- Dynamic Range Defined
- How to Understand Dynamic Range
- How to Manage Dynamic Range: Expose for the Highlights
- How to Manage Dynamic Range: Shoot HDR
- How to Manage Dynamic Range: Use a Graduated ND Filter
- Working With Good Landscape Photography Lighting and Its Effects on Your Photos
- The #1 Pro Landscape Photography Tip for Amazing Photos
- 3 Reasons Why All Landscape Photographers Need a Graduated ND Filter
- These Before and After Photos Show Why You Need Lens Filters
photo by JXD123 via iStock
If you’ve spent any amount of time behind the lens, you’ve encountered difficulties with dynamic range, even if you have no idea what dynamic range is (which I'm assuming is the case since you’re reading this article).
At its simplest, dynamic range is the range of light and dark tones in an image.
Pretty easy, right?
It’s a little more complex than that, though, and overcoming the difficulties associated with a wide dynamic range is more complicated still.
Let’s dive into this topic, get dynamic range explained, and explore a few ways you can manage difficult lighting situations.
Table of Contents
Dynamic Range Defined
Image Credit: Motoji Sekine
As noted above, dynamic range refers to the difference between dark and light areas. This difference exists in the scene you’re photographing - the range of shadows to highlights.
In a low-light situation, like shooting a landscape at blue hour, the dynamic range will be quite small.
As you can see above, there aren’t that many highlights in the shot. Instead, the image is mostly composed of midtones and shadows, thus, it has a small dynamic range. In turn, the photo is quite dreamy and calm.
photo by vural via iStock
This image, however, has a very wide dynamic range, and is much more visually jarring than the previous one.
You can see that there are very deep blacks, very bright whites, and a vast range of midtones in this photograph, as is common when shooting in sunny conditions.
You can probably guess which scene is easier to photograph from a dynamic range perspective…the low-light scene.
photo by Marcus Millo via iStock
All cameras - even high-dollar professional models - have their limits when it comes to accommodating dynamic range.
The ability of a camera to capture details in shadowed and highlighted areas depends on its sensor. The larger the sensor, the greater its ability to capture a wider dynamic range.
So, if you primarily shoot with a mobile phone, you’ll encounter more difficulties with dynamic range than you would if you shoot with a full frame camera. For example, the high-contrast daytime shot we looked at earlier would be more difficult to pull off with a smartphone than it would be with a full frame camera.
Of course, not all of us have the budget to buy a full frame camera, so the question is, how do you account for a wide dynamic range?
How to Understand Dynamic Range
To manage dynamic range, it might be beneficial to think of it in visual terms. Fortunately, your camera likely has that built-in in the form of a histogram.
As shown above, a histogram shows the range of tones in the shot, from deep blacks on the far left of the graph to bright whites on the far right. Midtones are represented in the middle.
The histogram is a visual representation of what your camera can handle in terms of dynamic range. So, if the scene you’re photographing results in a nice bell-shaped curve that fits completely within the bounds of the histogram, your camera has accommodated the dynamic range of the scene.
However, if the graph is shifted left or right, there’s a strong possibility that details in either the shadows or highlights are “clipped,” which means shadows might appear as detail-free black areas or highlights might appear “blown out” with no detail.
To correct clipping, you need to adjust the exposure. There are a few ways to do this.
How to Manage Dynamic Range: Expose for the Highlights
Perhaps the most straightforward method of protecting the details in your photos is to expose for the highlights.
By adjusting your exposure to account for bright highlights, you’ll be able to retain detail in highlighted areas in the shot.
Granted, exposing for the highlights means that the shadows will lose detail, but often there’s not much detail in the shadows anyway. If you’re going to lose detail somewhere, the shadows are the best option.
See this methodology play out in the video above by Massimo's Fotografie.
How to Manage Dynamic Range: Shoot HDR
Photo by Emre Karataş on Unsplash
High dynamic range (HDR) photography is yet another way to get an improved exposure when the dynamic range is quite wide.
Many cameras have an automatic HDR setting, so utilizing this technique on, say, a mobile phone, is typically a simple matter of selecting the HDR setting in the camera’s menu. The same holds true for many DSLR and mirrorless cameras as well.
Essentially, HDR images consist of multiple bracketed exposures that are merged together. Typically, three exposures are taken virtually simultaneously, one of which is exposed for the shadows, another for the midtones, and another for the highlights.
When blended together, these three separate exposures result in a single image that’s well-exposed throughout.
So, this represents an upgrade from the expose for the highlights technique discussed above because it allows you to retain details throughout the dynamic range of the shot.
See how taking multiple exposures and blending them together into a single image works in the video above by Andrew Marr.
How to Manage Dynamic Range: Use a Graduated ND Filter
I shoot a ton of landscapes, so I often run into the problem of having a very bright sky and a not-so-bright landscape that results in a dynamic range that’s simply too much for my camera to handle.
To correct for this, I choose to use graduated neutral density filters.
These filters are dark on top and gradually brighten as you move toward the bottom of the filter, as you can see above. This means that when you take a photo using a graduated ND, the sky will be darkened but the landscape won’t, which helps reduce the dynamic range of the scene to a level that your camera can handle.
All you do is mount the filter holder to your lens, slide the graduated ND filter into the holder, align the filter with the landscape, and off you go.
The reason I (and other pros) use this technique and not the ones previously mentioned is because I get much better results. Take a look at these before and after images to see just how impactful a graduated ND can be:
Without a graduated ND filter. Image Credit: 阿戈
With a graduated ND filter. Image Credit: 阿戈
Part of the reason for these improved results is that there are different kinds of graduated ND filters for different situations.
For example, I have a NiSi hard-edge graduated ND filter that I use for shooting landscapes that have a definite horizon, like a beach shot looking out onto the ocean.
I also have a NiSi soft-edge graduated ND filter for use with landscapes that do not have a definite horizon, like the undulating crest of a mountain range in the background of a shot.
Graduated ND filters also come in a wide range of strengths to give you a multitude of options depending on how intense the bright areas of the scene are when you’re shooting.
Sure, using filters is a little more work, but for my money, they get you the best results.
If you’re going to take the time and spend the energy to go out shooting, you want the best results, right? Sometimes that means taking a little more time and putting forth a little more effort, but your photos will benefit greatly from it!