Dynamic Range In Photography

Here is a lesson about dynamic range:

video by Tony Northrup

Here is a video about maximizing your dynamic range: (with a reference to film and video)

video by kinetik

Understanding “latitude” is such an important part of digital camera conversations. As both a filmmaker and photographer I hear the topic of dynamic range and latitude come up more amongst filmmakers than I do amongst photographers. I think part of the reason is that many filmmakers feel that the digital look is inferior to the classic look of film and they strive to replicate the look of film in their digital videos.

However, I feel that digital photographers don’t feel the same type of inferiority to film as their filmmaker friends do. In fact, digital photographers tend to celebrate the technology as almost superior to film (especially since the invention of digital SLR). That being said, one of the main criticisms about shooting digital on either video or sill cameras is that the CCD chips in these devices do not handle dynamic range (latitude) as well as film. So what does this mean?

Technically the definition goes something like this: Dynamic range is a term used frequently in numerous fields to describe the ratio between the smallest and largest possible values of a changeable quantity (such as light).

In other words latitude (used interchangeably with dynamic range) is the ability of the camera to capture details in the pixels in the lowest end of the tonal spectrum (i.e. dark shadows) while at the same time capturing pixels in the highest and brightest end of the tonal spectrum (i.e. a bright sky).

Both film video cameras and still cameras have always fared easier in this field than their digital counterparts. Photographing a subject in front of a window on a sunny day once with a film camera and once with a digital camera will make the technical limitations of the digital camera much more apparent.

Most often the victims of a low dynamic range are exposed lighting sources and the sky in the bright end of the spectrum, and darker shadows in the low end of the spectrum. The result is an “underexposing” of the shadows and a “blown out” look to the light areas. Look at the photograph at the top of this blog post again. Notice the texture of the wall around the florescent lighting is gone. It’s completely overexposed. It’s just a blob of white. Photographers and filmmakers call this either “burnt out” or “blown out”.

It’s the compromise your digital camera makes to expose the majority of the pixels in your photograph at a good level. However, latitude is getting much better in digital cameras. The larger the megapixel count in a digital camera the better it is for the dynamic range. However, it’s also important to remember to use your menu settings to ensure you’re shooting with the highest resolution to take advantage of this feature.

If your camera has good latitude you’ll be well on your way to taking pictures that stand out due simply to the fact that it handles lighting extremes well. A feature too few digital cameras can boast about.

How To shoot HDR photos.
How To Exploit Dynamic Range To Improve Your Street Portaits
More photography resources.