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Dynamic Range

Updated: Jun 20, 2021

Let’s make this concept very simple - the dynamic range is how much a camera can see the detail of the shadows/ darkest part of the image whilst still seeing detail in the lightest part of the image at the same time.

So if you take a look at this image- you can’t see all the detail in the black part of the image but you can see the detail in the snow and sky.

However, here if we want to see more of the detail in the black part of the image we then need to compromise and lose detail in the light part of the image. This is done simply by changing the exposure of the image and adjust it to what we want to ‘expose the image for’.

As a further example to understand it, here is a sunset and landscape with an even bigger contrast in the light and darker part of the images:

This particular camera doesn’t have a great enough dynamic range to be able to show both the light and dark detail due to how much ‘contrast’ is already in the setting. How much a camera can then interpret on both sides of the lightest and darkest part of an image is measured with a number value - the lower the number, the less the camera can see in both the dark and light areas. This number value is called ‘stops of light’.

To understand this further, cameras are designed around what the eye sees and despite all the developments in technology cameras haven't managed to supersede our eyes.

If we were to measure our eyes in ‘stops’ we can see 24 stops of light (or ‘dynamic range’), whereas, the most any camera can see is 16 stops of light. That’s quite a difference!

To put that into perspective, this is what it’s like to see 16 stops of light (if we are 'exposing for' the brightest part of the image):

And this is what our eyes would see at 24 stops of light:

The opposite to a high dynamic range is ‘contrast’, which most of us are familiar with at least from using our smart phones to enhance/ edit images.

Fun fact: If a Film shows too high a dynamic range by manipulating the lighting in a studio the image then looks fake to the eye as we know what light range a camera can pick up. So when this is manipulated later in editing there's something we register. This can sometimes be seen with green screen, news reports or a great example is real estate photography. Here are a couple of examples:

In the above image you can see the outside being well exposed as well as the inside. We know that usually this image shouldn't be able to expose the outside if it is also perfectly exposing the inside. The sunlight outside is always a lot brighter than an unlit interior. The image 'looks good' and perfect for the purpose, however, we do get a sense of something not being 'normal'.

Read on about ‘HDR images’ here to learn about more advanced aspects of dynamic range.

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