Weekly Foto Talk: Dynamic Range and Realistic Expectations   13 comments

Moraine Park in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

View from my campsite at Glacier Meadows in Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado.

I’m a photographer who very much prefers a single capture.  I like to capture a single moment in time.  That’s becoming a somewhat old-fashioned attitude these days, as more and more people do several captures and then blend them into one image using either Photoshop or an HDR plugin.  The reason this technique has become so popular is the same reason that camera manufacturers have been making cameras with the ability to capture high dynamic range.

Images with high overall contrast, those that have perfectly black areas and/or some very bright areas, aren’t so “liked” on the internet as those that have less overall contrast.  It’s an effect of the HDR trend.  Over-the-top HDR images are not popular, but images with a more natural yet still strong HDR effect certainly are!

Shooting into the sun is probably not recommended with a limited camera, but I loved how the sun was hitting this tall grass at Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

Shooting into the sun is probably not recommended with a limited camera, but I’m a sucker for tall grass, especially with the sun hitting it: Garden of the Gods, Colorado.

There is a big distinction to be made between overall contrast and local contrast.  Overall image contrast, though you can certainly adjust it later on the computer, is largely dictated by the scene before you.  Local contrast can be too; it’s definitely affected by the quality of light for example.  But you can “amp-up” local contrast on the computer later, in order to help the image “pop”.  You do this by manipulating the tone curve, concentrating on medium tones.

While images with completely evened-out tones (low local contrast) are not very pleasing and thus unpopular, those with modest overall contrast but high local contrast are wildly popular.  This is especially true in the landscape/nature arena.

Garden of The Gods, Colorado.

Garden of The Gods, Colorado.

Close-up shots like this are a little easier to swing with the little point and shoot.

Close-up shots like this are a little easier to swing with the little point and shoot.

DYNAMIC RANGE

Dynamic range is a fancy-sounding term for a relatively simple concept.  Used originally for audio/hearing, it’s been used in photography since the beginning.  Like everything I write here I’ll try to simplify a topic that if you research it on the web will quickly seem way too complicated to bother with.  Dynamic range is basically the range that your imaging device can capture between the darkest and brightest tones in a scene.  Your eyes are an imaging device of course, and at least in dawn to dusk conditions (for which they evolved) are far superior to the imaging device that you use to share and express your vision of the world – your camera.

You’ve probably noticed this:  Your amazing eyes can detect, at the same time, detail in the darkest and brightest parts of a scene with a high brightness range.  One example is a forest on a sunny day; another is a sunlit barn with a door open to the dim interior.  Shoot a picture of that dappled sunlit forest or barn and you’ll notice your camera has a lot of trouble capturing detail in both the brightest and darkest parts of the scene.  Even the best DSLRs for dynamic range can only capture details in a relatively small portion of the brightness range that your eyes can.

I hiked through Garden of the Gods in Colorado for the first time since I was a kid.

I hiked through Garden of the Gods in Colorado for the first time since I was a kid.  14,114-foot Pikes Peak is in the background.

While you don’t necessarily want high dynamic range in every image you shoot of course, you definitely want to have the option open to you.  If your camera captures a limited dynamic range, it can easily blow out (overexpose with no detail) or block out (underexpose with no detail) parts of the image.  This means you can’t recover that detail; it just isn’t there in the image file.  And so you have the unsatisfactory choice of underexposing or overexposing your image, choosing to show detail in either the darker or brighter parts of the scene.  Or again, you can shoot several exposures with different settings to capture detail in both dark and bright parts of the scene, then merge the images into one on the computer.

Since I generally avoid blending multiple exposures, I’m at a frustrating point.  I am shooting with my little point and shoot camera right now, having lost my Canon 5D Mark III in the waterfall incident.  The little Canon S95 has a small sensor that, while it tries very hard to do the job (it shoots in RAW), cannot capture quite enough dynamic range.

A beautiful pale flower I don't know - like a white lupine - encountered in a meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

A beautiful pale flower I don’t know – like a white lupine – encountered in a meadow in Rocky Mountain National Park.

I have photographed with a full-frame DSLR for years now, so I’m used to a different level of expectation.  I’ve been playing on days off in the Colorado Rockies this past week.  And I’ve been shooting the same sorts of scenes and subjects that I was before with my DSLR.  But now I’m blowing out skies, underexposing, and generally messing up.  Worse, I can’t even use graduated neutral density filters to tame the dynamic range; the little lens is just too small.

Since I don’t feel that, with these images from the point and shoot, it’s worth the time spent hand-blending multiple exposures in Photoshop, I’ve been forced mostly to underexpose.  If I instead overexpose I have no way to recover detail in blown-out areas.  The little sensor also shows noise quite easily.  So when I brighten those dark areas later on the computer, I end up with noise, even though I’m shooting at very low ISO.

This has all led to some frustration.  I have been forced to adjust and simply avoid shooting scenes with high contrast.  And I love high-contrast images!  There are many other limitations (the way it handles color for example), but I’ll have to stop here, for fear you all will accuse me of whining.  I will go into more on dynamic range and how to handle it in succeeding posts.  Thanks for reading!

A low-contrast view of Pikes Peak, Colorado.  Add the fact I didn't need great depth of field here, and it's an image my point and shoot can handle.

Low contrast sunset view of Pikes Peak, Colorado. Add the fact I didn’t need great depth of field here, and it’s an image my point and shoot can handle.

 

 

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13 responses to “Weekly Foto Talk: Dynamic Range and Realistic Expectations

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  1. Pingback: MJF Images

  2. Pingback: Dynamic Range II: The Eye vs. The Camera | MJF Images

  3. Great writeup Michael. I am amazed what you can do with a (albeit top end) point and shoot. Hope you grab a replacement soon for the 5D.

  4. A nice post and a good read.
    HDR is a tool that as it happens is over used by a lot of people. Sometimes i feel HDR is used to cover up a bad image or a lack of skill, but not all images need to be a HDR. HDR is more than just using the plugin but also the editing afterwards, which sometimes needs you to mask in details from other exposures.

    • Yep! Now that I have a much broader view of HDR I see its influence everywhere, most notably in popular PS techniques and also the Nik filters that are so popular these days. Guess you have to force yourself to use the look on a selective basis and only it furthers the mood you want, then dial back the opacity to one degree or another.

  5. It’s certainly tough to have less flexibility with your camera.

  6. Pingback: Single-image Sunday: Moraine Park | MJF Images

  7. Definitely an interesting read – one of the reasons I eventually bought an DSLR was the frustration of trying to do justice to awesome landscapes with just a basic P&S. They are great for some things, macro being one of them as you show with that lovely dandelion shot.

  8. Beautiful images.

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