fill the darkest part with your own light.
Of course, artificial light doesn’t really help much with landscape photography or anything where there’s a large distance involved. This is better for portraits and close-up photos.
Exposure Settings in Your Camera:
To try and negate bad dynamic range, adjust the settings on your camera. Most modern cameras come with settings to mitigate exposure. Some cameras have night photography mode, bright daytime mode, and other things like this. You can also try using a very low ISO to expand the dynamic range of your camera to better capture the high contrast in various scenes.
Sometimes, you need to edit your photos. Assuming you’re shooting in RAW mode, your pictures will have enough information that you can properly edit them to bring out the full dynamic range.
It’s honestly quite easy to fix the brightness in your photograph. All you need to do is access the highlights and shadows tool. Use the sliding bar in the highlights menu to recover the brightest areas of the picture and then use the sliding bar in the shadows menu to reduce the darkness of the shadows to bring the contrast better into focus.
If you still need to do a bit of editing, you can use the brush tool to lighten or darken finicky areas of the image. For this, you will need a pretty reliable editing program, though you can still make minor adjustments on simple phone apps.
Shoot in a Different Environment:
If you don’t want to mess around with editing photos or using artificial light, the simplest way to improve the dynamic range of your photographs is to simply wait for better weather, to take your pictures at a specific time of day when the lighting is more in your favor, or simply go into the shade.
The issue with shooting on a sunny day is that there’s way too much contrast between the brightness of the sun and whatever is in your scenery. Shooting on a cloudy day or when the sun isn’t directly over your head can make a massive difference.
Also, try not to have your camera pointed directly at the sun. The sun is going to bleach the picture and make even the slightest bit of shadow too dark to see. Keep the sun at your back to properly illuminate the scene and create appealing dynamic range that your camera can actually capture.
High Dynamic Range Photography (HDR Photography)
HDR photography, or high dynamic range photography, is a special way to take a photograph that offers a massive dynamic range. The issue is that it is a bit complicated. You need to take anywhere between two and ten photos to create a proper HDR image. The trick is to take several different pictures of the same thing using different exposures. You then use software to match the different pictures together to create a final image that is significantly better than any picture that you would take with that same camera.
For this, you obviously need a tripod. You absolutely do not want to touch your camera at all or have even the slightest bit of camera shake. You can then use varying shutter speed combinations to get a series of pictures with varying brightness. You want to start dark and then get very bright. In the end, you’ll have a string of images that are all the same but taking up the full range of light.
Once you have all your pictures taken, be sure that you double-check to make sure they are the same. You don’t want a bird flying in front of the camera or something moving that can change the final image.
Next, use advanced processing software to blend the photographs into a single image. Unfortunately, this software can be a bit expensive. Packages are ranging from as low as $40 to as much as $100. But if you truly want to take some great HDR photos with amazing dynamic range, this software is necessary.
So, what is dynamic range? It’s the difference between the dark and light parts of your photos. Dynamic range is difficult to master using even the best cameras because of their limitations when it comes to capturing darkness and brightness in the same image.
However, even with a camera that doesn’t offer great dynamic range, there are ways to improve the contrast in your pictures. You can try HDR photography, you can shoot your pictures in the shade, you can use your own artificial light to illuminate the dark spots, and you can edit your images after they’ve been taken to illuminate the darkest areas for seamless tones.