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Design & Style

Guide to Dynamic Range: How to Use Dynamic Range in Photos

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Aug 14, 2020 • 2 min read

A camera's maximum dynamic range is one of its most crucial features when it comes to capturing correctly exposed photos. In addition to owning a camera with a high dynamic range, you can improve your photography by understanding how dynamic range affects your photographs’ exposure.

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What Is Dynamic Range in Photography?

In photography, dynamic range is the contrast ratio between the darkest and brightest color tones that a camera can capture in a single exposure. Maximum dynamic range is the greatest range of light a digital camera sensor or strip of film can capture. Dynamic range is measured in stops. Each stop indicates a doubling of the level of brightness captured. While the human eye can see up to 20 stops of dynamic range, even high-end DSLR and mirrorless cameras can only reach around 14 stops.

Why Is It Important to Understand Dynamic Range?

Understanding your camera's dynamic range is an essential skill in order to avoid losing details from your photographs. Without a narrow maximum range, you may have to choose between either blowing out your highlights (turning the lighter areas of the photo white) or underexposing your dark shadow details (turning the darker areas of the photo black). A wider dynamic range allows you to capture both bright highlights and dark shadows.

4 Tips for Improving Dynamic Range in Photography

A few photography tips can help you improve your dynamic range to achieve that perfect shot.

  1. Use a graduated neutral density filter. Graduated neutral density filters limit the amount of luminance that reaches your camera sensor on only part of the image (unlike regular ND filters, which affect the entire image). Graduated ND filters are a perfect tool for when part of your image is too bright, and they come in a range of darkness levels. Landscape photographers find that graduated neutral density filters work best when shooting a flat horizon since any objects in the top half of the image (like trees or buildings) will also be darkened by the filter.
  2. Add artificial lighting. Using a camera flash or extra lights will fill in the darkest area of the photo, decreasing the range of light that your camera needs to capture. This solution is ideal for close-range photos, as flash and additional lights won't help when shooting scenes in the distance.
  3. Adjust your camera settings. Modern cameras have exposure settings that you can use to optimize photos in different light conditions, such as night photography or bright sunshine. In addition, using a low ISO setting can also slightly expand the dynamic range of the camera to help capture high-contrast scenes.
  4. Try high dynamic range photography. Also known as HDR photography, high dynamic range photography is a post-processing technique that involves combining photos taken with multiple exposures into a single optimized image. To execute an HDR photo, shoot the same photo at several exposures to capture the entire range of light intensities. Then, use photo editing software to merge the photos together. HDR is sometimes the only available option for producing a properly-exposed photograph, but its major drawback is that you cannot use it on moving subjects.
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