After the success of the article “Maximising Your Histogram” we follow that up with taking a look at how to maximise your dynamic range by looking at three popular techniques that will allow you to achieve this. We look at their Pros and Cons, and hopefully this will let you get the best from your digital camera.
Dynamic range is a much misunderstand concept in photography. For the most part, if you have metered correctly for the scene, and conditions are great (not too dark or too light and not much contrast in areas between the two), you can just make slight alterations to your raw image and bring back the shadows or highlights and you’ll have a great final image.
In this article we will look at three ways popular with photographers to maximise dynamic range, and compare how effective they can be. We will look at the pros and the cons of each method, and your can make your own mind up at which technique you want to use.
Technique One: Adjusting shadows and highlights.
This is one of the easiest and most effective way of dealing with dynamic range, especially when there are not huge extremes in the highlights and the shadows. It’s the technique that most use, including professional photographers, as with technology now, it is easy to reduce or remove noise that might show because of pulling the shadows or highlights too far.
Many people say use the ETTR (Expose to the right) method when metering your exposure, however forget that nonsense and expose for the scene! That means expose to the left if needed, right if needed or just expose as needed. There’s no blanket metering mode that covers every scene type, contrary to what some die hards will have you believe.
This technique will have you moving your shadows, mid-tone and highlight sliders in software, usually raising the shadows and dropping the highlights and using mid-tone adjustments to bring the whole scene together. It’s very effective, and the majority of photos you see will have used this method. You can also adjust selected areas of highlights and shadows with software filters, targeting areas specifically needed, this has the same effect but can be more precise.
Pros: Simple and effective, when used correctly can look natural.
Cons: You can get noise in the shadows if they were too dark to start with.
Technique Two: Attached Filters (Graduated filters).
This method of controlling dynamic range is quickly losing favour with photographers in this day and age, as modern cameras and modern editing techniques mean using them is less necessary.
The idea is to put a filter on the end of your lens, usually a soft or hard graduated filter. Think of the filter as a pair of sunglasses, raining in the dynamic range of the sunny part of your image so that you can control the highlights.
Using a graduated filter though is a highly destructive process. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that unless your horizon is perfectly flat, the filter will affect parts of your image that your shouldn’t be touching.
Pros: Handy for controlling light of straight horizons.
Cons: Highly destructive, can be expensive and not needed for modern photography. Often leave a colour cast.
Technique Three: Exposure bracketing.
Of all the three techniques mentioned here, exposure bracketing is one that most people are scared of, because they associate it with HDR photography. But it’s for the high dynamic range that you should really be using this technique when you know you might struggle with dynamic range.
Exposure bracketing can be done both manually or via your cameras bracket mode. The easiest method is using the bracket mode, you set this up to take 3, 5, 7 or 9 exposures, press the button and the camera will fire off the shots one after another. I tend to use just a three bracket shot of EV -2/0/+2, although many people like to separate the exposure by +/-1 stops. It is whatever works for you.
Once you have your 3, 5, 7 or 9 raw files at different exposures, you can then work with them as you want, and there are a number of techniques you can use.
• Exposure blend: In software you can create layers and blend in the different exposures that suit the images.
• HDR software: Use HDR software to combine or choose from their many presets the best look that suits your image.
• Use the best: From your bracketed exposures, there can sometimes be one that just works and you won’t have to do much editing.
Bracketing exposures gives you options, and for the most part it can be used with or without a tripod for everyday photography, as editing software will align the images if you are going to make a HDR image.
Pros: You’ll get the most dynamic range available, images will be clean from noise, simple to use in camera.
Cons: Needs more work in software than the other methods, you may need a tripod in very few situations.
There’s plenty of options for maximising your dynamic range, which starts from getting things right in camera to begin with. I’ve written an article on maximising your histogram here, which should be your next stop if you want to maximise your dynamic range.
There are many YouTube videos online explaining each of the methods I have mentioned, and until I manage to get tutorials up on each method, I advise you to search each one. Through decades of experience, I understand that some people prefer different ways over others. It’s a choice you have to make, from using graduated filters in a destructive way, to fine tuning using software.
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