Part 5: Dynamic Range Tutorial + Camera Comparison: Hi-Lo Club (Oklahoma City Signage Project)

Since explaining my methodology for this personal fine art project in Part 1 of this series, I’ve considered which type of camera makes

  • the best final image (Part 2)
  • the best raw image (Part 3)
  • Now, for Part 4: Which camera has the best dynamic range (DR)?

What is Dynamic Range?

Both on-location and in post production, the relative ability of a camera’s “sensor” to record an adequate dynamic range is vital to image quality. This concept finally clicked for me at a Tony Corbell Workshop. Your eyes see more detail in shadows and highlights than any camera, so you have to know how to maximize your camera’s ability to capture detail in those areas. If you plan to make prints of your photos, dynamic range is even more important, because paper captures far less DR than your eyes or your camera.

  • Eyes:  2x the dynamic range as a camera; About a 20-stop range
  • Film:  Less range than your eyes, but more than a DSLR. Films vary from one another, from least to most range, like this:

35mm film —- > 120 film —- > 4×5 film

  • DSLR:  2x the dynamic range of photo paper; 10-12 stop range
  • Photo Paper:  Roughly 4-stops worth of detail, like this:

Black, no detail < ———– | ———– | ———-> White, no detail

  • HDR:  “High dynamic range” photography is intended to make an image more closely resemble what you see with your eyes. HDR processing combines 2 or more images captured at different exposures (“bracketing”), and puts them all together into one single image, in order to provide more detail in highlights and shadows.  See my example of HDR architectural photography.

Why does dynamic range matter?

Maximizing the dynamic range of your camera ensures a wide range of detail in highlights and shadow areas, which provides much more information and thus flexibility in post-processing. This is particularly important when shooting a high-contrast scene. When you max out your camera’s sensor, you avoid losing irretrievable information and blowing highlights or clipping blacks.

Of course, equally important is the ability of the photographer to understand good exposure! To borrow a phrase from Tony, “You can’t buff a turd.” If your camera has a world class sensor but you don’t know how to meter and expose the scene, that fancy sensor is a waste, and you won’t be able to rescue your images in Photoshop.

An Example

Consider each of these images, all shot at the Hi-Lo Club entrance in NW OKC. The position of the building, the colors, and the time of day all resulted in very bright highlights and very dark shadows, testing each device’s sensor to the max.

Which image has the best dynamic range?

iPhone 4 / No Filter

iPhone 4 / Instagram Filter with Tilt-Shift

D700 / Full-Frame DSLR

Rolleicord / Medium Format / 120 Film

How to Maximize Your Device’s Dynamic Range

  1. In a high contrast setting such as the scene above, meter your highest priority area. To what area do you want to draw the viewer’s eye? Is it the sign? The door? The sky? What story are you trying to tell? What area should be perfectly exposed?
  2. Use an app, such as Pocket Light Meter like I did for this project, or a more traditional light meter.
  3. If you have neither of those, use a zoom lens, and zoom in on the area of interest. Note the in-camera light meter readings.
  4. Add a stop or two after metering your priority area, regardless of how you take the reading. That will ensure the darker areas have more information.
  5. Compose and take your shot, then check your LCD Histogram (if available) for blown highlights or clipped blacks. (If you aren’t comfortable using your histogram, read this histogram tutorial by SmugMug.)
  6. Reshoot if you’ve lost any information, adjusting your settings until you have a nice histogram curve that’s peaking slightly to the right without actually touching either side.
  7. In post-production, use Recovery to bring back lost highlights, and Black Point to brighten dark shadows (if needed).

A Disclaimer

In closing, it’s important to acknowledge that having an enormous dynamic range isn’t always artistically desirable. Sometimes, an image with greater contrast, deeper shadows, or bright highlights, better communicates what you are trying to express. As they say, “rules are meant to be broken.” But they also say “You have to know the rules before you can break them.” And DR is one of the most important conceptual rules in photography (IMO).

So, given all of that, which image above is your favorite?


About Mosaic Collective, LLC

I am Holly Baumann Ambuehl, founding member of Mosaic Collective, LLC, which was founded in early 2017 and is based in Central Illinois. I own and operate Mosaic Collective with my partner in business and life, my husband, Nathan. Mosaic Collective, LLC houses our rental property, my consulting contracts (with the nonprofit and public sectors on various work), and also my commercial and portrait photography business, which has been doing business as Holly Baumann Photography since 2008 long before the formation of our LLC. My blog posts feature client work, but I just love to write, so I also write about owning a business, food and drink, travel, and sometimes, my personal life! I am always honored when clients trust me to capture their vision, and equally so when my readers converse with me about what I've photographed or expressed here. I hope we'll have an opportunity to collaborate professionally and/or become friends. I'd love to hear what you think! - Holly
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