Dynamic Range – The Final Frontier

Sep 3, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

Dynamic Range – The Final Frontier

Sep 3, 2015

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

A while back I wrote about how High ISO Has Revolutionized Photography.

With the release of the Sony Alpha 7 II and other high ISO low light DSLR champs like the Nikon D810  – and now that moonlight is a viable light source, I think its safe to say that the realm of high ISO, low light photography has reached the mainstream.

That leaves dynamic range as the final frontier.

I was recently camping with my family at Bruce Peninsula National Park when I happened to be in a situation where I was photographing my son exploring the grotto – a natural limestone cave on the shore of Georgian Bay – at sunset.

After reviewing the photos in Lightroom, I realized that it is the crazy awesome dynamic range of the Nikon D800 that made these images even possible.

In this article, I will explain how I captured these photos and how I stretched the dynamic range with Lightroom – no HDR or multiple frames required.

Sometimes It Is The Camera

We all know that its the photographer and not the camera that creates the image.

But sometimes it really is the camera that makes a certain image possible.

There are very few cameras on the market today that have the dynamic range available with the Nikon D800 / Nikon D810 – which is a big part of why I am such a fan of these cameras.

But to put it simply – this is another example of a photograph that is impossible to create with an iPhone (for more examples, see “Camera Techniques You Can’t Do With An iPhone”).

high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

What About HDR?

Yes, what about HDR?

You mean that thing photographers were doing to fake dynamic range back in 2010?

Now, I’ll admit that I dabbled in HDR back in its heyday – and I’m as big a fan of an over-processed candy floss HDR monstrosity as the next Flickr viewer – but I’m also lazy, and busy.

Taking 5 or 7 photos on site, uploading and keeping track of stacks of the same image, then merging, tone mapping and all that work in post – its all just a huge pain in the ass.

HDR was an interesting stop-gap measure for artificially increasing dynamic range – but I want what I can see with my eyes – in camera – in one frame.

high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

Photographing The Inside Of A Cave And A Sunset In One Frame

These photos were taken with a Nikon D800 and a Nikon 20mm f/1.8 lens.

The camera settings were ISO 400, f/5.6, 1/125 second (or roughly around that range).

When you’re shooting out from the mouth of a cave, directly into a sunset – or in other words from a very dark area into a very bright area – you traditionally had two choices:

1. Expose for the interior of the cave – which will completely blow out the bright background to white.

2. Expose for the bright background – which would turn the interior of the cave and my subject into a completely black silhouette.

However, knowing the dynamic range possible with the D800, I decided to bat for average and set my exposure somewhere in the middle.

Here is an image directly out of camera (before) and the same image processed with Lightroom (after).

high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one framehigh dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

Post Processing With Lightroom

As you can see, there is still quite a bit of post processing required to recover the shadows and highlights – but it is still way easier to do with a single frame in Lightroom than it is to combine multiple exposures in an HDR photo. high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

Here is the Lightroom recipe I used for these images…

In the Lens Corrections panel:
  • Enable Profile Correction – Lens Profile Nikon AF-S Nikkor 20mm f/1.8 G
In the Basic panel:
  • White balance: Temperature and Tint to taste
  • Exposure +1
  • Highlights -65
  • Shadows +46
  • Whites +34
  • Blacks -3
  • Clarity +10
In the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel:

Note: For this image I found that adjusting the saturation of individual colors in the water and sunset was more effective than a global vibrance / saturation adjustment.

  • Red +33
  • Orange +92
  • Yellow +44
  • Aqua +74
  • Blue +56
In the Detail panel:
  • Because of the aggressive shadow recovery, some noise reduction was required – which also meant that additional sharpening was required.
  • Sharpening 56 with a 98 Mask
  • Noise Reduction – Luminance 27
Local Adjustments:

There is a gradient from the left with a -1.0 exposure setting and I used an adjustment brush with a temperature setting of 41 to warm up the rocks in the background.
high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frameWhat Do You Think?

Now obviously the Nikon D800 / D810 still has nowhere near the dynamic range performance of the human eye (or medium format bodies or film either for that matter), but we’re getting there – its just a matter of time.

Is dynamic range the final frontier for camera manufacturers?

