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Explaining Dynamic Range

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You’ve probably heard us or someone else talk about it, but it’s usually said and not really explained: dynamic range.

 

What Is Dynamic Range?

Dynamic Range is simply put, how much your camera can see from the darks to the lights. In a more formal, scientific definition, from everyone’s famous internet source Wikipedia:

Dynamic range is the difference between the smallest and largest usable signal through a transmission or processing chain or storage medium.

In the real world, you never encounter true whites and blacks (at least not often) but rather millions of shades in between.

Some cameras are able to see varying amounts in the middle, with more shades in the middle ending up in the true white and true black area of the spectrum.

On top of your camera being able to capture a limited dynamic range — a computer screen can display only a limited amount and (when you print) some printers are only able to print a certain amount. So managing the whole chain from photograph to print (or from video to display device) means you have to consider a lot of moving parts to get the absolute best image to as many end users as possible.

No one said imaging science was easy.

In short, when we talk about dynamic range for image capture we are talking about maximizing the camera’s ability to capture as much of the dark to light details and colors as it possibly can. There are methods to extend the dynamic range of your camera known as High Dynamic Range methods (HDR), but many are quite honestly, terribly executed.

How Light Makes All This Work

In a scene you are shooting, there are typically two types of light — incident and reflected light.

Photographing scenes with high variations of each means you are photographing a higher dynamic range scene. Many storm scenes, especially lower precipitation storms against a setting sun, are very high in dynamic range.

The human eye can discern about 24 stops of dynamic range while most cameras can discern 10-14 stops on average. Anything beyond those 10-14 stops will be either pure black or pure white (blown out or completely underexposed) in your image. This results in inaccurate color reproduction and a scene not looking as accurate as it did in person.

Capturing a scene accurate to the eye means you have to capture a scene using a High-Dynamic Range method in many cases.

HDR Photography Is Essential to Accurate Replication

Before you go off the rails, I’m not talking about the baked in and cooked HDR methods that has become famous for the term. Instead, I’m talking about a smarter blending of layers and a more extensive method that requires you to put in some actual work in an image editor.

Our own Brandon Goforth has written an extensive article on this method here.

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