Beginner Photography Tip: Dynamic Range Explained

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The chances are that at this point you’ve at least heard the term “dynamic range.”

But as a beginner photographer, there’s also a pretty good chance that you might not have any idea what that terms actually means. That’s where this guide comes in! If you want dynamic range explained, you’ve come to the right place.

Though dynamic range can be defined simply, the manner in which it affects your photography is a bit more complicated. Let’s take a good, hard look at this concept and see what it means for the photos you take.

Defining Dynamic Range

In the simplest of terms, dynamic range refers to the balance between the white and black light intensities in a photo. In other words, it’s the ratio of the maximum (white) and minimum (black) values of light.

However, the concept is actually a little more complicated…

For starters, seldom do we see scenes in which there is pure white or pure black. Instead, we see a varying array of light intensities that range between white and black.

Furthermore, dynamic range also refers to the scene you’d like to photograph and describes the range of light values that are present.

More often than not, photographers seek to have a good exposure, which means controlling the dynamic range such that there aren’t parts of the photo that are too bright or too dark.

But, for example, if you take a photo and it’s overall very bright, but also has some very dark shadows (like the image of the bridge above), the photo would be described as having a wide dynamic range.

If the scene lacks that level of contrast, and there is very little difference in the light values as seen in the image of the skyscrapers above, the image would be said to have very little dynamic range.

When comparing the two images, you can see how dynamic range impacts the look of the photos – in the image of the bridge, it’s very high in contrast and almost feels harsh.

By contrast, the second image of the skyscrapers is very low in contrast, and has a much more subdued feel, yet both images are successful.

Why is Dynamic Range Important?

The reason that dynamic range is important because it helps inform you about the type and kind of images you can take at any given time.

For example, if you go out to shoot in the middle of the day under bright, sunny skies, your images will have a high dynamic range due to the bright light and dark shadows that are present at that time of day.

As a result, you have to plan accordingly – shooting portraits under such conditions wouldn’t be a good idea, because the subject would look washed out and there would be a lot of shadows, too. Neither of those things makes for a particularly good portrait, as you can see in the image above.

To rectify the situation, finding shade to take the portrait would help bring down the dynamic range and avoid the washed out look you see above.

On the other hand, if you go out to shoot near dusk, your images will have a very low dynamic range due to the lack of light.

In the image above, you can see just how little there is in terms of dynamic range – there are no bright whites and an abundance of shadows.

However, the photographer planned for this, and the image is successful as a result. The photo has a dark, moody feel to it that accentuates the low dynamic range.

The lesson here is to simply be aware of the lighting. If it’s very bright out, consider subjects that benefit from high contrast like silhouettes and black and white photography. If the light is more subdued, consider shooting portraits, macro subjects, or moody landscapes (like the forest above) to capitalize on the more even lighting.

Creative Dynamic Range

Though you will typically want a dynamic range that gives you a nice, even exposure, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use extreme dynamic ranges to your benefit.

In the image above, for example, the histogram would have spikes on the left and the right, indicating an abundance of dark and bright light values, respectively.

And though that histogram doesn’t represent what you might typically want, as you can see, the image is still quite successful.

In another example, look at the portrait above. You can see that the dynamic range is very low due to an absence of bright whites. In fact, the image skews toward the dark side.

On a histogram, this would appear as skewed to the left to reflect the abundance of dark light values in the shot.

But again, you can see how the creative use of dynamic range allows for a compelling portrait, even though it doesn’t fit in the “typical” dynamic range you’ll want for most shots.

There’s another way to get a handle on dynamic range, and that’s using the High Dynamic Range (HDR) technique.

On many cameras – even smartphones – there is an HDR option that takes a series of photos, each at different exposure levels, and then combines them into one well-exposed shot.