Photography Glossary

What is Dynamic Range in Photography?

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Written By Jon Ross

This is a guide covering dynamic range in photography.

As a photographer, capturing the perfect image involves more than just point-and-shoot. It requires a keen understanding of various technical aspects, one of which is dynamic range.

Dynamic range is a critical element that can make or break a photograph, dictating how much detail can be captured in both the brightest highlights and darkest shadows. I

n this article, we will explore the concept of dynamic range in photography, diving into its definition, significance, and how it impacts the final result of your images.

So, whether you’re a seasoned pro or an aspiring photographer, understanding dynamic range is essential for unlocking the true potential of your photographs.

What is Dynamic Range in Photography?

The dynamic range (in a crude way) is the difference between the lightest and darkest tones in a photograph, from the purest white to the darkest black. Dynamic range refers to the increments that an image sensor can detect from pure white to pure black, and this also includes every tone in between.

So, what do we mean by increments? These increments are popularly known as stops. Photographs also refer to them as f-stops, stops of light, or exposure value.

Stops are used as the unit of measurement to read and control the amount of light that your camera can see.

The higher the number of stops in a camera’s sensor, the wider its dynamic range will be.

Dynamic range (or DR in short) is pretty much essential for every camera since each of them uses a sensor that records in tones or grey shades.

There are also a few sensors that cannot see pure white and black, they record details from dark grey to light grey.

What is Dynamic Range
dynamic range

Why is Dynamic Range Important in Photography?

The importance of dynamic range will be most prevalent when shooting in scenes that are too bright or too dark.

Environments such as the outdoors and the back alley often look okay to us.

This “phenomenon” happens because our eyes have a greater dynamic range than our expensive cameras.

Even camera manufacturers are racing against each other to achieve the dynamic range that our eyes have.

Interestingly, our eyes have a dynamic range of 20 stops. Which is (in contrast ratio) 1,000,000: 1. Yes, that much.

Anyways, cameras that have a large dynamic range are able to retain detail in images that would otherwise be too dark or too bright.

It can retain the subtle details and colors that create the image look and feel natural.

Imagine a bar that starts from black to white with a smooth transition and includes the other tones in between. The more tones (or stops) your camera can catch, the better the photo quality becomes.

The difference becomes more apparent when you compare shots between your mobile phone (which usually has a low dynamic range) with your camera, DSLR preferably.

On devices with low dynamic range, shadows lose their details and thus become unclear.

On the other hand, DLSR cameras are much more capable of capturing those darker/lighter tones.

dynamic range shadow
capturing dark and lighter tones

Most digital cameras can get around 12 to 14 stops, while the best cameras can achieve just shy of 15 stops in a photo.

With that dynamic range, the blacks and whites in an image become more observable.

How to Find the Dynamic Range of a Camera?

Few people are interested in finding out their camera’s dynamic range at home. But considering that we have so much time right now, why not?

A popular method of measuring the dynamic range of a camera is by using a grey card or greyscale.

You can precisely measure your camera’s dynamic range and make the lightest area (on the greyscale) 14 stops brighter than the darkest area.

This method will test the number of areas in the grayscale that are distinguishable.

The more areas that can be easily discerned, the higher the total dynamic range of a sensor will be.

The other areas that cannot be differentiated from each other will either be completely too bright or too dark and will not be counted.

To be more precise, you could use the RAW file format over the jpg files. RAW files are a better instrument to scale the camera’s sensors’ performance since it is more independent.

Unlike the RAW file format, jpg files are too dependent on many parameters such as image style, contrast, and other corrections.

We do know the hassle-free way to determine your camera’s dynamic range, and that is browsing the internet. With the sheer amount of people interested in photography, some websites review the dynamic range of cameras.

Some websites will tell you the number of stops, while others use the word “very good” or “fantastic” to describe a camera’s dynamic range.

To further explore how to measure the dynamic range on your camera, we also recommend this video by D3Sshooter:

What Affects Dynamic Range?

The popular analogy to explain how dynamic range photography works is the rainwater bucket. If each pixel is equivalent to a bucket collecting rain, the smaller ones will fill faster.

This is called the “upper limit” or the saturation level.

Meanwhile, the lower limit represents the noise generated by the buckets that are not catching rain. Some photographers call this the noise floor.

The ratio between both of these limits is called the dynamic range of the sensor of your camera.

Besides the ratio limit, you should also consider that your dynamic range is subject to all of the following image processing techniques.

Every process that the photo goes through, such as converting analog signals, the bit depth of the converter, capture settings used by the photographer, post-processing, and others.

In general, larger photodetectors are better since they provide greater bit depth and dynamic range. The catch is that they will give you a lower pixel resolution.

Hence, becomes the reason behind the professional photographer’s “fondness” for full-frame and medium-format sensors.

What are Dynamic Range Stops?

So, dynamic range photography is measured in stops, right? But what do they mean?

Well, each stop will either double or half the current amount of light. Making increasing the exposure by a stop effectively doubles it.

f stop and contrast ratio graph
f-stop chart

For example, if you were shooting at a shutter speed of 1/50. If you made it a stop lower, then it would become 1/100.

You should get the idea by now and remember the dynamic range meaning. It effectively means that the more stops, the merrier.

A camera with 1 stop can make the brightest part of your photo twice as bright as its darkest part. If the dynamic range is 2 stops, it can make the area 4 times brighter than the darkest area.

But going past 2 stops would either overexpose or underexpose the image.

Although, many professional photographers would rather have their images underexposed because they can still be saved using post-processing applications.