Do you still use HDR techniques by combining multiple exposures – or is this more work than its worth?

Is the dynamic range of modern DSLRs getting close to what we used to enjoy with film?

Leave a comment and let us know your thoughts!

high dynamic range with the Nikon D800 in one frame

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JP Danko

JP Danko

JP Danko is a commercial photographer based in Toronto, Canada. JP can change a lens mid-rappel, swap a memory card while treading water, or use a camel as a light stand.

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14 responses to “Dynamic Range – The Final Frontier”

  1. Michal Rosa Avatar
    Michal Rosa

    Yet another pointless blog post that has been done many time before by other people and often much better. Well, you wanted thoughts. This world would be a much better place if people like you, and others in general, read more and spoke less.

    guide to writing photography tips

    1. Don’t. Odds are that whatever you want to write about has been already covered by others and most likely in a better way than you intended to do it.

    2. Just don’t. If you are still considering it than please Google first. Read the first ten hits on the subject you want to write about. If any of those articles covers what you were considering writing about and covers it better than you were going to do it than please don’t waste your time. It’s been done before, it’s been done better – see the first point.

    3. Please don’t. So you have a few pretty pictures and you want to share – that’s what flickr is for, that’s what 500px is for, that’s what a lot of social networks are for. By
    all means, share your pictures, share your experiences but please, do not write
    any “tips” – it’s been done, it’s been done better. See the first point.

    1. Rudy Giramondi Avatar
      Rudy Giramondi

      You don’t have anything better to do in your life? i mean the best part of your day is give free useless tips about writing photography tips? All the newspapers wrote everyday almost the same thing and the tv do the same as well and nobody care, so whats the point about your comment? i think that u first need to follow your suggestion “read more and spoke less” have a nice day…

    2. Neil Barnwell Avatar
      Neil Barnwell

      An unnecessary (and hypocritical) comment. Remember the door swings both ways, and you are free to ignore and/or unsubscribe from any blog/site/feed you wish. The message here is simply “dynamic range in-camera is getting better”. If you already knew that, kudos to you, but there’s no reason to be mean or try to censor people on their own site. My advice to you? 1) Just don’t read it. 2) Please don’t. 3) See the first point.

    3. JB Avatar

      You need to find the file you’ve saved this rote response in, you need to send it to the recycle bin, and then you need to take out the hard drive and burn it in a trashcan until it’s just ashes and melted plastic.

      Or, to put it in a way you might understand… Don’t. Just don’t. Please don’t. (Post this anywhere else, that is.)

    4. cbenci Avatar

      I’ve seen that same reply on a few posts now, word for word…

      I enjoyed the article. Thanks JP.

    5. LFC Avatar

      Your post reminded me of the saying “Live by the sword……..”

    6. J. Ross Avatar
      J. Ross

      Everyone should feel free to express their opinion. You can feel free to disagree, but we all benefit by hearing from the large base. Ignore if you want, but let’s not silence the voices!

  2. sillyxone Avatar

    I’m a Darktable user so I’m not sure what it is in Lightroom, but the first thing I would do for a high contrast scene is to adjust or select a different base curve for the RAW file. That will leave more room in the histogram to start with.

    Sensor dynamic range is one the rare things that Canon fans are envious of Nikon’s :-)

  3. 孟恬 Avatar

    Dual ISO from ML is really cool for this.

  4. aleroe Avatar

    How does wide dynamic range compare with HDR? Seems to me, no matter how wide a range a sensor has, it can’t compare with multiple exposures. Even if your sensor has a range of, say, 2EV, I could just take 3 exposures that span a 3EV range.

    1. JP Danko Avatar
      JP Danko

      It’s not there – yet – but one day I’m sure cameras will be able to actually replicate what our eyes see.

  5. LFC Avatar

    HI Danko,

    Thanks for posting this very informative article. The content was great. Loved the Before/After graphic

  6. Jabari Hunt Avatar
    Jabari Hunt

    Great article! In my opinion though, the final frontier will be getting 16-bit images out of a CMOS sensor. That will also probably mark the end of medium format digital…at the very least, a drastic shift in pricing.

  7. Bordain Avatar

    If you have to perform noise reduction, then sharpen it’s just too much. The only post processing I want to do is adjust my shadows and highlights.