Dynamic range digital photo training

Dynamic range

I was up early out walking the other morning, and it was a beautiful clear sunny morning with hardly a cloud in the sky. As usual on a walk like this, I had my little compact Canon camera with me. You never know when you will see something that inspires you, and this morning was no exception. I happened across a scene which looked beautiful and peaceful. It was nothing more than the remains of a little flood water in a field, but coupled with the clear blue sky and long converging lines from aircraft vapour trails way up high.

It was a moment to capture and remember.

Have you ever taken a photo only to get home, take a look at the image and see that it just doesn’t have that sparkle, crisp light of highlights and shadows that attracted you to pick up your camera in the first place? Do you ever feel that slight pang of disappointment, knowing the image isn’t exactly how you’d remembered it?

The main reason I wanted to share this with you is to help you capture an image closer to the scene as you remembered it.

Look at the two images below, both images are straight from the camera – no photoshop and no filters, both were taken within seconds of each other. The first image is just like most people would take, then feel disappointed when they get home. The second image looks more like the way I remembered it that morning, and the exact reason it stopped me in my tracks and inspired me to take the shot.

061007 ©-Johndivers.co.uk, dynamic range, photography training 061012 ©-Johndivers.co.uk, dynamic range, photography training

So what happened? Why is the scene so different?

Exposure! Our eyes are wonderful at being able to adjust to light, dark and all the shades in between, and it happens so fast we don’t even notice. On the other hand, a camera will see the same scene quite literal, it will read whatever your built in meter is pointing at, and does not have the vast dynamic range of our human eyes. A compact camera has around 5-7 stops, where the human eye is around 10-14 stops just to put it into perspective. This is what is known as Dynamic Range: the ability to see detail between the shadows and the highlights.

I knew that image 1 would wash out the sky losing that important detail because I took the reading from the water and field – this caused the meter in the camera to think the scene was much darker, and it tried to lighten up the image causing the sky to go brighter.

In image 2 I simply included more of the sky in my reading, fooling the camera to believe the scene was very bright (which it was) but more importantly I was able to keep the detail in that wonderful blue sky as the meter made the image darker.

We can use software to change both scenes and improve the aesthetics, but it helps if we get a better picture to start with. It’s always better to shoot something properly first off than have to rectify it later on with digital programmes.

So, the next time you are faced with a similar situation decide what is it in the scene that you really like, and remember if your meter reads from a dark area, it will lighten up the whole picture. If your meter reads from a bright area it will darken the whole picture.

Let’s hope this quick guide helps you to get more keepers the next time you are out and about with your compact camera or phone camera!


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