Maximizing Dynamic Range

The more time I spend in my photography pursuits, the more I appreciate cameras that capture and photos that exploit their maximum dynamic range potential. Digital cameras have undergone dramatic improvements over the last 12+ years, but they still don’t come close to the human eye’s dynamic range capabilities. By some estimates, the human eye can distinguish up to 24 f-stops of dynamic range. Higher end DSLRs such as the Nikon D800 by comparison, can capture up to a theoretical max of 14.4 f-stops of dynamic range. The usable dynamic range of most DSLRs, however, is closer to 5-9 f-stops, considering the impact of noise, which can render some of the DSLRs’ f-stop range impractical to exploit. Thus your eyes – at least for now – are still far more capable than the best DSLR relative to recognizing various tonal gradations. As I will demonstrate via my new model, “Doris” (shown below) of the Pittsburgh Zoo, even photos taken with high quality DSLRs sometimes need a bit of extra processing to match what your eyes can see. The photo below is the result of a processing technique I often employ to boost dynamic range when it is apparent that my camera’s sensor failed to capture what I remember seeing.

1) Good Dynamic Range Starts With A Good Camera

The first step in maximizing dynamic range is to have a camera that scores high in this category. DXO Mark can provide a good understanding of how DSLRs stack up against each other in this regard. The results from the D800 dynamic range testing have been amazing, clearly showing that it has the capacity to pull significant shadow detail while still keeping noise levels relatively low. If and when I actually get my hands on a D800, I will be able to determine this for myself! For this tutorial, I used my trusty Nikon D7000, which despite its modest price, has a very good dynamic range score.

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