Piet van den Eynde

6 tips for maximum dynamic range in your photos

monday 25 January 2016, 22:59 by | 2372 times read | 0 comments

Did it happen to you? The landscape looks fantastic but your image shows a sky that is too bright and a way too dark foreground.

Or you are shooting your girlfriend in front of the window in your hotel room in New York. Behind her you have a brilliant skyline view. But… in your photos, either your girlfriend is underexposed or the skyline is replaced by a white blot.

Even the most expensive camera sees the reality in a different way than our eyes do. When the dynamic range of a scenery (the difference between the lightest and darkest areas) becomes wider, our eyes and brain handle it better than our cameras do.

A camera sensor works differently: it simply catches light the way a bucket catches water. If the bucket is full, the water overflows, and so does the sensor. The result is overexposure.

You can compensate this of course by exposing tighter, but in sceneries with a wide dynamic range you can face detail loss in the shadow parts of your image.

Luckily there are a few tricks you can use to enhance the dynamic range of your camera and, thus, your photos. And you might think of HDR straight away – making photos with different exposures to add them together with software – but there are some other options as well. Let us start with those:

1. Your camera


Not every camera has the same dynamic range: sensors differ and even with comparable sensors, one manufacturer might be able to get a little wider range from a sensor than another. Overall you can say that the bigger the sensor, the wider the dynamic range.

Before you tear down your savings (and your relationship) to buy the newest Phase One middle format camera, know that there are other things you can do to enhance the dynamic range of the camera you already own. For example by working with as low an ISO as possible (the so called native ISO) for your camera.

As is clear from Dxomark's graph below, the dynamic range of your camera decreases steadily when using higher ISOs. Or put differently: a camera with a large sensor and a (too) high ISO has a smaller dynamic range than a camera with a smaller sensor and a lower ISO.

Some cameras use all kinds of tricks to increase their dynamic range. For the most part, however, these only affect JPEGs and can sometimes even be counterproductive when you're shooting in RAW. For that reason I don't use them, just like I don't use the in-camera HDR function: you barely have control over what happens.

Dxomark db nikon d800DxOmark.com, which you might know from DxO (producers of the DxO Optics Pro Raw Converter), measures cameras and their performances. From this graph it becomes clear that there is a negative connection between dynamic range and ISO.

2. Getting the most out of one file


Besides shooting with a low ISO, you can also expose to the right (ETTR). In practice this means setting your exposure just bright enough not to get washed out highlights.

Because of the way sensors work, it is much easier (as in: no loss of quality) to take a bright photo and make it darker than the other way around.


Mtw ettr compare

Two pictures of the same object. The right one was 'exposed to the right'. When we apply the same brightness to both photos in editing, it becomes clear that the shadows in the left image show a lot more noise than those in the right picture.

3. RAW to the rescue


Another way to enhance the dynamic range of your images is by shooting in RAW. If you combine the ETTR technique with the lowest ISO possible and RAW, it is astonishing how much you can get from one RAW file.

The RAW converter you use matters too. I have been working with Lightroom for years, because I feel that this program stands out in getting back information that is seemingly lost in highlights and shadows (but the same goes for Adobe Camera Raw), as the picture below shows.

And no, the camera I used is no state of the art and hasn't been in a while: it was a Nikon D700 that you can purchase for around 800 euros on eBay. In camera terms, this is a mere pittance.

Mtw ophalen schaduwen

From a well exposed RAW you can retrieve an enormous amount of information.

4.Fill in flash and gradual filters


The last option you can use if you want to commit yourself to just one photo, is working with a gradual filter of a fill in flash. The first you can use to darken bright skies, so the total image falls within the dynamic range of your sensor.

The second is used to brighten up a dark foreground, whether that's a person or a statue of an Indian snake God.


Mtw db met flits

Fill in flash practice: without a flash you have to choose between detail in the background but an underexposed foreground, or a well exposed foreground with an overexposed background. The amount of contrast (dynamic range) of the scene is too big for the camera sensor to take in… Our eyes have less of a problem with it.


5. Working with multiple photos: manual and software HDR


The last way to enhance the dynamic range of your images is the most powerful, but also the hardest one, because it requires more editing afterwards. By taking photos with multiple different exposures, varying form underexposed (but with nice detail in the highlights, most of the times this will be the air), through to underexposed (but with nice detail in the foreground) and combining these with software, you can show reality in the same way we see it with our eyes.

The essence of this technique is as old as the road to Rome: over a 150 years ago, French photographer Gustave Le Gray combined two exposures of his sea landscapes into one print. But Gustave didn't use Photoshop or Photomatix, he used glass negatives.

Magnum photographer Carl de Keyzer used multiple photos as well, for his recent 'Moments before the Flood' series; a photographic evocation of the dangers of global warming on the European coastline. He used these multiple photos (usually made with a middle format camera) to show an unprecedented dynamic in the large format photos of his traveling exposition.

Foto door Bart Heirweg

In this example, Belgian landscape photographer Bart Heirweg combined two exposures into one print using a Photoshop layer mask. In the brightest image he even held his hand to the sun, to prevent lens flare.


Besides these manual solutions, that usually come down to using layer masks in Photoshop to combine the wanted parts of each image, you can leave this to specialized HDR software as well.

In the early days you needed separate packages to do this, but with the latest Lightroom release you can finish your HDR project entirely in Lightroom itself, especially if you're into the natural look.

If you are a 'Heavy HDR user' or you like the more pronounced HDR-look, which is characterized by very bright colors and sometimes an exaggerated sharpness, there are plug-ins that you can use. The best known one without a doubt is Photomatix Pro. My own preference goes out to Nik Software's HDR Efex Pro and the relatively new (and Mac only) Aurora HDR Pro.

Aurora HDR

The recent Aurora Pro by MacPhun (only available for Mac computers), combines usability with a lot of presets and more advanced features like working with layers in the plugin itself.

6. HDR advanced features


Once you have gained some experience with using HDR, the sky is not only literally but also figuratively the limit: what about a black and white HDR, HDR panoramas or mixing flashlights using HDR, both during the shoot and afterwards, by compositing.

HDR in zwart-wit

Because HDR can do crazy things to the colors in your images, I often convert my HDR images to black and white. The wide dynamic range and the extra structure that HDR conversions often bring to an image, suit black and white photos well.

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