About a month ago on a nature photography forum I frequent, someone started a thread asking people what they felt the biggest benefit was from moving to digital capture. Many respondents mentioned instantaneous feedback in the form of nailing exposure and focus, the increased incentive to be creative due to the lack of expense involving film purchase and development, viable high ISO settings and so on. All of these are major benefits, no question, but I was the only person who commented who mentioned the ongoing improvement in dynamic range. For me, it may be the single best realization of the digital photography age.
It’s not a technical definition, but practically speaking you can think of dynamic range as the breadth of bright and dark tones that can retain detail in a single exposure. If it’s possible to record the brightest tonal value in the frame as something other than completely white and the darkest tonal value as something other than completely black, the scene being photographed is said to be within the dynamic range of a digital camera’s sensor.
With film, the concept has traditionally been referred to as “exposure latitude,” but the notion is effectively identical.
When I was still shooting transparency film (which I did until a bit more than nine years ago), the amount of “exposure latitude” varied, but with the most popular slide films it was typically in the range of 4-6 EVs. With some print film, you might find yourself in the neighborhood of 6-8 EVs.
When I first started using a DSLR, back in 2003, the sensor’s dynamic range wasn’t much different from the exposure latitude of most styles of film. But with every succeeding generation of sensor, the dynamic range has improved. Whereas before, graduated neutral density filters, multi-exposure blends or HDR approaches were necessary to preserve detail throughout any but the least contrasty scenes, today it’s rare that a multi-image approach is needed.
I proved this to myself again during a photo workshop in Arizona last month. It was the first opportunity for me to spend extended time with my new camera, the Nikon D800E. According to the DxO testing method, the D800 series has 14.4 EVs of dynamic range at base ISO. Compare that with the range for film that I noted above; it’s an incredible improvement. Even when photographing at sunrise or sunset, I was almost always able to capture detail throughout the entire frame—from very bright skies to very dark foregrounds. Every image you see accompanying this entry was produced from a single exposure. Some of them required some careful post-processing to optimize, but the fact remains—there was no need for special filters or multiple exposures to obtain what you see.
We have long since reached the point where photo “purists,” who are used to the traditional look of photos—a function of the dynamic range limits of film—don’t like the look that can be obtained from a single digital exposure even though the single image look we can get now is closer to what we can see with our own eyes.
Although the specific amount of dynamic range you can expect to get from a sensor varies by camera, essentially every digital camera available today—from compacts to medium format bodies—has significantly more range than the most forgiving films ever had. The steadily improving dynamic range of the digital era has had a huge positive effect on my approach to image making. I can confidently approach many scenes that were, at best, difficult and, at worst, impossible in the past.
You can conduct an informal—but practical—dynamic range test of your own camera by taking it out on a bright, sunny day and shooting a scene that includes areas in bright sun and open shade and check to see whether you’re able to retain detail in both the brightest highlights and deepest shadows. You may not be able to do so with extremely high contrast scenes, but with a bit of testing you can obtain a good idea of what your camera is capable of. In any case, you’ll be able to capture more detail than has ever been the case before.
Thursday Tips is written by Kerry Mark Leibowitz, a guest blogger on 1001 Scribbles, and appears every other Thursday. To read more of his thoughts on photography, please visit his blog: Lightscapes Nature Photography.