6 Simple Ways To Achieve The Extended Dynamic Range In Your Photos


It’s a phrase we hear over and over in photography – high dynamic range, the sensor’s dynamic range – but what exactly is dynamic range and why is it important to understand how it affects your photography?

What Is Dynamic Range?

Well, let’s start with the fact that all audio and visual sensing devices have a dynamic range. That includes our very own eyes and ears. In visual terms, dynamic range is the ratio between the minimum and maximum light levels that a particular sensor can measure. In the case of our eyes, that range is immense – we can determine a vast amount of tones but not the full range. Imagine sitting in a dark room with one large window and a very bright sunny view outside.

If you look at the view, your eyes will not see anything in the room, it will be too dark. Conversely, if you look inside the room, the view outside will be too bright to decipher anything. This is demonstrating the dynamic range of your eyes. Your camera sensor, unfortunately, has significantly less dynamic range than your eyes, but by understanding it we can deal with lighting that exceeds the dynamic range of our camera sensors.

photo by christopher zarriello
Photo by Christopher Zarriello

The Limitations Of Your Camera Sensor

We have all come across the limitations of our camera sensors, many times. It manifests itself, in particular, with blown highlights – those areas of intense brightness within an image that were too bright for the camera’s sensor to deal with. They appear in the final shot as pure white and no matter how you try to process the image, nothing will ever pull the detail back, all that will happen is that you make that pure white grey.

This happens because your camera’s exposure meter is tuned to work out an average for the scene and if there is too much contrast it cannot expose the entire dynamic range. This is quite a common scenario in photography, direct light casting dark shadows, reflections on dark surfaces, a dark dog on white snow, all of these and many more can exceed the sensor’s capabilities. So how can we control this issue and extend the dynamic range of our photos?

photo by alexander andrews
Photo by Alexander Andrews

How To Extend The Dynamic Range

1. Shoot Raw 

Because Raw files give us only the pure data from the sensor, we are getting the full dynamic range capabilities from that sensor. Jpg files go through internal processing before being saved and this invariably clips off some of the dynamic range at one end of the scale or the other. By using a Raw file we can carefully manipulate the image in post production, attempting to get the maximum range that the shot offers.

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon

2. Shoot Low ISO

As you increase your ISO, not only does the noise level increase but also the dynamic range decreases. For each step up in ISO, there will be a small but discernible drop in the dynamic range of your image. If the light is low, it is better to use a tripod and low shutter speed than hand holding at higher ISO.

Photo by Brandon Morrison

3. Shoot HDR

HDR some times gets a bad press due to some of the overly garish images it produces. However, it is in fact a tool for increasing the dynamic range of your images but keeping them natural looking. By shooting a range of exposures and carefully combining them in Photoshop or an HDR program, you can dramatically increase your dynamic range without making the image look unnatural.

photo by andreas m
Photo by Andreas M

4. Learn Your Histogram

The key to getting the optimum exposure from your sensor is to understand your histogram. Put simply, that little graph on your screen can show you if you are exceeding dynamic range. If the graph falls off to the left, then you are losing dynamic range in the shadows, if it falls to the right your loss is in the highlights. Bear in mind, most histograms are based on a jpg version of the shot, a RAW file might be able to recover some of the detail at either end.

Photo by Maxim Medvedev

5. Shoot To The Right

This is complicated subject but in it’s simplest terms, camera sensors are more efficient at the brighter end of a dynamic range. By shifting our histogram to the right end of the graph, by increasing our exposure we can make sure we are getting the best dynamic range from the sensor. The key is not to allow any of the histogram to fall off the right side of the graph as these will become the “unrecoverable” highlights.

photo by ferdinand studio
Photo by Ferdinand Studio

6. Use A Graduated Filter

One of the key problems with dynamic range is found in landscape photography, where the sky is often too bright to maintain detail if the landscape is exposed correctly. To counter this we can use a graduated filter, which effectively reduces that dynamic range to something that the sensor can deal with.

photo by arvin wiyono
Photo by Arvin Wiyono

Dynamic range is an important subject in photography. By understanding the limitations of our sensors and how to counter an excessive dynamic range, we can create quality shots with a full range of tones and colors.

Further Reading:

  1. What Is Dynamic Range And Why Is It Important?
  2. A Beginner’s Guide to Dynamic Range
  3. Dynamic Range: A Layman’s Guide For Photographers
  4. 8 Tips On Photographing Landscapes With A High Dynamic Range
  5. How To Boost Dynamic Range Using A Single RAW File
  6. HDR Tips: Getting the Dynamic Range in Your Shots!

About Author

Jason has more than 35 years of experience as a professional photographer, videographer and stock shooter. You can get to know him better here.

Of these, only HDR extends the dynamic range represented in a photo. The rest are all making the most of living within the scope of the sensor’s native dynamic range.

I often expose to the right and lift the shadows in post processing. I’ve heard many people say doing that raises the noise too much but to be honest I think it’s fine if you’re not a purist and demand 100% quality.

If noise really becomes a problem, then you can always shoot a few photo in series with one another (the same exposure settings – exposed to the right) and then blend them in Photoshop which will reduce noise so you can freely lift the shadows. You might wonder why I do that, that is, if I’m shooting more than one photo, why don’t I just make HDR? Well, I’m not a big fan of “HDR look” and it seems to me that whenever I use HDR software I get that unreal look (to some extent) so I much more prefer to average photos to reduce noise and then do whatever I wan’t with it in Adobe Camera RAW, by which I mean manually tone-map it using curves etc. For me it’s been working out great.

Oh, I forgot to add something to that. People often talk of “impossibily of capturing whole dynamic range in one exposure”.
Well, I don’t think that’s quite true or at least it sounds misleading. In fact, if you shoot RAW and expose to the right, there is whole lot of detail in shadows but default RAW processing settings gives your image a “reasonable” contrast, which in case where you want to preserve shadow detail is more like “too much contrast”. If you play with the sliders a bit you can quickly discover that what seemed “black” in fact contains a lot of image information, but you need to put it in the righ place in histogram (i.e. tone-map it). And the sofware won’t do that for you by default. This is not to say that you can boost shadows by whihever amount you want. Eventually noise will become a problem, but if the shot was made on camera’s base ISO (like 100), then you have massive amount of shadow detail you can potentially use.

By “high” dynamic range we mean a dynamic range that exceeds that of a single shot. Why do it? To try too capture more of what the eye sees. The human eye has a much higher dynamic range than any camera sensor so far produced. HDR pushes our photos a little bit closer to what the eye does.

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