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Dynamic Range
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June 2008


In photography, dynamic range is the difference between the lightest light and darkest dark which can be seen in a photo. Once your subject exceeds the camera's dynamic range, the highlights wash out to white, or the darks become black blobs.

Online experts worry themselves sick over cameras' dynamic ranges.

Real photographers don't care. We adjust our lighting so the subject's dynamic range fits within the range of the camera. With digital, we do this by looking at the playback and making any needed changes. 99% of the time, simply popping-up a built-in flash solves any problem!

With digital we can change in-camera contrast settings if we can't change the lighting. Even point-and-shoot digital cameras have these adjustments. With film, we can alter our developing or printing if we can't light the subject better.

That's all there is to it. Dynamic range of a camera means nothing by itself. What matters is how well you can make the subject fit within the range of the camera. That's what makes a photographer a photographer.

Some photo hobbyists lay awake all night worrying about highlight and shadow detail. This always has scared the less competent. Film and paper manufacturers have played on this fear to sell their newest products for decades. Go read a photo magazine from the 1940s and you'll see the same ads touting "great highlight and shadow detail!"

Guess what? Using the latest film or printing paper or digital camera won't make any improvement. Knowing how to light your subject or how to adjust your camera is what matters.

Ansel Adam's Zone System was among the first attempts to manipulate the photo process and set lighting predictably without having to guess at the results.

It is trivial to design a digital camera with far more dynamic range than any other camera. All a designer does is lower the contrast. The reason we don't do this is that lowering contrast too much yields a sucky gray image. Contrast and dynamic range vary opposite from one another. Want a snappy, contrasty image? You get less dynamic range. The best photos come from dull lighting, and letting the photographic process add the contrast. Visit a TV studio and you'll see very low-contrast lighting. Video adds contrast exactly as does the photographic process.

Cameras which test with greater dynamic range aren't any better than other cameras. They simply have lower contrast. Which is best for you depends on what you shoot.

High Contrast Subjects

If you're trying to shoot an ugly indoor scene where you need detail both indoors and looking out a window, a different camera or HDR isn't going to save you.

Do what the pros do. Improve the lighting. Add lots of light indoors, which you can do with a truck full of lights and generators, or simply by turning on your flash.

If you can't (or don't want to) light the indoors to match the view out the window, gel (filter) the windows. Pros gel windows by cutting sheets of gray plastic film to cover the windows. Gel filters come different colors so we can match the white balance of the window scene to the lighting indoors. Gels are made by Roscoe and Lee.

Bright Skies with Dark Foregrounds

If you lack the flash power to light up a mountain range at sunset, use a graduated ND filter. This is a piece of glass that's gray on top and clear on the bottom.

I use a simple screw-in Tiffen Color-Grad ND 0.6. It comes in 49mm, 52mm, 55mm, 58mm, 62mm, 67mm, 72mm, 77mm, 82mm, P XL, P and other sizes and strengths.

These half-gray filters are important. I won't get out of my car when shooting landscapes without my filter wallet, which has a polarizer and a grad in it.

Only use a grad filter under extremely harsh conditions, like shooting into a sunset. Skies are supposed to be brighter than the ground, so if you use it in the daytime, things look weird.

Modern Digital Cameras

Some cameras as of 2007 are starting to process images as our eyes do, and will alter the images to improve overly dark shadows and bright highlights. Nikon's D300 and D3 are among the best as of 2008. See Nikon Adaptive Dynamic Range.

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Don't worry. If the highlights burn out, lower the exposure with your camera's +/- button (exposure compensation).

If the shadows are too dark, turn on the lights or add a flash.

Duh. This is why there is a screen on the back of the camera. This is no longer a problem.



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