To further explore the subject of dynamic range and f-stop, we also recommend this video by the Northrups:

Does ISO Affect Dynamic Range?

ISO is one of the core components of exposure. Nevertheless, ISO has its own merits, which are underexposing or overexposing your photo.

The dynamic range definition is the way of measuring the differences from the brightest part to the darkest one.

Images with a good dynamic range will show true black and true white with various middle tones.

On the other hand, images with a poor dynamic range will appear more limited.

This “ability” to measure and pick detail from the shadows is limited by image noise and image noise is mostly caused by the camera’s high ISO. The more noise that is inside the shadows, the less dynamic range you will achieve.

It becomes the main reason why higher ISO images produce photos with less tonal and color range.

A solution to this problem is by purchasing a camera with a better ISO performance. These cameras are able to produce less noise when amplifying the signal, giving it more dynamic range.

“But why get a camera with better ISO performance when I can just lower my ISO setting?”

Unfortunately, some extremely low ISO settings can also reduce your dynamic range along with the noise.

At an ISO 50, you are overexposing the image by one stop. At the same time, you are also decreasing the highlights, ending with an overall decrease in dynamic range.

There are two types of noise, one exists on a pixel level (always there regardless), and the other appears because of signal amplification (or when you use a higher ISO).

Pixel-level noise will not be apparent until you raise the ISO over mid-level. Below the mid-level, the noise would appear in the shadows, but that depends on your camera.

High Dynamic Range vs Low Dynamic Range

Photographers will almost always create their pictures with optimal exposure, not too bright and not too dark either.

Images that have many parts of bright and dark parts are described as having a high dynamic range/high contrast.

On the flip side, scenes that are lit but are neither too dark nor too bright are described as having a low dynamic range/low contrast.

Both of these scenes are not necessarily impressive or horrible, and it leans more toward your goal and situation when taking the pictures.

Different times of the day will have different lighting conditions, so plan accordingly and ahead.

Shooting in broad daylight will tilt you towards a high dynamic range scene since there will be harsh shadows and bright sunlight.

It contains both very bright and very dark elements, hence becoming a high dynamic range scene.

Images with low dynamic range work just as well, although some may argue that they may not look as spectacular as the former.

But I think that low-dynamic range photography looks more realistic and natural.

High Dynamic Range vs Low Dynamic Range
low vs high dynamic range

Is High Dynamic Range Better?

The high dynamic range processing has certainly been all the rage right now. The hype itself is justified.

Images taken with HDR look stunning because of the many bright and dark areas that are in one photo.

The amount of detail and dynamic range that can fit inside a single photo is just massive.

How to Do HDR Photography?

Photographers can either perform this method manually or automatically by using the features provided by the camera. It works by stacking multiple images of the same scenes at different exposure values.

Take five images, each being one-stop lower or higher than the previous one. These images are then magically combined into a single image, creating a high dynamic range.

But the method is not perfect or foolproof either. Photographers need to anticipate any sudden changes in their scenes when using this method, with the main culprit being movement.

A slight movement of the trees and a random animal passing by these natural occurrences just make the process more grueling.

The method is not easy and requires a significant amount of labor from the photographer.

Sometimes images that are created using HDR processing look too real, which contradicts its goal which is creating a scene that appears as natural as how our eyes would perceive it.

To say that it is better just is not right for us.

We believe that images should prioritize their goal, theme, and message before discussing the dynamic photo range.

What Cameras Have the Best Dynamic Range?

Gear certainly is not everything in photography. Luckily, you can compensate for what your gear lacks with some tips and tricks.

But for photographers ready to take things more seriously and have the money to support that goal, there are many advantages to purchasing cameras with the best dynamic range.

Here are our recommendations for cameras with the best dynamic range:

1. Leica Q2:

Best dynamic range, but pricy.

2. Nikon D850:

Impressive sensors and technology but it lacks battery life.

3. Olympus OM-D E-M1 Mark III:

Extremely convenient, but poor EVF

4. Sony α7R IV:

Better than previous generations but has some focus problems.

5. Nikon D3500:

The budget option offers 5fps of uninterrupted shooting.

Each camera has one of the best dynamic ranges available in the market. Although, some cameras may be better than others.

For example, the Leica Q2 offers everything you would have wanted in a full-frame camera. But it is pricey and does not have an interchangeable lens.

Final Remarks

Today we have learned about the dynamic range definition, and it is your camera’s ability to retain detail in the purest white and the deepest black.

We also covered other technicalities that surround the dynamic range. Challenging concepts and unfamiliar terms in photography are nothing new.

We encourage every photographer to know the basics of the concept to prosper in the future because the dynamic range is just that important. Best of luck!

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Frequently Asked Questions

Does ISO affect dynamic range?

Yes, ISO does affect dynamic range in photography. Higher ISO settings can introduce more noise or grain in the image, which can reduce the overall dynamic range by limiting the ability to capture fine details in both highlights and shadows, especially in low-light conditions. Therefore, choosing the appropriate ISO setting is crucial for maintaining optimal dynamic range and preserving image quality in your photographs.

Do full-frame cameras have better dynamic range?

Full frame cameras generally tend to have better dynamic range compared to crop sensor cameras. This is because full frame sensors are larger in size and can capture more light, allowing for a wider range of tones and greater latitude in retaining details in both highlights and shadows. However, it’s important to note that dynamic range is also influenced by other factors such as sensor technology, image processing, and the quality of lenses used, and different camera models may exhibit variations in dynamic range performance.